You go, girls

Sydney Morning Herald
February 18, 2006

The abortion pill debate has shown the power of the women's voice. Anne Summers now wants to hear them roar.

I FEEL a strong sense of historical justice in the fact that it has been the successful effort to reverse the effective ban on RU486 that has brought women parliamentarians in Canberra out of the political closet.

A cross-party quartet of senators - Liberal Judith Troeth, Labor's Claire Moore, the Nationals' Fiona Nash and Democrat Lyn Allison - joined to sponsor a private members' bill designed to repeal the power of the minister for health to approve importation of the drug RU486.

This was, Nash said last week, "the first time in the history of this place that four members of different parties have co-sponsored a private senators' bill".

Two things are remarkable about this unprecedented exercise of multi-partisanship: it was comprised entirely of women, and its purpose was to benefit women. It was, in other words, an example of what, a few years ago, I criticised women parliamentarians for failing to do: working together and working for women.

Today, am I eating crow? Yes. Am I happy about having to do so? Absolutely. This collaboration by women, for women is a real breakthrough. The question, is: was it a one-off or are politics going to be different from now on?

If it is the beginning of a new way, it will represent a truly massive change in the way our women pollies work and it has the potential to be of enormous benefit to Australian women in all sorts of ways.

If the women in Canberra get serious, they can change child care, make the tax system more equitable for working mothers, achieve vast improvements in the health system. The list of what could - and needs to be - done is almost endless. Will it happen? Let's hope so. If it does, it will truly represent a tectonic shift in the way the women in Canberra operate. It will be a vindication for those who wanted women in Parliament to be agents of change for their sex in addition to fulfilling their basic constituent obligations.

In late 2003, in my book The End of Equality, I characterised the female members of Federal Parliament as "political eunuchs". I used this harsh language to express my disappointment that, despite the massive increase in the numbers of women in all parties, there had been no corresponding increase in their working together (or, indeed, at all) to improve policies that affected women. In fact, I argued, the massive rollback in women's rights during the incumbency of the Howard Government took place as the numbers of women entering Parliament soared.

My original characterisation of these women MPs had been even more unforgiving. "Political kewpie dolls", I'd called them, angered that so many of them were willing to allow themselves to be seated strategically in the Parliament so they were picked up by the TV cameras during question time, thereby providing a colourful contrast to the grey-suited men who actually ran the country and collaborating in the deception that their presence in the Parliament equalled real power.

Fortunately, I took the precaution of asking the former Victorian premier Joan Kirner to read this chapter in draft form and she counselled me to tone it down. It was unfair, she said. There were plenty of good women in Parliament who wanted to use their position to improve the lot of other women but they were constrained by their parties and their factions.

I was especially frustrated at the way women on the government side looked the other way while women's rights were stripped away and agencies that had once been watchdogs of women's equality were abolished or enfeebled. During the early years of the Howard Government, funding for child care was slashed, the tax system was changed to penalise working mothers, the Women's Bureau was abolished, the Sex Discrimination commissioner position was left vacant for more than a year and its complaint-handling powers abolished, and the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission had its funding cut by 40 per cent.

Women backbenchers had been willing to have public and often fierce fights on the detention of asylum seekers, the International Criminal Court, anti-terrorism legislation and the full privatisation of Telstra. It seemed it was only when it came to women's issues that there was an unwillingness to stand up and be counted.

The final nail in the coffin came after the last election, when the Government finally did what had been on the cards since 1996: it downgraded its principal women's policy advice unit, the Office of the Status of Women, by kicking it out of the high-powered Prime Minister's Department and putting it into Family and Community Services. And the name was changed. The unit is now the Office of Women's Issues. Women lost their status in Canberra and not one government woman MP said anything.

Another example I used to criticise women parliamentarians was the 1996 vote to ban RU486. The Government had done this at the behest of the Tasmanian independent senator Brian Harradine, whose casting vote the Government needed to get its other legislation through. Labor sided with the Government, the Greens were split and only the Australian Democrats opposed the legislation. As a result, for the past decade women seeking abortions have been denied the option of the non-surgical method provided by the drug RU486.

This is why for me and, I suspect, for many others, it is such a sweet vindication that it was the effort to reverse this effective ban that saw the emergence of women power in Federal Parliament. You could not have envisioned a better scenario for women to assert political potency than an issue that goes to the very heart of women's independence and self-sufficiency. "I have waited 10 years for this vote," said a senator who was there for the 1996 vote.

