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Thursday, 20 September 2007
Page: 19

Ms ROXON (10:13 AM) —I rise to speak on the National Health Security Bill 2007. The purpose of this bill is twofold. Firstly, the bill seeks to create a legislative framework and underpinning for existing cooperative arrangements between the Commonwealth, states and territories for public health surveillance and information-sharing in relation to public health events of national significance, including certain communicable disease outbreaks, certain releases of a chemical, biological or radiological agent, other public health risks or overseas mass casualties. These provisions also give effect to Australia’s treaty commitments under the International Health Regulations in relation to these matters and provide for the sharing of information with the World Health Organisation and other countries affected by an event relating to public health or an overseas mass casualty. Secondly, the bill also introduces, in line with COAG recommendations, a mandatory regulatory system for security-sensitive biological agents. The bill is a new stand-alone bill and reflects a government commitment in the 2004-05 federal budget to develop national health security legislation.

While Labor believe the purposes outlined are important and worthy of our support, and while this legislation has been in the pipeline for some time, we are a tad frustrated that, yet again, Labor have been given a very short time frame for consideration of this bill. We first sighted the bill just last Thursday, when it was introduced into the parliament, and here it is being rushed through the House only a week later. Given that it is not, I believe, listed for debate in the Senate this week, I am wondering why legislation of such importance is being pushed through here at such a rapid pace. Nevertheless, Labor support the bill and acknowledge the importance of the subject matter that it is dealing with.

This is a substantial bill with several constituent parts. I will turn first to part 2 of the bill, which deals with public health surveillance and information sharing and gives effect to the International Health Regulations 2005. Part 2 seeks, firstly, to provide a national system of public health surveillance to enhance the capacity of the Commonwealth, the states and the territories to identify and respond to public health events of national significance, including the occurrence of certain communicable diseases, certain releases of chemical, biological or radiological agents, the occurrence of public health risks or the occurrence of overseas mass casualties. As such, this bill provides a legislative underpinning for a range of cooperative arrangements that have developed over the past decade between the Commonwealth, state and territory governments and their agencies.

Secondly, part 2 provides for the sharing of information with the World Health Organisation and with countries affected by an event relating to public health or an overseas mass casualty. By way of background: the government in the 2004-05 budget allocated $1.6 million over three years to develop this national health security legislation. According to the minister’s second reading speech, the government has since then worked cooperatively with all relevant organisations, states and territories to develop legislative foundations for the exchange of health information between jurisdictions. This process coincided with Australia agreeing to adopt the International Health Regulations in May 2005.

The International Health Regulations are an international agreement for the control of the worldwide spread of disease. The regulations were originally adopted in 1969 as a means to control six serious infectious, quarantinable diseases—namely, cholera, plague, yellow fever, smallpox, relapsing fever and typhus. In the light of significant increases in international travel and trade, and the emergence of new international disease threats such as SARS—severe acute respiratory syndrome—and avian influenza, as well as the re-emergence of old ones in recent years, the regulations were substantially revised in 2005.

The revisions broaden significantly the scope of the regulations to include all public health emergencies of international concern. The new regulations require state parties—that is, countries—to develop certain minimum core public health capacities to detect and assess, and to notify the WHO of, health emergencies that are of international concern. At the same time, the regulations aim to avoid unnecessary interference with international traffic and trade.

As I mentioned earlier, the explanatory memorandum to this bill indicates that it does not introduce any new measures for the sharing of personal health information between the Commonwealth, states and territories. Rather, it provides a legislative basis for existing cooperative arrangements between Australian jurisdictions for the exchange of health information.

Part 2, division 2 provides for the development of a national health security agreement between the Commonwealth, state, Australian Capital Territory, Northern Territory and Norfolk Island governments to support the operation of the bill. The agreement may include, but is not limited to, provision for the sharing of information between these jurisdictions in relation to communicable diseases, formalising consultation between these jurisdictions in relation to public health events of national significance, enhancing the ability within Australia to identify and respond quickly to public health events of national significance, and facilitating the monitoring of public health events of national significance within Australia.

It is unclear what format a national health security agreement will take. It could be an agreement between the states and territories that simply mirrors the Commonwealth legislation, or it could become the framework for a cooperative legislative scheme that will reduce the current duplication of legislation at the state level. I would welcome clarification from the minister or departmental staff on this issue.

Division 3 of part 2 enables the sharing of protected information, including personal information, by relevant government officials in a range of specified circumstances, including preventing, protecting against, controlling or responding to a public health event of national significance. The meaning of ‘protected information’ is dealt with in detail in division 8 of the bill.

The bill also provides for situations where protected information needs to be shared to facilitate identification, or to assist in the treatment or repatriation, of an Australian who suffers from a disease or is injured or dies as a result of an overseas mass casualty. The bill has a further provision to help bring a person who is not an Australian to Australia for treatment in such situations.

The bill establishes a national focal point which will provide a single contact point for liaison between responsible bodies within Australia in relation to public health events of national significance and will liaise with the WHO and with other countries in relation to, for example, events that may constitute public health emergencies of international concern.

According to the explanatory memorandum, it is proposed that the national focal point will be the Secretary of the Department of Health and Ageing and officers within the department and that it will operate from a national incident room located in the Office of Health Protection of the Department of Health and Ageing.

