The Parliamentary process behind the RU486 Bill

Since the Senate’s decisive vote to pass the RU486 Bill last Thursday, I’ve had a few people ask me in a hopeful tone whether this means we can see more cooperation across parties and a chance for a bit more democracy to grow through the cracks in the concrete cloak of control the Prime Minister has put over parliamentary politics.

My short answer is (a) the Bill still has to get through the House of Reps yet, so do what you can to put pressure on to help that happen first before worrying about what’s next; and (b) this was a special set of factors that came together which isn’t likely to be repeated very often. I thought it might be worth outlining what those factors were, especially given a couple of the curious descriptions I’ve read by journos in the press gallery about how the RU486 Bill came about.

Before I do that, readers might find this piece from the New York Times interesting, which gives a glimpse into how it all appears from US eyes.

The continuing debate here over the so-called abortion pill RU-486 — the Senate voted Thursday to make it more easily available — has revealed many of the same fierce emotions as abortion debates do in the United States. But it has also produced some moments unfathomable in the United States.

“I bring to this debate personal experience,” said Senator Nick Minchin, who opposed the legislation. “A former girlfriend of mine had an abortion,” he said Wednesday on the floor of Parliament. Mr. Minchin, 52, is also the country’s finance minister, from the conservative governing Liberal Party, but there is no suggestion that he will lose his post, or even his next election.

What was perhaps more stunningly personal was the statement on the Senate floor by Senator Lynette Allison, a sponsor of the legislation. “An estimated one in three women have had an abortion,” she said. “And I am one of them.”


The legislation had broad political support, at least from women. Ms. Allison leads the small, liberal Democrats Party. The co-sponsors were Judith Troeth, of the Liberal Party; Fiona Nash, of the Nationals, a small, rural-based conservative party; and Claire Moore, of the center-left Labor Party, the major opposition party.

The Senate debate lasted two days — longer than the Senate recently spent debating antiterrorism laws, which gave the police and intelligence agencies sweeping powers to monitor, arrest and detain terrorism suspects.

Also, in regard to part (a) above, from speaking to MPs in the Labor and Liberal parties in the last day or two, there is cautious optimism that the legislation may pass the House of Reps. However, the Bill’s Liberal supporters say there is huge pressure being applied from some powerbrokers and from people in the party’s growing hardline/fundamentalist Christian base. Those in more marginal seats are also being told they risk discrediting the government and losing their seat if they support the Bill, which I find a little difficult to believe given the opinion polls which show clear public support for the Bill (and for the pro-choice position for that matter). Those few MPs in a big ‘Bible belt’ seats may be an exception.

I mentioned before the hundreds of emails I’ve got on the issue. While most of them have been heartfelt, the majority have still been polite. However, not long after the Senate vote, I got this one from a Brisbane based voter which I thought I’d share:

Senator Andrew Bartlett,
I want to apologise for my error, it is inexcusable. I do not know how it happened but I mistook you for an honourable and decent human being. Thank you for showing me today how wrong I was. I have made the necessary correction and put you on the list with those you have most in common. The list now reads:
Adolf Hitler; Heinrich Himmler; Rudolf Hoss; Andrew Bartlett; Adolf Eichmann; Josef Mengele.

Again, sorry for the mix-up.
A Qld voter

The other email I got which caught my attention more than all the rest was this one from a person in Rockhampton:

Dear Mr Bartlett,
Why are our parks empty?
Why does no one play there anymore?
There are no children. They are dead.

Now, back to some history of the process leading up to the RU486 Bill. As I mentioned in this post, the unique arrangements for RU486 and related drugs came about in 1996, which long serving Independent Senator Brian Harradine moved some amendments to a Government Bill that was making other changes to the Therapeutic Goods Act. It should be noted that these amendments were not treated as a conscience vote by the major parties and were not examined by a Senate Committee prior to being introduced, although the wider issue itself had certainly been pursued by Senator Harradine over preceding years.

