NSW Labor MP Penny Sharpe quits frontbench over blood testing laws

New South Wales Labor MP Penny Sharpe has resigned from her position on the front-bench over the party’s support for mandatory blood testing laws.

In a letter to Labor leader Jodi McKay, Sharpe resigned as a the Deputy Leader of the Opposition in the Legislative Council and from her positions as the Shadow Minister for Family and Community Services and Shadow Minister for Disability Inclusion.

“I resign from these positions with great sadness, but do so because I know the decision to abstain from the final vote on the Mandatory Disease Testing Bill but me at odds with Labor’s position on this bill and in doing so made mu position in shadow cabinet untenable.” Sharpe said in her letter.

Sharpe said the decision to not support the party’s position was the hardest she’d had to undertake in the 30 years she’d been a party member, but her many years of advocacy in the area of blood borne virus and commitment to reducing stigma for infected with HIV and hepatitis made it impossible for her to support the legislation.

The Mandatory Disease Testing Bill, which is similar to legislation that has been introduced in other states in the past, allows for people whose bodily fluids come in to contact with frontline workers to be forced to be undertake blood tests for communicable diseases including HIV.

In parliament Sharpe outlined her opposition to the legislation, saying it sent the wrong message about diseases like HIV.

“One of my greatest concerns is that the passage of this bill send the wrong message to frontline workers, that they have a significant risk of being infected with HIV  or Hepatitis B or C if they are spat on, our come into contact with other bodily fluids. This is just not the case. The risk of transmission is almost zero.” Sharpe said in the chamber during the third reading of the bill.

Sharpe said the bill was a major departure from how New South Wales had successfully managed blood borne viruses over the last 40 years, and went against the state’s own policies and goals.

“This bill takes us into disappointing unproven new territory where the science and medical advice is no longer the overriding feature of the response.” Sharpe said.

The legislation will require anyone who is over the age of 14, whose deliberate action leads to their bodily fluids coming into contact with a frontline worker, or is involved in an incident where a frontline worker feels they are at risk of contracting a blood borne disease, to undertake a blood tests.  Those who do not comply with the order can face a fine of $11,000 and or up to a year in prison.

The state’s leading LGBTQ+ health organisation ACON have publicly criticised the bill saying it does nothing to actually protect frontline workers, but increases the stigma and mis-information around the realities of living with HIV.

“This Bill does not afford real protections for our frontline workers – our current policies and procedures do, as evidenced by the fact that there has not been an incidence of occupational transmission of HIV for emergency service workers in more than 15 years,” ACON CEO Nicolas Parkhill said in a statement.

“This current Bill hands decision-making and assessment of risk over to untrained, non-experts. It is not based on evidence and will only perpetuate fears, uncertainty, and anxiety about how to properly manage exposures to bodily fluids.”

The bill is expected to return for a vote in the lower house when NSW parliament resumes next month.

Analysis of WA’s laws shows that legislation will be used more frequently that politicians claim

When similar laws were introduced by Western Australia’s Barnett government in 2015, then Attorney General Michael Mischin told the WA parliament that they would be rarely used. A report released by the National Association of People Living With HIV in 2019 showed that within the first three and half year of the legislation being in effect, 387 applications were made to force someone to undertake a test, only 10 applications were rejected.

Last year the McGowan government faced the same criticism when it introduced additional legislation to apply in the area of prison officers.

Graeme Watson

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