The bill also establishes a national notifiable disease list. Clause 10 of the bill provides that, after consultation with the Commonwealth Chief Medical Officer and each state and territory health minister, the minister must establish, by legislative instrument, a national notifiable disease list. The list may include any illness or medical condition that the minister considers a public health risk, which has been defined in the bill and is based upon the International Health Regulations. The minister may vary the list by legislative instrument after consultation with the Commonwealth Chief Medical Officer and each state and territory health minister.

Part 2, division 6 deals with notifying, sharing information with and liaising with responsible Commonwealth, state or territory bodies in relation to public health events of national significance. The bill provides a legislative basis for existing cooperative arrangements between Australian jurisdictions for the exchange of health information and to authorise, rather than mandate, the exchange of certain personal or identified information for the purposes of national public health surveillance.

Division 7 of part 2 is intended to give effect to article 30 of the International Health Regulations and provides for public health observation. According to the explanatory memorandum, these provisions are not intended to provide for general health screening of international travellers arriving in or leaving Australia but rather to provide for the sharing of certain information about international travellers in transit whose health requires monitoring but where their travel does not pose an imminent health threat.

As noted in the explanatory memorandum, the expectation is that contact with a traveller will normally be made by a Commonwealth border agency after either an alert from the World Health Organisation or another country, an alert from the commander of an aircraft or vessel or self-identification by an unwell passenger. It is expected that a state or territory body would only become involved if the traveller had left the airport or port without contact with a Commonwealth body.

Division 8 of the bill includes provisions dealing with protected information and in what circumstances agencies of the Commonwealth, states and territories are able to share such information, including to a court or tribunal or to a coronial inquiry, in accordance with an order of a court or a tribunal, or of a coroner, as relevant. The bill also authorises in division 8 the provision of relevant information to the World Health Organisation or other countries in the event of a public health emergency of international concern. According to the explanatory memorandum, it is anticipated that the information provided to WHO will be de-identified health surveillance data.

Clause 27 provides some protections for situations where personal information is provided to an International Health Regulations signatory country for International Health Regulations purposes so that the country receiving the information is clear about the nature of the information they are receiving and the purposes for which it is transmitted.

Importantly, the bill includes an offence if a person obtains protected information and makes a record of, discloses or otherwise uses the information for a purpose that is not authorised. The maximum penalty for such an offence is imprisonment for two years. Clauses 22 to 26 describe a range of defences to this offence. We understand that the states and territories have been closely consulted on this legislation throughout its development.

The second purpose of this legislation, the introduction of a mandatory regulatory scheme for the regulation of security-sensitive biological agents, is covered in part 3 of the bill. Security-sensitive biological agents can be defined as infectious agents, such as bacteria and viruses that can spread rapidly within a population, and toxins derived from animals, plants or microbial material. Given the potential for either the deliberate or the unintentional use or release of security-sensitive biological agents to cause serious harm, it seems remarkable that there is currently no nationally consistent legislation that addresses the security risks associated with all facilities and entities that handle these agents, nor their location.

The explanatory memorandum clearly outlines the risks this legislative vacuum brings. Firstly, there are limited physical security requirements for facilities and entities holding or using security-sensitive biological agents. Secondly, there is no means of monitoring the location, nature or destruction of these. Thirdly, there is no requirement for checking of facility and entity employees with access to agents to ensure that they do not have criminal or terrorist links and, fourthly, facilities and entities generally do not record individual access to these agents.

In December 2002, the Council of Australian Governments agreed to a national review of the regulation, reporting and security around the storage, sale and handling of hazardous materials. The review has been conducted in four parts, covering ammonium nitrate and radiological, biological and chemical materials. On 13 April this year, COAG agreed to the recommendations from the report on the regulation and control of biological agents, and part 3 of this bill effectively legislates for the mandatory national regulatory scheme for security-sensitive biological agents as agreed to by COAG.

Part 3 contains a range of detailed provisions providing a framework for this new regulatory scheme. I do not propose to go through these provisions in great detail, but they include provisions for: the establishment of a national register of information about the nature and location of security-sensitive biological agents legitimately handled by entities in Australia and the establishment of a list of biological agents—to be known as the List of Security-Sensitive Biological Agents—that the minister considers to be of security concern to Australia; that is, if it could be developed, produced, stockpiled, acquired or retained in types and quantities that could allow the biological agent to be used as a weapon.

I understand from the department that this list comprises approximately 20 pathogens and has been developed in consultation with ASIO in terms of threat and vulnerability assessments. It includes: provisions for the collection and recording of information for the register, requirements to be complied with for the secure handling of these agents, the establishment of an inspectorial system for the monitoring of compliance with reporting and handling requirements, restrictions in relation to the handling of these agents, and confiscation powers for the removal of substances in particular circumstances.

The regulatory scheme is founded on risk management principles to ensure that its effectiveness is maximised and that the regulatory impacts are minimised. The scheme focuses on managing the risks posed by specific security-sensitive biological agents so that potential administrative burdens relate only to dealings with nominated agents rather than to the facility in which they are handled. If a particular facility does not handle or store nominated agents, that facility would not be captured by the regulatory scheme, irrespective of other considerations, including the physical containment level of the facility.

We understand from the department that the new regulatory scheme will be developed progressively over the next eighteen months in close consultation with the laboratories that it will affect—for example, at universities and research labs. We also understand from the department that, although the bill refers to the powers of the Secretary of the Department of Health and Ageing, the department is considering contracting this scheme to a government regulatory agency for its implementation. I look forward to further briefings from the department on this issue as it develops. Labor supports this bill.