This month has been a busy month for my semi-scholarly work. At the start of the month, I wrote a piece for the Conversation about the so-called crackdown on the cosmetics procedures sector announced by AHPRA around 7 September 2023.
Following the publication of that piece, I was lucky to be asked to appear on a long interview for Mamamia’s The Quicky. It was a great talk and I thank host Claire Murphy for the great interview.
Over the last few days, when it was announced that a COVID-19 inquiry would be run by the Commonwealth government, its terms of reference came under scrutiny. Having co-authored and published an article earlier in the year on COVID-19 mandates — an article that I was very proud to have written, especially when it was given plaudits from now Justice of the High Court of Australia Hon Robert Beech-Jones — I was keen to provide my view on the terms of reference.
Several commentators around the country have argued that the terms of reference are unduly restrictive and a cause for complaint. That, in some ways, is understandable. After all, it is essential that critical minds and governments examine how the public health legislation was deployed during the pandemic, especially where profound human rights issues arise from coercive interventions.
However, as I argued ion ABC News Radio on Friday 22 September, the Inquiry expressly will cover questions of governance, including
the role of the Commonwealth Government, responsibilities of state and territory governments, national governance mechanisms (such as National Cabinet, the National Coordination Mechanism and the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee) and advisory bodies supporting responses to COVID-19.See Inquiry TORs
Given that our Constitution does not confer on the Commonwealth a competency to make laws with respect to public health, however, the terms of reference strike me as sensible and practical.
After all, it is the states, including New South Wales, that hold the power to regulate public health within their polities. Sections of the states’ public health Acts confer different conditional powers on their relevant health ministers; and, in New South Wales, it is section 7 that gives the Minister massive powers to do whatever they consider to be necessary when, on reasonable grounds, they consider that a situation has arisen that is likely to be a risk to public health, and they seek to deal with the risk and its possible consequences. My phrasing, above, is a little garbled, because it seeks to paraphrase the wording of the provision, which is as follows:
7 Power to deal with public health risks generally
(cf 1991 Act, s 5)
(1) This section applies if the Minister considers on reasonable grounds that a situation has arisen that is, or is likely to be, a risk to public health.
(2) In those circumstances, the Minister–
(a) may take such action, and
(b) may by order give such directions,
as the Minister considers necessary to deal with the risk and its possible consequences.
All of the NSW public health orders were made pursuant to section 7, above.
The Victorian Act, by contrast, requires that a ‘pandemic declaration’ be made before the minister’s powers are enlivened. Following the making of any such declaration, the Minister of Health may exercise their powers to make orders under s 165AI of the Public Health and Wellbeing Act 2008 (Vic), which states as follows:
PUBLIC HEALTH AND WELLBEING ACT 2008 – SECT 165AI
Minister may make a pandemic order
(1) The Minister may, at any time on or after the making of a pandemic declaration, make any order (a pandemic order) that the Minister believes is reasonably necessary to protect public health.
As is obvious, these powers are held by state ministers. They are not controlled or controllable by the Commonwealth government, or any Commonwealth minister. Arguably, any influence exerted by a Commonwealth minister over a state minister to exercise their powers in a particular way may give rise to a misuse of the power, inasmuch as the requisite ‘consideration’ (New South Wales) or ‘belief’ (Victoria) of the health minister has to be held by that relevant state minister. Sure, a health minister’s belief or consideration may be reconfigured by additional information from other actors, including their equivalent ministers in other Australian governments. But the legal fact is that the Commonwealth cannot really repeal, remake or otherwise alter or even influence this power; and this is a point that I have found has been missing from the public debate about the scope of the COVID-19 inquiry.
What would be the best outcome of an inquiry into the way the state health ministers exercised their powers? Would the Commonwealth recommend that the state ministers must have approval from the Commonwealth before exercising these powers? Would they be required to consult? This would seem to be completely contrary to the design of the Constitution, which, as Quick and Garran point out time and again, was premised on a fair compromise between the new central government and the colonies: the states would retain independent powers across a range of areas, including, as I think it must be inferred, health. I am not opposed to more centralisation; however, I think it;’s important to understand what we are proposing when we ask for a Commonwealth inquiry into the exercise of state power. And so I was pleased to feed that into the debate via national radio.
My request, alas, remains with ABC Archives for a copy of the recording! (It cannot be replayed like some other programs on ABC listen, etc).
In the meantime, I feel more compelled than ever to revise and rewrite the serious consideration that I developed in 2018 on the division of health power in Australia — an article that, for various reasons, did not make it through peer review at the top journals but which I have been told several times since would make a sorely needed contribution to the literature in this area. The best articles on the topic I have found are two oldies and a newie:
- Karen Wheelwright, ‘Commonwealth and State Powers in Health: A Constitutional Diagnosis’ (1995) 21(1) Monash University Law Review 53;
- Danuta Mendelson, ‘Devaluation of a Constitutional Guarantee: The History of Section 51(xxiiiA) of the Commonwealth Constitution’ (1999) 23 Melbourne University Law Review 308; and
- Fiona McDonald, Stephen Duckett, and Emma Campbell, ‘Commonwealth Power to Improve Access, Quality, and Efficiency of Medical Care: Does section 51 (xxiiiA) of the Constitution Limit Politically Feasible Health Policy Options Today?’ (2023) 51(2) Federal Law Review 51(2), 232–256.