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18 Feb 2019

EXCLUSIVE 

Dr Parbodh Gogna doesn’t give media interviews – and he has been asked numerous times since taking up the post of Chief Medical Officer with the Department of Home Affairs.

It was a job he started in July 2018 and a role that also makes him the Surgeon General for the Australian Border Force (ABF). He was previously the Director of Medical Services at a Central Queensland hospital. The jobs could hardly contrast more.

“This is very much different to what I’ve done before,” he tells Australian Medicine in an exclusive interview inside his Canberra office.

“Before, I was involved in clinical governance, clinical reviews, and was doing clinical work as well… Obviously this is a more strategic role.

“I provide advice on everything from the stuff that is political and in the media from immigration detention, through to countering violent extremism.

“And there’s so much more. We’re involved in policy sprints on fentanyl for example, as part of work addressing the opioid issue.

“Obviously, the key focus for the department is the free movement of people, goods and chattel to make Australia a very prosperous environment.

“I’m involved with immigration in a health setting. So, it’s about what people require to have undertaken so they can come into our country.”

While he insists it is no way the largest part of his job, Dr Gogna acknowledges that the asylum seeker issue is the most talked about. And he is determined that the issue will be attended to respectfully and thoroughly on his watch.

“I can assure you that people are not cruel,” he says in relation to offshore detention.

“It’s certainly complex. Obviously if a bill passes into law, we follow the law of the land and we will look at all elements of it because we will be required to operationalise it.

“But we’re agnostic. We will follow the law that’s given down to us.

“It is a policy by Government that underpins offshore processing, and the Minister is clear on the pillars that support the non-arrivals of boats.”

Referring to the legislation that was before Parliament and which has only recently passed, Dr Gogna talks of an “oversight element” which he says will translate into an “oversight function” for his department.

“The human factor is to make sure people are well cared for. And, obviously, I’m always fully in support of that,” he says.

“We’ve got large contracts with professional organisations to provide services. There is clinical scrutiny, in the same way that all doctors should have their work scrutinised and told what a great job they’re doing or have any complaints raised.

“It is a high premise of medicine. We don’t deny care. There are lots of emotive parts to this and we rely on the people who we contract to, to provide services.

“And with offshore detention where we are involved with another country, the sovereign country has direction for that too.”

On a day-to-day basis, Dr Gogna’s work involves him in much more than the refugee issue. On one front, he deals with the movement of people in and out of Australia, overseeing a system that conducts about 920,000 medical checks a year from a horde of 9 million temporary visitors.

Protecting Australia from diseases and pandemics is a high priority. So too are potential terrorist attacks, violent extremists, or violently fixated individuals and how to best protect the Australian public from them.

As Surgeon General of the ABF, he oversees the health screening of those who seek to be employed with it. 

“At entry, how do we asses on a psychometric level?” he says.

“What we review and look at is whether a person with a particular condition is able to perform this role on a patrol boat, for example.

“There are health requirements, there are physical requirements, and if they are to be in a role where they will need to be in possession of guns, there are use of force requirements.

“Our people working at sea on vessels could be dealing with pirates, with foreign fishers, and with drug seizures.”

As a central department, the Home Affairs portfolio encompasses the ABF, Australian Federal Police, ASIO, Australian Transaction Reports and Analysis Centre, and the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission.

Dr Gogna is a long-standing member of the Australian Medical Association, and once sat on the AMA WA Council as its Rural GPs representative.

CHRIS JOHNSON


Published: 18 Feb 2019