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Monday, 29 May 1989
Page: 2961


Senator SCHACHT(10.30) —I rise to speak for a few minutes about the formation of a pro-choice group of parliamentarians in the Federal Parliament. It is not a matter that I expected to be speaking about. I feel, like most people in the Parliament with reasonable common sense, that it is an issue I do not want to be actively involved in. However, in view of the fact that it has been announced that the so-called Pro-Life Group is now looking at seeking to move a motion or amend the Medicare legislation to eliminate the right of women, particularly poor women, to have legal abortions conducted and paid for under Medicare, many members of the Parliament have thought it necessary to form what we call a pro-choice group so that the issue does not lapse by default and so that the willingness of many people in the community who strongly oppose the views of the so-called Pro-Life Group can have an actively organised voice in this Parliament.

As I said, our group did not seek to be formed of our own volition. We openly admit that we are a reactive group, that we have formed in reaction to the publicity that has occurred over the last few weeks about the so-called Pro-Life Group. I mention in particular the efforts instigated by my colleague the Minister for Immigration, Local Government and Ethnic Affairs, Senator Robert Ray, who took the first step in outlining to all Federal Labor members the need to form a pro-choice group. Already there has been an excellent response. Many Labor members from both Houses-within the lexicon of the Labor Party, from all factions-have indicated that they will support this group.

We held our first meeting last week. We decided to write to all members of parliament and invite them to indicate whether they want to join a pro-choice group in the Federal Parliament. Although the letter was sent only at the end of last week and this is the first sitting day after the weekend, there has already been formal indication that members of other political parties would be willing to join a pro-choice group on this issue. Although we are not in the head counting business-I know some people may suggest that Senator Robert Ray and I have been known to count the occasional head in the past-in this case it is not a matter of counting every head in the Parliament and lining people up as being either pro-choice or so-called pro-life. The issue is far too important to be treated in that way. We want it to be known that we are interested in the issue, in ensuring that ordinary Australian women who make the choice, as is their right in accordance with the laws of the land, to have a termination of pregnancy have the support of Medicare funding.

I do not intend to debate the merits of the issue at this time. It has been debated many times before and I am sure it will be debated in the near future if the so-called Pro-Life Group introduces its legislation. The only thing I put to the Senate-this is why I am now acting as a co-convener for the pro-choice group-is that I believe abortion is a matter for the woman to decide. Whatever she chooses-if she chooses to have the baby, if she chooses not to have the baby and to have an abortion in accordance with the laws of the land-she should be given every support. In the past this issue has been dominated by moralising men who choose to ram down the throats of women what they think should happen to their bodies. I believe that in this part of the twentieth century that attitude should not be taken. I believe that our pro-choice group will perform a valuable role in countering some of the, in my view, misleading information, misleading arguments and, above all, some of the more emotional comments made by members of the so-called Pro-Life Group.

As I discovered last Thursday night in attempting to debate this issue with Senator Harradine on a television program, the debate very quickly degenerates into remarks about murder of the unborn child, babies being cut up, suction pumps and goodness knows what else. In my view, it is all totally unnecessary. The remarks are aimed at putting psychological pressure on women. I refer in particular to the emotional charge that women flippantly decide to have an abortion. I cannot imagine any woman in Australia flippantly deciding that it would be good fun to have an abortion. I must admit that I know a couple of women who have chosen to have an abortion. They did it legally, after consultation with the appropriate medical authorities, and they certainly did not do it, as Senator Harradine suggested on television, so that they could have a trip overseas or because it interfered with their holiday plans. I completely reject the idea that abortion is used by women in a flippant and offhand way. That suggestion denigrates all women in Australia.

In that televised debate, in response to Senator Harradine's remarks about murder, I said that if he believes abortion is murder, he and his supporters should be fair dinkum and attempt to introduce legislation to the effect that when a woman has an abortion she is committing the offence of murder under the criminal code. If one extended that one would have to argue that if a woman had a miscarriage she may have to be charged with manslaughter-if one takes the view that she is murdering the unborn child and that that is the same as murdering someone after he or she has been born. I do not accept that. I do not think that is accepted anywhere in the Western world. I certainly hope it is not. I hope our pro-choice group can help to put that argument to the community.

