A different kind of politics

Inside Story
19 December, 2009
By Sara Dowse

When women from four political parties came together to force approval of RU486, a new cross-party grouping seemed to be in the making. Sara Dowse talks to three of the protagonists about what happened next.

BACK IN OCTOBER 2005, Tony Abbott, the Howard government’s health minister, introduced two bills to amend the Therapeutic Goods Administration Act. It seemed like a routine, innocuous piece of parliamentary business, but the outcome was something quite remarkable. Minor adjustments to the functions of a statutory body resulted in the medical abortifacient RU486 becoming available to Australian women, and this after a decade’s denial. The vote on RU486, applauded at the time, has been the one outstanding example of women in parliament making a difference, as women, for women. Four years later it gives rise to the obvious question: why just this once?

It all began in 1996 when Brian Harradine, who held the balance of power in the Senate, agreed to let another bill pass if a veto over RU486’s supply was given to the health minister, making it the sole “restricted’ good on the TGA’s list of pharmaceuticals. This unusual arrangement said a lot about the ongoing resistance to abortion, despite several landmark state rulings that had liberalised access to surgical procedures for nearly a quarter of a century (a state of affairs that is still unsatisfactory, as recent events in Queensland have shown). With Tony Abbott eager to apply the veto, access to one of the safest forms of termination was barred. No matter that it had been widely available overseas for several years with no appreciable ill effect, and was safer for the woman than carrying a pregnancy to term if used under medical supervision.

But less than a decade later the gender distribution in parliament had changed. By 2005 there were twenty-four women in the Senate and thirty-four in the House, a leap of some 17 per cent. Lyn Allison, a Victorian senator elected in the year of the Harradine amendment, was the new Democrat leader. By now a seasoned parliamentarian, she seized the opportunity to lift the ban and was able in several deft stages to parlay the government plans to amend the act into a Coalition private senator’s bill to remove Abbott’s veto. Backing her in the campaign was Professor Caroline da Costa, who had raised public awareness about RU486’s safety and how blocking its supply discriminated against rural and low-income women. The Australian Reproductive Health Alliance played a major part in disseminating information and served as the campaign’s secretariat. There were women writing passionately about the issues in the media, including ethics specialist Leslie Cannold and feminist Anne Summers.

Parliamentary rules allow that if a government intends to amend legislation, additional amendments can come from the floor of either house. But when Allison circulated her amendment the government suggested she withdraw it, promising a conscience vote the following year if she presented it as a private bill. There was no guarantee on the timing, however, so Allison stood her ground. She would move her amendment. Her leverage was the very strong possibility that, should it get up, Abbott would have to vote against his own bill. The government’s solution, to avoid the embarrassment (and avoid giving any credit to Allison), was to put up a private bill from within their own ranks. Fiona Nash, a new National senator from New South Wales and protégé of South Australian Robert Hill, leader of government business in the Senate, agreed to be its sponsor.

Initially enthusiastic, Nash enlisted Allison’s help in drafting the bill and invited two other senators – Judith Troeth, a Liberal, and Claire Moore from Labor – to be co-sponsors. The four worked closely together to build public support for their case and win over fence-sitters within their respective parties. The conscience vote held the following February, after the bill had been referred to a Senate inquiry, was clearly along gender lines. Ninety per cent of women senators voted for the bill, and only 46 per cent of the men. Then, after several attempts to scuttle it, the bill was passed in the house – on the voices, because Howard saw how the vote was going and didn’t want it put to a division.

The removal of Abbott’s veto over RU486 was an undeniable triumph for Australian women. (It’s worth noting too that it occurred after the 2004 election when the government gained control of the Senate.) The senators were flooded with congratulatory emails. The jubilation was heady and expectations were high. Anne Summers, women’s adviser for both Bob Hawke and Paul Keating, wrote: “This collaboration by women for women is a real breakthrough in the way our politics work. The question, though, is was it a one-off or are politics going to be different from now on?”

The question was answered almost as soon as she posed it. Despite Summers’ hopes, after RU486 parliament subsided into the normal pattern. A momentary blip, and the parties closed ranks.

IT’S EASY ENOUGH to attribute that one success to a happy convergence of certain crucial particulars – a sizeable contingent of women in parliament; the TGA act being up for amendment; a savvy feminist sitting on the cross bench; an inexperienced National senator keen to “own” the private bill; a Liberal senator coming to the end of her parliamentary career with nothing to lose; and a Labor one willing to put hers on the line. Co-sponsor Claire Moore observes that cross-party cooperation has a better chance in the Senate where “you get to know people from the opposition parties better than in the House.” And Judith Troeth reflects, “Of course, it was the issue.”

