As opinion polls predict a major defeat for the ruling conservatives in Australian federal elections, Prime Minister John Howard is stepping up his rhetoric, projecting himself as a tough man, who would do anything to protect the interests of his electorate. Only last month he had kicked off a huge controversy with similar comments following reports that the number of newcomers carrying HIV into the state of Victoria had more than quadrupled in the past two years.
Even then critics had pointed out the figure had little to do with immigration, but more with the inter-state movement of Australians themselves. For Australia as a whole too, HIV infection has been rising alarmingly, by as much as 41 per cent between 2000 and 2005. Besides the disease is raging in neighbouring Pacific countries like Papua New Guinea.
Hence he seems to want to clutch at the HIV straw and swim home again, ignoring the advice of his health and immigration ministers who have told him migrants carrying the disease are not a risk. If last time he had referred to the prohibition in force of the entry of TB patients, now he is saying that leprosy sufferers should also be prevented from entering Australia.
"My view is the best result is that no one with those sort of ailments is allowed into the country," Mr Howard said on radio.
"I'm going to review the current position, and I want procedures put in place that see as far as possible that (HIV-positive people being allowed into Australia) doesn't happen. We are looking at it the next week or so." Earlier in the week, a letter from Health Minister Tony Abbott and Immigration Minister Kevin Andrews advised the Prime Minister that people with HIV/AIDS should not be stopped from moving to Australia.
The letter reportedly told the Prime Minister that HIV, unlike the airborne disease tuberculosis, is not highly contagious, and that blocking entry to HIV-positive people could be seen as discriminatory.
It is believed the departments have told the Prime Minister that immigration has not had a significant impact on HIV infection in Australia. In 2005, just 2 per cent of 928 new infections were contracted overseas, and half of that number were Australians or New Zealanders.
The Prime Minister's comments have been condemned by HIV/AIDS experts.
Executive director of the Australian Federation of AIDS Organisations, Don Baxter, said he was surprised by the Prime Minister's comments, especially as it conflicted with his Government's own advice. He said the effect of refugees and migrants on the number of HIV infections was negligible.
"And it's already very difficult for people with HIV to migrate to Australia. All (HIV-positive) people are initially rejected, they then have to appeal, and very few are approved. "Those that are are mainly partners, husbands or wives or same-sex partners of Australian citizens," Mr Baxter said. "So I don't understand why the Prime Minister would want to introduce such punitive measures against Australian families. It seems illogical."
As well, an international HIV/ AIDS group has asked the Prime Minister to explain how HIV-positive visa-holders attending an international treatment and prevention conference in Sydney in July will be treated by his Government. A letter from the European AIDS Treatment Group criticised Mr Howard for "fomenting stigma against people with HIV/ AIDS" and accused him of 19th century "isolationist measures".
"We find your plans, motivated, we suspect, purely by populism, disrespectful of our struggle against the disease that affects us."