Resumed from 11 June.
Comments and speeches from various members
HON ALISON XAMON (North Metropolitan) [6.03 pm]: I rise as the lead speaker for the Greens on the Public Health Amendment (Immunisation Requirements for Enrolment) Bill 2019. I have quite a number of things that I would like to get on the record.
I state from the outset that I have some concerns about this bill and about the nature in which this regime will play out. However, I must begin my contribution by firmly stating on the record that I am a complete supporter of vaccinations, and the Greens are complete supporters of vaccinations as well. That is firmly within our policy. I needed to ensure that that was on the record. We insist on an evidence-based approach to issues of health. As such, the evidence indicates that vaccinations work and that vaccinations are necessary. One of the reasons I felt I needed to make that clear from the outset is that I find it very disturbing that when anyone indicates a reservation around an initiative being employed to try to raise vaccination rates within the community, which—I completely agree with the previous speaker—is absolutely the aim for which we need to strive, they get lazily and irresponsibly labelled as simply being an anti-vaxxer. I am not going to tolerate that, and anyone who attempts to portray me that way would be seriously misleading Parliament, which would be an enormous problem.
I like evidence-based practice; I insist on following the science, as I do on climate change, and therefore I recognise, as everyone does, that immunisation is one of the great success stories of modern medicine and public health. I will take smallpox as an example. People have spoken about a range of illnesses, but in 1950, around 10 million people a year were dying from smallpox, yet by 1979, less than 30 years later, smallpox was potentially being eradicated in Australia. I note the comments of Hon Rick Mazza that there are disturbing signs that there might be a return of smallpox, precisely because of some aversion to vaccination regimes. I think that really emphasises the need to remain vigilant around some of these more potent illnesses. There is no room for complacency.
Of course, polio is also soon set to disappear. In 1988—relatively recent times—there were 350 000 cases of polio worldwide; in 2017, there were just 22 cases worldwide. The suggestion that that may be on the increase as well fills me with horror. I feel as though we may need to go through a whole education campaign again on the horror of polio, and why it is such a terrible, terrible disease. Not only are children being saved from dying because of vaccination, but also many, many children are avoiding lifelong disability as a result of vaccination against preventable diseases. I note some exciting research and some really good advancements in vaccination, research which is currently being undertaken by one of my favourite organisations, the Telethon Kids Institute, which is hoping to develop a single vaccine to protect against influenza—wouldn’t that be good!
Of course, we recognise that vaccinating against illness and disease is obviously the easiest way that a general practitioner can protect all ages of society from vaccine-preventable infectious disease. It is also clear that boosting vaccination rates is a priority within Western Australia. I acknowledge that our performance has been relatively poor, and we are still some way from meeting the recognised desired 95 per cent target that would ensure herd immunity and would, if not eliminate, at least drastically reduce the prevalence of vaccine-preventable diseases in our community. I cannot stress enough that the Greens believe vaccination rates need to be lifted. Given this, we would like to see the government prioritise measures that are proven to be effective, and if not proven, at least well considered and informed by experts in public health. Indeed, the Greens policy calls for an increase in funding for educational programs that promote the benefits of mass immunisation. That is a specific policy of the Greens. I would hazard a guess that all of us in this chamber would agree on this point. The question then becomes how this legislation will serve to advance this goal.
I want to make some comments about some of the correspondence that I have been inundated with, as I imagine all members have. I note that the nature of the correspondence coming through to me broadly goes into two camps. There are people who are clearly firmly against vaccination as a regime—I have some comments to make about that—then we have other people who are not opposed to vaccination as such, but are concerned about how it will impact on particular individual situations, and who may have concerns about elements of the vaccination regime and how it is being prescribed. I want to make some comments about the people who have chosen to email me and in some cases—I do not know whether other members have found this—have been really quite abusive on the issue of vaccination. My message to those people, because they will read this Hansard, is that they have done themselves an enormous disservice. The concerns of loving parents who might have some legitimate and I think important concerns about the role of coercive health measures in raising a vaccination regime—I will have more to say about that in a moment—have been harmed by those abusive people. I condemn those people for that and for sending me all the abuse as well. If people think that is a good way to get me onside, they really do not know me very well at all. I say to those people: I do not think anyone in this chamber would be particularly enamoured with receiving abuse as a way to achieve a particular outcome. I do not know what is wrong with these people, but, really, they should lift their game; it is absolutely unacceptable.
