Although there are other Bills being debated in the Senate this week – most notably amendments to the Defence Act to extend the power of the Government to call out our military within Australia in the event of an emergency – the main political and legislative focus is the debate on the drug widely known as RU486.
At the end of last year, a Private Senators’ Bill (that is one not introduced by the Government) was introduced which seeks to shift the responsibility for approving the use of RU486 from the Health Minister to the Therapeutic Goods Administration, which is the body which makes the approval decision on applications for the use of every other drug in Australia. The Bill was then referred to a Senate Committee for Inquiry. As can be seen from the Committee’s website, this issue has generated a lot of public interest, with over 1110 individual submissions and 1200 form letter submissions.
I have also received over 300 emails and letters from Queenslanders on the matter (and many more emails from elsewhere) – the vast majority of them against the legislation. This has included around 10 Doctors, and a few pharmacists.
The Committee’s report on this matter will be tabled in the Senate tomorrow (Wednesday 8th) and debate on the legislation will start soon after. It is fairly rare for Private Senators’ Bills to be brought on for full debate, but the Government agreed to allow this because of the political pressure that had built up on the issue, due in part to the fact that their own separate legislation amending the Therapeutic Goods Act (TGA) could be held up through attempts to amend it to address the RU486 anomaly.
The unique way which RU486 is treated in Australia came about via an amendment moved by former Independent Senator Brian Harradine to a TGA Amending Bill in 1996. This was not treated as a conscience vote at the time, and the Coalition and Labor Party both supported it, as did one Green Senator. In 2001 the Democrats put up an amendment to another TGA Bill aimed at reversing this, but it was voted against by both the major parties.
This time this Bill will be a so-called ‘conscience vote’ for the other parties, where each Senator can vote according to their individual view. This makes the outcome harder to predict than usual. As a Democrat, I consider every vote I take to be a conscience vote, so I find the notion a bit strange that a politician has to get special permission before they are allowed to use their conscience in deciding how to vote on a matter.
It is quite rare for the major parties to allow conscience or ‘free’ votes on legislation, or anything else for that matter. The only other ones I can recall in the last 10 years have been Bills to do with allowing embryonic Stem Cell Research in 2002 and overturning the Northern Territory Euthanasia law in 1996.
The Senate will sit late on Wednesday night to allow more time for debate on the RU486 Bill and will also give it priority on Thursday to try to ensure that a final vote can be taken by 5pm that day. There is a strong desire to have the Senate finish with it this week, so the House of Reps can’t start debating it next week while the Senate has Estimates Committee hearings. I suspect some of those opposed to the legislation may seek to drag out debate to prevent a final vote occurring on Thursday, to force a delay until late February when the Senate next sits.
Although debate could be extended past the usual finishing time on Thursday, that would cause problems, as some Senators would need to leave because of other engagements. Because it is a conscience vote, the usual arrangement of ‘pairing’ Senators from different parties to keep the same numerical balance can’t be done. If a person is not there when the vote is taken, then their view on the legislation can’t be taken into account in the vote.
Although there are some unknowns, the supporters of the legislation seem fairly confident it will pass the Senate by about 10 votes. Its fate in the House of Reps is less certain.
Judging by the tone of some statements made by opponents of the legislation, I suspect the debate may get a bit feisty at times, but I always find it refreshing when politicians are freed to speak their genuine opinions, rather than just spout a party line.
For the statistically minded, since the establishment of the Senate in 1901, there have only been 8 Private Senators Bills passed by the Parliament and become law, which gives an indication of how rare it is. There have been plenty which have just passed the Senate and then languished or been rejected in the House of Reps, and also some Private Members Bills introduced in the House of Reps which have become law by passing both Houses.