Sacking over abortion tweets galvanises campaign for access

Protest in Hobart on August 5 against Cricket Australia's sacking of Angela Williamson. Photo: Jess Ferguson

The Tasmanian Liberal government might have hoped that by announcing on July 2 that it had secured an abortion provider whose services are due to open in October, the “abortion issue” might have gone away.

It is a vain hope.

Cricket Australia's decision to sack Angela Williamson on June 29 because of her tweets campaigning for abortion access in Tasmania, and her subsequent decision to go public and appeal to the Fair Work Commission, has reignited the issue.

Williamson's petition calling for “access to safe, affordable pregnancy terminations and contraception” for women throughout Australia garnered more than 30,000 signatures within a week. More than 100 people attended a rally in Hobart on August 5, in support of Williamson, abortion access and the right of workers to express their political views.

Clinic closure

Abortion is legal in Tasmania, but the state's only private abortion clinic closed in December.

Women (or non binary or trans people) who want a medical abortion (taking tablets to bring on a miscarriage) may be able to get medications prescribed by a doctor and dispensed at a chemist or shipped to them from a telehealth provider if they seek termination early enough.

But women needing — or preferring — surgical abortion have been forced to travel interstate for the procedure as public hospitals do not make provision for these services. The Tasmanian Labor opposition has accused the government of putting pressure on doctors to restrict services to those classed as emergencies or vulnerable.

Prior to the March state election, Labor pledged to establish a dedicated unit to provide public provision of the procedure.

In January and February, Williamson travelled to Melbourne to obtain an abortion as she was unable to obtain the service in Tasmania.

At the time, state government ministers claimed services existed and all women needed to do was see their GP. Williamson's experience was that the GP could not help her find a pathway to services in the state, with resulting delays, expense, and finally a need to travel.

She tweeted her disgust at the situation. She made confidential representations to Labor, the Greens and senior Liberals in an attempt to convince them of the importance of affordable abortion access in the state.

When on June 13, the Liberals voted down a motion to provide abortion through public hospitals by July 1, Williamson tweeted “most irresponsible, gutless & reckless delivery in parly [sic] ever”, presumably referring to the anti-abortion health minister Michael Ferguson, who amended the original motion, replacing the obligation to act with a commitment to consult.

Williamson, who was employed as Cricket Australia's public policy and government relations manager, claims to have been unfairly dismissed. The letter advising her that she had been sacked spoke of “concerns about [her] performance and conduct,” but refers only to her tweets about the state government's failings on abortion access and the protection of oceans.

The letter claims her tweets had damaged her ability to represent Cricket Australia to government.

But Williamson, a former adviser to Premier Will Hodgman, claims “no doors [had] been closed” to her after the tweets. This claim seems to have been borne out by a funding increase for women's cricket facilities for which she had been pushing.

Williamson's sacking also highlights questions about the right of workers to express their political views, uncensored by employers, as well as the issue of how to defend themselves against retaliation by government MPs or their staff.

Senior Liberal staffer Martine Haley was forced to resign in March after it was revealed she had sent screenshots of Williamson's tweets about abortion to Cricket Australia, presumably in an attempt to have Williamson disciplined.

Williamson alleges that Ferguson divulged to Cricket Australia that she had had a termination.

Cricket Australia has been mired in controversy this year over cheating by senior members of the men's national cricket team, but its decision to sack a woman for speaking out for the right to obtain an abortion reveals sexist discrimination and victimisation runs just as deep through the organisation.

In the past the organisation has asked female players whether they are pregnant. It is only now undertaking infrastructure changes to provide women players with change rooms. And it was only last year that a historic pay deal was struck to rectify vastly unequal pay for women and men.

In light of the sacking, international women's job-seeking agency C180 removed Cricket Australia from its list of endorsed employers.

Lack of public access

About a quarter of women in Australia have an abortion in their lifetime, but most who need an abortion will not be able to have it in the public hospital system.

Without public funding, the procedure can leave patients out of pocket to the tune of thousands of dollars, and that is without even factoring in travel and accommodation costs for those who must travel interstate.

No one knows for sure how many women go on to have babies in situations they know are not the best for them.

Activism for the public provision of safe abortion is essential to bring about the necessary policy change. Cricket Australia's sacking of Williamson threatened to set a chilling precedent for those who would take this on. But her brave decision to publicly contest the sacking, and the wide public support that has ensued is galvanising support for both the view that employees should have the right to express their political views in public and the campaign to win public abortion access.

[Dr Kamala Emanuel is an abortion doctor and a long-term campaigner for abortion rights.]