Diluted Thinking

in Australian healthcare

AVSN: Threats, Abuse and Investigations

The Australian Vaccination-Skeptics Network (AVSN) circulated a media release on 1 March 2013 entitled Procedural unfairness by Department of Fair Trading.

This media release contains many unfounded and false allegations of threats and abuse by certain critics of the AVSN. It also claims that investigations into the AVSN by various government authorities are unfair. Let's take a closer look.

Procedural unfairness by Department of Fair Trading

Since winning our case against the Health Care Complaints Commission (HCCC) in April, 2012, the AVN has been subject to numerous investigations by various NSW and Federal Government bodies. These investigations have all been instigated by members of the hate groups the Australian Skeptics and their splinter organisation, Stop the AVN (SAVN).

The case they "won" was simply that the Supreme Court found that the HCCC did not have the jurisdiction to issue a public warning about the AVSN. The HCCC's finding that the AVSN provides incorrect and misleading information about vaccination was not changed by the Supreme Court's ruling.

Stop the AVN (SAVN) is not a splinter group of the Australian Skeptics. Though some people support both groups, many, many more do not. The Australian Skeptics is an incorporated association which has been operating for decades, the SAVN is a Facebook page started by an individual in 2009.

No, not all of these investigations were instigated by members of the Australian Skeptics and SAVN.
I am not a member of either of these groups and I'm fairly certain that some of the investigations are from complaints I submitted, as I received confirmation from the departments that my complaints were being looked into.

The complaints have resulted in the following investigations from these government bodies over the last 10 months alone:

  • The NSW Department of Fair Trading (at least 3 investigations)
  • The Office of Liquor, Gaming and Racing (at least 1 investigation)
  • The Therapeutic Goods Administration (at least 2 investigations)
  • The Department of Commerce, WA (at least 1 investigation)
  • Charities Victoria (at least 1 investigation)

The AVSN has not divulged any information whatsoever as to the nature of the complaints or exactly what is being investigated. And they most certainly should, given that membership monies and donations are being used to defend them. From what I can ascertain some of the investigations may relate to:

The NSW Department of Fair Trading
The AVSN's 2011 Annual Statement has still not been lodged with Fair Trading. It was due by 31 July 2012 and, to the best of my knowledge, the AVSN hasn't requested an extension.
Complaints by members of the public were submitted to Fair Trading in regard to the AVSN failing to provide information they were obligated to under the Incorporated Associations Act 2009.
Complaints were submitted about the misleading nature of the AVSN's name (refer AVSN - NSW Fair Trading Orders Name Change).
NSW Fair Trading may also be looking into alleged anomalies with the AVSN's 2010 Annual Statement.

The Office of Liquor, Gaming and Racing (OLGR)
OLGR did investigate a complaint that the AVSN failed to provide information they were obligated to under the Incorporated Associations Act 2009 and the Charitable Trusts Act 1993. The information requested related to a fundraising campaign for a charitable purpose. The complainant has advised me that they are not a member of the Australian Skeptics or SAVN.

The Department of Commerce, WA and Charities Victoria
This may relate to correspondence I sent to charitable fundraising regulators in all states and territories of Australia (except NSW), stating my concerns that the AVSN was soliciting for donations in breach of relevant state legislation. The AVSN is only legally able to solicit donations from the general public for a charitable purpose from residents of New South Wales. Please refer to my post AVSN - Fundraising Interstate for further information.

This adds up to a total of at least 8 complaints over a 10 month period (one every 5 weeks) which we have had to respond to. There are dozens more that have been sent by these groups which are waiting in the wings for processing.

If an investigation was launched, there was something worthy of being investigated. Whilst government departments are obliged to respond to complainants, they don't launch investigations without sufficient evidence being provided by the complainant, and they certainly don't investigate complaints of a frivolous or vexatious nature.

The AVSN admitting that they've been the subject of an investigation every 5 weeks, tells us that this organisation is being seriously mismanaged. That they also admit to "dozens more [complaints] ... which are waiting in the wings for processing" raises serious questions about the fitness of the AVSN to remain an incorporated association.

Over the same period of time, threatening phone calls which were made to the home of then-President of the AVN, Meryl Dorey. Police determined they originated from the private phone of Mr Daniel Raffaele, founder of SAVN and an active member of the Young Australian Skeptics. Despite a sympathetic police force, nothing was done to charge Mr Raffele for these criminal activities. We believe the NSW DPP instructed police not to press charges against Mr Raffaele.

