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Thursday, 9 February 2006
Page: 19

Senator SANDY MACDONALD (Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Defence) (9:58 AM) —The Senate is debating the Therapeutic Goods Amendment (Repeal of Ministerial responsibility for approval of RU486) Bill 2005. Like all senators, for me this private member’s bill has caused a very large amount of soul searching. A Senate committee received thousands of submissions, and there has been a lot of coverage in the media and a great deal of lobbying by those for and against the bill. This issue has generated enormous interest and it has proved, understandably, to be a controversial issue.

In the end, it is that level of public debate that has made the issue one of public policy and that has led me to my position on this bill. I believe it goes to the heart of why we are elected here as representatives. The Senate votes on public policy. The Senate decides, and sometimes, like today, it is a really tough call. But that is why we are here, that is what we do and that is why we put our names forward to be considered by the public at polls—we ask for their trust to make decisions on their behalf. We do not stand at polling booths on election day and say, ‘Vote for me and I will put all the hard decisions in the hands of advisers and bureaucrats,’ however capable and well meaning they may be.

Ministerial discretion is the bread and butter of some of the most serious decisions made by governments. Think of immigration visas, environmental versus development issues, troop deployments, industry restructure packages, compensation negotiations and even black spot road funding decisions. Competing interests are regularly resolved by ministers and governments, not bureaucrats. If we left these sensitive decisions to others, would that be right? How often in this place do we seek out, and sometimes demand, ministerial intervention or discretion in order to advance the rightful causes of needy constituents?

Bureaucrats administer but do not decide policy. This bill asks bureaucrats funded by the industry that they must analyse to become an integral part of policy making. This bill takes the decision on a matter of public policy away from the minister of the Crown and puts it into whose hands? They have no names. Their identities are concealed under the acronym ‘TGA’. Their role will be hidden. Their reasons will never be held up to public scrutiny or accountability. Their whole decision-making process is industry funded. Will they be men or women? We do not know. The public interest in RU486 is such that it would be wrong for any decision on its use to be hidden.

A key question in this debate is whether you believe that RU486 is a drug like any other drug. I was influenced in this matter by a professional drug regulatory affairs associate working for a multinational pharmaceutical company. This is someone who works with the TGA every day to gain approval to market new drugs. These are her words, as they appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald recently:

In my professional experience, RU486 is not like any other drug. It is not designed to prevent, treat or diagnose an illness, defect or injury. It is not therapeutic. It is designed to cause an abortion that will end a developing human life.

The doctor then goes on to describe some of the health issues that were canvassed by the Senate committee.

Apart from these health issues, RU486 raises serious ethical and social concerns that go far beyond scientific analysis. I concluded that, if RU486 was a drug like any other, it would not have attracted a private member’s bill, a Senate committee inquiry or the enormous level of public interest shown. RU486 is clearly not like any other drug. This public dimension means that it is a creature of public policy and, as such, it is our responsibility as senators to deal with it, no matter how much we wish it was not and no matter how uncomfortable or inadequate we may feel in dealing with these issues.

I am not a doctor; I am not a scientist. I am clearly not a woman. I am not anti-abortionist; I have believed very strongly from the time that I was at law school in the Menhennit ruling, which was new at the time, of the Victorian Supreme Court that abortions should be permitted but be based on the health and psychological wellbeing of the mother. But when we vote in this place we are not asked about our qualifications to assess each and every bill before us. We are qualified by our election to the Senate. We are senators, first and last, with the ultimate responsibility to adjudicate public policy for all. We may not always get it right. We often make mistakes. We may wish we were somewhere else at times. Nevertheless, this is our job; this is what we do. If we do not want the job then we should stand down and leave it to others.

I think it would be wrong to give our elected powers away to those who are not elected and therefore not accountable to the public. That is why the current system was introduced in the first place in 1994. Carmen Lawrence, who was then the health minister, stopped trials of RU486 which had been instigated by a single TGA official without the minister’s knowledge. That state of affairs was felt by both sides of the parliament to be sadly lacking, thus the current system of explicit ministerial oversight was introduced. I do not believe the case has been sufficiently made out to warrant changing the bilateral decision made at that time.