Perspectives on Australian Skepticism: Stopping the Australian Vaccination Network

Perspectives on Australian Skepticism: Stopping the Australian Vaccination Network

Perspectives is a series of collections of articles highlighting the diversity of opinions, ideas and — yes — perspectives young people in Australia have about complex, serious and/​or light-​​hearted topics that everyone should be talking about. We draw on existing members of our writing team, as well as guest writers from all walks of life and levels of education, to examine how they connect with each month’s topic. For September 2013, the topic is Australian skepticism.

The Stop the Australian (Anti)Vaccination Network page on Facebook has over 10,000 members — far more than the Australian Vaccination Network Facebook page (with over 6,500 members), and indeed, far more than the Australian Skeptics Inc Facebook page (with over 500 members). The SAVN Facebook page — which is open to any interested member of the public — and the political, legal and investigative actions undertaken by members of this group represent one of the largest, most active and most productive single-​​issue groups within the Australian skeptical community in recent years.

We at the Young Australian Skeptics have looked at the Australian Vaccination Network (AVN) and their status as Australia’s most prominent anti-​​vaccination organisation before — but let’s have a bit of an update on what the AVN has been up to lately, and what Stop the Australian Vaccination Network (SAVN) has accomplished over the last year or two.

In April 2012, American Airlines pulled an AVN ad that was scheduled to appear on their in-​​flight TV channel. Former AVN president Meryl Dorey stated that she was offered a three-​​minute slot, but after SAVN raised concerns with AA regarding the nature of Ms Dorey’s misleading information, they pulled the AVN’s access to any advertising airtime.

The AVN has also been the subject of a complaint, also instigated by SAVN, over the advertising of “black salve” — a dangerous cancer quackery product. This complaint led to an investigation and the complaint was found to be justified by the Therapeutic Goods Administration’s Complaints Resolution Panel. The Panel’s determination was issued on December 3, 2012. On May 16 2013, the delegate of the Secretary to the Department of Health and Ageing decided to order the AVN to carry out appropriate actions as the AVN had not fully complied with the Panel’s determination.

On September 5 2012, Ms Dorey applied for Apprehended Violence Orders against three prominent members of the SAVN Facebook page in an attempt to abuse the AVO system in order to gag her critics. As a special condition of the AVO applications, she wanted each of these persons banned from “making online comments about her in any derogatory manner”. Personal AVOs were sought by Ms Dorey at the Ballina Court against Daniel Raffaele, for allegedly making nuisance phone calls to Ms Dorey’s residence, against Dan Buzzard for a comment he posted on Twitter, and against Peter Bowditch, again for a comment he posted on Twitter.

While the court does have the power to grant an AVO immediately, on the spot, if the magistrate is satisfied that you have reasonable fear for your safety, no AVOs were granted immediately against any of these people. On September 27 2012, the Ballina court granted an interim AVO against Raffaele, and after some delays in proceedings, a dismissal of the application, then an appeal by Ms Dorey against the dismissal and an annulment of the dismissal, a personal AVO was eventually granted against Raffaele. Raffaele said he eventually agreed to the order because he was “sick of dealing with it”, although the order banning “derogatory” online comments was struck out.

An interim AVO was granted against Buzzard on September 27 2012, pending a hearing before the court which was originally scheduled for May 24. However, this was pushed down to a mention since Ms Dorey delayed matters still further, accusing the magistrate of bias and asking her to recuse herself. Another court hearing was scheduled for August 22, and the AVO application against Mr Buzzard was finally thrown out, with Ms Dorey ordered to pay Mr Buzzard’s legal costs of $11,187.50.

No interim AVO was ever granted against Mr Bowditch. In his submissions to the court, Bowditch said he lived 750 km from Ms Dorey’s Bangalow home, so there was little chance he would come into contact with her if she genuinely feared for her safety. (Mr Buzzard lives in Western Australia, approximately 4500 km from Ms Dorey.) “It is obvious to me that this application… is actually an attempt to prevent me speaking about or criticising (Ms Dorey’s) activities”, Bowditch said.