I accept the AVSN's assertion that Daniel Raffaele made the phone calls, and it is correct that he founded Stop the AVN. It is understandable that Dorey would be upset that the matter was dropped by the police. As to the period of time Dorey mentions, the phone calls from Raffaele were actually made on a single day, in a one hour period. The AVSN provided the audio of some of the phone calls on their website. Raffaele has not been associated with SAVN since the phone calls were made.

As to Raffaele being an "active member" of the Young Australian Skeptics, this is just a typical response from Dorey, attempting to slur any skeptics she can find. Raffaele's association or membership with any other group or individual is irrelevant as he was acting alone. I don't know of any critic of the AVSN who doesn't think these phone calls were stupid, irresponsible, and unacceptable.

[Let me clarify: I can understand why Dorey is upset, yet agree with the DPP's decision not to proceed, and at the same time I can kind of understand what drove Raffaele to make the phone calls, yet find his motivation questionable and his actions totally unacceptable.]

Update 5 March 2013:
RE: complaint that the AVSN failed to provide details of its committee members.

The NSW Office of Liquor, Gaming and Racing (OLGR) advised a complainant on 5 March 2013 that "I am satisfied that AVN has contravened the requirements of section 47 of the Act, however on balance, am not persuaded it is in the public interest to take enforcement action at this time." They further explained that "...section 47 does not contemplate a role that may precipitate an increased risk of invective engagement", and "I am satisfied that there has been conduct which may be construed as harassment of Ms Dorey and AVN and accept AVN's apprehension around aggravating this contact should the information be released." The complainant was not provided with any examples of the harassing conduct.

The current situation

In our estimation, the cost to taxpayers of the investigations into both the AVN and Ms Dorey would have to run into the millions of dollars and yet, there has been no justice or equity from within this same system for Ms Dorey or the AVN. The law seems to have been very selective in dealing with these issues.

For example, Mr Ken McLeod is one of the most aggressive of the attackers from SAVN and possibly the biggest money-waster. He was the original complainant to the HCCC, leading to a 2-year 'investigation' of Ms Dorey and the AVN which culminated in the HCCC's loss in the Supreme Court with costs awarded to the AVN.

"The law seems to have been very selective in dealing with these issues."
The AVSN must be breathing a huge sigh of relief that the law doesn't consider the AVSN to be "trading" when it sells products such as their self-published Living Wisdom magazine. This has enabled the AVSN to collect nearly $350,000 over a 3 year period for selling goods that it failed to supply, without being subject to trading legislation and leaving customers without protection from consumer law. Please refer to AVSN - Living Wisdom Scam.

Government departments don't launch investigations on a whim; evidence must have been provided to warrant an investigation. Therefore, the cost to the taxpayer lays firmly at the feet of the management committee of the AVSN. For an example of the AVSN's mismanagement - which is the basis of all these complaints - please refer AVSN - NSW OLGR investigation which outlines a very long list of breaches made by the AVSN of the Charitable Fundraising Act 1991. Breaches included diverting funds raised for charitable purposes into paying for the running costs of the AVSN. To the best of my knowledge, the AVSN has never applied funds raised for a charitable purpose, to that purpose.

I guess it depends on which side of the fence you're on as to whether you see Ken McLeod is "an aggressive attacker" or "a conscientious citizen working to protect the public". The only money being wasted is the AVSN's in defending itself from the result of its own actions. Legislation covering charities and incorporated associations exists for obvious reasons and if you want to avoid being investigated then all you have to do is abide by the legislation. It doesn't get any simpler than this.

Ken McLeod's complaint to the HCCC was far from being a waste of money. The HCCC's findings still stand; only the public warning was ruled upon.

Last year, Mr McLeod filed a GIPA (Freedom of Information Claim) with the Department of Fair Trading. He has requested the names, occupations and addresses of those who serve on the AVN's Management Committee.

Ken McLeod has filed a GIPA request with Fair Trading to obtain correspondence between the AVSN and NSW Fair Trading in regard to a certain matter. There are no valid reasons as to why a charity should fight the release of this information.
He denies that he requested the names, occupations and addresses of the AVSN management committee, but I am aware of other people who have requested this information, and I have myself. In breach of two separate state government acts, the AVSN refused to supply this information when requested.

