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Monday, 15 September 2003
Page: 20073

Ms GILLARD (6:43 PM) —I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak in the second reading debate on the Quarantine Amendment (Health) Bill 2003. Quarantine is one of the federal government's oldest and most important responsibilities. It is a responsibility in relation to human health that lies within the health portfolio, and it is, in fact, one of the original reasons why we have a health portfolio. The bill amends the Quarantine Act 1908, which provides the legislative basis for human, plant and animal quarantine activities in Australia. The amendments are designed to ensure that Australia's quarantine laws with regard to public health reflect the modern scope and focus of our quarantine arrangements.

There are several measures contained in this bill. The first relates to pratique for aircraft entering Australia. Pratique is a term used to refer to the clearance of an installation or vessel, whether a ship or aircraft, by a quarantine officer. Historically the master or commander of every vessel was required to undergo pratique, but the sheer number of aircraft entering Australia every day through modern airports makes this quite impractical. Current practice is for aircraft to undergo pratique on an exception basis. The bill makes provision for this practice by allowing pratique to be granted automatically unless specified circumstances, such as an outbreak of disease on board the aircraft, give reason to act otherwise. This is an important change to the act, providing a legislative framework that supports good quarantine practices while acknowledging the realities of modern international airports.

Second, under the current provisions of the Quarantine Act, a person detained for quarantine has no right of medical or administrative review of their detention. Under new section 35C of the bill, a person ordered into quarantine who is, or is likely to be, suffering from a disease will now have the right to an independent medical assessment of their condition by a practitioner of their choice. This review can take place at any time and the person must be informed of that right. After a lapse of 72 hours, the person can request another medical review to ensure the quarantine is still justified.

Third, a new part, VAA, is inserted into the act to provide for vector monitoring and control measures. Vector is a term used to describe the means by which disease travels in the environment, for example, through mosquitos or rats. The objective of vector control is to prevent the introduction, spread and/or establishment of foreign diseases and their vectors so that any threat to public health is minimised or removed entirely. The need to control and monitor disease vectors is quite apparent, and the incorporation of these details into the act is an excellent step forward to acknowledge and support the hard work already done by quarantine and public health officers around the country.

A new section 55B provides for these activities—for example, the search for mosquitos and their breeding grounds—to be undertaken both within a port, including an airport, and within a reasonable distance from the boundary of a port or from a place at which a vessel is moored. These activities currently take place with the cooperation of the owners and/or operators of a port and the surrounding land, which is often owned by federal, state or local government. Section 55C of the bill will now allow quarantine officers to also conduct these activities on private property. Although I must acknowledge that the owners of private property are generally very cooperative, quarantine officers have not previously had any formal right of access. They will now have the right of access with the consent of the owner or, in an emergency, under the terms of a warrant.

In addition to these major components of the bill, there are several smaller administrative improvements. Currently the act provides for the Governor-General to proclaim particular places of origin as potential sources of infection. The bill will instead allow the minister to declare potential sources of infection, allowing the process to happen more efficiently and more quickly. Currently, a person must be infected with a disease in order to be quarantined. This bill allows a person to be quarantined on reasonable suspicion of infection or exposure. This acknowledges the reality that quarantine officers and others involved in the quarantine process are not medically qualified for conclusive diagnosis in airport terminals. This measure will allow easier administration of quarantine for diseases such as SARS, which spread rapidly and are not easy for anyone to conclusively diagnose, including medical practitioners—let alone quarantine officers on the spot, faced with potentially the outbreak of a new international disease.

The master of any vessel is currently required to display quarantine signals if an outbreak of disease has occurred. This is of course impractical on modern aircraft, and the bill will allow notification of the outbreak to a quarantine officer by radio or other communication instead. The current act has no provision for people who are released from quarantine but who are still subject to surveillance—for example, people with suspected exposure to SARS who could be released to their own homes. This scenario will now be provided for.

Because the measures in the bill are measures which the opposition support and which I believe can be clearly seen as necessary additions to our quarantine arrangements, the opposition are supporting this bill and have cooperated with the government, dealing with it in an expedited way. The measures are, in the opposition's view, commendable and Labor are pleased to be able to support the work of our quarantine officers by supporting this bill. Whilst we have determined to support the bill and to cooperate with it being dealt with on an expedited basis, I must however take this opportunity to raise some concerns with the manner in which this bill has ended up before the House today.

