Thursday, 9 February 2006
Therapeutic Goods Amendment (Repeal of Ministerial Responsibility for Approval of Ru486) Bill 2005
I stand to speak on this third reading of the Therapeutic Goods Amendment (Repeal of Ministerial responsibility for approval of RU486) Bill 2005 and to acknowledge the numbers in this Senate chamber, although the result goes against my views. I am deeply disappointed with the result because I believe it sends all the wrong messages to young Australians. I am disappointed with the process because there was an opportunity to improve it. However, I believe that, when consideration is given to the bill in the House of Representatives in due course, we may yet see its return, perhaps in another form, to this Senate chamber.
Part of the reason for the views that I hold is that RU486 is not just like any other drug. RU486 is in fact a killer drug; it is a drug that terminates a pregnancy. It is not a therapeutic drug; a therapeutic drug is one which is designed to cure or treat a disease. Pregnancy is not a disease. That is why I am deeply saddened and disappointed with the outcome of this debate.
I believe that the amendments provided an opportunity for parliamentary scrutiny and parliamentary review of the minister’s decision, but those amendments were lost. Yes, the supporters of the bill opposed the ministerial discretion initially, during the debate and during the Senate committee of inquiry, but those amendments would have ensured that it would have been subject to disallowance. However, that still did not satisfy those who had concerns.
I ask the question: if we left it entirely to the Therapeutic Goods Administration, which is the outcome we would see if the bill were passed—as I expect it will be, because an assessment of the numbers is reasonably clear—the entire decision would be made by the Therapeutic Goods Administration in that, under the act, they are empowered to look at the safety, the quality and the efficacy of the drug. They do not and are not empowered to look at the social, ethical and moral consequences of that drug for our community.
Based on opinion polls, I think most Australians in their heart of hearts know that there are far too many abortions in Australia today—an estimated 91,000. One in four pregnancies being aborted is far too many. What message are we sending to the Australian community? I think it is the wrong message. However, I respect the right of other senators in this place to have a different view from my own on that matter and I respect the outcome of the Senate decision today.
It has been a hard and gruelling Senate committee of inquiry, which took on a lot of evidence. I want to thank all those who put in submissions and correspondence—the thousands and thousands of Australians who have expressed their views, overwhelmingly against the bill. Nevertheless, the numbers in the Senate make it clear. I thank the movers of the bill for the manner in which they conducted the debate and the other senators in this place for the essentially measured and professional assessment and method in which they expressed their views. Yes, we have had ups and downs during the process but, on the whole, I think it was a measured and professional approach. Nevertheless, it has been a torrid and difficult time, where senators have had to dig deep to look into their consciences. It is very healthy for parliaments and senators to do that. It happened with the stem cell debate and the cloning debate, which was healthy. On this debate, it was also healthy. It is good for the parliament, and it has been a good process for the community. I thank the Senate for the opportunity to make some closing remarks.
I wish to acknowledge the hard work and dedication of so many people who have taken part in this debate on the Therapeutic Goods Amendment (Repeal of Ministerial responsibility for approval of RU486) Bill 2005. Although this debate has been proceeding for the last couple of months, people have been raising these issues within the community for around 10 years. This chamber has finally been able to take the time and to use the Senate processes to consider the evidence and the submissions before coming up with a result—a result which many of us will accept. We will accept the removal of an ‘aberration’—the term that was used in discussion about previous debates—however, the debate will not end. I think I said that earlier. We have gone through the process of an assessment of this group of drugs. We hope that the bill will pass through the lower house and that the TGA’s role in respect of this group of drugs will be as the body that looks at the safety, efficacy and quality of this medication, as with all others in our community. It is important for us to acknowledge that.
We must accept the hard work of people on both sides of the argument. We sometimes simplify way too much. There was a range of views expressed in this process and, as Senator Barnett said, people had the opportunity to ‘dig deep’. They were your words, Senator Barnett. We were able to look very clearly at the evidence and to come up with a process. I want to thank all those people who took the time and were able to rise above differences and withstand some sometimes very personal attacks. We were able to do that. I particularly want to acknowledge the work of the co-sponsors. I think that as a group it showed that people can work together if they have a common aim and can share their knowledge and experience to ensure that we can work to achieve results for the community. So thank you; we have an opportunity to achieve great change.