Due to a long history of harassment and threats by members of SAVN towards those who support the AVN (these actions have included but not been limited to hacking of websites, posting violent pornography to homes and via email, threatening phone calls and calls to employers), Committee members asked that their personal identities be protected.

First up, we must remember that the AVSN considers anything other than unquestioning agreement to be harassment. Personally, I don't think that criticising ideas or opinions, correcting false or misleading information, or alerting government authorities to a charity breaching legislation, constitutes harassment.

The AVSN has failed to produce any evidence of a credible threat, which I'm confident if it did exist, we would have seen at least one police investigation by now.

As to blaming SAVN for hacking websites, this is totally unfounded. I am aware of the following:

  1. Rosnay Wines: Rosnay came under very small calibre fire for supporting the AVSN. The Rosnay website at the time was experiencing some problems and, far from hacking the site, some members of SAVN actually helped Rosnay fix it. Meryl Dorey is fully aware of this and yet frequently, and dishonestly, blames skeptics and/or SAVN for Rosnay's website issues.
  2. Domain Name glitch: in 2010, Adult Video News (AVN), a popular magazine in the USA that covers the adult video industry, had its domain names suspended for some reason or other. Unfortunately, the Australian Vaccination Network (AVN) domain was inadvertently included in the suspension. Meryl Dorey frequently, and dishonestly, blames skeptics and/or SAVN for this.
  3. Pharma Hack: in late 2011 or early 2012, the AVSN's website became infected with the notorious Pharma Spam Hack. Despite countless Wordpress and Joomla installations around the world being infected with it or similar types of hacks, Meryl Dorey frequently, and dishonestly, blames skeptics and/or SAVN. Please refer to AVSN - Privacy Concerns over Website Hack for further information.

As to claims of pornography being sent and phone calls to employers, I can't comment because the AVSN provides no evidence. All I can say is that such behaviour is widely condemned by skeptics and SAVN alike, and if any such incidents did occur, it was an individual acting alone and not on behalf of a group. An important distinction, but one Dorey quite intentionally refuses to make.

The AVSN is a registered charity and I feel that such an organisation is obliged to provide evidence of each claim when making such serious allegations against members of a named group.

We followed the necessary procedures...

There is currently an action before the Administrative Decisions Tribunal of NSW (ADT) regarding Mr McLeod's GIPA request. On the 8th of November, 2012, the Information Commissioner wrote an advice to the ADT on this matter stating (amongst other things) that:

"The GIPA Act provides that there is a consideration against disclosure of information if disclosure could reasonably be expected to "expose a person to a risk of harm or of serious harassment or serious intimidation" (clause 3(f) of the table to s14(2) of the GIPA Act)."

At the time of this advice being received, the AVN's solicitor was informed that a decision would be made by the ADT around the 30th of November, 2012. As of today, the 22nd of February, 2013, we are still awaiting their decision.

The Government Information (Public Access) Act 2009 is there "in order to maintain and advance a system of responsible and representative democratic Government that is open, accountable, fair and effective, the object of this Act is to open government information to the public..." and that government information is restricted "only when there is an overriding public interest against disclosure". The AVSN should simply have said yes to the request, and got on with its normal business.

The Department has now given us until the 22nd of February to release the details of our committee members to them or face fines and potential closure of our volunteer-run organisation. We had asked them to await the result of this ADT decision since it could affect the outcome of this decision but at 5:17 PM last night, one day before the deadline, they refused and have demanded that we provide them with the names of our committee members.

Today, the AVN is seeking legal advice and is considering an application in the courts for an injunction to stay the Department's draconian treatment of our organisation.

The law must not only be fair - it must be seen to be fair and in this case, the government departments that have been dealing with us for the last 4 years have been anything but fair.

Signed,

The Management Committee of the Australian Vaccination Network, Inc.

In another media release circulated 1 March 2013, entitled Mea Culpa, Dorey explains that the "Procedural unfairness..." media release had been written a week earlier, and was sent without some important amendments being made. She further advises that the AVSN had decided to release the names of its committee members to NSW Fair Trading, and it was sent to them on 28 February 2013.

The general public would strongly disagree that the government departments have been unfair. Legislation is there for a reason; it can't be ignored or only abided by when convenient, and the public has a right to expect a charity to operate within the law or be forced to, if necessary.

I'll tell you what's unfair - the AVSN taking nearly $350,000 from its members and supporters in the last 3 years for a magazine it knew it wouldn't be supplying. That's very unfair.