The bill arises from a review of the human quarantine provisions of the Quarantine Act conducted in 1997, in accordance with the national competition policy requirements. I have no doubt that the review was well conducted, overseen by a steering committee, including representatives from AQIS and from Commonwealth agencies, and chaired by the Commonwealth Chief Medical Officer. A publicly available discussion paper and an independent consultant's report informed the review. Yet, I cannot help but wonder why it has taken six years to progress from this review to the implementation of its recommendations and why, after such a lengthy delay, the Howard government all of a sudden is rushing the bill to parliament and, in fact, several weeks ago requested that Labor support an exemption from the Senate cut-off without, at that stage, having even had the courtesy to show us a copy of the bill. As you would be aware, Mr Deputy Speaker Lindsay, it is not possible for any member of parliament or any political party to make a reasonable judgment about the merits of a bill without at least a copy of the bill and, hopefully, an explanatory memorandum.

I am sure that the SARS epidemic, which caused such turmoil internationally and which put a great deal of pressure on our quarantine services in Australia, had a lot to do with pushing these changes forward. I must take the opportunity to congratulate our quarantine service, our airlines and our public health and medical work force for their excellent response to this epidemic. Even so, the best part of a year has elapsed since the epidemic first took hold, and it is only now that we are implementing changes which might have supported our quarantine services at the time.

In addition to this needless delay, Labor has one other significant matter of concern in relation to this bill. As a matter of course, when dealing with legislation affecting the airline industry, Labor ensures that the industry is consulted. The office of the member for Batman, as shadow minister for transport, contacted Qantas, as Australia's only international airline, to ensure that the practical aspects of this bill were appropriate and workable. When the member for Batman's staff made contact with the airline they discovered, much to their surprise, that Qantas had not been consulted about the wording of the bill at all. In fact, it had not been contacted by the government in relation to these matters since 2000. I would have thought that we all would have been concerned about this level of consultation. Three-year-old consultation is not an acceptable level of involvement if the Howard government is serious about ensuring the workability of the Quarantine Act.

I make the point very clearly: Qantas would not have known this bill was here or been advised of its contents if it had not been for actions taken by the Labor opposition, and specifically the member for Batman in his capacity as shadow minister for transport. It was Labor's internal processes, conveying the bill to the member for Batman and seeking his opinion and him then going through the usual procedures for contacting industry, that ensured Qantas was aware that this bill was coming before the parliament and of the provisions within the bill. When one looks at the disparity of resources between the government and the opposition, and where I would have said the burden for undertaking such consultation should have lain, it is fair to say that that is something that the government ought to have done. They left it unattended and, consequently, it fell to the opposition to do it. It is not that the opposition resents doing such work, but it really is not appropriate practice for a bill affecting our international airline and carrier, Qantas, to come before this parliament without the minister or her staff, or relevant departmental officials on her instruction, making contact with the relevant major industry player.

When we engaged in that consultation, Qantas indicated that it had a number of concerns about the interpretation of the bill. Fortunately Labor acted as an intermediary with the government and, as a result of Labor transmitting information back and forth between Qantas and the government, the advice we have now received is that the issues that were initially of concern to Qantas have actually been resolved. This should never have been a necessary part of the process. It seems to me that three-year-old consultation—consultation in the year 2000—obviously needed updating. We are all aware of major shake-outs in the airline industry in the intervening three years and, as the bill has a direct impact on the airline industry, it was appropriate to consult with Qantas and any other airline affected to ensure this was going to be part of a cooperative approach to quarantine. It should not be up to the opposition to ensure that the government involves all the stakeholders in this process.

Labor regrets that in this case the Howard government could not place more priority on implementing changes they have known for six years were necessary, even in the face of a public health crisis such as the SARS epidemic. We also regret that the government has taken such a slipshod approach to industry consultation. Nevertheless, as I indicated at the outset, this legislation is a positive step towards an even better quarantine system. Labor is pleased to support it and to facilitate its expedited passage through the parliament. Both sides of the parliament, as well as the quarantine service, the public health sector and the transport industry must work together to ensure the best possible protection for Australians and Australian industry.