Anne Summers had expressed dismay over the apparent unwillingness of women parliamentarians to take strong stands on what we used to call women’s issues, but this cross-party action briefly restored her belief in the advantages of getting women elected. Yet there were negative as well as positive consequences. One of these was the silence imposed on Fiona Nash, who today is deputy Senate leader of the Nationals. It was Nash who observed in her second reading speech that this was “the first time that four members of different parties have co-sponsored a private senator’s bill.” Her three co-sponsors acknowledge her vital contribution, both in raising the issue and agreeing to “own” the bill when the government insisted that it come from the Coalition. But once it passed both houses the spark was no longer forthcoming. By that time Hill had resigned as leader of government business in the Senate and, as Allison bluntly puts it, “she was nobbled by Barnaby Joyce and Ron Boswell.” I’ve contacted Senator Nash to discus this but so far she’s maintaining her silence.

The fact that a vote like the one on RU486 has yet to be repeated prompts some reflection. For how well does our parliament actually serve the citizens it’s designed to represent, if women, who comprise over half the voting population, still constitute less than a third of the parliament? Admittedly, compared with how it once was, there is cause enough to celebrate. Thirty-seven years ago, in 1972, when I first voted in an Australian election, and seventy-one years after Australian women got the federal franchise, there wasn’t a single woman in the House and two in the Senate. Today we have forty female MPs, twenty-seven female senators and a history-making four women cabinet members, one of whom is our first woman deputy prime minister. We’ve had a feminist governor-general for over a year, and though my focus is on the federal sphere, it’s hard to ignore the fact that Kristina Keneally (like me, an American-born Australian) is now NSW premier, with Carmel Tebbutt as her deputy and Marie Bashir the governor. This is the first time in our history that a government, state or federal, could be said to be run by a female triumvirate.

No, doubt we’ve come a long way. But how much does it matter?

When we didn’t have the vote and couldn’t run for office, suffragists of all stripes believed that it mattered a good deal. They thought our participation would bring about all manner of improvements, from eliminating alcohol abuse to putting an end to war. That little of this followed can be put down in part to the way governing works in representative democracies: the degree, that is, to which party systems are entrenched; and here, as we have seen, as late as this year’s last uproarious parliamentary week, the parties run very tight ships. Moreover, despite the appearance of significant third parties such as Allison’s now departed Democrats or the Greens, government remains in the hands of one of two parties. Since 1996, the year of that first infamous TGA amendment, Labor’s Emily’s List has been active in getting women preselected in safe Labor seats. For years there have been mechanisms within the Liberal Party, most notably its state women’s sections, the federal women’s committee and the mandated female party vice president, which have encouraged female participation and helped get female Liberals into parliament. But once the women are elected that seems to be it. There has been little encouragement for developing a women’s consciousness, let alone a women’s vote.

Interestingly, Australia’s parliament has no formal women’s caucus, which puts us in a minority among the world’s democracies. The US congress has one, and so does the British parliament. Around the world the number of women’s caucuses continues to grow. Allison, who has visited Vietnam, speaks about the caucus there, and the fact that in most of the “baby-step” democracies, women’s caucuses are a permanent and significant feature. Rwanda’s parliament has a highly structured women’s parliamentary forum. Moore, recently returned from that country, notes that the 50 per cent quota legally required for its legislature has already been surpassed – Rwandan women currently make up 56 per cent of their parliament. There appears to be no unanimity on the usefulness of standing women’s caucuses, and a Rwandan example may be no recommendation for some. But, overall, experience has shown that the caucuses have both contributed to social inclusion and augmented legislative power.

So why not here? Depending where one stands, our tradition of party solidarity is either an efficient method of governance or an unfortunate obstacle to the full and fair expression of community expectations and attitudes. There is a case for the latter view, especially in the lower house. Because crossing the floor is anathema to the major parties, only those parliamentarians willing to stand on principle and sacrifice their chances for ministerial appointment have been prepared to do so. Witness the stand on detention of asylum seekers by Liberal senators and backbenchers in the Howard government. The recent, arguably less principled position taken by coalition senators on the government’s emission trading scheme, with their threat to cross the floor against Malcolm Turnbull’s wishes, might have signalled the tradition’s unravelling, but the subsequent spill indicates just the opposite. Frontrunner Joe Hockey lost his bid by making a free vote on the emissions trading scheme his condition for leadership, and only two of the twelve Liberal senators expected to cross the floor to vote for the scheme actually did so.

These dramatic events throw questions of bipartisanship, conscience votes and crossing the floor into high relief. But again, we have to ask how well the rigid exercise of party solidarity reflects the views of the majority of citizens or, indeed, serves the national interest. To narrow it down a bit, it certainly militates against establishing any sort of women’s caucus.