What happens next will determine whether this was just a flash of female assertiveness or whether we have witnessed a seismic shift in federal politics. "Perhaps we have finally made a dent in the culture of this place," a Labor senator said this week. Let's hope she's right.

Allison thinks this is just the beginning of women working together on a women's agenda. She is leader of the Australian Democrats and the person who initiated all this last year with her proposed amendments to the Therapeutic Goods legislation.

Allison said this week there is "an ongoing agenda" and high on the list are Harradine's other restrictions to women's reproductive freedom. It is worth remembering how much Harradine got from the Howard Government when he held that powerful balance of power position back in the mid-1990s. What is especially noteworthy is how many of his demands entailed restrictions to women's ability to control their fertility. He cast a long shadow which Allison and others are determined to change.

He ensured the end of government funding to the Australian Population Council and the International Union for the Scientific Study of Population, a reduction in the Australian contribution to the United Nations Population Fund, the International Planned Parenthood Federation and the World Health Organisation's Human Reproductive Program and a reduction in Medicare benefits for IVF.

Allison says that no new oral contraceptives have been placed on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme for 10 years despite the fact that new ultra-low dose versions that many women prefer are now available. Apart from the reproductive rights issues, there are others that are causing women in Federal Parliament to be outspoken in ways that are startling and unprecedented.

Last month the former Howard government minister Jackie Kelly criticised the Government's child-care policy, calling the system a "shambles" and demanding a 50 per cent increase in funding. Anyone who has followed Kelly's political career will know she has rarely put any political distance between herself and John Howard. Her comments came just a week after the Treasurer, Peter Costello, made cautious commitments to minor increases in family support and child-care funding, so it was possible to interpret Kelly's criticism as more an anti- Costello intervention than a championing of women's issues. Nevertheless, her comments still put a major issue for women back in the political spotlight.

It may be that the vote on the RU486 legislation will prove to be empowering and liberating for many women MPs. Having tasted power and success they may join forces to press for more.

Moore, the (practising Catholic) Labor co-sponsor of the bill, says the exercise has given women confidence that they can work together with trust and co-operation.

She thought it noteworthy that there was no competition for the limelight between the bill's four co-sponsors. This is not the way it usually works. Is it possible that women could bring a new spirit of co-operation to the Canberra scene? I would not hold my breath but it has been encouraging, even inspiring, to watch the political events of the past two weeks unfold.

It was instructive that so many women parliamentarians supported taking away the power of the health minister over the drug. In the Senate, the numbers were overwhelming, with 24 of the 27 women senators voting in favour. Although there was no division called for on the final vote in the House of Representatives and therefore no Hansard record of how individuals voted, I am told by someone present that all the 20 Labor women and all but seven of the 17 Coalition women supported the legislation. Maybe women have finally achieved the critical mass that many have argued was the precondition to women having any real power in Canberra.

They are still a minority -"it's still a place full of suits," Moore observed yesterday after watching the vote in the House of Representatives - but a sizeable one. Women are 24.7 per cent of the House and 35.5 per cent of the Senate. In the business world, such numbers would give one control. In Canberra the party system mitigates against this but there is a sense, especially now the Government controls both houses, that there is more scope than ever before for women to work together across party lines.

The scale of this week's victory should not be underestimated. Only nine private members' bills have succeeded in the history of Parliament and, according to parliamentary records, and several of them have resulted in major changes to the way we are. Compulsory voting at federal elections was introduced as a result of a private senator's bill in 1924. A bill from the Democrat senator Janet Powell in 1989 led to the banning of tobacco ads in the print media and in 1981, while Senator Susan Ryan's bill to outlaw sex discrimination was not passed, it became the basis for the Hawke government's landmark legislation in 1984.

The decision by Parliament this week will, I suspect, prove to be just as path-breaking. Not only has abortion been depoliticised but the women of Federal Parliament who made this happen have become empowered and emboldened as a result.

Anne Summers, a columnist and the author of Damned Whores and God's Police (Penguin, 1975), was also an adviser to former prime ministers Bob Hawke and Paul Keating. Her most recent book is The End of Equality (Random House, 2003).


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