On 7th March the Tasmanian Health Minister announced that she was intending to introduce into parliament a bill that would remove abortion from the state's criminal code. What is interesting to note, but has received little attention, is that she plans to progress the matter via a private members' bill. "So what?", I hear you say! A bill is a bill is a bill.
Well, in fact, that is not the case. Even though the Premier and no doubt some others in Cabinet strongly support the content of the bill and probably played some part in its development, it is not being advanced as a government bill. Why not? Because by allowing the Health Minister to have carriage of the matter as a private member, the Premier and others can put some distance between the proposal and themselves. No doubt the Premier, and others in the Government who support the bill believe that this will help shield them from some of the blow-back that is going to occur once people come to understand the full content of the bill and its legal consequences.
What is also interesting to note and I believe highly questionable, is the way that the Health Minister is utilising the Department of Health and Human Services to promote her bill. Remember, she is a private member of parliament wishing to introduce a bill off her own bat; but what do we see? Virtually around the same time the media started to report the Health Minister's proposal last week, up goes all the details on the Department's website. The content included a copy of the bill, an information paper I presume prepared by the Health Minister herself, and some interesting statements that contain in my view half truths and, I would argue, clear misrepresentations.
I encourage people to visit the Department's website and make their way through the information. If you thought that you would get from the Department some kind of neutral, balanced presentation of what is being proposed, you would be wrong. In fact it is not unfair to say that the commentary is both jaundiced and seriously incomplete.
For example, it says "…proposed changes modernise the state's termination laws and bring Tasmania into line with Victoria and the ACT…". Is that so? Try as I might, I could not find in either the Victorian or ACT legislation a provision that says:
"If a woman seeks pregnancy options advice from a counsellor and the counsellor has conscientious objection to termination, the counsellor must refer the woman to a counsellor who the first-mentioned counsellor knows does not have conscientious objection to termination."
And just to make sure the Health Minister does not let anybody escape, the provision applies to both paid and voluntary counsellors.
Nor does the Victorian or ACT legislation contain an access zone clause that includes the penalty of imprisonment for a person engaging in so-called prohibited behavior. The bill defines prohibited behavior to include a person participating in a protest.
The general tone of the commentary would have one conclude that abortion in Tasmania is not legal and a crime. It says, referring to the proposed changes that in truth deny doctors, nurses and counsellors conscientious objection rights from being associated directly or indirectly with participating in abortions and prescribes custodial sentences for protesters:
"These are to ensure the law is not a barrier to vital reproductive health services and improve the health and wellbeing of Tasmanian women."
The fact of the matter is and the Health Minister knows it, abortion on demand is available in Tasmania now and having a termination is not a criminal offence. As she knows full well the Tasmanian Parliament in 2001 amended the Criminal Code Act to provide for what is defined as legally justified abortion.
Another interesting aspect of the Department's website is that anybody who is interested can comment on the bill. It says that responses from organisations will be published on the website. Responses from indviduals will not be published unless the person requests. An email and postal address are provided. To be perfectly honest, I am not sure what the purpose of this is. If it is an attempt to mimic some sort of public consultation, it is not very thorough. Submissions are not being sought, just comments and there is no formal inquiry process being proposed to examine the draft legislastion. There is no suggestion that any report or document is going to be produced arising from an examination of the comments. Very odd indeed! Might I say even if there was, one would be entitled to be rightly sceptical of any conclusions it drew given the overtly biased tone of the comments on the Department's website.
It is also worth noting that comments need to be submitted by Friday, 22nd March 2013. A whole 14 days after the proposal was announced. Community consultation indeed!
Duly elected members of parliament are able to sponsor private members' bills - that is not being challenged. However, what is being questioned, and questioned very seriously, is that if such an effort has been made by the Health Minister to game the procedure so blatantly from the outset to get an advantage for her proposal, what other tricks does she have up her sleeve that will be deployed to get this legislation through the parliament? We shall all have to wait and see.