Gender politics: the times are a-changing
Abortion is an issue that deeply divides many in the community. To put it in proper perspective, it divides the less than 20 per cent of people who do not support abortion from the more than 80 per cent who do.
The recent introduction of an abortion-related private member’s bill in the Victorian Parliament brought forth some interesting strategies and alliances. At the same time, it demonstrated the changing nature of gender politics.
The bill was introduced into the Victorian Parliament by Sex Party MP Fiona Patten. It aimed to set up exclusion zones around Victorian abortion clinics to push back protesters who had been harassing, assaulting and photographing women who come to the clinics. The situation had been ongoing for 20 years without any legislative relief , a clear indication of the political difficulty and sensitivity that it posed for both major parties.
Human Rights Commissioner Tim Wilson came out against the bill, saying it infringed on the free speech of the protesters and that they had a right to do the things they did. It’s not a view that I would have thought an openly gay man who champions marriage equality would have. Wilson argued that all protesters should be able to do what they want in a public place until they overstep the mark, and that if they did, they should be dealt with by the police.
To this he added that we needed a better definition of “harassment” so police would more efficiently be able to act. This was also a view shared on social media by the Victorian branch of the Liberal Democratic Party.
I think this is civil libertarianism taken to extreme and that Mr Wilson has blundered badly. He seems to have failed to understand the issue from the perspective of a woman going for an abortion but instead tried to form a position based on abstract concepts of freedom and liberty borrowed from John Stuart Mill and Voltaire. Meaningful civil libertarianism recognises that there are no absolutes in the world of ideas and that sometimes the philosophy of personal freedom has to adjust to the reality of the situation.
In the Supreme Court case that was brought by the East Melbourne abortion clinic against the Melbourne City Council the week before Patten’s private member’s bill, the police stated unequivocally that they couldn’t deal with the situation. They said there was a ‘front-door siege mentality’ at the abortion clinic and that most times they were called to address a situation, the protesters would have retreated and waited for them to go. The witness statements heard by the Supreme Court were alarming in the effects that protesters had on other people, including those merely walking by on their way to the shops.
The Victorian Law Reform Commission had recommended legislative action to solve this problem as far back as 2008. In fact, a security guard had been murdered outside the clinic and the protesters had turned up the next day to continue their harassment as if nothing had happened.
I think Mr Wilson has not read this debate at all well and now has the job ahead of him to show women that he understands their issues. In the end, the only public figure who supported him was Victorian DLP member Rachel Carling-Jenkins, who singled him out in her reply to the bill. This was immediately after she claimed that the protesters at the clinic were only photographing people to protect themselves in case any of them struck out.
The real story behind the introduction of the bill, which did not succeed and was eventually “debated out”, is that several women in the Victorian Upper House formed a broad, informal caucus. It comprise Fiona Patten, the Liberals’ Upper House leader, Mary Wooldrige and Georgie Crozier, Labor’s Jaala Pulford and Jaclyn Symes, and the Greens Nina Springle and Colleen Hartlund. They had finally realised that women wanted an end to the human “baiting” that had become a daily ritual outside the clinics. The only man to speak on the bill, the Liberals’ Simon Ramsey, rightly said that men would never know what it must be like to go an abortion.
It’s not the first time women in parliament have demonstrated that they are prepared to abandon the rules around party politics when it comes to matters of women’s reproductive rights.
In 2005, Nationals senator Fiona Nash, the Democrats’ Lyn Allison, the Liberals’ Judith Troeth and Labor’s Claire Moore all co-sponsored a private member’s bill to allow the abortion drug RU486 to be available to Australian women. It was significant that the numbers of women in the parliament had just taken a large leap. The Victorian Upper House currently boasts 15 women out of a total of 40 members, which is about the highest it has been.
The Hansard of this debate is a powerful record for students of gender politics.
Ms Patten introduced the bill, exactly as she had promised in her election campaign. However, it was not going to become a law without broad cross-party support, which did not eventuate.This is because both Labor and Liberal parties had some strong anti-abortionists in their ranks who did not want this bill to go through.
When we have gender equity in politics, we create gender equity in the community. We can reduce discrimination and support progress by ensuring that women’s voices are heard in our parliaments. And the kind of politics we might see could be significantly different from what we are getting at the moment. It is significant that the speakers to this bill were capable of critically discussing substantive issues while working towards a common goal.
It was a strange irony indeed that the day the bill was being debated in Victoria, the Pope’s message of forgiveness to women who had had an abortion was all over the media.
Professor Ross Fitzgerald is the author of 37 books, including his memoir ‘My name is Ross: An alcoholic’s journey, which is available as an e-Book, and a Talking Book from Vision Australia.
The Age and The Canberra Times, September 5, 2015