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Tuesday, 14 February 2006
Page: 74


Mr MARTIN FERGUSON (6:58 PM) —The debate about the Therapeutic Goods Amendment (Repeal of Ministerial Responsibility for Approval of RU486) Bill 2005 has unfortunately been driven by emotion and conflict principally emanating from remarks made by members on the government benches on the other side of the House. Contrary to a suggestion from the member for Dawson, the previous speaker, I want to make it very clear that there is no predetermined position by the Labor Party, the opposition, with respect to this issue. It is a conscience vote. I want to compliment this side of the House for the mature and responsible manner in which each and every one of us has handled this debate. There has been no public point-scoring against one another, as has been the situation on the other side of the House on the government benches.

Having said that, I want to state very categorically that, as far as I am concerned, this is not a debate about an Australian woman’s right to an abortion—we had that debate a long time ago—and it is not a debate that the broader Australian community wants to revisit in this country. It has come and gone. We should be clear about that fact from the start. This issue is without a doubt a matter of pharmaceutical technical expertise, which is clearly not something the Minister for Health and Ageing, Tony Abbott, I or many others in this House possess. Yet the minister has argued that people should judge his decision on its merits and not on their prejudices—a reference to his belief that people think he has made this decision as a Catholic and not as a minister. I do not seek to argue this, but it must be said that the inflammatory language he has used in this debate as the minister for health does not add weight to his argument that he has made the decision impartially. Warning that use of the drug would lead to ‘backyard miscarriages’ and an internet black market does not help in resolving such a sensitive and emotive issue as the one before the House this evening.

The debate this evening is about making a decision that affects people’s lives. It requires the expertise of a regulatory authority and not an individual, no matter how well-intentioned that individual might be. The Therapeutic Goods Administration is specifically charged with identifying, assessing and evaluating the risks posed by therapeutic goods. It must also monitor and review any risks over time. Thus it is the TGA that is the appropriate authority to assess and recommend on RU486. Prior to 1996, the TGA had responsibility for reviewing and approving all drugs entering Australia but, under the 1996 Harradine amendments, provisions under the Therapeutic Goods Amendment Bill provided that any drug to do with abortion became a restricted good. This debate has, beyond doubt, illustrated the need for an impartial and qualified decision-maker in the TGA process. The decision should be made by the same experts we trust to make the decisions about all other drugs. So far as I am concerned, it is as simple as that.

The reality is that medicines used for any purpose other than abortion do not require the approval of the minister. It is only RU486 and medicines with the same effect which require the minister’s approval. So this debate is not about abortion and neither is it about the safety of this particular drug. What this boils down to is a dispute about who manages the risks associated with allowing the importation of this drug.

We all know that drugs are not perfect. Most have side effects, some worse than others. The point is that no drug is risk free. But there are highly respected bodies in the world that have clearly stated their support for RU486 and they need to be properly considered by experts in Australia. These bodies include: the World Health Organisation, the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, the Public Health Association of Australia, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of the United Kingdom, the Australian Medical Association, the American Medical Association, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Food and Drug Administration of the United States and the Rural Doctors Association of Australia—something that the previous speaker, the member for Dawson, should give some consideration to.

The question is, therefore, whether or not the minister for health, Tony Abbott, really believes that he knows better than all those organisations. Politicians, while having an important role in public scrutiny in many areas, are not drug experts and they should not purport to be so. Only the TGA with its expertise can make that call.

This issue has unnecessarily divided people, causing public confusion, fear and misunderstanding about the safety of this drug. The latest example of the way this issue is being handled by this government is the comments recently by the member for Hughes, Danna Vale. The stupidity of these comments is such that they do not bear repeating, except to say that so far as I am concerned they are an insult to all intelligent people but particularly to the Muslim community. Those comments are not based on fact; they are alarmist and simply wrong. The Prime Minister has shown time and again that stupidity is, unfortunately, not a punishable offence in the Howard government.

This is where the independence and expertise of the TGA is necessary. It is an absolutely essential requirement for the process being debated before the House this evening. Let this drug be properly assessed and evaluated—as it has been, appropriately so, in other countries. It has been approved in Britain, the United States, much of Western Europe, Russia, China, Israel, New Zealand, Turkey and Tunisia. It has been in use for many years overseas. The Public Health Association of Australia, for example, estimates that it has been used by more than 21 million women in more than 30 countries.

I would also like to remind the House this evening of the people this decision potentially affects, and that is more than half this country’s population. This was reflected by the fact that of the 30 women in our Senate, 27 voted in favour of the private member’s bill to overturn the minister for health’s veto over the importation of RU486. Female representatives viewed this matter with an overwhelming consensus: let the decision be made by the appropriate body—the TGA—not a politician.

But this drug is not only of importance to women; it affects men as well. The minister for health and opponents of this drug are not just preventing women in Australia from accessing it. It should also not be forgotten that this drug is being used overseas to treat cancer patients. It is being used to treat breast, ovarian, prostate and other cancers and illnesses. I believe that it is a sad time in Australia when Australians have to travel abroad for a drug available in 30 countries around the world. What this debate comes down to is a pretty obvious consensus, and that is: take it out of the hands of the minister for health and give it to the experts, people appointed on merit by government to the TGA.

This issue goes to the heart of good governance, proper public policy and proper health policy. For the sake of all Australians the TGA should be allowed to make the decision on this drug, as it does on all other drugs not related to abortions. It is time for the minister for health to respect the views of world health bodies, doctors, women and his own political colleagues.

I simply say in conclusion that there is no justifiable case for the minister for health, irrespective of who the minister for health is, deciding whether applications for evaluation of RU486 can proceed. Such a situation is at odds with the evidence based framework generally used to assess other medicines in Australia, and that is the crux of the debate. For this reason I support the private member’s bill and indicate my opposition to the amendment proposed by the member for Bowman and the amendment moved by the member for Lindsay. I commend the bill before the House. In doing so I say to the minister for health: front up to your responsibilities and stop trying to play politics with Australians’ health. It is far too important for simple political games.