I want to pick up some of the recurrent themes coming through in the correspondence I have received. I do not care about people who wave around so-called research; I do not believe that vaccinations cause autism. That is a debunked myth. I also do not appreciate the discriminatory language that has been used to talk about people with autism. I am offended on that level as well. As members would know, I am a big advocate for encouraging inclusion of neurodiverse people. Not only is the science these people are presenting not science; it is just complete garbage. It is also offensive, frankly, to people with disabilities—so cut it out.
Another particular claim comes to mind. Over the last 10 days, I have received a number of what are clearly form letters talking about how vaccinations contain parts of aborted foetuses. I wonder whether other members have received similar approaches. Madam President, I note that responses of “yes” are coming from around the chamber. It sounds horrendous, so I spoke to Hon Nick Goiran behind the Chair. I think we would all agree that he would probably have a particularly informed view on this sort of matter. Frankly, if this were a real issue, I thought he would be the member who would be most across this. It was pertinent to me that it was not considered to be a concern—I hope the honourable member does not mind me saying that, but I respect that he would know this.
Hon Nick Goiran: If I may assist, member, perhaps do not categorise it that I don’t have a concern about it.
Hon ALISON XAMON: Absolutely. I recognise that if this were a legitimate issue, I was of the opinion that the honourable member would have a considerable concern about it and would probably be the first one to bring that concern to the attention of not only myself, but also the entire chamber. As the honourable member pointed out, there is no evidence to indicate that this is an issue with Australian vaccines, so when people start peddling this idea they do themselves an enormous disservice because it rains discredit upon every other claim in those lobbying emails.
I am pretty exhausted by the suggestion that vaccination regimes are simply a big conspiracy by big pharma to try to ensure it makes more money. That view completely dismisses all the evidence produced over decades and decades that shows that vaccination rates have contributed significantly to positive public health measures, in some cases have eliminated or almost eliminated certain diseases, and they work. I say to the people who send these emails: I am not grateful to you and, more importantly, I am sure that those parents who have legitimate concerns about these sorts of regimes have no reason to be grateful to you either. Effectively, these people have polluted the whole debate so that no-one can have a sensible discussion about how to increase vaccination regimes when legitimately they need to be improved or about how we can take an evidence-based approach and have a legitimate discussion around the risks of vaccination.
As has been mentioned by Hon Aaron Stonehouse, it also does not follow the evidence to try to take the position that all vaccinations are safe all the time and that there is never any risk. Every member in this chamber knows of such cases. I am thinking of the devastating case of Saba Button. It is very rare for a vaccination to go wrong, but when it does go wrong, it is devastating. Let us not slip that one under the carpet; let us at least acknowledge that these things happen. It is why parents, and particularly new parents, as was mentioned by Hon Dr Steve Thomas, holding a precious, gorgeous, little fragile-as-glass baby in their arms for the first time feel genuine fear, because no-one wants to take the risk that something might go wrong with their child.
I think it is eternally frustrating that we are unable to have sensible discussions around the genuine risk of vaccination and what we need to do to make sure that we are increasing vaccination rates. We also need to talk about the legitimate issue of people who cannot be vaccinated at all—I think it is a relatively rare number of people—and the significantly larger cohort of people who need to deviate from the prescribed vaccination regime and maybe not vaccinate for a certain period or very, very early on in a child’s life but who can catch up with vaccinations later. I have more to say on that because that is what happened with me. I am happy to talk about my experience later.
This bill is, of course, a key pillar in implementing the government’s no jab, no play policy, which means that children in WA who are not up to date with their vaccinations will be banned from attending formal childcare facilities or participating in preschool. This legislation comes three years after the federal government’s no jab, no pay legislation came into effect. Families who do not vaccinate their children are ineligible for the childcare benefit, the childcare rebate or the family tax benefit part A supplement. We need to note that families who use child care and do not vaccinate their children are already penalised and this bill would expand the scope of the federal legislation. As the minister outlined in her second reading speech, in 2017, after the no jab, no pay legislation was introduced, the Council of Australian Governments developed further options for a national approach to increase immunisation rates in early childhood education. However, it was not until August 2018 that that then Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, proposed that COAG should assess the costs, benefits and regulatory impacts of a national approach, which was to be completed in about 2019.
I note that we are yet to see that assessment. Despite this, the Premier has indicated that he is still keen to see this bill progressed as soon as possible. I also note that the bill is not uniform legislation, but in the meantime three states have brought in some version of no jab, no play. The legislation in both New South Wales and Victoria is similar to the legislation before us, while Queensland’s legislation does not go quite as far. Instead of flat out banning unimmunised children, the Queensland act gives childcare and early education providers the power to refuse enrolment of unvaccinated children.
Debate adjourned, pursuant to standing orders.