Some of the women I spoke to referred to the Parliamentary Group on Population and Development as the body that’s taken up where RU486 left off. Chaired by Claire Moore, it has been able to counter moves to take abortion off the medical benefits list and was also instrumental in lifting the ban on certain contraceptives and abortion in Australia’s aid program – another Harradine legacy. But it isn’t the same as a women’s caucus. Its purview is too narrow, restricted as it is to issues of population policy and reproductive health. A women’s caucus would be able to deliberate on a range of issues of its choosing, on those of particular concern to women such as women’s health or child care or maternity leave or domestic violence, but also, more significantly perhaps, on issues not primarily to do with women but on which women parliamentarians might develop refreshingly considered and ultimately influential opinions.

Over the last two decades or so we’ve lost sight of the effectiveness of collective action. Certainly the second-wave women’s movement exercised a powerful voice through the participation of women in grassroots feminist organisations in countries all over the world. The combined influence of those millions of pounding feet was enormous. Indeed, that the women’s movement has, over time, transformed itself into what Elizabeth Reid has called “a movement of women” can be taken as a measure of its success. At the same time it can indicate a troubling dilution of its power.

Take Julia Gillard, for instance. Her accession to the deputy prime ministership excited much comment at the time. Here was a spectacular role model for our girls and young women, likely to be our first woman prime minister. Setting aside the squabble between her biographers, it’s pretty clear that throughout her career she has had to make decisions and compromises in order to reach the position she now occupies. And, arguably, having arrived there, she is much better placed to effect social change than she would be on the backbench. But a friend once wisely observed that the ladder to power is a triangle, and the closer you get to the top the less room there is to move. So it isn’t necessarily the case that an individual can wield power more effectively than a group.

The lack of a woman’s caucus may also have contributed to the weakening of government machinery for women. With the demotion in 2004 of the Office of the Status of Women from the prime minister’s department to the family portfolio, John Howard put the final axe to its policymaking role. In her studies of his government’s manipulation of the non-government sector, Sarah Maddison outlines the measures used to co-opt and silence women’s organisations. A Kafkaesque elaboration of hierarchical structures, its system of women’s “secretariats” diverted those organisations from addressing major policy issues and kept them preoccupied with funding. Groups like the Women’s Electoral Lobby and Children by Choice were gerrymandered into one secretariat and, because of its critical stance, WEL lost its funding. It’s telling that Rudd has done little to change these arrangements (the secretariats are now “alliances”), and that deliberations consist mainly of submissions to fund small, low-impact projects; meanwhile, the carriage of issues of great moment to women, such as maternity leave and child care, is left to other portfolios.

BUT THE PROBLEM lies outside the bureaucracy, outside government, outside parliament per se. There’s a limit to what parliamentarians or ministers or bureaucrats can do without sufficient pressure. And for that we have always needed a strong, committed, organised women’s voice. But it seems that the transformation of feminism from a hard-hitting movement for change to a set of attitudes and strategies focused on individual women’s fulfilment and advancement has made it unlikely that, once in positions of influence or power, women would devote themselves to policies of benefit to women generally. Nor am I naive enough to believe, as I did once back in the heady days of second-wave sisterhood, that bringing women together doesn’t invite a host of different perspectives and goals and in many cases outright antagonisms. A women’s caucus, like a women’s anything else, would be the site of much divergence. But at the very least it could offer an active forum for informed debate.

Would a women’s caucus have stood for handing over Australia’s world-class child care program to a twenty-something ex-milkman to make a fortune with, then lose recklessly, with far-reaching, often long-term consequences for preschool children and their parents? Would it have sat on the sidelines, watching policy on maternity leave being determined by the Productivity Commission? There are many issues a caucus might have addressed: tax, superannuation, the impact of global warming, health and hospital reform. It might even have worked as a catalyst for change within the members’ respective parties.

As Summers put it back in 2006, “The list of what could – and needs to be – done is almost endless.” Indeed, after the RU486 vote she wondered if it was a sign of change in the way parliamentary politics would be conducted. “Will it happen?” she asked, adding, “If it does, it will truly represent a tectonic shift in the way 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.”

While Abbott insists that the business of an opposition is “to call governments to account,” there is reason enough to conclude from the 2007 election and the polling since that, on certain key issues, Australians want their governments to take action, and don’t appreciate obstruction for the sake of obstruction or political point-scoring. Think what a women’s caucus might have done to further understanding and cooperation on the threats posed by climate change. It might even have improved the quality of the debate and led to genuine, concerned bipartisan action.

Of course, I am dreaming here. Neither our rigid party system nor the absence of effective outside pressure is conducive to the kind of action I’m talking about, or even a continuation of the cooperative effort we saw on RU486. This is the reality, and it’s unrealistic to imagine that either of these impediments can be removed without the requisite political will. But could it be that this realpolitik of ours is impediment enough in itself? •

Sara Dowse, a former head of the Women’s Affairs Section of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, is a novelist and social commentator

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