Second Reading: Crimes Amendment (Repeal of Section 19A) Bill 2015

Mr HIBBINS (Prahran) — I rise to speak on the Crimes Amendment (Repeal of Section 19A) Bill 2015, which the Greens welcome into this house. This bill seeks to repeal section 19A of the Crimes Act 1958, which was brought in in 1993 and which makes it an offence to intentionally infect another person with HIV. 

The current law states:

A person who, without lawful excuse, intentionally causes another person to be infected with a very serious disease is guilty of an indictable offence.

That is punishable by up to 25 years imprisonment. Subsection (2) goes on to say that the definition of 'very serious disease' only means HIV.

Why are we repealing this section? Intentional infection with HIV is serious. Living Positive Victoria and the Victorian AIDS Council jointly state:

The wilful, intentional transmission of HIV or any serious disease is repugnant and should attract a significant criminal penalty.

There are three key reasons why we are repealing section 19A: one, intentional transmission of HIV or any other disease is already covered under other acts, specifically section 16 of the Crimes Act, which is of a similar structure to 19A but rather than referring to 'very serious disease', which in this case only means HIV, it refers to 'serious injury', to which HIV is applicable; two, having a separate law specifically for HIV stigmatises people living with HIV without actually making people safer or reducing the incidence of transmission, and it can actually have a counter effect; and three, the people who are most at risk of transmitting HIV are those who do not know they are HIV positive. Laws like section 19A stigmatise people living with HIV and act as a disincentive to being tested. From a public health perspective we want to encourage and support people to be tested and to know their HIV status.

Just going into a bit of background, section 19A was brought in in 1993, when there was a spate of hold-ups involving syringes whereby the offender threatened the victim with infection with HIV or other blood-borne diseases. Section 19A was brought in with a specific and greater sentence for the deliberate infection of another with HIV. We know this section has only ever been used once, in 1997, in the case of a man attempting to infect other men with HIV — however, not through the use of a syringe. What we know is that we can respond best to HIV as a public health issue from a human rights perspective. Laws like section 19A are counterproductive to our efforts to reduce HIV transmission and only serve to further stigmatise those in our community who live with HIV. The best way to reduce the incidence of transmission is to ensure that people know their HIV status and to change their behaviour accordingly.

The times of the first cases of HIV, when HIV was seen as a pandemic, were marked by stigma towards the gay community. It is due to the hard work of many activists and organisations in the gay community that we are overcoming and reducing that stigma in Victoria. At a time when negative stereotypes of LGBTI people were prevalent it was activists who were on the front line combatting discrimination and misinformation and driving a positive, practical response to the HIV crisis, such as safe sex campaigns and encouraging condom use. Organisations like the Victorian AIDS Council, which I am proud to have in the Prahran electorate, and Living Positive Victoria now play an invaluable role in supporting those with HIV and other at-risk communities through health promotion, HIV prevention, advocacy and policy development.

We should also recognise the other at-risk groups that have been involved in organising the changes that have led to reducing the spread of HIV. For injecting drug users we have seen the benefits of needle and syringe programs, and for sex workers we have seen the benefits of the legalisation and regulation of prostitution. In the mid-1980s people requiring blood transfusions were also at risk until reliable testing of the blood supply was introduced. Because of preventive programs and support from activists, Australia's approach to HIV has been seen as a success; however, since the turn of the century we have also seen a rise in new HIV cases.

We must refocus our efforts when it comes to HIV. We know what works when it comes to prevention. We know that homophobic discrimination can lead to risk-taking behaviours. We know that the best way to reduce transmission is for people to know their HIV status and adjust their behaviour accordingly. Laws like section 19A, which act as a barrier to testing amongst at-risk individuals and communities, result in fewer people being tested and a higher risk of HIV transmission. Section 19A reinforces negative stereotypes by suggesting that people living with HIV are dangerous to the community, and it should be abolished.

With the repeal of this law we must turn our attention to what else we can do to prevent HIV, and there are two particular measures I want to focus on. The first is to support the rollout of rapid testing for HIV. As I have said repeatedly, the best way of preventing new cases of HIV is for those with HIV to know their status. For this to occur, rapid testing of HIV is critical. The current trial of rapid testing is due to end this year, and it does not yet have Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) approval. Rapid testing must continue along with the peer-led approach, which encourages participation.

The second measure is PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis), which is a drug taken to protect against HIV. It is a drug designed to be used intermittently in a person's life when they are most at risk of infection with HIV. A recent study showed an 86 per cent reduction in the risk of HIV infection for people using PrEP to prevent HIV infection. PrEP is currently being trialled in Victoria, with the Prahran Market Clinic being one of the trial sites. To make PrEP widely available Australia needs the development of a national set of prescribing guidelines; TGA approval of Truvada, the prescription drug used for PrEP; and funding through the pharmaceutical benefits scheme (PBS) or other health budgets.

To conclude, the repeal of section 19A will have beneficial outcomes for those living with HIV, those at risk of being infected with HIV and the broader community by reducing stigma, reducing discrimination and encouraging testing. I commend the bill to the house.