Purpose riven

And like that, late on Tuesday, abortion was decriminalised in the Northern Territory. The bill was carried 20 votes to four.

Drugs such as RU486 will now be legally available to women, safe access zones will be established around hospitals and clinics, and doctors objecting to procedures on moral grounds will be compelled to refer patients to others who will treat them.

“We believe all territory women are entitled to control over their lives and access to high-quality services,” the health minister, Natasha Fyles, said.

In Queensland, about the same time, the gay panic defence was scrubbed from the books. The Criminal Law Amendment Bill fixed section 304 of the code, closing the loophole that allowed murderers to have their charges downgraded to manslaughter if their victim had made a homosexual advance.

Catholic priest Paul Kelly celebrated “the axing of this homophobic, archaic and outdated law”.

Father Kelly was the priest at St Mary’s Catholic Church in Maryborough, where Wayne Ruks was bashed to death by two men in July 2008 after allegedly making a pass at one of them. They were charged with manslaughter.

“It’s been a personal journey and a very emotional journey,” Father Kelly said. “I think this is a great victory to have everybody stand equally under the law.”

These are both welcome changes, necessary and important to the community. They are the work of governments invested with purpose and ambition.

In Canberra, by contrast, much of the week’s politics was spent on changes to the laws regulating the racist mistreatment of minorities. These are changes with little popular support. They show a government legislating for itself.

The attorney-general, George Brandis, said: “We don’t want to have a country in which freedom of speech, one of the things that the Anzacs fought for, is not regarded as one of our core social values.”

The hyperbole is such that it is easy to lose sight of the people actually affected by this legislation: ethnic minorities who live every day with the burden of racism. 

As 18C occupied journalists and commentators, John Quiggin joined Clive Hamilton and Danny Price in resigning from the Climate Change Authority. He cited an issue of substance: the government’s failure to address climate change or meet legal obligations by not responding to the authority’s most recent report. His resignation letter is worth quoting:

“The government’s refusal to accept the advice of its own authority, despite wide support for that advice from business, environmental groups and the community as a whole, reflects the comprehensive failure of its policies on energy and the environment. These failures can be traced, in large measure, to the fact that the government is beholden to right-wing anti-science activists in its own ranks and in the media. Rather than resist these extremists, the Turnbull government has chosen to treat the vital issues of climate change and energy security as an opportunity for political point-scoring and culture war rhetoric.

“I do not believe there is anything useful to be gained by providing objective advice based on science and economic analysis to a government dominated by elements hostile to both science and economics.”

Quiggin’s assessment could be broadened, if anything. This is a government hostile to purpose. It is a government lost, its fixation on the rights of bigots one more trail marker in its journey from reality.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 25, 2017 as "Purpose riven". Subscribe here.