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Borders, Bullies and Global Health

Posted on Apr 20, 2007

By Scott Tucker

(Page 2)

What do the numbers really tell us?

Prime Minister Howard’s comments came soon after Health Minister Tony Abbott asked a committee of chief health officials to consider new national policies for people living with HIV and AIDS.  In turn, that request followed two highly publicized cases of HIV-positive men accused of trying to spread the disease.

All people over the age of 15 who apply for permanent residence in Australia are tested for HIV, and people under that age are tested if either of their parents is HIV-positive.  People under 15 are also tested if there is medical reason to consider a possible infection, or if the applicant is seeking specific kinds of visas related to adoption or an unaccompanied humanitarian visa.  Spouses, life partners and family members of citizens are generally given special consideration.

According to an April 14 article in The Australian, “A 2005 study on HIV and migration in Australia found that many migrants found out about their HIV-positive status only after undergoing the Immigration Department health check.”


Square, Site wide

State policies that encourage immigrants to lie or to avoid medical care and testing plainly do not serve the cause of medical care and education.  These policies undermine the very public trust that brings together medical professionals and people in trouble, in pain and in need.

Figures suggesting a sharp rise in the number of HIV-positive immigrants are now disputed by some leading AIDS and healthcare groups in Australia.  Bronwyn Pike, health minister for the state of Victoria, had been widely quoted as stating that the number of interstate residents and immigrants arriving in the state with HIV had risen from 16 in 2004 to 70 in 2006.  But Baxter of the Australian Federation of AIDS Organisations said in a Sky News broadcast, “The Victorian minister has given a completely misleading account of these figures.”  According to Baxter, only 20 people were diagnosed with HIV overseas and most were born in Australia or New Zealand.

Even when considering this number, the executive director of the Victorian AIDS Council, Mike Kennedy, said “that more than half of those [20] were born in Australia or New Zealand, which brings the number down to nine [who were born overseas].”  An Australian born overseas who contracted HIV in Australia and was later diagnosed out of that country would have be included in that figure.  As Kennedy concluded, “The numbers might be really, really tiny.”

The numbers simply do not approach any standard of good science.  But numbers alone cannot be expected to tell the story of HIV and immigration anywhere on Earth; one must know the stories behind the numbers. Epidemiology may not be an absolutely exact science, but it is a science requiring a much higher level of evidence and approximations.

White Australia: an old ghost revisiting?

In 1998, Prime Minister Howard argued for greater immigration restrictions and acknowledged later (in tortured syntax worthy of his friend Dubya) that he had paid a political price for his views:
“I’m not in favor of going back to a White Australia Policy.  I do believe that if it is—in the eyes of some in the community—that it’s too great, it would be in our immediate-term interest and supporting of social cohesion if it [immigration] were slowed down a little, so the capacity of the community to absorb it was greater.”

The “White Australia Policy” is a catch-all term to encompass the laws and regulations restricting nonwhite immigration to Australia from about 1900 to the early 1970s.  White Australia also refers to the historical campaigns designed to promote white immigration in the same period.  By the 1940s this brand of racial populism was pulling apart and fragmenting, and legal reforms opened the way for greater nonwhite and non-British immigration. The Australian government passed the 1975 Racial Discrimination Act in that year, which officially removed many of the old racist barriers to immigration.

The labor movement in Australia has both a troubling and marvelous history.  As in the United States, racial divisions often ran right through the working classes.  Though examples and episodes of solidarity across racial lines are part of Australia’s union and labor history, the “native” labor movement also began a series of protests against “foreign” workers in the 1870s and 1880s.  Many of the workers considered non-Australian were Pacific Islanders. These “Kanakas” were brought into Australia as indentured workers.  Asian workers, including many Chinese, were subjected to low wages and poor working conditions.  They faced racial exclusion from most major unions at that time.

In a classic example of the contradictions of class, resistance to immigration restrictions often came from wealthy rural land owners. (Consider the deep divisions within the Republican Party in the United States today regarding workers who migrate north across our national southern border.  The Democratic Party is also compromised on this issue by its own class alliances with the Republicans.)  Between 1875 and 1888 all Australian colonies outlawed all further Chinese immigration, though those who were already residents officially retained the same rights of citizenship as workers who had arrived from Europe.

