The Second Reading of the Bill occurred just before 1pm. There were 46 votes in favour and 25 votes against, with 5 Senators not present. There are two different sets of amendments which will be voted on around 4.15, and the final Third Reading vote at 4.45. I believe some of those who voted for the 2nd Reading will not vote for the 3rd Reading if the amendments don’t pass (which I don’t think they will).
Debate on the RU486 legislation started in the Senate around 4pm Wednesday. It continued until 11pm tonight, and started again around 10.00am Thursday. The Senate has also agreed to a motion to require a final vote on the Bill by 5pm Thursday, which will prevent any attempt to filibuster debate on the Bill through until March.
The debate can be heard online through the Parliament House website by clicking here. It isn’t on radio broadcast on Thursday, so you’ll have to listen online – or you can come to Parliament House in Canberra and watch it all live of course.
Assuming the Bill is passed by the Senate, which is widely assumed to be what will happen, debate should shift to the House of Representatives on Monday. The outcome there is less certain.
For political history buffs, I believe this is the first Private Senators Bill in the names of 4 Senators from four different parties (all of whom also happen to be women).
Out of the 76 Senators, there were 49 who have put their name down on the speakers list which has been circulated. The first 4 speakers were the women who sponsored the Bill, who naturally all spoke in support. Some known opponents to the Bill were grouped to speak after that, so the tone shifted somewhat from then on.
The report of the Committee which examined the legislation can be found here. It has varying arguments and conclusions expressed by different Senators, as well as some good background information on the issue.
Some amendments have been circulated by opponents of the legislation, which seeks to keep powers with the Health Minister, but make any decisions made by the Minister to approve or disapprove an application to use RU486 able to be disallowed by the Parliament. The text of it can be seen here – I think it is fairly self-explanatory.
Many Senators wouldn’t have looked at or be aware of the amendments yet, so it is hard to predict if it will have any impact on the result. In one sense it is an improvement on the current situation, as at least the Minister has to seek specific advice and has to table reasons in the Parliament and the Parliament can override the decision. However, it still leaves the key problem that decisions on whether or not to allow the use of RU486 is left to politicians, who are not usually experts on the health impacts of particular drugs, rather than to the TGA, the body that makes these decisions on every other drug specifically because of their expertise.
It would also mean that every time the Minister made any decision – approving or disapproving of an application of an RU486 related drug – there would be the prospect of any Senator moving to disallow that decision and we could have reruns of the whole debate, over and over again.
When debate adjourned at 11pm, 37 Senators had spoken – 23 in favour, 14 against. 39 votes are needed to pass the Bill, assuming no one abstains or is absent. There’s no real sense yet whether the amendments will siphon off any votes from people who would otherwise have supported the Bill. The vote on the second reading of the Bill has to occur by 1mp on Thursday, but the amendments won’t be considered until after that, so we won’t know the final outcome for sure until the Third Reading vote, which has to occur by 4.45pm.
I just received an email urging me to vote for the Bill, which have been sufficiently scarce that it did rather stick out. It also made me think that people who do support the intent of the Bill really should get busy making damn sure their local House of Reps member knows that before next week. I suspect they will have been getting the same pile of emails and letters that I have been getting opposing the Bill, and I’m told the outcome of the vote in the House of Reps is less certain than in the Senate (which can’t be guaranteed either of course until the final vote tomorrow), especially now that the Prime Minister has effectively publicly stated his support for the status quo.
Whilst I can’t tell with all emails which state they are from, out of those that have been either from my own state of Queensland or of unclear origin, I would think the ratio of those against compared to those in favour would be close to 100-1! If you support the Bill and you know others who share your views, I really suggest you urge all of them to get on to the House of Reps members – especially their own – before the debate starts there next week. That great a disparity in the expression of views from your electorate can obviously have an impact on a member who has mixed feelings about which way to vote.
- The speech I gave in the Senate on the legislation follows:
This Bill is important, and this debate is important. I am one of those who find it desirable that we have an opportunity from time to time to express our views more genuinely and openly, as we are doing in this case via what is a fairly rare occurrence—that is, a conscience vote. It is a reminder of the diversity of views that often gets hidden in parliament beneath the fairly rigid straitjacket of the party line.
Within the Democrats we have what I say is a great privilege, although also an extra challenge, in having the right to a conscience vote on every piece of legislation. I think that presenting the opportunity to do that should be taken up more often. I am not quite sure why issues like this are determined to be a conscience vote when I can think of some other very important debates that we have had in this chamber on issues that affect the lives of all Australians and that could not be seen as anything other than moral or ethical issues but where the party discipline or straitjacket has come down. We all recognise the need for party discipline, but I think that we could all benefit—and our nation could certainly benefit—from more opportunities for a bit of flexibility in that regard and for people to be able to speak and vote according to their well-informed, strongly held views from time to time.