The Democrats attempted to reverse this by moving amendments of our own to another piece of Government legislation in 2001. This was unsuccessful and again was not treated as a conscience vote.

So what changed? Tony Abbott’s public stirring of the abortion issue from the position of Health Minister from around 2004 certainly started to raise the ire and anxiety of many who had been willing to just let the situation lie. And it wasn’t just his rhetoric of course. We have seen clear evidence that government funding for pregnancy counselling services is going more and more to agencies who oppose abortion. The Minister also mused about restricting the amount of Medicare funding which could be made available for women undergoing IVF treatment, before opposition – including within his own party – saw him back down.

In addition to Abbott’s agitation and actions on the issue, July 2005 saw a change in the composition of the Senate. Whilst the Government now had a majority in the Senate, which normally makes it much harder to leverage changes to the law, it also saw the retirement of Brian Harradine after nearly 30 years in the Senate. While he was, in a sense, replaced by Family First Senator Steve Fielding (who even sits in Harradine’s old seat), Fielding has none of Harradine’s clout, grasp of the facts (as opposed to the rhetoric), or connections.

The Democrats’ Leader, Lyn Allison, gave notion of a motion regarding reproductive rights. These sorts of General Business motions normally don’t come on for debate, but a request can be made that they be put to the vote without debate. This was aimed at putting some pressure on both the major parties, who are both strongly divide on the issue. Lyn had long been vocal on women’s health issues – for an example, this piece in 2004 from Online Opinion on sex education and reducing unwanted pregnancies, in response to some of Tony Abbott’s abortion pronouncements from the time.

Lyn Allison also began looking for another opportunity to move amendments to the TG Act to try to remove the anomaly regarding RU486. This can be done any time the Government brings through a Bill which makes their own amendments. Some Liberal Party women had been getting more and more agitated by Tony Abbott’s proselytizing on the issue, and the continuing anomaly surrounding RU486 was becoming something of a focal point for those concerns.

On 17th August, the Therapeutic Goods Amendments Bill 2005 was introduced into the House of Reps by the Government. This was followed up a month later by the Therapeutic Goods Amendments Bill (No 2) 2005. The content of these Bills doesn’t matter – as long as they are amending the principle Act, amendments can be moved to them in the Senate to makes other amendments to the Act.

In October, the Democrats circulated amendments to both the TGA Bill and the TGA No 2 Bill, which would remove the anomalous treatment of RU486.

As this report from November 2005 makes clear, the plan to introduce amendments to legislation in the Senate “brought the issue to a head”. Liberal MP Sharman Stone was the most vocal of the Government MPs calling for any vote on this to be a conscience vote, and indicating there may be some people cross the floor on the matter if it did not happen.

This also meant that any TGA Bill of the Government’s was at risk of being stalemated in the Senate, because they wouldn’t be able to get it passed without RU486 amendments being moved and forced to a vote of all Senators.

Whilst this had been done back in 2001 and had no success at all, the new circumstances of no Brian Harradine, growing anxiety across all parties about what Tony Abbott was doing and saying with reproductive health issues, and rather ironically the Government controlled Senate which makes a government loss on any vote much more embarrassing for them.

As various attempts were made by the Government to negotiate a way around this, it became apparent that declaring the matter a conscience vote was likely to be the only way to ensure any Government Bills dealing with the TG Act would ever get passed. Ironically, Labor, who normally is even more rigid than the Liberals on party discipline, had a policy just on this one issue which already allowed for a conscience vote.

The Government could have just allowed the vote on the specific Democrat amendments to be a conscience vote, but because it was have then been attched to a Government Bill, it would have ended up meaning Government MPs (inculding the Health Minister responsible for the Bill) voting against their own Bill, which they weren’t very keen on.

At one stage, there was a possibility that the Government would promise to allow debate to happen on a Private Senators Bill of Lyn Allison’s in 2006, in return for not moving amendments to a Government TGA Bill that they wanted to pass at the end of 2005.