The application against Bowditch was finally heard before the court on April 26, and was dismissed. Ms Dorey responded to this by filing an appeal against the dismissal, which was originally set for a mention date of July 29, but later adjourned until September 18 — the matter is still before the courts a year later! What a waste of court time and resources that could be spent protecting people who actually need it!

Although Buzzard received no compensation for the time that he had to spend dealing with this nonsense, getting his legal costs recovered was certainly a very important outcome because it meant that Ms Dorey was not able to simply file a mendacious AVO application in an attempt to silence the community from asking skeptical questions and then walk away free of charge. On August 26 Ms Dorey made an announcement about this outcome on the AVN Facebook page. Predictably, her response was to simply: (a) accuse the court of being part of a conspiracy biased against her, and (b) ask people to give her money. You’d expect that having costs awarded against you might serve to discourage vexatious litigation, but things are not that simple with Ms Dorey. Rather than paying the legal costs out of her own pocket, Meryl Dorey decided to go fundraising. After all, nothing says Meryl Dorey like “Gimme your money! Gimme more money!” emails to her cult followers.

In a recent email to the AVN mailing list, Ms Dorey recently stated that “All AVN memberships are now due”. Although you might assume an annual membership to the AVN (for which you do not receive any magazine or any other goods or services) might fall due only once a year, it apparently magically falls due whenever Ms Dorey says it is due and you have to pay.

In her email begging for money from her followers, Ms Dorey stated “That legal bill will need to be paid before the 21st of September. As a full-​​time volunteer for over 20 years, I have virtually no income nor do I have any way to raise these funds.” This is despite the fact that the AVN’s gross income in total over the eight years from 2004 to 2011 was 1.2 million dollars, and despite the fact that AVN financial statements for 2007 and 2008 specifically list “editor’s fees” collected by Ms Dorey from AVN coffers of $15,840 and $17,490 respectively — fees of approximately $4000 to $6000 for each Living Wisdom magazine edited in that year1. The AVN’s (incomplete, sporadic, very late and extremely questionable) financial statements submitted by Ms Dorey to Fair Trading NSW also list salaries on the order of $40,000-$50,000, paid to other employee(s) of the AVN, although the specific identities of these paid employee(s) are not known2.

So how long does it take the Australian Vaccination Network to raise this kind of money? Ms Dorey claims that she was able to secure $11,187.50 in donations in just 24 hours, allowing her to continue harassing people and wasting court time with mendacious AVO applications. However, like most of Ms Dorey’s claims, this is probably a lie.

The potential awarding of costs against the applicant is supposed to represent something of a safeguard against fraudulent AVO applications — however, this safeguard clearly fails when the litigant is able to push the court-​​imposed financial penalty down to their own organisation with a charitable fundraising authority. Surely this is illegal abuse of a charitable fundraising authority? What sort of charitable purpose does a series of vexatious AVO applications constitute?

Meryl Dorey and the AVN absolutely hate the attention that they have been receiving constantly over the last several years. However, it is not intimidation or harassment for a constant stream of false and misleading information to be constantly challenged and corrected. It is not intimidation or harassment for an organisation that consistently fails to abide by the law to be reported to government regulators on an ongoing basis for such breaches of the law.

The NSW Healthcare Complaints Commission concluded an investigation into the AVN in July 2010, following a complaint from a member of the SAVN Facebook group. The Commission determined that “the health education service provided by the Australian Vaccination Network on its website provides misleading and inaccurate information on the subject of vaccination” and that the AVN “misleads readers by using reliable and peer-​​reviewed research, but quoting selectively from it, often in contradiction to the conclusions or findings of the studies themselves”. The Commission ordered the AVN to permanently place a prominent warning on their website within 14 days, stating that the AVN only provides anti-​​vaccination information, that the content provided is not medical advice and that the decision about whether or not to vaccinate should be made in consultation with a legitimate healthcare professional.

