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Aust J Public Health. 1995 Jun;19(3):243-9.

Public health and the Australian Constitution.

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School of Law, Flinders University of South Australia, Adelaide.


The powers vested in the Commonwealth Government by the Constitution contain the basis of much public health law in Australia. Yet this is not often recognised; public health law is generally, and historically, seen as the states' responsibility. This article surveys the broad range of constitutional powers that the Commonwealth Government can rely upon to make public health laws. It considers areas of power specified in the Constitution, such as those with respect to external affairs and corporations. Decisions of the High Court have interpreted the various heads of power very broadly and have significantly enhanced the potential of the Commonwealth to pass detailed and far-reaching public health law. To this fact must be added the taxation arrangements in Australia and, with these, the very extensive control that the Commonwealth can exercise through its monopoly of major taxation sources. Its power to make financial arrangements can tie dependent states into specific policies (including public health policies) as a condition of the grants made to them. However, these broad powers may be limited in some important respects: the High Court is increasingly identifying rights and freedoms in the Constitution that may increasingly bring both state and Commonwealth public health law under challenge. Despite this possibility, the Commonwealth may prove to be our most significant source of public health law, and public health policy makers should recognise the full potential of its power to make such laws.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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