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Monday, 23 November 2015
Page: 8559

Senator FIFIELD (VictoriaManager of Government Business in the Senate, Minister for Communications, Minister for the Arts and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Digital Government) (10:54): I thank those who have contributed and the spirit in which they have engaged not only in the debate in this place but also in the Senate committee inquiry. I think we can all agree that one of the great strengths of this institution is its committees, when they are directed to good purposes.

This bill will ensure that children fully meet the immunisation requirements before their family can access a childcare benefit, a childcare rebate or the family tax benefit part A supplement. Immunisation is an important health measure for children and families as it is the safest and most effective way of providing protection against disease. What is proposed is that from 1 January next year the government will extend the current immunisation requirements to include children of all ages. At present, a child's immunisation status is only checked at the age of one, two and five for family tax benefit part A supplement and up to the age of seven for childcare payments.

There has been a high degree of public interest in this policy, with a large number of submissions being made to the inquiry. A range of views from organisations and individuals have been presented. The government recognises that communication to medical professionals and families is a critical part of this policy, and that is something the Senate inquiry touched on. Materials provided to families will make it clear which vaccinations are necessary to meet the requirements, and communications to general practitioners will clearly stipulate how the catch-up program will operate.

While concerns have been raised in regard to this legislation's approach its intentions remain the same, and that is to prevent Australian children from preventable diseases—in particular, those who are unable to be immunised because they are too young or for valid medical reasons. Parents do have the right to decide not to vaccinate their children. However, if they decide to object to vaccination, this decision can no longer be supported with government financial assistance. The choice made by some families not to vaccinate their children is not supported by public policy or medical research, and nor should such an action be supported by taxpayers in the form of family assistance and childcare payments.

Crucially, the government is ending vaccine objection exemptions through this bill. This means that families who object to vaccination will no longer be able to access these family assistance payments. Exceptions to the policy will apply for valid medical reasons such as when a GP certifies that a child has a medical contra-indication or vaccination is not required as the child has natural immunity to a particular disease. Families with children participating in an approved vaccination study will be taken to have met the immunisation requirements for the duration of the study, and similar rules will apply where a vaccine is temporarily unavailable. The requirements will also be met if a recognised immunisation provider certifies that a child has an equivalent level of immunisation through an overseas vaccination program.

Lastly, the secretary of the department will be able to determine that a child meets the immunisation requirements in very limited circumstances after considering decision-making principles set out in a legislative instrument to be made by the minister. Such decisions of the secretary will be made on a case-by-case basis to address unusual situations—for example, where a grandparent or non-parent carer does not have legal authority to vaccinate a child in their care—but it cannot be used to give effect to exemptions on the grounds of vaccine objection. This policy will tighten up the rules and reinforce the importance of vaccination in protecting public health, especially for children.

I should point out that the government supports the Australian Greens second reading amendment, which records the Senate's recognition of the importance of the role of GPs in assessing medical exemptions and the need to record publicly which vaccinations are mandatory to meet the immunisation requirements. I commend the bill to my colleagues.

Question agreed to.

Original question, as amended agreed to.

Bill read a second time.