THIS country’s most prominent anti-vaccination group, the confusingly named Australian Vaccination Network, had a legal win last week when NSW authorities restored the organisation’s charitable fundraising authority.
The AVN’s licence to seek public donations had been revoked in 2010 after the NSW Health Care Complaints Commission (HCCC) warned the network posed “a risk to public health and safety” when it refused to publish various caveats on its website, including a clear declaration of its anti-vaccination stance.
An investigation by the state authority responsible for regulating charitable activities, the Office of Liquor, Gaming and Racing (go figure), also found other breaches by the AVN such as, for example, directing donations towards general operating costs rather than to the purposes stated to donors.
Well, apparently that’s all changed now and the AVN can get back to business as usual, spreading its alarmist anecdotes about vaccination, and raising funds from the public to help it do so.
The key factor in the about turn by NSW authorities appears to have been the AVN’s successful legal challenge to the HCCC warning.
Earlier this year, the NSW Supreme Court found the HCCC had acted outside its jurisdiction in issuing the warning, which has now been removed. That decision did raise quite a few eyebrows, including in MJA InSight.
NSW authorities have apparently received legal advice that the revocation of the AVN’s fundraising licence would not stand up in court given that the HCCC’s warning was no longer deemed valid.
If that’s their legal advice, then so be it, but what is not clear to me — and nobody from either the Office of Liquor, Gaming and Racing (OLGR) or the responsible Minister’s office would respond to my questions about this last week — is how the AVN ever came to be considered a charity in the first place.
The OLGR spells out on its website that there is no statutory definition of a “charitable purpose”, saying the meaning of the term is largely based on previous court decisions.
Charitable purposes fall into four broad categories — the relief of financial hardship, the advancement of education, the advancement of religion, and other charitable purposes for the benefit of the community — but also include any benevolent, philanthropic or patriotic purpose, the website says.
So how does the AVN fit the description?
This is an organisation established to argue the case against vaccines though — for reasons I’ve never understood — its leaders have always displayed a strange reluctance to make a clear public declaration to that effect.
I certainly can’t see how its essential purpose could be defined as the “relief of financial hardship” or “advancement of religion”. Nor would it come under the “education” category, since this specifically rules out “propagandist or political activities”.
That leaves only the category of “other charitable purposes for the benefit of the community” or those general grab-bag terms of “benevolent” and “philanthropic”.
Call me naive, but I would have expected the onus to be on the AVN to prove its activities provided benefit to the community or were otherwise benevolent or philanthropic if it wanted official recognition as a charity.
Legal victories notwithstanding, I can’t see how it would pull that one off.
Jane McCredie is a Sydney-based science and medicine writer.
Posted 23 April 2012