Should we be worried about these Biosecurity Act amendments?

Rumours and petitions sprung up immediately at the news. Headlines were declaring “The government has plans to target the unvaccinated!”  

To be fair, it is difficult to trust the government these days. With the gaslighting on vaccine mandates and the constant overprotectiveness regarding our health, it’s easy to understand why many of us are suspicious at the introduction of any new legislation, let alone amendments that expand biosecurity orders to include groups. 

Yes, there are some reasons for concern and we should always be diligent in reading through legislation and giving our feedback in our capacity as active and politically aware citizens. 

But….it isn’t quite as bad as you might think – there IS also good news.  

So, let’s take a look: 

The Biosecurity Amendment (Enhanced Risk Management) Bill 2021 purports to amend the Biosecurity Act 2015 (Cth) and yes, it does shift focus from individuals to groups (S 4). Penalties for operators of aircrafts or vessels are to be increased from $26,000 to $222,000 if they unload anything or allow anyone to disembark without permission. Owners of the craft are at risk for fines of $66,000.

Human biosecurity ‘group directions’ are now a thing (S9) and the term ‘a class of individuals’ is in play (S 8), including the power to compel someone in this class to provide information in order to determine their level of risk to human health (S 14), with civil penalties of $6,660 for failure to comply (S 12).

But, Part 3A of the Bill confines the operation of these orders to those who are on a plane or vessel and are identified as having been exposed to a listed human disease (such as the “Ruby Princess” debacle). If so, an order can be made for the entirety of the passengers on that craft (S108B) including the following elements:

  • Directions can be made for a period of up to 12 hours (S108A) (which can be extended by a further 4 hours (S108F)). 
  • Anyone caught within this group must provide information if requested and may be forced to wear protective equipment (such as a mask) (S108M) unless an exemption is granted. 
  • Medical examination can be performed on members of this group and body samples collected (which may be provided to the World Health Organisation (S108P)). 
  • Directions must specify each kind of examination (S108N) or type of body sample required (S108P), and consent must be given in accordance with the direction (this is fairly vague). 
  • Appropriate medical standards are to be followed (S108R).

At this stage, unless you are a passenger on a cruise ship, or, unlucky enough to be caught on an international inbound flight on which someone tests positive to COVID-19, the amendments will not apply to you. 

But, Petition EN3285 (which closed with a whopping 163,744 signatures) put it like this: ‘While we understand that these changes are meant to be imposed upon groups arriving into the country by plane or vessels, it does not expressly exclude the possibility of it also being applied to other “classes” of people such as the unvaccinated, or to certain ethnic, religious or politico-social groups residing within Australia.’

The Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights (Report 12 of 2021) also raised some potential issues for concern. It pointed out the vague nature of the directions means that ‘much of this would appear to rely on the officer exercising their judgment in the moment’. It also highlighted the particularly coercive nature of the control order and its’ associated penalties, the exposure on privacy grounds with the collection of body samples and medical information, and, the lack of contemplation of what should happen with these samples once finished with. 

More worrying for the future, however, was the view taken regarding the severity of COVID-19 and the contemplation that these types of orders could broadly be necessary. The committee agreed that ‘protecting public health is a legitimate objective for the purposes of human rights law’, and taking a view that COVID-19 is a ‘serious communicable disease’, they stated that ‘the committee considered it promotes the rights to life and health, noting that the right to life requires that Australia takes positive measures to protect life, and the right to health requires that Australia takes steps to prevent, treat and control epidemic diseases.’ The committee agreed that the measures proposed appeared to be ‘rationally connected to that objective’.

Translation: We will pretty much let the government do what it wants as long as it sells the situation as a serious threat to our public health. 

As active political citizens, we should continue to be alert and aware of the possibility of the legislation being extended further and stand firmly against any such move. We should be curious as to what plans the government has for the $400 million increase in biosecurity funding for 2021/2022

But for now, you can breathe a little easier. You aren’t going to be rounded up if these amendments do get through. 

References:

Biosecurity Amendment (Enhanced Risk Management) Bill 2021 

Biosecurity Act 2015 (Cth)

The Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights (Report 12 of 2021)

Petition EN3285

Second Reading Speech (Mr Robert Fadden – Minister for Employment, Workforce, Skills, Small and Family Business)

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