By 1901, however, the new Federal Parliament passed new legislation to “place restrictions on immigration and ... for the removal ... of prohibited immigrants.”  The Immigration Restriction Act of 1901 was modeled in part upon similar contemporary legislation in South Africa.  Edmund Barton, the prime minister, argued in favor of the bill in this manner:  “The doctrine of the equality of man was never intended to apply to the equality of the Englishman and the Chinaman.”  The Aboriginal peoples simply did not figure in that equation.

The White Australia movement threw a long shadow over Australian politics, even as late as the racial nationalism of the One Nation Party, which received 9 percent of the vote in the federal election of 1998.  At the peak of the party’s influence, one of its leaders, Pauline Hanson, said:

“I and most Australians want our immigration policy radically reviewed and that of multiculturalism abolished.  I believe we are in danger of being swamped by Asians. Between 1984 and 1995, 40 percent of all migrants coming into this country were of Asian origin.  They have their own culture and religion, form ghettos and do not assimilate.”

About a decade later, in December of 2006, the former One Nation leader was once again using the old racial rhetoric.  She had made herself infamous for her public views on Asian immigrants and Aboriginal welfare.  In her maiden parliamentary speech in 2006, she turned her attention to Muslims and Africans.

“We’re bringing in people from South Africa at the moment.  There’s a huge amount coming into Australia who have diseases; they’ve got AIDS. They are of no benefit to this country whatsoever; they’ll never be able to work.  And what my main concern is, is the diseases that they’re bringing in and yet no one is saying or doing anything about it.”

John Howard has just said plenty about it, though he takes care to speak in a more diplomatic code.  What the Liberal Party may actually do if it wins the next election is an open question.  An Australian blogger named Olney Garkle (writing at the website looks toward a chastened and renewed Liberal Party.  Whatever his ideals and illusions may be, maybe he shares them with a significant number of Liberal Party members:

“But is the Federal Liberal Party really the Liberal Party as we used to know it?  Not at all.  It is, in effect, the John Howard Party, the JHP. There are but a handful of true liberals left in Parliament. The rest have sold out to mankind’s lowest instincts as personified by their leader. ... A Labor victory will consign remnants of the almost terminally divided Liberal Party to oblivion for several elections.  But once purged of extremist Howardites, it will return as the other party our democracy must have.”

Two Australian AIDS activists respond

Interviewed for this article, two gay Australian AIDS activists commented upon Howard’s ambitions—and his declining fortune in Australian public polls.

Peter Cashman was a founding member of Los Angeles ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power).  He has lived in the United States for 25 years but follows Australian politics and culture closely. We talked by phone April 13 and I asked him what he thought of Howard’s recent statements on immigration and HIV.

“Pandering to his base,” Cashman said.  But he underscored the irony of Howard speaking for the people of Australia on the issue of HIV and healthcare:

“Australia has made many cutting-edge contributions in health education and HIV prevention programs.  Australia learned a lot from—and gave a lot back to—the whole international movement of AIDS activism.”

Cashman pointed out that the total current figure of AIDS-related deaths in Australia is just over 6,500.  That is no insignificant number, but given the total population of Australia it is a fairly small number. Especially, as Cashman noted, if we compare it to the AIDS-related deaths in the County of Los Angeles alone.  Beyond the demographics and statistics, he underscored another point:

“Generally, even quite conservative governments in Australia—and Howard’s Liberalism is quite conservative—have deferred by and large to public health and scientific communities on HIV and AIDS issues.  Howard has really cut a different figure in this political season.  Howard’s polling numbers are probably the lowest they’ve ever been. Of course, it’s not all about him—I would also acknowledge that Australia has one of the more restrictive HIV immigration policies in the world.”

Between the letter of the law and the spirit of decency, there has been room in Australia for interpretation.  Howard, however, has just spoken as if that is an annoying political loophole that is best closed before the elections in late 2007 or early 2008.

Paul Kidd is an Australian journalist, AIDS activist and blogger who responded by e-mail to my e-mailed questions.  As I saw by reading his blog—cheekily titled— his husband, Brent Allan, is an HIV-positive immigrant to Australia.  I asked Kidd how they were able to stay united as a couple and win Allan’s case.  How did the Australian authorities include him among the exceptions?

