Abortion law is back on the agenda in Victoria, a pawn in political power plays. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Martin McKenzie-Murray
Abortion divides Liberal Party on preselection

The political story is well worn: because of the parlous calculus of the assembly – Victorian Premier Denis Napthine leads a minority government with 44 seats of 88 – the Liberals’ fortunes have been tethered to a quarrelsome rogue from Frankston, MP Geoff Shaw. When Shaw quit the Liberal parliamentary party last year, Napthine was stripped of his one-seat margin and Shaw was conferred the unusual power that comes from being the only independent in a hung parliament. He has exercised that power vigorously. 

But unfortunately for Napthine, the story’s not so simple and is now of national significance. The forces arrayed against the former veterinarian now include federal Liberals, and the recent preselection bout in the new state seat of Kew – in which Napthine’s preferred candidate was rejected – doesn’t just mean a diminished premier and disgruntled MPs. It may well create an election year fought partially on abortion, and an electorate alienated by the party’s priorities.

In 2008, after 60 hours of parliamentary debate, protests in the streets, and inevitable death threats, the Abortion Law Reform Act was passed after a conscience vote. In the assembly, five Liberals crossed the floor. The act decriminalised abortion (removing it from the Crimes Act) and obliged doctors with a conscientious objection to abortion to refer the patient to a doctor without one. The act – and how certain Liberals voted on it – becamea dramatic feature of the vote in Kew this month. 

To an outsider, it seemed implausible: a 30-year-old former mayor, Tim Smith, running against esteemed cabinet minister Mary Wooldridge, who was competing with the support of the premier and cabinet. But that very backing appeared to cripple Wooldridge, interpreted by local Liberal members as a bullish dictate from Spring Street. They would decide their local member. 

Wooldridge may have also been damaged by her stance on abortion reform, for which she crossed the floor. Pro-life activists campaigned heavily in the electorate, and ensured – if others already hadn’t – that the two contestants were asked about their positions. Wooldridge was firm, signalling she didn’t support a review of the act. Smith indicated that he did.

Smith’s ambition was greatly assisted by federal Minister for Social Services, Kevin Andrews, enduring Liberal phenomenon Michael Kroger, and federal member for Kooyong Josh Frydenberg. Andrews lent a senior adviser as a scrutineer to the ballot count, while all three marshalled numbers, and it invited the suspicion that the social conservatives of Canberra were waging a proxy war in Melbourne. 

Smith won easily and now Victorian Liberals are appalled at the federal interference; that their premier was undermined in an election year, and the hint that the right of the party was belittling the left. 

Tim Smith likes to say “If not now, when?” – a maxim borrowed from his rowing mentor, and a neat expression of his ripe ambition. It’s the stuff of Thatcher, his late idol, the stuff of heroic impatience. Or so the story goes. The maxim also places Tim Smith at the centre of Tim Smith’s philosophy, a fated individual unbowed to party seniority, indifferent to party cohesion. 

That said, the attention to political brokering has been at the expense of the abortion reform itself – commentary has been inadequate and spotted with cant. First, if this needs to be said (and apparently it does), there is nothing inherently improper about a politician expressing his or her religious conviction. You may disagree with that religious conviction – and more likely you disagree with religion entirely – but tough. Such is diversity. 

Second, many Liberals, such as Smith, are not opposed to the decriminalisation of abortion, but to the section of the legislation obliging doctors with a personal objection to refer their patient elsewhere. And here lies the ancient rub of governance: imperfectly balancing the rights of one with those of another. For many, the idea of the state forcing an individual to compromise their conscience is anathema. The patient may still seek an abortion, just from somebody else.

Supporters judged the other side of that equation to be more important – would a patient’s right to seek a safe abortion be impaired by first approaching a doctor unwilling to perform the procedure? These members decided that access should be as unfettered as possible. To me, neither argument seems logically triumphant over the other. There’s legitimacy to each, though the doctor’s right is insuperably damaged, while the woman’s right is not. 

The complication is that some MPs are completely opposed to abortion. Geoff Shaw is one, having once said there are two places children should be safe: in the home and in the womb. Shaw is now drafting a private member’s bill that seeks to review the existing legislation, which could be introduced within months. This is far more worrying. 

Shaw’s spiteful agitations have cost speaker Ken Smith his job and contributed to the dysfunction that removed Ted Baillieu as premier. Shaw has compared gays with pederasts, simulated masturbation in parliament, crudely remonstrated with road users and in 2013 was found by the Victorian Ombudsman to have improperly used his government car for private business. He is also, though perhaps obscured by this index of buffoonery, a Christian.

The public is decided on the broad issue of abortion, and it’s alarming that a man as insensitive as Shaw now seeks to challenge that consensus. But there is something more dispiriting. There was heat and urgency in Kew, a heat and urgency I rarely see applied to skilling Victoria’s workforce, properly monitoring mining standards or helping police and crisis services reduce or mitigate family violence. In other words, jobs and the safety of our communities. I mustn’t be alone in wishing that the unbridled passion of gamesmanship be expressed elsewhere, for all of us.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 15, 2014 as "Forming a disorderly Kew".

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Martin McKenzie-Murray is The Saturday Paper’s associate editor.

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