Amanda Stoker’s speech at an anti-abortion rally last weekend has sparked fresh concerns over her appointment as assistant minister for Women. By Rachel Withers.
Who is Amanda Stoker?
Further questions have been raised about Amanda Stoker’s suitability to hold the role of assistant minister for Women after the controversial senator spoke at the March for Life rally outside Queensland parliament last Saturday. The march was aimed at “pushing back” against the availability of abortion in the state, where abortion has been legal since 2018. The protest also targeted moves to legalise euthanasia across the country.
The Liberal National Party (LNP) senator, who has become known for her socially conservative views, appeared on stage beside fellow Queensland conservatives Matt Canavan and George Christensen. Both are pursuing their own private member’s bills to limit abortions: Canavan’s to deny Medicare funding to parents engaged in sex-selective abortions, and Christensen’s to force doctors to try to save babies that survive botched terminations. There is little evidence that either of these are common issues; both are popular myths among pro-life groups.
In Brisbane, Stoker addressed the hundreds of protesters in attendance and compared pregnancy termination to the inhumane treatment of animals. She claimed that animal rights protesters are often pro-choice. “Why would they not also defend the humane treatment of children?” she asked, arguing there was “irony” in such people labelling her “anti-woman”.
Stoker pointed to the near elimination of conditions such as Down syndrome in Nordic countries with accessible abortion laws, likening it to eugenics. She also argued that women should be given “real choices” when facing unwanted pregnancies – by which she meant the choice to carry to term with adequate support, a statement in conflict with some of her more fiscally conservative positions.
In an interview this week with The Australian, the senator elaborated on her views, saying that late-term terminations should be banned, even for pregnancies that are the result of rape. “I understand this can be divisive and difficult,” she said. “But I have a very strong view that when it comes to later-term abortion that is something that is wrong.”
Late-term abortions are generally considered those performed after the 20-week mark, but Stoker was unwilling to declare a cutoff point in the interview. Most states in Australia require two doctors to approve late-term abortions on psychological, physical or social grounds.
Stoker said her views on abortion were not inconsistent with her role as assistant minister for Women. “Representing women well doesn’t mean all women agree on all things,” she said.
Critics disagree. Daile Kelleher, chief executive of Brisbane-based counselling and advocacy group Children by Choice, says that it’s “outrageous” that the assistant minister for Women is advocating for restrictions on what is simple and safe healthcare. “It’s absolutely inconsistent with her role,” she says. “She’s simply not taking into account the healthcare needs of Australian women.”
The rally was not the first time the new assistant minister for Women has publicly expressed her views on abortion.
Stoker is a member of the LNP’s conservative faction, who self-describes as “Conservative, Christian, Pro-life” on her website. She’s been considered a rising star within the Christian right since her appointment to the senate in March 2018, replacing former attorney-general George Brandis. While her faith-based first speech didn’t directly address abortion, Stoker was soon described by The Catholic Leader as “Queensland’s voice for life”, which noted she was a “well-known face at pro-life street rallies in Brisbane”.
In March 2018, the incoming senator spoke at the yearly March for Life rally. She cited the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to argue that unborn foetuses had an inherent right to life. In September that year, Stoke addressed yet another pro-life rally ahead of her state’s vote to legalise abortion. “They will tell you that this legislation is just about taking abortion away from the criminal law and making it a health issue,” she said. “But there could not be a more dishonest smokescreen for late-term abortion, and for the most radical death-based abortion laws available in this country.”
In August 2018, she wrote a letter to all Queensland state MPs opposing the bill, which she published on her website. In it, Stoker referred to the “excruciating” pain of the “child being terminated”, and labelled abortion “an adult’s right to avoid the obvious consequences of their voluntary choices at the expense of the right of another human”. She invoked the unfounded sex-selective abortions myth and argued that women should be forced to face a cooling-off period or counselling before being allowed access to a termination. Stoker also voiced her opposition to the 150-metre exclusion zone around abortion clinics, implying protesters’ rights to “respectful conversations and silent prayer” had to be upheld.
After abortion was legalised in Queensland, Stoker, with then LNP senator Barry O’Sullivan and then independent senator Fraser Anning, tried and failed to move a motion labelling late-term abortion a “crime”. In an interview, she called out “the left” for “bleating about the children on Nauru” while saying “it’s okay to kill unborn children”.
Stoker’s views on abortion, as well as her conservative views on women’s issues more broadly, prompted major outcry when she was allocated one of the new portfolios in the prime minister’s “women-focused” cabinet reshuffle, which was aimed at addressing allegations of sexism within the Coalition. Stoker has previously been dismissive of claims of sexism, labelling them “pathetic” and “bizarre”, and accused women in her party who have spoken out of “playing the gender card”.
The senator has also become known for her campaign against transgender rights, with one of the most prominent issues on her website being a petition to “stand up to the transgender agenda”.
However, as Guardian Australia reported in April this year, there are questions around how deeply Stoker holds her socially conservative views. Insiders say the senator, who has been involved in the Coalition for some time, used to be a Liberal moderate until she adopted an “arch-conservative reactionary” persona about the time of her senate preselection battle, in order to secure support from the socially conservative base. “Suddenly, she was speaking at Cherish Life events,” an anonymous LNP insider told the news site. “It seemed quite the turnaround.”
A later profile in The Australian repeated the claim, noting suspicions she “deliberately courted controversy as a culture warrior to raise her profile”. Stoker “laughingly rejects” the allegations, according to The Australian.
Despite her attempts to court the right, Stoker is facing the prospect of being voted out at the next election – relegated to the third spot on the LNP’s senate ticket for Queensland. She lost out on the top spot to Senator James McGrath. Stoker is claiming her outspokenness “probably” cost her some votes in the preselection battle. “But one of the things I offer to my party and to Queenslanders is conviction,” she told The Australian this week, vowing to continue speaking out.
Real or confected, the assistant minister for Women’s public position may add a sheen of legitimacy to the anti-abortion movement’s efforts to undermine reproductive rights in Australia, despite abortion having been decriminalised in all states and territories.
Sky News host Alan Jones this week came to Stoker’s defence, arguing that “we need more Amanda Stokers, who are tolerant in their articulation of views but also capable of stating those views clearly and in language people understand”.
Daile Kelleher, of Children by Choice, says she is not so concerned about the law in Queensland going backwards but does worry about the more conservative Coalition government legislating barriers to access at the federal level, as Stoker’s LNP colleagues are attempting to do.
“Adding to the stigma of having the right to choose whatever option you want creates really poor health outcomes for the most disadvantaged in our communities,” Kelleher says. “For the assistant minister for Women to be creating poor health outcomes and stigma that will affect the most vulnerable and disadvantaged is quite disappointing.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 15, 2021 as "Stoking division".
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