Objects and principles – Public Health Act

Section 3 of the Public Health Act (the Act) outlines the objects and the principles of the Act that play an important role in determining how the Act is interpreted and administered. 

The objects and principles should guide decision making to ensure the  Act is administered in a manner that maximises the protection, promotion and improvement of public health and the reduction of preventable illness.

Persons exercising functions under the Act must have regard to the objects and principles. This means the objects and principles need to be actively considered during assessment and decision-making processes and prior to taking any action under the Act. 

The weight to be given to the objects and principles is left to the decision-maker’s discretion. Not all matters will be relevant; however they should be given consideration. 

What are the objects?

The objects outline the purpose of the Act, which are to:

  1. Promote and improve public health and wellbeing and to prevent disease, injury, disability and premature death.
  2. Protect individuals and communities from diseases and other public health risks and to provide, to the extent reasonably practicable, a healthy environment for all Western Australians.
  3. Promote the provision of information to individuals and communities about public health risks.
  4. Encourage individuals and communities to plan for, create and maintain a healthy environment.
  5. Provide for the prevention or early detection of diseases and other public health risks, and certain other conditions of health.
  6. Support programmes and campaigns intended to improve public health.
  7. Facilitate the provision of information to decision-making authorities about public health risks and benefits to public health that may result from certain proposals.
  8. Provide for the collection, disclosure and use of information about the incidence and prevalence of diseases, other public health risks in the State and certain other conditions of health, for research or public health purposes.
  9. Reduce the inequalities in public health of disadvantaged communities.
  10. Provide for functions in relation to public health to be performed by the State and local governments.

What are the principles?

The principles guide administration of the Act. Consideration should be given to the five principles:

Principle What it means
Sustainability principle Ensure that our decisions and actions not only benefit people today, but do not have adverse consequences for future generations.

It means we have a responsibility to consider public health, social, economic and environmental needs simultaneously in the decisions we make to ensure that our decisions and actions not only benefit people today, but do not have adverse consequences for future generations.

Although public health needs should weigh most significantly on the minds of decision makers in the context of the Act, other interests should not be dismissed or assumed to have been considered.

Precautionary principle When there is limited scientific evidence it is better to 'err on the side of caution' to protect public health.

It means where there is a possible threat to public health (e.g. an outbreak of a new strain of an infectious disease) but there is a lack of scientific evidence or certainty about the nature of the threat, then action to prevent or control the threat should not be delayed until more is known.

Cost effective steps should be taken to prevent, control or abate the threat until evidence emerges that no harm will result. If in doubt, it is better to ‘err on the side of caution’.

Principle of proportionality Decisions and responses should be made proportionate to the public health risk present.

This principle is concerned with protecting individuals from unjustified encroachment upon their rights. However, when protecting against a risk to public health, if the public interest outweighs the rights of an individual, this can justify action being taken, subject to any specific constraints in the Act.

Principle of intergenerational equity The present generation should ensure that public health is maintained or enhanced to ensure future generations benefit.

This principle requires an agency responsible for public health and wellbeing to maintain a high standard of public health, and continually strive to enhance public health in order that succeeding generations will benefit.

Many decisions made to protect and advance public health have significance for future generations and in these cases, long term impacts need to be considered.
Recognition of the need to consider long term impacts can support and strengthen initiatives employed to secure more immediate benefits. For example, local strategies to create safer local neighbourhoods (by improving lighting, footpaths, cycle-ways and traffic flow) will encourage people to become more active, while also reducing their dependence on motor vehicle use, decreasing greenhouse gas emissions.

Principle relating to local government The functions of local governments in relation to public health should be acknowledged and respected.

This principle acknowledges the substantial contribution of local government to the promotion, improvement and protection of public health through its involvement in a range of activities.

These include:
  • planning processes
  • environmental monitoring and management
  • health promotion and
  • more traditional public health concerns such as:
    • waste management
    • prevention of infectious diseases
    • food safety and
    • monitoring drinking water quality

Crown is bound

This means that the Act covers land held or administered by the Crown and its authorities.

Whilst there are restrictions in the Act on the actions that can be taken by enforcement agencies in respect of the Crown (e.g. the Crown cannot be prosecuted), the legislation binds the Crown and therefore when the Crown cannot comply, it should provide reasons and seek an exemption from the Minister.

Local government will primarily be the enforcement agency responsible for enforcing the Act on Crown land.

Local government will be able to issue an improvement notice to the Crown. However, an enforcement order cannot be issued to the Crown and its authorities.

Last reviewed: 18-12-2020
Produced by

Environmental Health Directorate