“After being rejected by the Department of Immigration,” Kidd replied, “we took our case to the Migration Review Tribunal, which has power to adjudicate these matters.  Essentially our argument was that we had a genuine relationship and a strong attachment to Australia, and that if Brent were not granted permanent residence, we would have to separate.  On compassionate grounds, our application was successful.  It took four years and a great deal of money to make that happen, however.”

In the course of discussing the racial politicking around AIDS and immigration, running the full spectrum from implicit to explicit, Kidd added this piece of the puzzle:

“Howard has also been criticized for his handling of the so-called Tampa Affair, a diplomatic standoff between Australia, Indonesia and Norway which occurred during an election campaign in 2001.  The MV Tampa, a Norwegian-registered vessel, rescued 438 mostly Afghan refugees en route to Australia from Indonesia.  Howard ordered the master of the ship to return the refugees to Indonesia, although under international law they should have been taken to the nearest port, which was Christmas Island, part of Australian territory.  During the standoff, Howard declared: ‘We decide who comes into this country and the circumstances in which they come.’  This infamous slogan more or less summarizes the Howard government’s approach to asylum seekers, and has been used politically by Howard’s party, the Liberal (i.e. conservative) Party.”

Gambling with the debased currency of racial and sexual fears, Howard may gain some political capital within his faction of the Liberal Party. But that party may still suffer a truly sweeping and historic loss to the Labor Party in the next big elections. Howard’s main political rival, Kevin Rudd, is a Labor Party MP, Member for Griffith (Queensland), and may become prime minister.  Rudd is also unafraid to acknowledge the uglier history of colonialism in Australia, and the racial background radiation and fallout that still remain.  I would not forecast whether Rudd will steer the Australian Labor Party in the same direction as Tony Blair steered “New Labour” in Britain.  If he does journey with such trimmed sails and flags, then the ill winds of Reagan and Thatcher have not yet spent their driving force upon global politics. 

Scott Tucker is a writer and democratic socialist.  He was a founding member of ACT UP Philadelphia and of Prevention Point Philadelphia, a harm-reduction and syringe exchange program.  His book of essays, “The Queer Question: Essays on Desire and Democracy,” was published by South End Press in 1997.  Open Letter, his website, was recently redesigned and will open again later this spring.

New and Improved Comments

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By Douglas Chalmers, April 23, 2007 at 1:34 pm Link to this comment

Oops, re-stating that:-

Considering the Murdoch’s Fox New network in the USA has been an avid supporter of the Bush administration, that Murdoch laughingly anointed Australia’s Labor opposition party leader Kevin Rudd with a casual “Oh, I’m sure” as regards to his suitability as a future prime minister is quite some indicator of how much things have changed.

He is now following Arni Swarzenegger and other Republican state governors in loudly ignoring the Bush regime and getting on with local policies and issues and especially in regard to the falling US dollar and the aftermath of hurricane Katrina. Dumping Howard is code for dumping Bush and accepting Kevin Rudd is the way has quietly chosen to do that. The Democrats are now a reality in the USA and Labor will soon be in Australia too.

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By Douglas Chalmers, April 23, 2007 at 1:04 pm Link to this comment

Considering the Murdoch’s Fox New network in the USA has been an avid supporter of the Bush administration, that is quite some indicator of how much things have changed.

He is only now following Arni Swarzenegger in California in loudly ignoring the Bush regime and getting on with local policies and issues and especially in regard to the falling US dollar and the aftermath of hurricane Katrina.

Dumping Howard is code for dumping Bush and accepting Kevin Rudd is the way has chosen to do that. The Democrats are now a reality in the USA and Labor will soon be in Australia too.

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By detectivediana, April 23, 2007 at 11:39 am Link to this comment

It’s very disappointing that people like Howard have power over people. He needs to be further educated on HIV/AIDS, and maybe then he will learn to treat the individuals who are affected with less discrimination, and will therefore stop contributing to the stigmatization of the illness.

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By Kellina, April 23, 2007 at 9:07 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

This issue is such a red herring. Yes, the US and the UK both ban HIV+ immigrants. It’s prejudiced and ignorant. The former you know, the latter you don’t.