I do understand the strong feelings that many people have about the issues that this legislation raises. Sometimes we could all do better in showing respect for opposing or divergent views that others hold, although that difficulty in showing respect is sometimes understandable when those views occasionally are expressed in highly offensive ways. I use by way of example the extraordinarily offensive, inflammatory and, frankly, puerile advertisement placed in a newspaper today by a group calling themselves Australians Against RU-486. It stated:
RU-486 will probably kill only a few Australian women.
Is that okay with you, Senator?
Car accidents kill thousands of Australians every year. We do not hear people calling for the banning of cars. Tobacco and alcohol kill thousands. Almost all drugs have some risks. Crossing the road has some risk. To say that by virtue of this legislation, under which we would allow the risks of this drug to be assessed by a group of health experts rather than by the random choice of the health minister of the day, we are to killers, shows how people’s strongly held views can cross the line and become stupid, inflammatory abuse.
That is part of the problem with some of the debate surrounding this matter. It is not the fact that people have strongly held, genuine and informed views that is the problem; it is the way in which they seek to impose those views on other people. To label as murderers people who choose to have an abortion or who assist someone to do that and to label RU486 as a human pesticide or a drug designed to kill babies is an abuse of language and a vilification of women. It is a vilification of women who find themselves in a situation of extreme difficulty. The last thing they need is this sort of abuse.
I see my role as a Senator and indeed as a Democrat to stand with those women in their right to choose, and their right to choose in an environment which has real meaning to the word ‘choice’, an environment free from such abuse and an environment where choice means having all of the options both available and affordable. That means that the chances of them making the choice that is right for them is maximised. It is crucial in this policy area, as in any other, to try to retain an approach which is logical and consistent, and not get diverted by emotive and misleading rhetoric.
If you are against abortion, do not have one. But whilst ever it is legal in Australia it should be a choice for each individual woman to make for herself, rather than having a range of hurdles, obstacles, inconsistencies and abuse put in her way.
As is the case with all of us here, there are some activities that some of my fellow Australians engage in which I am not enthusiastic about. Sometimes I might seek to explain or outline why I think such activities are less than desirable. But just because I find something personally ethically offensive does not mean that I should be able to use my position as a member of parliament to try to outlaw it. If you oppose this legislation because you oppose abortion then, to be consistent, you should also be moving to prevent Medicare funding of abortion; to ban IVF, which involves the production of many surplus embryos as part of the process; and to amend the current situation with regard to RU486 by banning it altogether rather than by leaving it up to the individual, unaccountable choice of the health minister. If you are genuinely concerned about the safety of RU486 it is far more logical and safer to have any potential health risks assessed by medical experts in the Therapeutic Goods Administration, as occurs with every other drug, rather than leave it up to one individual minister.
It was quite possible that the current health minister, Mr Abbott, who as everyone knows is strongly personally opposed to the use of RU486, could have been, in the most recent reshuffle, moved out of that position. So it is quite feasible that we could have had a Liberal minister in that position today who is strongly in favour of the use of RU486. There are both here and in the House of Representatives Liberal Ministers who will, I am sure, vote in favour of this legislation. Frankly, the same problem would arise: we could have a pro RU486 minister deciding to support the drug on philosophical grounds rather than on its health aspects and a proper assessment. Whoever that person might have been, the fact is that the so-called protection that people opposed to RU486 see in the current arrangement is not a real protection at all and is certainly not a protection that is based around this facade and false cloak of concern for the health impacts of the use of RU486 on women.
Since when do politicians—or, as it currently stands, one politician, the health minister—decide on the safety of a drug? Senator Fielding said that that is what people elect us for. It is not what people elect us for. I do not think a single person voted for me—and I suspect for anybody in this chamber—on polling day on the basis of my ability to assess the safety or otherwise of a drug for release in Australia. What they do elect us to this parliament to do is to ensure that there is a coherent and credible regime put in place to ensure that all pharmaceuticals approved for release in Australia have their safety and adequacy properly and competently assessed. They elect us to do all we can to ensure the safety and health of Australians, and to ensure that all Australians have as many affordable and effective choices as possible available to them in deciding on matters that relate to their health. It is an absurd anomaly to have that principle put to one side solely for one category of drug and solely on the basis—as we all know when you strip away everything else—of some people’s individual ethical or moral opposition to the concept and reality of abortion. It is an illogical approach and for that reason it should be removed.
I would also like to note the approach taken with this legislation. Some have suggested that this has been a rushed process. Contrast it with the approach taken last year on a range of crucial and complex bills to do with matters like workplace relations, security laws and welfare. All of these involved complex—very complex in some cases—and far reaching laws which were introduced at short notice and in some cases with a time frame that provided less than two weeks for reading the large amounts of legislation, for the public to put in submissions, for public hearings to be held and for the committee to produce a report.