I would like to make some concluding remarks on the Therapeutic Goods Amendment (Repeal of Ministerial responsibility for approval of RU486) Bill 2005. Most senators supporting this bill have accepted the proposition that there is no difference between surgical abortion and medical abortion. They have then argued that a decision to make medical abortion widely available is a technical or operational issue which does not involve any policy decision making. This is a proposition that some senators may come to regret. As one person said to me this week, if there is no difference between surgical abortion and medical abortion, then why is there any difference in terms of policy between drilling for oil in Bass Strait and drilling for oil in the Great Barrier Reef? After all, if the policy decision is to support drilling for oil, then the location is simply an operational matter. This, of course, does not make sense.
Family First is concerned about the impending Senate decision to remove from elected politicians the responsibility for policy and social issues, which is their paid job, relating to RU486. Having set this precedent, one wonders what else the Senate might delegate—or, to put it another way, what it may not delegate. One positive element of this debate has been the widespread concern expressed about the high number of abortions in Australia, including by many supporters of the bill. There has also been a widely expressed view that governments should act to reduce that number. Research shows that this is what the community wants. Given that research also shows that the community supports women receiving independent counselling before having an abortion and a reasonable cooling-off period between receiving the counselling and deciding whether to have an abortion, Family First hopes all senators will positively support any government initiative which reflects the community’s desires.
I am very disappointed at the result on the Therapeutic Goods Amendment (Repeal of Ministerial responsibility for approval of RU486) Bill 2005. It seems to me that the majority of the Senate has said: ‘We’re just not up to the job. We can abrogate our responsibilities. We can flick it across to someone else.’ How many times have I gone to a minister and argued about a decision and he has seen my point of view or our point of view or Nigel Scullion’s point of view and we have been able to change the decision? The elected representatives have had some leverage to change decisions because they are able to go and represent their people directly to a minister.
We flick that out now. We do not have that opportunity. We have said: ‘We’re not good enough. Let’s flick it across to someone else who has some skills.’ It might interest you, Mr Acting Deputy President Marshall, that I have been in this place for 23 years and I have witnessed experts on bananas and on stem cells, and they can make mistakes like anyone else can. We have seen it on many issues. I cannot understand why the Senate said, ‘We just can’t handle this—we’re not good enough.’ As my colleague Senator Barnaby Joyce said the other day: ‘What—do we have to get an electrician to handle the energy ministry, a mechanic to handle some other ministry and a doctor to handle another ministry so we have a team of experts who know everything?’ It does not work that way in elected representative parliaments.
To get back to the issue, why is it that Italy and Canada ban it and the United States has some congressional committee looking into it, but good old Australia goes ahead, totally oblivious to or trying to ignore what everyone else has said—that this is a dangerous way to have an abortion? I am disappointed. I know many of my constituents will be disappointed and I think the elected representation in the Westminster system that we have in Australia has been badly let down today.
I want to say how much I have enjoyed the opportunity during this debate on the Therapeutic Goods Amendment (Repeal of Ministerial responsibility for approval of RU486) Bill 2005 to work with so many fantastic pro-choice women and progressive men on this issue. It has been a real opportunity for people from all parties to work together and to bring a new environment and politics to the Senate, which I think is much appreciated. I also think what we are seeing and experiencing here in the Senate this afternoon is a victory of logic and good governance over the many emotive inaccuracies and untruths that have been put forward. I think that the women of Australia will be proud and confident to know that the Senate supports them, ensuring that their health and safety is determined by the medical experts rather than by politicians.
If this was a debate about the position of the TGA we would have had a greater movement of numbers on the amendments that went through. It never was—I think we should be honest about that. This debate on the Therapeutic Goods Amendment (Repeal of Ministerial responsibility for approval of RU486) Bill 2005 ended up as another debate about abortion. Not only that, it was a debate about closing down the debate on abortion forevermore. It was a debate to close off a loophole to make sure that this chamber does not have to go through the process of testing people on how they deal with one of the most fundamental things we are all here about—the protection of human life.
Mankind comes unstuck when it fails to respect human life. It came unstuck failing to respect it on slavery. It came unstuck when it failed to respect it on fascism. And maybe to a lesser extent it comes unstuck when it fails to respect the life of a human being inside the womb—which is a human being nonetheless and as entitled to rights as anybody else in this room. To move away from and to try to circumvent dealing with the issue by thinking that there is some quasi-moral position whereby if you can get a legislature to say that something is right it therefore becomes morally correct is completely and utterly wrong. It remains morally incorrect. It remains an affront to human life.
Bill read a third time.