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Tuesday, 8 March 2005
Page: 107

Senator MOORE (7:59 PM) —Today, on International Women’s Day, I want to talk briefly about a centenary celebration that we are having this year in Senator Santoro’s and my state of Queensland—the centenary of women achieving the right to vote at the state level. In January 1905 legislation was passed in Queensland to extend the right to vote to women. To our communal shame, that did not include all women. Indigenous women, as with all Indigenous people, did not receive the right to vote and be full citizens until the 1960s.

That achievement in 1905 is one of which we are very proud and which we must remember today, International Women’s Day. But it was not graciously given. The myth that somehow people woke up on that morning and said, ‘Now is the right time to give women the vote,’ is just that—a myth; it is not factual. Before 1905 there were years of struggle, debate and negotiation across the whole state. Women and men understood that the right to vote was an intrinsic part of being a citizen, but they were not all the same kind of people.

I think that one of the things this celebration year should bring home to all of us is that the people who were struggling for the right to vote were just like you and me. They lived in their community and gathered around a cause. Very often the people who were seeking the vote were the same people who were fighting the other issues of the day. Industrial rights were really important in Queensland at the time. Emma Miller was a trade union woman who was strongly involved in looking at equity of wages, working conditions for women and also the issues at that time around peace. Emma was a long-term peace activist. Other women in the struggle, like Leontine Cooper, looked at women’s right to have a safe home and at issues of education. There was no such thing as a typical woman activist. At least two groups were formed because they did not agree on many things.

One of the real shames is that we have not kept our history, so it is very difficult to find the records of the meetings that occurred across Queensland from about 1890 through to the success in 1905. It would be wonderful to see what was recorded, what kinds of debates occurred and the kinds of people who came to those meetings all across the state. At the time, Queensland, as now, was a deeply decentralised state. There were large towns all across the north and to the west because of the pastoral and gold rush periods. The people who were seeking the right to vote travelled across the state, not with the ease and comfort of today, but by dray and by train. They talked to communities on the back of the drays and in public places and agitated for things as important as the right to vote.

Those women and their male supporters at the time must look from wherever they are now at what is happening in our parliaments in the state and across the whole country. Women have had the right to vote for 100 years and, at the state level in Queensland, they have had the right to stand for parliament since 1915. The question now is not whether we have the right to be here but what we are doing now that we are here. At this time I want to make a couple of brief comments and applaud the speech we heard earlier this afternoon by Senator Ferris. Now we have many of the same issues around education, industrial rights and pay equity.

But I want to talk about health and choice, because one of the issues that is getting more currency at the moment than it has for a while—it is always there waiting for the debate; it never goes away—is the open medical right of women to choose. In 2005 one would have thought that there would be open acceptance that fair, achievable and accessible medical choices should be available to all citizens—men and women. Certainly one of the issues that we have supported in the long term has been that of strong family planning and women’s health centres being available across all parts of our country.

I want to talk particularly about Queensland tonight because, as I said earlier, it is such a wide, decentralised state. If we are going to be talking about effective women’s health centres which provide appropriate advice about reproductive health, sexual health and the different things that families and women need to know, we should be making sure that they are not just available down the east coast or in the capital city but that they are resourced and effectively placed all through the state. It does not matter where you live, you should be able with privacy, importantly, and open choice to attend doctors and medical support practitioners who can talk with you in a sensitive, informed way so that all kinds of choices are open to you.

Way too often this debate becomes focused on the issue of terminations of pregnancy, but it is much wider than that. We should not run away from the debate about abortion, because that agenda is there and we need to ensure that women’s voices are strongly heard. But not all people think the same way. In the same way that in 1905 people had strongly different opinions on a whole range of issues, now in 2005 we have the same range of opinions in all kinds of movements. What really concerns me and makes me frustrated is that, when we get to the discussion of women’s right to choose, mutual respect is lost. It is seemingly impossible, from my experience, for people to sit down and have a reasonable discussion about different positions on this issue. Emotions, religious backgrounds and cultural positions intrude on the debate and people are targeted, marginalised and not treated with respect. I would have hoped that by 2005 we would have learned the ability to debate and to consider the feelings of others without degenerating into the kind of passionate attack which seems to particularly colour issues around termination of pregnancy.

My hope would be that in 2005, with the legacy of the people who struggled to achieve the vote and the right of people to be in places like this, we would be able to understand people’s values, to talk and listen and to have appropriate debates. In 2005 I would expect any woman in this country to be given the respect to make up her own mind on all issues to do with her own medical health. Effective and professional health services always have to be provided. But by now I would have hoped that we would be able to have this discussion in a medical context rather than having a personal debate in which things often end up being said that attack people and not their beliefs.

As we celebrate in 2005 and as we celebrate on International Women’s Day, I think that we can look at the achievements across our history. We have had people who have been able to effectively operate in parliament, take on professional careers, access education and in many ways feel confident in their lives. But somehow, when it comes down to this issue of personal choice on medical issues, we lose that freedom and we lose that respect.

In 1905, I do not think they openly talked about the issue of women’s medical health. They certainly did not have women’s medical centres. Unfortunately, as we heard earlier from Senator Ferris, in the 1960s that option was not available either. I would expect that in 2005 we would have the maturity, the understanding and the professionalism to accept that women have the right to choose—the right to choose the doctors who will give them the support they need—and that they would expect that their fellow citizens accept that they have that right and not limit themselves to personal, vicious and hurtful attack. I also defend people’s rights to make that choice without being labelled publicly and without having their privacy compromised by people checking on what appropriate mechanisms they had taken before making the decision with their doctor.

In 2005, we have earned that right and we have earned that respect. When I think back to the women who were working across Queensland leading up to the 1905 decision about the vote, I believe that they would expect that the sisters in 2005 would have that right and freedom and would not have to keep up this battle as we lead into the second century of the right to vote and stand for parliament.