One of the other reasons I wanted to speak about this matter tonight is that while the pro-choice group was having its first meeting last Tuesday, a meeting of the Pro-Life Group took place in Parliament House. The details of that discussion have come to my attention. Sources have given me a very detailed run-down of the discussion that took place in that meeting at about 5 o'clock last Tuesday. People in the so-called Pro-Life Group argue that they are interested in the issue on a very high moral plane. In regard to the details of the discussion that took place, one would not exactly say that it was a grubby political exercise, but it was certainly a very mundane political exercise. The meeting tried to sort out the tactics as to how the group could introduce legislation into the Federal Parliament to stop Medicare funding for legal abortions. First of all, I do not know all of those who attended, but obviously one would expect Senator Harradine to have been there as Chairman of the Pro-Life Group. As I understand it, members of all political parties attended. I do not deny their right to hold what are, in their terms, very strong moral views concerning abortion. My group does not in any way decry the fact that there are strongly held views about abortion. However, our attitude is that those views should be held at a personal level and should not be imposed on others through legislation, at either State or Federal level.

Even allowing for the fact that people in the Pro-Life Group have very strong views, some of their remarks and comments and discussions are rather illuminating, according to my sources. First, a number of people had a very strong desire to ensure that no information about their meeting would leak out. That had happened after the previous meeting and had caused them some embarrassment, and they had to make absolutely sure that there was no leak from this one. Unfortunately for them, they did not do too well in that regard. From my sources, I have some pretty detailed discussion.

First, they discussed some of the arguments that could be used in favour of their proposition. One of those was that abortion should not be available to women because in Australia there are many people who want to adopt children. The point was made that if women-young girls, in particular-who, unfortunately, became pregnant had to continue with the pregnancy, there would be a much bigger pool of babies available for adoption. One person at the meeting commented that one million people out there wanted to adopt children. They would not care whether a child was Australian, Vietnamese or of any other origin. I must say that that is a very strange attitude from people who are supposed to be adopting a very moral position about abortion. It is not a particularly moral or a very uplifting sort of argument.

According to my sources, one of the discussions that took place at this meeting concerned tactics: `If we are successful in having legislation passed to remove Medicare payments, there will be a lot more unwanted children'. One member said, `We have to have an absolutely foolproof oversupply of pregnancy support services'. Another member present-it may have been Senator Harradine-said, `I cannot follow the argument. I donate to pregnancy support all the time'. The argument continued. Other members said that they could not go round saying nice things about supporting pregnant girls if there were no pregnancy support facilities.

Then the attention of the meeting turned to tactics-whether the Bill could be introduced before the Parliament rose for the winter recess. I understand that, according to Senator Harradine, the main tactic was that when Parliament went into recess there could be a massive campaign, with petitions, and so on, and that the group could expect enormous support in the community. This, again, is an example of anticipation that those in the community who support the right to life will be expected to put a lot of pressure on members of parliament about the way they should vote. It was suggested also that the period leading up to an election would be a more advantageous time to put pressure on. Again, that is not a very morally uplifting argument about the issue of abortion. It is a straight political argument about how to apply the greatest pressure.

One of the more interesting side issues that arose in the course of the discussion concerned whether legislation should be introduced in the House of Representatives or in the Senate. One member present commented that if it were to be done in the Senate, they would have to wait until after the next election, when half the Democrats would be got rid of. I think that that member hoped that the Democrats would be decimated, that they would be replaced by people more sympathetic to the so-called Pro-Life view. I do not know what the Democrats' view-individually or collectively-about this legislation is, though I presume that theirs is a conscience vote. It is interesting to note, however, that already the Pro-Life Group is counting all the Democrats in the Senate as being against them on this issue.