It’s ignorant for several reasons:
1) HIV tests are notoriously inaccurate, and different countries have different standards for interpretation.
2) HIV is not sexually transmitted. It takes over a 1,000 sexual contacts with an HIV+ person to get the virus, if at all. Anal sex provides more opportunity to catch the virus than heterosexual sex (because the anus tears more easily than the vagina).
3) Points 1 and 2 above are moot, because HIV does not cause AIDS. HIV is a harmless passenger virus imperfectly correlated with AIDS. Some people with AIDS are HIV-, many HIV+ people never develop AIDS.
4) The cause of AIDS—a collection of 30 different diseases that all exist independently of HIV—is chronic exposure to toxins (hard drugs like cocaine and heroin, and prescription drugs, like AZT).
5) The “treatment” for AIDS consists of DNA-chain terminators, which stop all cell growth. It was considered too toxic to treat cancer in humans until it got a rush-approval from the FDA.

Take a look at this 21-minute versino of a longer film on this topic:

Lots of books out there, too, by Celia Farber, Peter Duesberg, and others.

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By Douglas Chalmers, April 22, 2007 at 12:06 pm Link to this comment

QuyTran: “...Is he a kind of Cheney’s poodle…?”

A very junior partner in “the coalition of the willing” - slavishly follows Bush on almost everything, even in failing to spend on infrastructure. The only difference is that Australia has a budget surplus (although also an overseas account deficit). The reason for that is that they are China’s quarry and commodities prices are up at present.

Howard’s government also rates in the Joint Strike Fighter defence project as an all-time sucker. They not only signed up for an unknown delivery date at an unknown cost but they still had to buy a fleet of intermediate jet fighter aircraft from the US to replace their ageing fleet which is already due for replacement. Despite that, Condy wouldn’t give them the F-22A Raptor although Japan now wants them -,20867,21602809-2703,00.html

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By Zena, April 22, 2007 at 11:55 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

This is war. All’s fair in love and war.

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By QuyTran, April 22, 2007 at 11:16 am Link to this comment

Is he a kind of Cheney’s poodle ?

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By Douglas Chalmers, April 22, 2007 at 10:50 am Link to this comment

Its a federal government election year in Australia and the prime minister’s Liberal party will do anything to get more bang for their buck. They succeeded in scraping back in during a previous difficult phase by creating a scandal over asylum seekers (refugees) to create a general sense of fear in the community. I guess they are trying to find a way to run such a smear campaign again if they can.

In 2001, the Howard federal government in Australia deliberately misled citizens to believe that a number of children had been thrown overboard from a “suspected illegal entry vessel” (or SIEV) which had been intercepted off Christmas Island between Australia and Indonesia.

The vessel, designated SIEV 4 by the navy, was carrying a number of “asylum seekers”, many of them Iraqi and Afghani refugees, and believed to be operated by “people smugglers”. A subsequent inquiry by a Senate select committee found that not only was the “children overboard” claim untrue, but that the government knew the claim to be untrue before the Federal elections, which were held one month later. Nevertheless, the smear tactic won them the election.

The motivation of those allegedly throwing their children overboard, according to those in government who reported the incident, was to effectively “force” the Royal Australian Navy to rescue the children and their parents. The claim was used to cast doubt on the passengers of SIEV 4 as genuine refugees, instead characterising them as people prepared to use unscrupulous means to gain illegal entry into Australia. The claim was first announced by the Minister for Immigration and repeated in subsequent days and weeks by senior Government ministers, including the Minister for Defence and the Prime Minister.

The pictures which had been purported to show that children had been thrown into the sea were taken during a rescue after SIEV 4 had sunk. When this was discovered, Howard claimed that he was acting on the intelligence he was given at the time. It was later revealed that prime minister Howard had been informed on 7 November that the claim was false. On 26 February 2006 Howard said, “They irresponsibly sank the damn boat, which put their children in the water”. See pictures at

Also see: The SIEV-X scandal and

and: The MV Tampa scandal

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By writeon, April 22, 2007 at 9:31 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

John Howard is a ghastly mistake for a politician. He’s crude, brutish and short on ideas. His voice is also irritating. He’s getting desparate because his grip on power is slipping, slipping, slipping. Soon, with a bit of luck, and if Labour show a bit of real backbone and really go after the old goat, he’ll be confined to the dustbin of history where he belongs.

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By Bert, April 22, 2007 at 8:16 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I wish I knew who to writeto in Australia, I have an idea that might help them with their drought…

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