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Tuesday, 31 March 1998
Page: 1658

Senator BARTLETT (8:36 PM) —I am only going to speak on one part of this legislation, but it is an important part to many people. All of those who have been listening closely to this debate would know that my Democrat colleague from Queensland, Senator Woodley, covered all other issues relating to the Child Care Legislation Amendment Bill 1998 comprehensively and admirably.

As the Leader of the Australian Democrats, Senator Meg Lees, has stated in the past in relation to the Child Care Payments Act 1997, the Democrats support the general direction taken by the government to offer incentives to encourage parents to give serious consideration to vaccinating their children. We know from research that most parents who fail to vaccinate their children have done so not because they hold strong views against vaccination—although it certainly applies to some—but because they are not aware of the recommended vaccinations for their children or, simply, because they have not yet got around to it. Giving the Australian people an incentive to make sure they do give adequate thought to this issue is an important initiative.

Tying child-care payments to immunisation addresses this issue and should result in higher levels of vaccination amongst the vast majority of children whose parents do support immunisation. However, whilst supporting the general thrust of this legislation, the Democrats have been concerned to ensure that those parents who have a strong and genuine opposition to vaccination are not denied access to child-care subsidies because of their beliefs. Senator Lees has raised these concerns in relation to the Child Care Payments Act and the government responded to this concern previously by making provision for conscientious objectors in this act.

These provisions are reflected in this bill that we are debating this evening and include the requirement that parents visit a recognised immunisation provider to discuss with them the benefits and the risks of immunisation. While this may be a sensible requirement in many cases, the Democrats do have concerns that in some specific cases this provision may not be appropriate. For example, I have received—and other Democrat senators, and I imagine many other senators from other parties in this place, have received—many representations from Christian Scientists who believe that this requirement goes against their religious beliefs. Christian Scientists feel that, for them, a visit to the doctor to talk about immunisation is not only against their beliefs but also unnecessary and a waste of time and public money.

In that circumstance, why should people have to sit around a doctor's surgery to talk about something when they know what they think about it, when it is a matter of faith and belief and not a matter of science or medical opinion? Why should they waste the doctor's time, why should everybody else have to wait longer in the doctor's surgery and why should we drain Medicare funding, et cetera, in that situation with people going through that charade simply to satisfy technical requirements of the act?

I have had personal representations on this including from people from my own state of Queensland. A letter I received just a week or so ago was from Mr Ronald Walker from the Christian Science Committee on Publication for Queensland, a representative of the Christian Science community in Queensland, specifically drawing my attention to this matter, something I had been aware of in a general sense before but certainly not in relation to the specifics of this issue. It has been of some enlightenment to me to become aware in a bit more detail of the beliefs and concerns of Christian Scientists. Certainly, Mr Walker and other Christian Scientists have indicated that they do wish this matter to be considered and wish that not just Christian Scientists but also the significant group of people that this relates to, who do choose to avail themselves of their civil right to refuse immunisation, due to their own personal beliefs, be properly accommodated in this government's legislation and ongoing policy.

Recognising the needs of specific groups in the community, whether they be minority groups or otherwise, and trying to ensure that those needs are addressed as part of the broad policy announcements and directions of government that apply to the whole community, is a principle that the Democrats do give a lot of attention to. Christian Scientists operate within a different modality of health based on their religious beliefs. Their representatives, who have written to me and to other Democrat senators and have come to speak to Senator Lees and her staff, who have given a great deal of attention to this issue, have presented a carefully considered position and have done a great deal of research on this topic. In fact, they are probably better informed about immunisation than are most lay people.

Their objections stem from their religious beliefs rather than from a specific disagreement with the logic or the scientific validity of the medical research which supports universal immunisation. Therefore, no amount of evidence, scientific facts or discussions with the local GP, hospital intern or whomever, will convince them to immunise their children. In that circumstance, it seems unnecessary at a minimum to force people to go through this charade. They can in no way be considered equivalent to those parents who have not immunised their children due to ignorance, inconvenience, neglect or other reasons such as not having got around to it, and they should not be treated in the same way as those people under this legislation if at all possible. The Democrats believe it is possible and we believe that their needs should be addressed.

The Democrats believe that Christian Scientists have the right to have their specific situation acknowledged and to have more appropriate conditions attached to their application for conscientious objector status, rather than individually having to visit doctors to get certificates. The Democrats will not be moving amendments to this bill on this issue that I have raised in my short contribution this evening because we understand the mechanism is available within the bill as it stands.

Before we indicate our position on this specific aspect of the legislation, the Democrats do ask the minister, or his representative, in his concluding remarks this evening to give an indication on behalf of the government that they will use the powers vested in them under proposed section 12(h) of this bill to address the concerns that Senator Meg Lees has raised with Minister Wooldridge predominantly, and also with Minister Warwick Smith, the Minister for Family Services, regarding the specific concerns of the Christian Scientists. We believe it is something that can be addressed and we hope the government will give a specific commitment to addressing those concerns in relation to this legislation that have been raised as part of this debate.