The Democrats said no to this, afraid the leverage would be lost – and also we coudn’t guarantee that someone else wouldn’t pick up the same amendments and move them anyway.

This meant Lyn Allison could have lost ‘ownership’ of a Private Senators Bill, as once a conscience vote on the matter was guaranteed, there were a number of Coalition Senators who might want to introduce one in their name, and they would clearly get priority if debate was to be allowed on such a Bill.

However, getting the best chance of a positive outcome is more important that short-term brownie points, and the pressure needed to be kept on the Government to deal with it as soon as possible, in case the political momentum started to diminish.

Fiona Nash, the only female National Senator, was willing to put her name to a Private Senator’s Bill. Coming from a National, who are usually seen as the most conservative on so-called moral issues, gave it some extra impact. She was willing to do a co-sponsored Bill with Lyn Allison, and it was then decided to have a Bill put forward in the name of Senators from 4 different parties. It was felt this would give the Bill greater political weight and increase its chances of passing if it also had Senators from both the major parties as sponsors, rather than just a National-Democrat one.

This Bill in the name of Nash, Allison, Claire Moore (ALP) and Judith Troeth (Lib) was brought in at the end of the 2005 sittings. The Democrats continued to insist we would still move our own RU486 amendments to the Government TGA Bills, unless the Private Senators’ Bill was brought on for debate.

With the public and internal controversy and pressure about the issue continuing to build through the Senate Committee inquiry process, the government was keen to resolve it one way or the other as soon as possible so it would not cause further distraction and internal tension for them. Whilst the divisions within Labor were much less than within the Liberals and Nationals – partly because they have formally agreed to disagree with each other on this a while ago – they were keen to see it dealt with too.

Once the debate was brought on, and a motion also agreed to by the Senate that a vote had to occur by the end of the week – so government Senators couldn’t talk it out and then have it fall back down the agenda – the little noticed pivot point of this whole process, the TGA No 2 Bill, could be quietly allowed to pass, which it duly did at 1.06pm on Thursday, with virtually no debate at all, other than the withdrawing of the now unnecessary RU486 amendments.


PS In quoting the 2 emails sent to me above, I am not meaning to suggest I am hugely hurt or offended by them. I simply put them there to say the extremes to which the debate can go. The ridiculous full pages newspaper advertisements by a group calling themselves “Australians Against RU486” that I referred to at the start of my Senate speech on the Bill was much worse. In a way, it also brings some credit on the Senate that almost all of us managed to debate the legislation without going too far into this sort of extremist territory.

ADDITION: This Bulletin piece by Laurie Oakes also gives an indication of the contribution Tony Abbott played in creating the dynamic which galvinised other politiciains, especially in his own party, to act on this issue.

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  1. How can the people of Queensland be so backward in some things I ask myself? The drive to keep children locked up in detention centres for years came from the likes of Brandis, Entsch and co in Queensland – they ranted on and on about we have to protect our borders, they shouldn’t have come and blah, blah, blah yet a pill that is not on the market in Australia, has not caused one abortion in Australia and treats a great many serious cancers causes normal people to accuse Andrew of being akin to Hitler and his murderous friends.

    As Hitler managed to have 6 million innocent people burnt and gassed to death the connection fails me. Even if this pill is finally allowed it should be done by the TGA and not Tony Abbott or any other ideologue in a parliament who can no more get pregnant than fly to the moon.

    What is an 18 year old girl supposed to do if she has just buried a baby who died of cot death and is carrying her third child in 2 years, her boyfriend is a criminal drug addict and the foetus is seriously deformed? Should I have stopped my daughter to please someone like Brandis who voted time and again to torture and blow up living children in two countries?

    Who forces single mums back to work with their kids are 8 and pays married mums to stay home even if their father is a millionaire? Who is stripping the rights of workers to earn a decent buck in decent hours with decent rights and depriving their children of their rights?

