Is NSW Labor set to let women down?

Labor's Penny Sharpe and the Greens' Mehreen Faruqi outside NSW parliament.

Supporters of equality will be surprised to learn that of three motions supporting abortion rights scheduled for debate at the NSW state Labor conference June 30-July 1, party officials are recommending that two be rejected and the third be sent off for further consideration.

The conference will be a springboard for Labor’s election platform. The state election takes place in March 2019 and, while Labor has increased its margin in the polls, it is still having difficulty pulling ahead from the hated NSW Coalition. Labor needs a swing of 8.7% and to win 13 seats to be elected.

Given this, it is concerning that the NSW policy committee feels confident enough to recommend delegates “reject” two uncontroversial motions on legal, safe, affordable, accessible abortion services.

One motion, from the Epping branch, starts with a criticism of the party for claiming to be a “party of collective action” which binds its members on nearly all state and national policy “except when it comes to women’s reproductive rights”. It says the “free vote prevents Labor from uniting to protect and advance reproductive health care”.

It then goes on to quote federal deputy leader Tanya Plibersek who said: “For Labor to be pro-women, it must be pro-choice”. It calls on the NSW party and the Australian Labor Party “to bind its members elected to public office to its platforms on reproductive health by removing the platform's conscience vote on abortion”.

The second motion relating to this topic from the Wallsend State Electorate Council calls on the party to “take the necessary steps to establish a cross-party group which would introduce legislation to remove abortion from the 1900 Crimes Act”.

This has already been attempted by Greens MLC Mehreen Faruqi, who moved to have abortion removed from the Crimes Act in May 2016. Not enough Labor MPs supported the bill in the Legislative Council for it to even go to the Legislative Assembly.

The Wallsend motion highlights the discrimination built in to the current situation where abortion, still listed as a crime under the Crimes Act, is nevertheless accessible to those with means through a longstanding liberal interpretation of the law.

“Abortion should be regulated in the same way as all other surgical and medical practices. The current law creates barriers for patients and doctors. Under current laws, abortions are performed almost exclusively in the private system, which creates significant obstacles for women outside of major cities and those who can’t afford it.”

A motion from the Dulwich Hill and Double Bay-Bellevue Hill branches, which notes that Labor’s National Policy Platform commits the party to “provide universal access to fertility advice and control programs; promote advice on the safe use of contraceptives; and support the rights of women to make decisions regarding reproductive health”, calls on the party to “assume a leadership role in harmonising abortion laws across Australia and in establishing agreements with the states to fund the public health system that ensure that all public health systems provide affordable, quality reproductive health services, including abortion, that are accessible to all women and commit a Labor government to undertake an urgent national review of the availability of sexual and reproductive health services”.

The NSW policy committee’s recommendation on this is “Note and refer to FPLP [federal parliamentary Labor Party]”.

“It’s a thinly veiled attempt to cover up the Labor Party's cowardice in not supporting abortion rights in NSW”, said Susan Price, a long-term abortion rights campaigner and a national co-convenor of Socialist Alliance.

“The Policy Committee is demonstrating just how out of touch it is with rank-and-file ALP members, and with the overwhelming public support for abortion rights in NSW.

“More than 85% of people in NSW support a woman’s right to choose”, Price added.

“It’s also disingenuous for the NSW ALP to outright reject abortion access for all, while senior ALP MLC Penny Sharpe has just co-sponsored a new law for safe zones outside abortion clinics.

“Safe zones for women entering abortion clinics are a step forward. But to keep abortion in the NSW Crimes Act and not support equal access puts factional politics ahead of women’s rights. It reinforces the message that women — at least poor women and those living in remote areas — should be seen as second class citizens.”

NSW Greens MLC Mehreen Faruqi told Green Left Weekly that “access to abortion is undoubtedly a reproductive health and rights issue and it should never be up to someone’s conscience to decide whether women are entitled to full legal autonomy over their bodies, or not.

“This should be a matter of principle, not conscience”, she emphasised, referring to the Labor Party’s position that decisions on abortion are questions of “conscience”.

She said the Greens support abortion rights for all those who need access to reproductive health care. “We’re proud of our work in bringing the decriminalisation of abortion and enactment of safe access zones on to the political agenda. The momentum for change is strong and politicians must align with the overwhelming community support to take abortion out of the Crimes Act in NSW.”

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