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Thursday, 24 June 2010
Page: 4296

Senator LUDWIG (Special Minister of State and Cabinet Secretary) (11:43 AM) —I table a revised explanatory memorandum and I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

I seek leave to have the second reading speech incorporated in Hansard.

Leave granted.

The speech read as follows—

The Royal Flying Doctor Service of Australia is one of the largest and most comprehensive aeromedical organisations in the world.  The Royal Flying Doctors (the RFDS) delivers vital health care and emergency services to people living, working and travelling in rural and remote parts of Australia. 

As part of this service, the RFDS administers the Medical Chest Program.  These Medical Chests contain a range of pharmaceutical items, including pain relief drugs such as pethidine and morphine.  The chests are an important tool, enabling RFDS medical practitioners to treat people on-site for many conditions and provide necessary treatment, including pain relief, for those requiring emergency evacuation. The availability of Medical Chests provides enormous comfort to those living in the outback.

The RFDS and its agents currently supply and maintain approximately 2,600 Medical Chests across Australia, including those located in national parks, remote homesteads, pastoral stations, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, outback schools and mining exploration sites.  The RFDS regularly reviews the contents of the Chests to ensure relevance and currency of pharmaceuticals.

Without the supply and maintenance of these Medical Chests by the RFDS, pharmaceutical treatment, including pain relief in emergency situations, for people in remote Australia, would be unavailable.  

Until recently, pharmaceuticals for these Medical Chests were distributed utilising Australia Post.  These deliveries have ceased following the discovery, in early 2010, that this practice contravenes section 85W of the Crimes Act. 

Section 85W of the Crimes Act 1914 makes it an offence for Australia Post or the RFDS to arrange for the distribution of pharmaceuticals containing prescribed narcotic substances. 

This is because section 85W contains an offence for intentionally causing to carry by post an article that consists of, encloses or contains a ‘prescribed narcotic substance’ within the meaning of the Customs Act 1901.  Because ‘carried by post’ is defined in section 85E of the Crimes Act to mean ‘carried by or through Australia Post’, the offence in section 85W applies uniquely to persons arranging for the delivery of these articles by Australia Post.

The Government understands that there are no viable alternatives to Australia Post for supplying medicines for the RFDS Medical Chest Program.  Australia Post is the only delivery provider servicing many remote locations. 

An urgent amendment will address the risk of emergency medicines not being available to treat serious illness or injury in rural and remote areas of Australia. 

The Bill will allow Australia Post and the RFDS to lawfully provide for the supply of medicines through Australia Post under its Medical Chest Program.  

The Bill amends section 85W of the Crimes Act to insert an exception to the offence of ‘causing narcotic substances to be carried by post’.  This exception will apply to Australia Post, the RFDS and their officers, employees, agents and contractors. 

The exception allows those organisations to arrange for the carriage of prescription and non-prescription medicine by Australia Post.  The Bill provides a specific requirement that the exception will only apply to conduct engaged in by a person for the purpose of enabling the RFDS to administer its Medical Chest Program.  This provides an important safeguard, ensuring that the exceptions to the offence of carrying narcotic substances by post are restricted to the purpose of the RFDS Medical Chest Program.

After the Bill was introduced in the House of Representatives, it became apparent that there are other organisations that administer programs for the purpose of supplying medicines to remote communities, which may also require an exception to the offence.

To address this, the Government amended the Bill to insert a further exception to the offence in section 85W for conduct engaged in by a prescribed person or body for the purposes of a prescribed program.  Regulations to be made at a later date will prescribe the relevant persons, bodies and programs.  There are appropriate limits on the scope of the new exception.  It will only apply to conduct engaged in for the purposes of a program that is for the supply of medicines to remote locations, by a body or person in the performance of their duties, powers or functions, in relation to the program.

The Bill also amends section 85W to apply the offence in subsection 85W(1) to the controlled drugs and controlled plants listed in Part 9.1 of the Criminal Code, rather than to ‘prescribed narcotic substances, within the meaning of the Customs Act 1901’

The definition of the term ‘prescribed narcotic substance’ was repealed in 1990 and, due to an oversight, section 85W was not updated to take account of this repeal.  This amendment will address this oversight by giving effect, as closely as possible to the original policy intention behind the offence in section 85W.  Applying the offence to the lists of ‘controlled drugs’ and ‘controlled plants’ in the Criminal Code will  ensure that the offence has similar coverage to the domestic drug offences in the Code, to which those lists apply, and to the original section 85W offence.

This Bill will remove any legislative impediments to the lawful delivery and maintenance of Medical Chests to rural and remote Australia. 

The retrospective application of the exemptions will also ensure that those persons involved in administering the Medical Chest program, and other prescribed programs, are protected from prosecution under section 85W for conduct engaged in before the commencement of the amendment.