    They should be honest at least and admit they want to control the lives and reproduction of women with none of the responsibility in the end. Nick Minchin must have been involved in his girlfriends abortion because in those day the men had to give permission.

    I think it was wonderful to see some democracy at last in our parliament – and may there be much more of it.

    Except of course we do have those draconian anti-terror laws that the government forced through parliament with about 4 hours allowed for debate, the sedition laws through without a murmur in the end.

    Isn’t it a bit bizarre that with the damage being wrought on our democracy and institutions by this government they have to have a vote to change the future control of one drug.

    For the record – it is the Iraqi children who are dead. This vote will not kill one child and the emotive crap makes me sick.

    Funny buggers these so-called “pro-lifers” who don’t mind blowing up the living.

  2. Marilyn – don’t forget the vast amounts of progressively more and more restrictive and draconian media legislation.
    This includes media ownership laws which leaves WA print media monopolized by right wing interests to a tune of approximately 98%
    While it might seem minor, what it does is effectively control the flow of information to the public, facilitating the spin doctoring of information(by mass mainstream media) to cater to various corporate or political interests.

    Don’t pay the references any mind Andrew, they are clearly idiots.

    I think it’s amazing the way anti-abortionists manage to shift the focus from the real issue – whether the drug is approved by a doctor or by a pollie, to one of whether abortion is right or wrong.
    A lot of the response has been inflammatory and emotionally exploitative, which is where feeble minded people start sending letters like those inset in the post.

  3. Eh, Queensland is hardly the political backwater it used to be; though some people will disagree with that statement. I would have to search for a while or put up a sign to find pro-life people around my part of town.

    The reason the parks are empty is because people are super paranoid about crime, paedophilia, etc. A local child care centre will not even hire men because the parents get terrified about paedophilia. It’s about the media, not abortion.

  4. Well look at that, Senator Hogg and Senator Bartlett will probably be on the same Queensland Senate ticket in 2007… Looks like it will be the full number ballot for me this time.

  5. Dear Andrew,
    I compliment you on the hard work to date.
    A bit of history.

    In 1966 the Asilomar Humanist conference in California passed a motion for elective abortion.

    In 1967 Colorado became the first state to legalise abortion.

    Interestingly in 1967 a prayer group met in Ann Arbour Mitchegan…”Where evil abounds, Grace superabounds” JPII.

    The whole question about abortion is very much an issue about faith.

    This means Taoists, Jews, Christians, Moslems etc are involved, and there is no ONE church, synagogue mosque or temple which will take it on board as such. It is thus unfair for Mr Abbot to be singled out as a Catholic, and the thing being a Catholic stance. It is about believing or not believing and I was under the impression that was all in the Australian Constitution.Nobody seems to want to take the extra step and bring that to everybodies notice.

    Could you?

    It might help some of the women to have a think as well, including L Allison, who is about making it a peer group thing.

    You might also bring this to the notice of George Pell who should also be saying similar things.

    Much obliged,

    John Dique

  6. Here is a newsflash for all the men. Women have been aborting their foetuses since the beginning of time.

    How about that?

  7. John

    I’m not sure what you are referring to when you suggest it is “all in the Constitution” – unless you mean the Constitutional prohibition on there being a State religion.

    I agree though that this debate is more than just a Catholic versus the rest thing. I don’t know what the religious beliefs are of all Senators who voted against the Bill, but I am sure at least some of them aren’t Catholics.

    I got formal letters against RU-486 from Catholic clergy, but I also got some from Anglican and evangelical Christian bodies, as well as from a Sikh organisation. I don’t know for sure what the Muslim or Jewish view is, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there are formal anti-abortion views there.

    I have sensed a bit of the old sectarian undercurrents in some of the statements that people have made, although whether it’s been a conscious anti-Catholic position or just repitition of easy stereotypes I don’t know.

    That’s not to say that the Catholic Church hasn’t done or said things that I object very strongly to. It’s more just a sense that some voice is being given to some blanket anti-Catholic assumptions, which is just as undesirable as all encompassing anti-Muslim statements.

