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.
PLEASE STOP RU486
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.