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Thursday, 25 September 2014
Page: 7081


Senator XENOPHON (South Australia) (11:05): I would like to comment on Senator Lines' contribution on the Health Insurance Amendment (Medicare Funding for Certain Types of Abortion) Bill 2013. I too share a concern and revulsion at the thought of abortion for the purpose of gender selection—and that is something that Senator Lines made very clear. I will also not be supporting this bill, but I will make my position in relation to that fairly clear shortly. I also want to say that Senator John Madigan is someone I place enormous trust in. He is a man of great integrity. I do not think his motives are in any way sinister. These are long-held and sincere beliefs that he has, and he is entitled to have this matter brought before this place.

There are potentially two issues in respect of the bill before us today that must be addressed. The first is a procedural one, as I understand my colleague Senator Madigan may wish to bring this bill to a vote today. If that is the case, he will need to move a motion to that effect to bring about a vote on the second reading stage of this bill. This chamber knows my position on the use of procedural devices to truncate debate, to in effect use the guillotine. As a general rule, this is not a course I would favour, and it is something that should never be considered lightly. In my view, every senator who wishes to has the right to speak on every bill and, if that bill passes the second reading stage, the right to participate in the committee stage of that bill. However, in the case of private senators' business, I can see good reason for there to be an exception to the rule.

Firstly, the time allocated to private senators' business is severely limited, and a crossbench senator like Senator Madigan will have only two opportunities a year to put forward a private member's bill to be considered and brought to a vote. This is one of those times, and Senator Madigan is entitled to have an issue that he feels strongly about not only debated but voted on. Although I agree it is not good practice to truncate debate on an issue of conscience, if—as I think one of the other contributors in the debate this morning has said—as is often the case with private senators' bills, you can talk them out so that a vote is not brought—I am not talking about this bill; I am not suggesting it is happening here—then that is a matter that we need to consider. The paradox is that, if you bring it to a vote now, it may mean that some who would have been inclined to support this bill may say, 'Because we have not had a chance to participate in the debate, we are inclined not to support it, because of the debate being truncated.'

So, while the word 'parliament' has in its roots the meaning of 'to debate and to discuss', it must axiomatically also provide an opportunity to vote on issues. Should Senator Madigan wish to bring this bill to a vote today, I will support his right to do so with some reservations, but the principle of having a matter dealt with one way or the other in the context of a private senators' bill seems to carry more weight.

The second issue goes to the merits of this bill. I acknowledge Senator Madigan's sincere and long-held beliefs on this issue, but I cannot support this bill for the following reasons. Firstly, on the issue of gender selection, the United Nations and other human rights and health organisations have identified this as a serious problem to the extent that it has skewed the sex ratios in some countries. So, as such, the issue of gender selection is important in a global context. Indeed, the Senate overwhelmingly passed Senator Madigan's motion in relation to this very issue last year. I was not in the chamber at the time, but I can indicate my support for that motion, but it does not follow that I support this bill. Secondly, the bill seeks to tackle this issue on what I consider to be a fundamentally flawed basis. Existing abortion laws would not permit an abortion on the basis of gender selection. No reasonable interpretation of current laws around Australia, which must involve consideration of the physical and mental health of the woman seeking a termination, would allow it. Seeking to remove Medicare payments for something that could not be allowed by law is, in my view, redundant. Thirdly, I am concerned that the bill could be misinterpreted by some as legitimising gender-selective abortion outside the Medicare system. As pointed out by the Australian Medical Association in their submission to the committee inquiry into this bill, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, the United Nations Population Fund, UNICEF, UN Women and the World Health Organization issued an interagency statement in 2011 regarding the prevention of gender biased sex selection. This excellent statement considers gender biased sex selection in a human rights context and evaluates past attempts at addressing this issue. As the statement points out:

It is clear that, while intending to effect a common good, restrictive laws and policies implemented in isolation from efforts to change social norms and structures can have unintended harsh consequences, and may violate the human rights of women. Prohibitive legal responses should be seen as a demonstrable attempt on the part of government to redress sex-ratio imbalances, based on the hypothesis that combating the use of technology for non-medical reasons will lead to a rapid halt in sex selection. Yet there is wide agreement that the causes of biased sex selection lie in gender-based discrimination, and that combating such discrimination requires changing social norms and empowering girls and women.

I strongly support this statement.

I agree that Senator Madigan states in the explanatory memorandum to this bill that gender selection is discriminatory and greatly prejudicial to women and female children in society, but I cannot agree with the measures proposed in the bill. I believe this bill would be unworkable and unenforceable. There are better ways to deal with the issue that Senator Madigan seeks to address, and it is an important issue. If we want to address these issues, and we must, particularly on a worldwide scale, then we need to improve the status of girls and women in our society. When girls and women are valued as much as men, when they are no longer treated as property or less than human by some, we will see an end to this practice. I do not believe this legislation, no matter how genuine and how sincere Senator Madigan is in respect of this bill, will bring about the solution that he is seeking. As such, I will not be supporting this bill. Again, I emphasise: if Senator Madigan wants to bring this bill to a vote, we should respect his wishes to do so.