Crunching the Numbers on Conscience


Last week I raised the RU486 debate with someone I know well a well-heeled woman in her eighties of conservative inclinations, with whom I often debate politics.

Her response, a pungently adverse remark about Health Minister Tony Abbott, came as no surprise. Her views supportive of ready access to abortion are well known to me but the passion with which they are often expressed surprises me. My suspicion is that she may have had an abortion herself in her youth. If so, it would have been illegal, perhaps a backyard procedure in wartime Sydney.

Some of the same passion was evident in the RU486 debate in the House of Representatives last week in which no less than 103 of the 150 MPs spoke, before the Bill was carried on the voices.

To backtrack a little, the private member’s Bill was sponsored in Federal Parliament by MPs from different parties who were seeking to remove the right of the Minister for Health to determine whether the abortion pill, RU486 should be available in Australia and to give that task back to the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA), the body which determines such availability in every other case.

The debate morphed into one about abortion after MPs were deluged with emails, letters and faxes from opinionated constituents, but particularly from ‘Right to Life’ supporters. But the real interest lay in the politics of the question because in allowing a conscience vote, the parties freed their MPs to speak and vote without party discipline.

Thanks to Sean Leahy.

No division was called at the end of the debate. Tony Abbott and his supporters realised they didn’t have the numbers and did not want the extent of their defeat confirmed. On the other hand, the Bill’s supporters, flummoxed by the number of critical letters and emails, became nervous about being fully identified and later targeted by Right to Lifers.

A close analysis of the speeches and the three votes taken during the passage of the Bill makes the position clearer.

A total of 146 MPs voted. Apart from the Speaker of the House who has a casting vote only, 3 others were absent. One, Rod Sawford had spoken in the debate earlier in the week, supporting the Bill.

The speeches and votes revealed a large divide among the politicians on the abortion issue which is no longer present in the wider electorate. Opinion polls these days show at least 90 per cent community support for abortion, but that was not the result in Parliament last week.

More than a third of all MPs voted with Tony Abbott in the two votes on amendments to the Bill which were designed to prevent the TGA being the decision maker on availability of RU486. Those amendments would have allowed Parliament to disallow either Abbott’s decision (Jackie Kelly’s amendment) or the TGA’s decision (Andrew Laming’s amendment). Supporters of the Bill claimed that both sets of amendments were designed to thwart the Bill’s objective because by giving Parliament the ultimate discretion, no drug company would be prepared to commit the heavy expense involved in making an application for approval of the drug, because the final decision would not necessarily be based on scientific/medical grounds.

First, lets look at how party membership affected the vote. There are 60 Labor MHRs, 87 Liberals/Nationals and three Independents. Of the Labor MPs, one was absent, so 59 voted of whom, 54 voted against Abbott on at least two of the three votes and only five MPs (Tony Burke, John Murphy, Chris Hayes, Anthony Byrne and Gavan O’Connor) voting the other way. The ALP could therefore be said to reflect the general community view.

The first vote was on the Kelly amendment which was defeated 96 votes to 49. The Coalition was heavily split, with 43 of its MPs voting for the amendment, and 41 against.

On the second vote, to allow the Bill to proceed past a Second Reading, the question was carried 95 to 50 with 44 Coalition MPs opposed and only 40 in favour.

The third vote, on Laming’s amendments, was lost 90 to 56 with 50 Liberals and Nationals supporting the amendments and only 34 against.

In short, while a majority of Coalition MPs effectively opposed the Bill, the Tories were very divided on the issue. One Federal MP I spoke to said a lot of friction arose between the two government camps as a result.

Now, let’s look at the votes on a gender basis. Twenty of the 60 Labor MPs are women and all 20 voted against Abbott on each question.

Only 17 of the Government’s 87 MHRs are women and with one, Kay Elson, absent due to illness, a majority (9 to 7) voted against Abbott on each of the three votes.

The conclusion? Government politicians are way out of touch with the majority community view on this abortion-related issue. Even the Government’s women MPs, in opposing Abbott by just a bare majority, are far more conservative than their constituents.

Finally, lets see what marginal seat holders did. MPs in safe seats can expound at length on a conscience issue, but in a marginal seat every vote counts. There are 17 marginal seats held by the Howard Government requiring a swing of less than 5 per cent to fall to Labor. If Labor is to take office in its own right in 2007, it will need to win at least 16 seats.

The holders of those seats would, therefore, appear to have the greatest motive to take care when considering the Bill, if you assume it is likely there will be a swing to Labor at the next elections.

It is ‘Right to Life’ activism which is seen to be a danger for politicians. Pro-choice advocates are active but at Federal elections they are less trouble. Abortion is really a State matter and because the political parties allow conscience votes, there is no party disputation on the issue. Consequently, it is mainly the anti-abortionists who regard candidates’ views at Federal elections of vote-changing importance.

It is perhaps not surprising but depressing that of those 17 Coalition MPs in marginal seats, 14 supported Abbott and only three, Garry Nairn, Michael Keenan and Stuart Henry supported the Bill.

On the Labor side, there are 12 seats requiring a swing of less than 3 per cent the only ones realistically under threat, unless you believe a landslide to the Coalition is in the offing. Except for the most marginal of these seats, their holders may be less nervous than their conservative counterparts because they expect a swing to Labor in 2007.

Although 11 of these Labor MPs supported the Bill, only five were prepared to speak in the debate even though more than two-thirds of all MPs did so. The five were Kim Wilkie, Graham Edwards, Steve Gibbons, Anne Corcoran and Catherine King. Edwards who has announced his retirement at the next election and therefore has little at stake, emphasised he was opposed to abortion. Gibbons said the number of abortions performed was ‘unacceptable’ and Corcoran, whose preselection is under threat, surveyed the arguments in a balanced fashion. Wilkie and King made good speeches, both commenting on the letters and emails they had received.

Catherine King also referred to her Catholicism and said there are too many abortions being performed. She went on to express views to the effect that the Howard Government’s policies, including its lack of support for child care and family-friendly industrial relations, make it more difficult for women to make the choice to have a child. None of the five Labor MPs made remarks strongly critical of opposing arguments.

At a glance, the success of the Bill last week may appear to herald a sea change in the views of our politicians even the death of abortion as a political issue. However, a closer look reveals continuing divisions on gender and party lines with marginal seat holders remaining ne
rvous about the effect the debate may have on their re-election chances.

While musing about all this, I thought again about the pungent views of my old friend and whether I should ask her the question about her wartime past. I suspect though that 90-something Federal MPs would come to the same conclusion I have.

It is a matter between her and her doctor.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.