    As I hope my main post indicates, it wasn’t the fact that Tony Abbott is Catholic that sparked concerns about this issue, it was the growing signs of a personal crusade from him against abortion related matters. It is reasonable for people to link his personal beliefs and actions on this matter to his Catholic faith, but we do need to guard against that being extended to more general anti-Catholic assertions.

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  9. There are a few things that people forget when they write abusive emails.

    Just because the bill passed the Senate, it does not mean it has passed in full yet. It needs to go through the House of Reps.

    Also, the bill is not about making RU486 legal. It already is legal, but the Health minister is the one that determines its use. Because the Health minister has certain views it does not allow him to be impartial in making decisions based on science or medical background.

    The TGA is better equipped and is able to look at medical and scientific research. Tony Abbott did admit that he is “A victim of bias”.

    Medical decisions should be based on medical evidence and I am sure that if there are any problems with RU486 the TGA would apply certain safeguards and process on the use of it.

    On all sides of the debate, people need to cool their heads and realise that this is not about making RU486 legal, but it is about the process for authorisation of use. It is not a debate on whether abortion should be legal or not either. It is about the authorisation of use of a medical drug.

    I think that it has been a corageous move by all parties to allow a conscience vote on a very divisive and passion filled issue.

    I also admire the courage of politicians who have revealed that they themselves have gone through an abortion.

  10. Sorry to nitpick an otherwise great post, but what do you mean by:

    “Ironically, Labor, who normally is even more rigid than the Liberals on party discipline, had a policy just on this one issue which already allowed for a conscience vote.”

    Why is it ironic?

    Also, people may find it very interesting to know that Claire Moore, the Labor sponsor of the bill, is a deeply committed Catholic.

  11. Anna

    I just felt it was ironic that the Lib Senators had a harder time than Labor being sure they had a conscience vote, given that normally Liberal MPs supposedly have more freedom to cross the floor than Labor, where a single act of voting against a caucus decision can get you kicked out of the party.

    My own political tradition sees every vote as a potential free vote, so perhaps I am not fully appreciating that a formal conscience vote is a completely separate thing?

  12. No fair enough – I misunderstood your point. It seems pretty normal to an ALP member – conscience votes for life and death issues only.

  13. Friends,

    We need to build on this co-peration of wills. Australia needs representatives who can and will use their brains to think, make decisions, and act. Why should we pay politicians to ignore us electors as they forever follow party dictates ?

    Democracy is about facts and genuine debate, not about putting the mind on HOLD, and following blindfold along channelled lines of concentrated party power,

    Let us allow this experience to open our minds to the possibilities of true democratic government.

    Margaret Clinch

  14. I actually support party solidarity, not everyone thinks conscience votes are always a good thing.

    Firstly, as a voter I vote for a Party; one doesn’t always know enough about an individual person.

    Secondly, as a party member, I spend a lot of time working on policy within the party. I don’t do it so that people can ignore it whenever they choose. A binding party vote allows party members to have a greater say in how their party functions.

    Binding party votes also allow MPs to benefit from a great amount of knowledge and expertise from various places – it would be almost impossible for every MP to get their head around all the minutae and arguments of every single bill and come to a reasoned, intelligent position. No one person has that kind of time. So, parties learn to trust various sources for various issues, MPs can specialise in various interests and rely on their colleagues to do the work in other areas.

    Lastly, the US system demonstrates one of the major drawbacks of a lack of party solidarity. When every MP’s vote is their own, it makes it a lot easier for lobbyists to buy votes. Sure we could just fill Parliament with noble politicians – but we haven’t managed to yet.

    This doesn’t mean MPs should never vote their conscience. Only that it should be made a bit difficult so that people only do it when they really feel they have to, rather than because they happened to be swayed by money/ threats/ or a vocal minority.

    It also should be recognised that MPs do have a “conscience vote” of sorts within their party, when deciding what the party’s binding decision will be.

