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Dutton misleads on his role in protecting public health

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Peter Dutton denies his role in protecting Australia from the public health risks of COVID-19 – such as the Ruby Princess debacle — but the Migration Act says otherwise, writes Abul Rizvi.

IN A REPORT in the New Daily Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton said: 

'“The suggestion by you that there’s been wrongdoing by the Australian Border Force is completely wrong... [the ABF] does not have a role in relation to clearing people on health grounds."

This is highly misleading.

The Migration Act has extensive powers in terms of the health requirement, including in terms of communicable diseases. His Department does have doctors on its staff, albeit not stationed at airports and seaports.

It has a team of doctors on its staff in Australia. In addition, in 2007, the Department had appointed over 3,600 overseas medical doctors and radiologists to undertake medical examinations. It is likely this number today is much larger.

In a 2007 report, the Auditor-General indicated:

Within the visa system, health risks are managed according to the health requirement of the Migration Act 1958 and the Migration Regulations 1994. The health requirements (also called the health criteria) is a relatively small but important component of DIAC’s broader remit for border control.


The intent of the health requirement is to:

  • protect the community from public health risks;
  • contain public expenditure on health care and community services; and
  • safeguard Australians’ access to health services in short supply.

In terms of public health, the primary focus is on ensuring visa applicants and arrivals are free of tuberculosis. But the Auditor-General’s report of 2007 states visa applicants and holders must also be

'...free from a disease or condition that would result in a threat to public health or a danger to the Australian community.'

It is open to the Minister to include any other diseases as being a threat to public health. In the past, diseases such as Hepatitis B and HIV have been identified based on advice from the Department of Health.

The extent to which COVID-19 has been included for this purpose remains a mystery, given Peter Dutton’s deflecting responses to questions on this issue.

While Dutton continues to argue he has no role in protecting Australia from the public health risks of COVID-19, the fact he has legal powers and responsibilities in this regard is there in black and white in the Migration Act and regulations.

It is time Peter Dutton explains why he has not used the extensive powers he has to protect Australians from the public health risks of COVID-19.

Abul Rizvi is an Independent Australia columnist and a former Deputy Secretary of the Department of Immigration, currently undertaking a PhD on Australia’s immigration policies. You can follow Abul on Twitter @RizviAbul.

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