While this bill is important, it is exceedingly simple and very straightforward. It was tabled in December after being foreshadowed for a long time and having been the subject of debate backwards and forwards for 10 years. There was over a month for submissions, albeit over Christmas, and three public hearings were held in three different cities seeking to get the views of a wide range of people from throughout the community. Last year we had the guillotining of debate on those major pieces of legislation with minimal notice, coupled with piles of new amendments dropped in the Senate. On this occasion all senators have known, and knew before the debate started, how much time is available for debate on the legislation. I only wish we could have a process even close to approximating this for some of those other matters.
I received, as I am sure many of us—or probably all of us—did many hundreds of emails and letters on this legislation and related matters from people who are strongly opposed to RU486. I would in this instance agree with Senator Santoro’s comment, although I was not so much surprised about that but about the volume of those in comparison to the volume in favour of the legislation. That is an interesting fact, and I note that.
It is important to take account of what people contact their politicians about. Frankly, I would encourage people to do a lot more of it, even though it means there are more emails for us to read and respond to. We need to be as open as possible to the views of the community. I endeavoured to read all of those that I could tell were from Queensland, even though many had a lot of commonality in theme. As I said at the start, I respect and understand why people hold those views. They basically had the theme of being opposed to abortion, but in our society I believe that that has to be a choice for each individual woman to make.
One aspect I did find frustrating, though, with some of those emails and correspondence was the fact that many people put forward arguments against RU486 on the basis of calling themselves pro-family. Somehow or other, this drug is an anti-family thing. Frankly, I just wish those people genuinely concerned about the family had shown the same sense of urgency, outrage and concern at the end of last year when we had welfare legislation being pushed through this place which dramatically reduced the income of many of the poorest Australian families, including sole parents. That will have a far greater impact on the families of Australia than whether or not one more drug is available for them in considering their health options.
It is worth reminding the Senate and the community of the history of the anomaly of RU486 and that group of drugs being the only ones subject to approval via the health minister of the day instead of via the Therapeutic Goods Administration as are all other pharmaceuticals. It was inserted via an amendment to a Therapeutic Goods Administration legislation amendment bill back in May 1996. That amendment was moved by former Independent Senator Harradine. That amendment was opposed by all Democrats senators at the time but was unfortunately supported by the government of the day and the opposition of the day—and by one Green senator.
There was an endeavour in March 2001 by the Democrats to move an amendment to another Therapeutic Goods Administration amendment bill to reverse that situation. That again did not receive the support on the record of anyone else in the Senate at the time. People have always been concerned about this. They recognise that this is a potentially divisive debate, and even those who did not agree with the current situation—people on all sides of the political fence—felt it was better to just let sleeping dogs lie.
But it is important to note the contribution of those who last year decided it was time to wake the dog up again, as it were, and not to let the sleeping dog continue to lie. They decided to once again push the matter and again looked for a Therapeutic Goods Administration amendment bill to move amendments to in order to try and reverse what I believe is an absurd and outdated anomaly. This anomaly came about as much because of the political dynamics of 1996 as because of a well-thought through policy decision of the majority of senators at the time.
I particularly note Senator Lyn Allison from the Democrats, who pushed this more than anyone initially in flagging potential amendments to other TGA bills that were around. But I also note those men and women—women in particular—from other political parties who pushed this issue within their own parties. To some extent, I recognise that for some of them that was more difficult to do internally with their own party than it would have been within a party like the Democrats. I particularly acknowledge the extra courage and determination of all of those senators, and those women in particular, who pushed this issue and who were willing to put their hands up—and to some extent stick their heads up along with it. That is not always easy, and it is important to acknowledge that.
While I am doing that, as Senator Nash said, this is probably the first private senator’s bill since Federation in 1901 that has four senators names attached to it from four different parties. That in itself is also something to note and to celebrate. I obviously feel more celebratory about it because I support the bill, but the fact that senators can come together from four separate parties on any matter and put it forward into the arena for political debate is something that should be celebrated. I would do so even if it was a topic matter I did not support, if perhaps not quite so enthusiastically.
It is quite rare for private bills introduced in the Senate to be passed into law. According to the list in the appendix of Odgers, there have only been eight. If this does pass the Senate, as I hope it does, and then passes the House of Representatives, this will be just the ninth private senator’s bill to do so in 100 years—and a couple of those, I might say, were quite small, almost administrative, matters. That is something to note; that shows the significance and importance of the efforts of the many people who have pushed this matter forward for debate. I acknowledge their efforts in that regard.
To make it clear, there have been other private member’s bills initiated in the other place that have passed into law. But nonetheless it is fairly rare, not least because of the very tight party discipline that has been a characteristic of Australian parliamentary politics for a long time and which I mentioned earlier on. That is all the more reason why it is admirable and notable that this matter has got this far.
I urge those senators who are still considering their vote on this to vote in favour of it and recognise that it is as much about good public health administration as it is about some of the moral and ethical issues that people have raised through the course of this debate. If it is successfully passed through this Senate on the vote tomorrow afternoon, then I also urge the same of those members of the House of Representatives still considering this matter.