  15. I wonder if Anna could point to any policy (of significance that is) that the party faithful have worked on that made it out to the community. I would be happy to be educated – can’t think of any that Latham took to the last election that werent cooked up in his mind or his minders.

  16. There were a lot of party members who liked and supported (and were expecting) the forestry policy for starters, and a lot of his other policies. People were aware of many of his ideas before he was voted leader.

    Labor for Refugees has done a lot of work on making our policy better than it was in 2001.

    Medicare Gold was something that Julia Gillard worked very hard on and consulted widely.

    Latham’s matched savings plan disappeared when the party didn’t support it.

    I didn’t claim that we always win, but that’s because the ALP is a very broad church, and there are always different opinions and compromises.

    But saying that party members don’t have enough of a say doesn’t mean that therefore we should have conscience votes all the time. Party members are less likely to bother getting involved if they could never guarantee to have an effect on their MPs.

    I’m just trying to suggest that it isn’t all one-sided and binding MPs to a party line isn’t all negative.

  17. Margaret, where do you think Party policy comes from in the first place.
    I know the Dems for instance had a very good mechanism for creating policy… don’t know if it still holds these days. Andrew? Of course the smaller the membership the less people have a say in it.

    Ken I think you’ll find smaller parties have more grassroots policy hands-on than the major parties… so since we only get dumb and dumber elected it’d be hard to point to any one policy that’d fit your criteria.

    But if a smaller party had been elected to gov I’m sure there’d be many.

  18. Having the right to a conscience vote on every issue does not mean every one voting differently every day of the week (or it shouldn’t). I think the US system of low party discipline has its drawbacks, but the UK seems to have a better balance to me.

    There is an obligation to follow the party policy and philosphy, and as Anna rightly points out, that is what the party’s voters and members would expect.

    Indeed, some would say that the reason why there was such controversy about the decision of some Democrat Senators to support modified legislation introducing a GST in 1999 was precisely because it was perceived to be against the policies/philosophy/promises of the party. It also meant that calling the decision of those Democrat Senators who voted against this a ‘conscience vote’ was in itself contentious, as it could be said that this position was more consistent with party policy.

    Anyway, I think having the right/option of voting differently to policy or a decision of one’s parliamentary colleagues is a vaulable one. It means you do have a greater obligation to be aware of what you are voting on, because you have to be able to justify your actions more personally, rather than just say you had to do what the majority ruled.

    Of course, it is not possible to be aware of the detail of every matter that comes up in the Senate. There is also often room for interpretation within a policy, or issues that can arise where there is no specific policy, so you do have to rely on the recommendations of others some of the time.

  19. The difficulty you face with these issues was brought hoem to me listening to the speech by Tony Burke this am in the house. What I previously thought was a fairly simple matter of principle, and hence supported the bill, needs more deliberation, Andrew.

  20. It is a matter of process and nothing to do with abortion. For heaven’s sake – do we really need to know or care about Costello’s personal life, or Lynn Allison’s or Tony Abbott’s or anyone else’s in this?

    it is not about aborting ourselves out of existence or letting muslims over run us. it is about who controls the availability of a drug and during the three days of the spurious debate about 105,000 living children will be dead.

    First the world wants birth control for the brown people, then they blame the brown people for having too many babies, then they want to force women to give birth when they don’t want to.

    A foetus in the first 9 weeks is hardly bigger than a grain of wheat and women have been aborting the unwanted since the beginning of time.

    I fail to see how on earth that simple truth is so offensive to men who have absolutely no chance of ever needing an abortion. What is it? My sperm did that? Having been abandoned through two miserable pregnancies I sometimes wish this choice had been available to me.

  21. M Good for You. I think your right. Nothing to Do with anybody other than the couple , woman and Dr but certainly not a topic for men. They need not get their nickers in a knot. In this day and age we do have many men wearing knickers too but god help us if we tried to invade their privacy. We would be branded something or the other would we not.

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