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Thursday, 9 February 2006
Page: 39

Senator IAN MACDONALD (11:24 AM) —I have listened very intently to many of the speakers so far in this debate, arguing both for and against the Therapeutic Goods Amendment (Repeal of Ministerial responsibility for approval of RU486) Bill 2005. Speaking towards the end of the debate, as I am, means that the technical aspects of the subject and just about every argument for or against the bill have already been discussed. Accordingly, I do not intend to rehash those arguments. But I do thank other senators for their words, which have assisted me to come to my decision on the bill.

My decision on the bill is based upon what I, in all consciousness, believe is the best way to deal with a drug whose properties have been described in this debate as having widely different consequences. The debate is not about the legality or morality of abortion. Those debates have been held in the past, and, whether we agree or not, abortion in certain circumstances is legal in Australia and is widely—perhaps too widely—practised.

In considering the different aspects and issues raised by the existing legislation and this amending bill, I acknowledge the many concerned Australians who have taken the time to write to and phone me with their views. They have come from both sides of the argument. I have read and listened to those views, deeply respecting the personal views of my constituents. I know that it is an issue that troubles many people, as indeed it troubles me and, I know, many of my colleagues here in the Senate. In the end, though, being an elected representative, it is up to me to make my decision on what I believe is best, taking into account all I have read and heard on the bill and its consequences.

I acknowledge the help of the Minister for Health and Ageing, who called me last Sunday and offered me his views—an offer which I readily and gratefully accepted. Mr Abbott is a great health minister and has done a commendable job in a difficult portfolio. He raised three arguments with me, all well and reasonably put. They were, in summary—and I hope my summary faithfully records the substance of his arguments: firstly, that this was an issue of the supremacy of parliament; secondly, that the passing of the bill would be a reflection on the minister and the government; and, thirdly, that the decisions on availability of the drug should not be left to public servants forming an independent Therapeutic Goods Administration answerable to a departmental secretary. He did say that he always took professional advice, although he conceded that he had not always followed that advice.

I address those three broad arguments as follows. I do not agree that the passing of this bill, a decision to be made by this parliament, means that parliamentarians are abrogating their responsibility. I could not help observing to the minister that it was only 4½ years ago, at the time of the republican debate, when a certain minister was quoted as saying ‘you can’t trust politicians’ to choose a president. Perhaps you cannot trust them to choose a president, but apparently politicians can make a decision on a drug which some say is life saving and some say is life destroying. I do, in fairness to Mr Abbott, say that he did suggest that he may have been misquoted or misunderstood on the ‘don’t trust a politician’ comment.

On the second point, the outcome of the debate on this bill in no way reflects on the minister or the government—a minister who, I repeat and emphasise, has done a wonderful job. The debate is not about personalities or the beliefs of an individual who may from time to time hold the position of health minister. It is in my view about who is best to determine the safety and availability of a drug in Australia.

On the third point, my research has shown that the Therapeutic Goods Administration is a professional organisation within the Department of Health and Ageing comprising over 500 people—many scientists, medical, social and ethical experts—supported by, I am told, their own laboratories and investigation systems. The administration is advised by, amongst other specialist committees, the Drug Evaluation Committee, whose membership reads like a who’s who of respected medical specialists, including psychiatrists, gynaecologists, academics and pharmacologists.

I believe the bill is all about who is best to make a decision on the availability of a drug with properties and effects that I, as a politician, do not claim to understand. In the end result, I believe these decisions are best made by a large group of respected health and scientific experts, rather than by one single politician. As a country person, I should, in closing, indicate that I noted with interest the thoughtful speech of Senator Judith Adams, an experienced and qualified health professional who has practised widely in the bush.

I intend to support the bill and leave the scientific decisions to professionals. If they decide, in their collective wisdom, to make the drug more freely available—and I make no comment on whether they should or should not do that—then I have confidence in the medical profession to wisely use the drug, taking into account all of the circumstances and, importantly, the patient’s needs. It is for the doctor to prescribe the drug if that doctor, in consultation with his or her patient, believes it is in the best interests of the patient to do so.