Following the AVN’s refusal to display the notice, on July 26 2010 the HCCC issued a public warning about the group stating that the AVN’s mendacious behaviour poses a risk to public health and safety. The AVN appealed the HCCC ruling to the NSW Supreme Court, arguing that the HCCC does not have jurisdiction over Meryl Dorey or the AVN. The court ruled that the AVN is a health care provider, and therefore the HCCC does have jurisdiction over their activities. However, it ruled that the original complaints to the HCCC regarding the AVN were invalid because the complaints did not include evidence that anyone had actually acted on the incorrect advice provided by the AVN. (The court did not make a judgement about the validity of the complaints, nor the information contained within them.)

However, following this self-​​declared victory for the AVN, the New South Wales Parliament passed the Health Legislation Amendment Bill 2013, giving the HCCC powers to initiate investigations and to explore medical advice provided more generally than under the previous act. With this new legislation in place, the NSW health minister announced that the Healthcare Complaints Commission is launching a new investigation into the Australian Vaccination Network. In terms of the long game, this was a substantial victory for SAVN — a lasting long-​​term victory in the form of significant legislative change that will make life very difficult for misleading health quacks of all sorts in New South Wales — and they have got Ms Dorey and her arrogance to thank for this.

On December 14, the NSW Department of Fair Trading came knocking, personally delivering to Ms Dorey an order that she change the organisation’s name or face deregistration of the AVN as an incorporated association. This is a very serious matter, since if the AVN cannot provide a name to the Department of Fair Trading that is considered acceptable her business can be wound up, an audit conducted and any debts passed along to Ms Dorey and the other committee members. This is very bad news for them, since it has been estimated that magazine subscribers are owed a total of about $400,000 by Ms Dorey for AVN magazine subscriptions that were never delivered, and there are likely to be other creditors and other accounting discrepancies. In a news article describing the move, the Fair Trading Minister emphasised “this is not a request, this is an order”.

Any hope of Ms Dorey avoiding the order via legal channels was quashed on December 21, when the NSW Government changed the law to ban any incorporated association from using a name that is likely to mislead the public in relation to the nature or objectives of the association. This was another major long-​​term victory for SAVN, and once again Ms Dorey’s hubris had led to significant lasting legislative change that helps to stamp out misleading quackery. The AVN are free to say and write what they like, but as long as they choose to be an incorporated association in NSW then they must abide by the law for incorporated associations, meaning that they must choose a name that accurately describes the activities of that organisation. According to legislation, if the association is deregistered the Commissioner has the right to seize their assets, conduct a full audit and distribute funds however he sees fit — but specifically not to the committee members, meaning Dorey will see none of it. The AVN appealed this renaming order before the NSW Administrative Decisions Tribunal, however the tribunal has not yet handed down its decision.

Stop the AVN is an Australian skeptical community that is achieving positive, constructive, lasting results for the betterment of public health. It isn’t always fast and it isn’t always easy. Sometimes there are challenges and frustrations in the short term. However, playing the long game, several long-​​term factors are being established, including significant new pieces of legislation, growing bipartisan political support and growing media awareness of the folly of giving the oxygen of publicity to anti-​​vaccinationists. These factors, which have come about thanks to skeptical grass-​​roots activism, are very productive in combating the anti-​​vaccination lobby in Australia.

For more information and further reading, here are some links I recommend:

They sentenced me to twenty hours of boredom — The Millenium Project
The great court attack is over — The Millenium Project
Legal Victory — Meryl Dorey’s gag order failed — Dan’s Journal of Skepticism
Founder of anti-​​immunisation group Australian Vaccination Network, Meryl Dorey, uses AVOs to gag critics — The Daily Telegraph
AVN — Apprehended Violence Orders — Diluted Thinking

[Creative Commons licensed Flickr photo by sanofi-​​pasteur]

  1. Living Wisdom magazine ceased publication entirely in January 2013, and only published a couple of issues per year in the years before that, on average. []
  2. The fees collected by Ms Dorey for her work editing a nearly-​​nonexistent (at the time) and now-​​extinct magazine in other years are not known, owing to the lack of transparency, detail, proper auditing, punctuality or just plain non-​​existence of the required financial statements that are supposed to have been lodged with Fair Trading NSW. []