I am pleased to make a contribution to the debate on the Crimes Amendment (Repeal of Section 19A) Bill 2015. The bill is the result of an election commitment made by Labor prior to the International AIDS Conference last year. I am particularly pleased to speak about an election commitment being fulfilled. To be frank, it also pleases me that, as I understand it, the bill has bipartisan support, albeit it is over 20 years too late.
When HIV and AIDS burst upon the international consciousness in the early 1980s, Australia stood out for its sensible approach. Members should remember this was a time when it was still illegal to be gay in some Australian states. I believe Neal Blewett and Peter Baume are to be commended on the leadership roles they played at a national level to treat the crisis as a health issue and not as a so-called moral issue. Regrettably, this leadership did not filter into the entire body politic. Hysteria and knee-jerk reactions were still acceptable political reactions to a health issue in some quarters. In 1993 there were a series of robberies where victims were threatened with syringes containing blood. The Kennett government felt the need to be seen to be doing something and, ignoring public health experts, it introduced the law.
The law was solely targeted at HIV sufferers. It created the offence of intentionally causing another person to be infected with a ‘very serious disease’, which is defined solely as the human immunodeficiency virus — HIV.
The penalty for the offence is a maximum of 25 years imprisonment. This law applies a harsher penalty for transmission of HIV than for any other diseases or for causing any other serious injury.
This law characterises people living with HIV as a danger to the community. In particular it discriminates against the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex communities. In short it reinforces uninformed prejudice in the community with an act of Parliament. At the time of its introduction Labor stood against its introduction. It was widely predicted to be a failure — and it was. As a matter of fact, the law in section 19A has only ever been used once, and that was not even for its original purpose. The one conviction has been for ‘attempting’ to commit the offence during sexual intercourse.
After more than two decades it is important that we fix this mistake and remove the discrimination against the sufferers of one disease. Section 19A goes against the Equal Opportunity Act 2010 in that it discriminates against people because of a disease. It goes against the Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities 2006, which states that every person has the right to the equal protection of the law.
This bill sets about righting those wrongs. I am glad that public health experts have now been listened to and, importantly, that we are removing this appalling piece of public policy from Victoria’s statute books.
I turn to what the bill does, but it is important to note what the bill does not do. It does not give people carte blanche to run around infecting other people with diseases. There are two points to note. The definition of ‘injury’ in the Crimes Act 1958 now specifically includes reference to ‘infection with a disease’, and it is not limited to any specific disease. This offence carries a maximum penalty of 20 years imprisonment.
The government recognises that community safety is always paramount. The chief health officer has disease control powers under the Public Health and Wellbeing Act 2008. These powers allow the chief health officer to place restrictions on certain movements and behaviours. Further to this, in extreme circumstances a person can be detained or isolated. Despite all of this, it must be remembered that living with HIV is a public health matter. There is absolutely no evidence that criminalising HIV transmission discourages unsafe sexual behaviour. Minimising community risk is best achieved by those living with HIV or at risk of contracting HIV to act in ways that protect themselves and others by adopting safer behaviours — not by their being criminalised.
The repeal of section 19A removes the aspect of criminality from what is a public health issue. It treats HIV exactly how former federal health ministers Neal Blewett and Peter Baume envisaged over 30 years ago — as a public health matter. There is still a way to go until the stigma caused by people passing moral judgements on HIV sufferers passes from society. Stigma affects both mental and physical health. The Parliament of Victoria should never be party to stigmatising citizens.
Today in this place we can show leadership and take a step towards making Victoria a safer, healthier and fairer place to live. We can say we do not accept discrimination in any form. We have the opportunity to work together to overturn a two decade-old kneejerk reaction and recognise in law that all Victorians are indeed equal before the law.
This bill strikes the balance between protecting our community and public health, and it fulfils an election commitment aimed at righting a wrong and building a fairer Victoria. I commend the bill to the house.