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Monday, 26 May 2003
Page: 14843

Mr KING (1:21 PM) —I rise to support this motion before the House which, at its heart, seeks to ensure that the 23 million people of Taiwan are accorded access to the international system of health care that we in Australia and those in most corners of the globe are entitled to receive. Since its establishment in 1948, the WHO has been at the forefront of international efforts to improve the health of the world's citizens and reduce the dreadful toll from disease, particularly in those developing nations that lack the resources to undertake these tasks from within their own resources.

Without question, the fight against diseases like malaria, cholera, smallpox, leprosy and HIV/AIDS have all been strengthened by the work of the WHO, sometimes with spectacular results. I think of the eradication of smallpox in this context. Just last week, we witnessed the successful conclusion of negotiations that have led to a treaty on tobacco control for the first time.

The WHO was established because the international community recognised that access to high quality health care is a fundamental right. Equally, the nature of the spread of disease makes absolutely necessary the cooperation of health authorities, both regionally and globally. These axioms are recognised in the constitution of the WHO which has, amongst its principles, the statement that:

The enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health is one of the fundamental rights of every human being without distinction of race, religion, political belief, economic or social condition.

Article 1 of that constitution also makes clear that the objective of the WHO is to secure these rights for `all peoples.' These are noble and correct principles. Yet, this motion is before our parliament because the WHO is failing in meeting those objectives while the people of Taiwan remain excluded from the workings and councils of that organisation.

All of us in this place are familiar with the history of the tension that exists between Taiwan and the People's Republic of China. Most in this chamber are members of political parties that have been clear in their support for Australia's longstanding One China policy. However, these two factors should not mean that the people of Taiwan are penalised in an area as basic and fundamental as the provision of those health care services. I would remind the House that what this motion seeks, and what the Taiwanese also ask for, is no more than observer status at the WHO—not full membership, but at least the opportunity to attend and learn from that organisation's programs and meetings.

This motion acknowledges that the Taiwanese government and other local Taiwanese authorities manage what is an excellent health care system. Earlier this year, I had the great privilege to travel to Taiwan as a guest of its government and parliament. While there, our delegation visited the Tzu Chi University in the east coast city of Hualien, which includes a major medical school. From that experience I can say that many Australian medical students would envy the resources and quality of education provided in Taiwan to its aspiring medical professionals. Therefore, some may ask whether the WHO may actually add value to what is already a high quality health care system in Taiwan and whether advancing observer status for the Taiwanese government is worthy of our attention.

Leaving aside for a moment the WHO's core objective of assisting all people and the universality of what it regards as a fundamental human right, the motion before the House draws attention to practical reasons why the people of Taiwan would directly stand to benefit from their government's participation in the WHO—namely, the practical example of the SARS epidemic. Unfortunately, Taiwan has not been immune from the impact of SARS, which has struck around the world with little regard to the quality of the local health system. Over 70 people have died in Taiwan already from SARS and perhaps more than 10 times that number have contracted the disease.

The World Health Organisation has correctly played a leadership role in coordinating international efforts to contain SARS and to provide vital advice to those nations and medical authorities that have had to cope with the disease and the associated public concern. That assistance has been provided to every region where the disease has been discovered, both quickly and efficiently—that is, unless you happen to live in Taiwan. Taiwan's status as falling outside the WHO and the diplomatic environment in which these matters are considered has meant that WHO support for Taiwanese medical authorities has been slow in coming and low key. This week, as the World Health Assembly meets in Geneva at its 56th congress, Taiwan will again be excluded despite the prominence that SARS has had at those deliberations. SARS has demonstrated that these kinds of diseases, which respect no borders or the vagaries of international politics, can affect places no matter whether their health systems are well developed or still developing. The people of Taiwan should not be excluded from the benefits of the international system established to counter these types of threats to human life and welfare.

Australians and Taiwanese have long had friendly and close relations. We have benefited from the economic relationship that exists between our two economies and we have all welcomed the emergence of Taiwan as one of the region's strongest and most vibrant democracies. Just as the WHO has allowed other entities—like the Holy See, the Order of Malta, the Committee of the Red Cross, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and the Palestinian Authority—to become observers, it should do the same for our friends in Taiwan.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. I.R. Causley)—Order! The time allotted for this debate has expired. The debate is adjourned and the resumption of the debate will be made an order of the day for the next sitting.