Win gives scope for parliamentary sisterhood

Sydney Morning Herald
February 18, 2006

By Louise Dodson and Stephanie Peatling

WOMEN MPs from all parties are planning to work together to influence government policies after their success in removing the Health Minister's veto on the abortion pill RU486.

The women MPs aim to regularly meet and pursue other issues such as child care, paid maternity leave and reproductive rights in developing countries.

Voters will be all in favour, according to party pollsters and strategists, because they like to see politicians working together.

The women behind the bill - the Democrats' Lyn Allison, Labor's Claire Moore and the Liberals' Judith Troeth - were all encouraged by their success and indicated they were keen to pursue other issues.

Senator Troeth said it was the "first time this has happened in my 12 years in Parliament".

"There's a dawning realisation that if things are going to happen in some areas then this could be the way," she said. "But we haven't got a hit list or an action plan and I'm not about to become a loose cannon and put forward radical with a capital R ideas."

The women behind the bill, as well as men such as the Liberal MP Mal Washer, first came together through the parliamentary population group which will continue to pursue issues such as reproductive rights for women in developing countries.

Other options for exploration across the party divide are paid maternity leave and child care.

The MPs said there was considerable public support for the way the debate was handled.

"People say they have been despondent about the way politics is conducted but this has restored our faith that politicians can do something," Senator Allison said. "It's been such a stark contrast with what they're used to - the boys' club in the House of Representatives and too much control of the message."

Labor's deputy leader, Jenny Macklin, said a 78-year-old constituent had remarked to her how refreshing it was that women across the political spectrum could work together.

Ms Macklin said it showed what a "huge impact" the growing numbers of women in Parliament could have.

One Liberal backbencher, Jackie Kelly, has already organised women on her side of politics to pressure the Government on child care.

Labor's child-care spokeswoman, Tanya Plibersek, said although she spoke regularly to people from other parties it was harder to force action on something requiring money.

"There won't be a conscience vote on the budget and if Peter Costello doesn't bring down a budget with significant money in it then it's hard to see how things will change," Ms Plibersek said.

The Treasurer also scotched the suggestion of too many open debates in the future.

"If every vote were a conscience vote the proceedings would be better, I have no doubt about that, but they would be much lengthier and the Parliament would not enact anything like the necessary legislation that a modern economy needs to make itself competitive," Mr Costello said.

The conduct of the debate on RU486 is likely to soften the Howard Government's image because people like to see conscience votes on such issues, government strategists said.

Labor's pollster, John Utting, said "voters like a bipartisan approach on most issues" and liked to see women influencing the political process.

"Women are regarded as less combative, less partisan and less into political point-scoring than their male counterparts - and that's what people want," he said.

The debate also "showed the limitation of arguments that the religious right was a growing force in Australian politics".

He said the New Zealand Prime Minister, Helen Clark, whose campaign he has worked for, was regarded as less combative and more prepared to listen than male politicians.


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