Then the discussion got round to the good old question of numbers. In the past I have been accused within the Labor Party of occasionally counting numbers. So has Senator Robert Ray. Indeed, I think that everybody in politics has counted numbers from time to time. It is part and parcel of the whole arrangement. However, the information that I have indicates that this mob is not very good at counting. At the very best, they were able to count only one or two people. They had a circuitous discussion about the numbers in the House of Representatives. At one stage they talked about some of the women there. Kathy Martin was accused of being a bit soft on the proposition. Nobody was sure what Mary Crawford's view was. Generally, however, the women in the House of Representatives were considered not to be reliable from the point of view of supporting the Pro-Life Group. Mr Katter, a long-time member of the House of Representatives, was at the meeting.

I have just been handed a note. I should not be interrupted by a written interjection from the Minister, but I shall keep it in my personal records for the future.

Mr Katter talked about how, way back at the time of the so-called Lamb-McKenzie amendments in 1973, there was an enormous lobby campaign-telegrams to everybody, and so on-and about how successful it had been. Even on the basis of their own head count, these people were extremely unsure about their numbers. After a lengthy meeting, they could not decide whether it would be better to introduce legislation in the House of Representatives or in the Senate.

The discussion came round to the question of which member should introduce the legislation if it were to be introduced in the House of Representatives. The name of a colleague of mine-David Charles, the member for Isaacs, and a member of the Pro-Life Group, who was not at the meeting-was immediately thrown up. I suspect that that was because he was not at the meeting to reject the advances. The main reason that was put forward was that David had already announced that he would not stand at the next election. In that case he could be the bunny to introduce the legislation or the amendment in the lower House.

It was then realised that Mr Katter might be thinking of retiring. He was asked whether he would do it, but he equivocated. I think that he is still weighing up whether to run again. It is interesting that even these pro-life advocates are looking for somebody who will not be standing at the next election. They do not want somebody to take the heat of putting up the proposition either in this chamber or in the House of Representatives. Again, the way in which the matter has been handled is not particularly morally uplifting; it is down to simple tactics.

Then the discussion got round to the role of Senator Michael Tate, who is a member of the Pro-Life Group. I gather that, at the meeting, there was certainly some bad spleen vented about the way Senator Tate had refused to go along with the proposal to introduce amendments to stop Medicare payments. Since then, Senator Tate has published a letter and made statements to the effect that, although he has a pro-life view, he wants women to be able to choose not to have abortions. He has indicated that if any amendment or legislation is introduced into the Parliament by the Pro-Life Group, he will vote against it. There have been several suggestions that a deputation should go to see Senator Tate to try to convince him to return to what I suppose Senator Harradine would call the fold of the true believers.

There is a final interesting comment on the meeting that took place. During one of the intense parts of the discussion Senator Bjelke-Petersen entered the room and asked if anyone had seen her book. The meeting was diverted into trying to find Senator Bjelke-Petersen's book. She said that she had paid $5 for the book and wanted it returned. She then asked what had been decided. At that stage no-one could work out what had been decided. The meeting gradually petered out. From my source it is still not clear whether the group got anyone to move the amendments, either in this place or in the House of Representatives. Even if it got somebody, the nature of those amendments, resolutions or the legislation is still not clear. It is still not clear whether its members agree amongst themselves about the tactics they want to employ.

I thought I would bring all this information to the attention of the Senate tonight. I look forward to receiving more information about the next meeting of the so-called Pro-Life Group. I assure it that the Pro-Choice Group that has been formed is very open about its views and the way it wants to conduct itself. We are not too worried if there are leaks about our discussions or tactics. We hope that in the future, if the Pro-Life Group wishes to proceed, it should not have an obsession with secrecy or the working out of what, in my view, are pretty ordinary political tactics. It should not put pressure upon people to try to bluff legislation through this Parliament.

In conclusion, all I say is that, from all the indications so far, I do not believe that a majority of the Australian Parliament, in either chamber, will vote for this legislation or proposal, whatever it may be. I think there are more than enough people in all parties to make sure that it is rejected. All the evidence from around Australia indicates, in all public opinion polls conducted on these sorts of issues, that 60 per cent to 70 per cent of Australian citizens support the right of women to have abortions under reasonable and certain conditions and support the right of poor women in particular to get Medicare payments. I trust that the so-called Pro-Life Group will realise the error of its ways and will not bring what will be a divisive and unnecessary issue on to the floor of Parliament.