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Thursday, 19 June 2008
Page: 2889

Senator McLUCAS (Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Health and Ageing) (4:11 PM) —I was finishing the summing-up speech when we were last considering the Quarantine Amendment (National Health Security) Bill 2008. I am not sure whether Senator Colbeck is intending to come to the chamber, but I intend to respond to some of the questions he asked. I was explaining the intent of the bill, and I had reached the third point.

Thirdly, the amendments take the existing provisions of the Quarantine Act relating to charges for certain health measures and align them with the requirements of the IHR. Such measures include medical examinations to ascertain the health status of a traveller, vaccinations or other forms of prophylaxis, and restrictions on travel that may be necessary to prevent the spread of a disease. Charges will not be levied on travellers who are Australian citizens or who are in transit to another destination. Consistent with the IHR and existing immigration policy, charges will, however, be able to be levied on persons seeking permanent or temporary residence in Australia. The bill authorises the minister to set, by legislative instrument, fees for the provision of health measures in these cases. Such fees will be limited to the actual cost of the necessary health measures and must be published 10 days before they come into effect. The Commonwealth may also seek reimbursement from insurance companies or, in the case of crew members, from the master, owner or agent of the vessel.

Senator Colbeck, in his contribution to the second reading debate, raised the issue of the strict liability offence under section 75. The offence provision has been in the act for many years and has never been used. In reality, people requiring vaccination or prophylactic treatment are usually very willing to have it provided. The bill does not change the fundamental position of section 75 in relation to strict liability, as such measures may be required to be imposed in cases of extreme seriousness and urgency. However, just because it is a strict liability offence does not mean that a person who refuses vaccination would automatically be liable for a fine. Before anyone can be fined, they need to be convicted following a prosecution. Prosecution is at the discretion of the Director of Public Prosecutions, and anybody with a good reason for refusing vaccination, such as a medical condition, would not be prosecuted. I have to say that you have to apply a bit of common sense here. We are talking about very, very rare cases that in fact have never occurred in Australia.

Senator Colbeck also asked what extraordinary circumstances may be and what the liability would be of medical practitioners or other staff involved in treating travellers who refused vaccination. I suppose the whole point about extraordinary circumstances is that they cannot be foreseen. I recall in, I think, around May of last year, when I sat on that side and others sat on this side, having a debate about the insertion of a description of emergency dealings into the Gene Technology Act. Senators asked the then minister what an example of an emergency dealing with a genetically modified organism would be. How interesting that Senator Mason and I are both in the chamber again. Senator Mason, who was standing here at the time, quite rightly said that that would be inappropriate. You could not answer, Senator Mason, because we could not predict what an emergency dealing might be. Some three months later, we had equine influenza in this country and those provisions in the Gene Technology Act were in fact used. But we could not have predicted in May of last year what an emergency dealing might have been. I basically tell that story to reinforce the point that you cannot say what an extraordinary circumstance might be, simply because you cannot foresee what it might be. Having said that, though, it is important to note that nobody has ever been forcibly vaccinated in the 100-year history of the act.

The second thing that Senator Colbeck asked about was the liability of a medical practitioner involved in treating travellers who refused vaccination. In answer, it is actually inconceivable that any medical practitioner would take part in forcible vaccination. It is essentially against the code of ethics of doctors to provide treatment without consent. That is by way of answer to Senator Colbeck’s question.

Senator Bartlett sought assurance that any future ministerial discretion to impose or refund charges levied for prescribed health measures would be applied fairly—and that was a reasonable question. The power for the minister to remit fees under current subsections 86E(2AA), (2AB) and (2D) is proposed to be replaced with a similar power to remit fees and a new power to refund fees if the minister is satisfied there are exceptional circumstances justify doing so. The purpose of the proposed amendment is to ensure fees will be able to be repaid to a person where it is deemed unreasonable for the Commonwealth to have charged a fee for quarantine measures. I would also note that the proposed amendments are limited to implementing the IHR and are not intended to address other operational aspects of the Quarantine Act.

Senator Bartlett also raised the application of the IHR to Taiwan. IHRs do not apply to entities other than state parties that are members of the WHO. However, the WHO is implementing a memorandum of understanding with China under which arrangements will be made for the participation of Taiwanese medical and public health experts in technical activities in relation to the IHR. The arrangements also provide for WHO staff or other experts to visit Taiwan to investigate the public health or epidemiological situation and to provide public health technical assistance to Taiwan. Australia supports this initiative to ensure that Taiwan is part of the global security framework established by the IHR.

I thank senators for their contribution. I stress the importance of this bill in ensuring that we fully implement our international treaty obligations and address the national imperative to actively improve our capacity to respond to public health risks.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.