This may be a watershed: the Rudd government has been challenged to show its true colours on women’s rights.
Way back in the twentieth century, the Liberal government faced a situation where a woman-hating theocon, Brian Harradine, held the balance of power in the Senate. Harradine, holding all the cards, managed to get legislation passed banning foreign aid money from funding comprehensive women’s health care services. AusAid could no longer disseminate any abortion information, and some contraception was on the hit list too.
Our political situation now resonates with the situation then. Harradine is out, may he fester quietly, but Family First senator Steve Fielding holds sway in the Senate (along with Nick Xenophon and the Greens). With the ridiculous and unworkable “protect-the-children” censorship proposals flying around, it would seem that the ALP is already courting the FF vote.
Family First policies include a forced-birther anti-abortion stance, no embryo research, and rhetoric about the “inherent dignity of each human being from conception.” Their parliamentary voting record includes opposition to making the drug RU486 available in Australia, a drug useful not just for abortion but also for emergency contraception and for the treatment of a number of different tumours.
Now things are getting interesting. Two Liberal Party doctors with a history of support for reproductive rights, Brendan Nelson and Mal Washer, have challenged Rudd’s ALP government to repeal the Harradine Ban on comprehensive women’s healthcare. Brendan Nelson is the current Liberal Party leader; Mal Washer happens to be my local MP . The Greens have been calling for this repeal for some time. This is an opportunity for cross-party support to achieve something good.
For overseas readers who haven’t been following along: our “Liberal Party” is the recently-ousted conservative party, strongly affiliated with anti-choice religious groups. (For an example of what we’ve been going through, their Health Minister was nicknamed “The Mad Monk”.) Kevin Rudd is the new PM, leading the Australian Labor Party, voted into power on November 24. Rudd is a Christian man, but claims to subscribe to (slightly?) more compassionate and progressive social policies than recently-ousted Liberal predecessor John Howard.
Opposition Leader Brendan Nelson said Australia must do everything it could to give people in the developing world a reasonable expectation of a healthy life.
“We also need to recognise and respect the religious convictions and views that are held by women in the developing world,” Dr Nelson told reporters in Sydney. “And also to see that they have access to an appropriate level of education so that they understand what they are able to do in relation to family planning.”
A federal Liberal MP who chairs an all-party parliamentary group wants the Rudd Labor government to end the ban on funding family planning advice for women in developing countries, calling the ban stupid and anti-women.
The government says it is considering the issue.
“I don’t like abortion, but it is ridiculous that we can’t give any advice to women overseas about abortion at a time when the government funds abortion advice to women in this country,” Dr Washer told Fairfax.
“It smacks of misogyny and stupidity.”
So, I say to Rudd’s government: step up. This is it. Will you develop real policy on women’s rights, will you grab this chance for a multipartisan start on feminist reform, or will you weasel out of it with a “conscience vote” stance? And to Gillard and the other women of the Rudd cabinet: pin him to the wall on this. The women of Australia are watching. The women of the world are watching.
As an aside: Does anyone know whether Nick Xenophon has any policies on women’s issues including reproductive justice, or is he likely to use his vote purely as a bargaining tool for his own pet campaign?
 For more background on Harradine’s anti-woman legacy, see Democrat Lynn Allison’s speech “Separating Church and State Conference 2006: Does God have a place in government?”
 ObMP: But I didn’t vote for him! If I ever had to vote for a Lib for some bizarre reason, however, Washer wouldn’t be the worst choice.