Health Care

Senator BABET (Victoria—United Australia Party Whip) (14:51): My question is to the Minister representing the Minister for Health, Senator Gallagher. Minister, are you aware of the status of the WHO’s article 59 International Health Regulations amendments and the three other substantive pandemic preparedness documents, the UN’s pandemic preparedness and response political zero declaration draft, the WHO’s proposed 307 International Health Regulations amendments and the WHO CA+?

Senator GALLAGHER (Australian Capital Territory—Minister for the Public Service, Minister for Finance,
Minister for Women, Manager of Government Business in the Senate and Vice-President of the Executive Council) (14:52):
I thank Senator Babet for the question and for the advance warning of his question. I appreciate that. I am aware of those documents. The government is committed to strengthening international cooperation on pandemic preparedness and reflecting the lessons learned from the global response to ensure that we are well placed to deal with challenges that come in the future.

We are actively engaged in three separate but linked negotiations on an international instrument on pandemic prevention preparedness and response, amendments to the International Health Regulations 2005 and the Political Declaration of the United Nations General Assembly’s High-level Meeting on Pandemic Prevention, Preparedness and Response. The negotiations on the pandemic instrument and amendment to the International Health Regulations are currently underway and are due to conclude in May next year. It is anticipated that a final version of the political declaration will be adopted by member states at a high-level meeting on pandemic prevention, preparedness and response in New York later in September.

These processes are part of an overall package intending to strengthen international cooperation to minimise the risk that international health threats such as COVID-19 can pose to Australia. We know that global health threats are most likely to arise overseas, and having a strong global health system will help ensure Australia and the world are better prepared for the future. Let me be clear that the proposed treaty will not undermine Australia’s sovereignty in respect to health policy and will not operate to prevail over Australian law.

The WHO and UN have no legal authority to force Australians to take any action, and any negotiated commitments would need to be reflected in Australian laws passed by this parliament for them to become legally binding. The government commenced an online public consultation on 7 August 2023 to allow interested Australians the ability to contribute their views on the proposed agreements.

The PRESIDENT: Senator Babet, a first supplementary?

Senator BABET (14:54): Thank you, Minister. I think I know what you’re going to say next. Are you aware of article 59 item 3 of 2005 IHRs, which is repeated unamended in the article 59 International Health Regulations amendments? Do you agree that this subarticle places a positive requirement on Australia to amend our domestic legislation in accordance with any future IHR amendments if those amendments are not rejected by Australia?

Senator GALLAGHER (14:54): I thank the senator for the question. The impact of amendments to article 59 are procedural in nature. They reduce the period of time for entry into force for any future amendments to the IHR. They do not change Australia’s treaty-making or domestic legal processes. Australia does not and will not support any amendments to the IHR that are against our national interest.

Countries retain sovereignty over all their health policies including public health and safety measures such as broader measures, use of masks and vaccines. Any negotiated commitments that need to be reflected in Australian laws have to be passed by this parliament for them to become legally binding, and article 59 does not alter this. The first chapter of the revised draft treaty circulated to member states on 22 May reinforces the principle that each country retains responsibility and control of its own health policies.

The PRESIDENT: Senator Babet, a second supplementary?

Senator BABET (14:55): Can you please clarify article 10 of the WHO CA+ and whether it is requiring a member country or state to indemnify vaccine manufacturers and establish compensation schemes for the injured to be paid for by the government?

Senator GALLAGHER (14:55): Thank you, Senator Babet, for the supplementary. This is one of the many proposals set out in the current draft text of the WHO CA+. None of the articles in the text have been agreed to by member states and remain under negotiation. Article 10 of the draft WHO CA+ proposes management liability risk management frameworks for medical countermeasures including vaccines.

The text, as currently drafted, proposes the establishment of regional and/or international vaccine injury compensation schemes. It also encourages member states to include time-bound indemnity clauses in contracts for the supply or purchase of vaccines specifically developed for the pandemic response.

In line with my previous answers, we will continue to consider these issues as part of our overall negotiating position. I’m sure the minister for health would be happy to engage with you, Senator Babet, on these issues