Abortion law reform delayed in Queensland

March 4, 2017
A pro-choice rally in Brisbane on March 1. Photo: Alex Bainbridge

Decriminalisation of abortion will be referred to the Queensland Law Reform Commission (QLRC) by the Palaszczuk Labor government after independent MP Rob Pyne withdrew his private member's bills on the issue.

The bills were due to be debated on March 1 but Pyne withdrew them the day before — to the disappointment of many pro-choice activists — when it became clear they faced defeat in the parliament.

The Labor government failed to bind its members to support the party's pro-choice policy, meaning Pyne's bills could only pass if some members of the Liberal National (LNP) opposition supported them.

Abortion rights campaigners believe 10 to 12 LNP parliamentarians personally support the right to choose and could have been persuaded to support these bills had the LNP allowed a genuine conscience vote. However, after a party room meeting on February 27, opposition leader Tim Nichols announced that all LNP members would be opposing the bills, while hypocritically claiming the party maintained a conscience vote on the issue.

Pyne explained to a March 1 rally that “on Monday we were faced with certain defeat of my bills following the comments from Nichols which was basically: This is a conscience vote but it’s not really a conscience vote.”

He said that if he pushed his bills to a vote, the outcome would have been a victory for the anti-choice extremists whose views are out of step with majority opinion in Queensland.

Instead, he said: “what did happen this week was on Tuesday morning I secured a commitment from the Labor government that they will refer this matter to the QLRC”.

He said this would be in exactly the same terms as when this issue was referred to the Victorian Law Reform Commission. “We know what the outcome was there,” he told the rally, “because I drew on that jurisdiction in putting my bills together so we can be pretty confident of what we'll get back.

“The other assurance I was given, is that the QLRC has been adequately resourced to get this back within a matter of months and that a newly elected Labor government will introduce a bill to reform abortion law in the state of Queensland.

“We're on the cusp of something really special here. Victory has never been closer.”

However, in introducing the rally, Anna McCormack of the Women's Abortion Rights Campaign said: “We're very, very disappointed about what has happened and we're more than a little angry about recent events.”

There are several reasons for this disappointment and anger.

While there is a good chance that the QLRC will recommend repeal of the state's anti-abortion laws, there are no guarantees that the model it ultimately proposes will be as good as the Victorian model. The Victorian model is not even the best in Australia; arguably that is the complete decriminalisation that exists in the ACT.

More significantly, the Labor government may not be returned after the next state election, which could come at any time. The state government directs the QLRC on which investigations take priority. An incoming conservative government could easily direct the Commission to put abortion law reform at the bottom of the pile. It could also ignore any recommendations it makes.

This development shifts the momentum in the campaign, significantly reducing the pressure on Labor, which has a more than two decade record of dragging its feet on abortion law reform in the state.

It is true that the issue of abortion law reform has never been referred to the QLRC before, but it only happened this time because of the pressure the Labor Party was under by the pro choice movement, which had grown once Pyne's bills were tabled.

In his rally speech, Pyne said “the only possible advantage” of pressing the issue to a vote “was to smoke the people out that are anti-choice and anti-women” and “that had basically happened by Monday night”.

However, it is not simply a matter of revealing who was or was not prepared to support abortion decriminalisation. It is also a matter of putting all politicians on the record — and that had nothappened by last Monday and still has not happened.

If, as expected, a number of Labor parliamentarians had voted against Pyne's bills, that would have added to the pressure on Labor to take action. It would have forced Labor to justify why they allow conservative anti-choice representatives to be preselected and to vote against the party's policy.

Withdrawing the bills did not stop anti-choice extremists from claiming victory. However, had the parliament voted and rejected Pyne's bills, it would arguably have given added impetus to the grassroots activists to continue building pressure on both major parties.

Instead, Labor has taken control of the process in a way that reduces the pressure they face, especially if they end up not being returned. With Labor’s dismal record, it is difficult to see that this accords with the idea that victory is inevitable.

Of course hope is not lost and there is good reason to think that the campaign can win a victory despite this setback.

McCormack pointed out that “regardless of what we think of the [withdrawal of these abortion bills], we need to acknowledge the work that Rob [Pyne] has done ... The reason we have got as far as we have is down to Rob Pyne.”

Pyne definitely deserves kudos for his initial break with Labor, which was a precondition for the moving of his private member's bills, and for putting this issue on the agenda. However, it will require ongoing activism to build the pressure to drive this campaign to a conclusive victory.

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