n last year’s federal election, the Liberals suffered a reckoning at the hands of conservative-voting women, who migrated to voting for Teal Independents en masse. Since then, the Liberals have attempted to address the issue of being correctly perceived as a misogynistic party in their own eccentric way: denying, deflecting and vainly monologuing at all who will listen about ‘what the Liberal party can do for women’. The Liberals offer women nothing. But the Labor party are not wont to intervene on this issue, and now that they hold both the State and Federal Governments, what have they offered women and non-binary people?
In 2019, the year of the passing of the Abortion Law Reform Act, the Labor Party made a promise. Tanya Plibersek, speaking as then-Shadow Minister for Women, indicated that Labor, if elected, would bring to Government a policy wherein public funding for hospitals would be tied to their willingness to provide abortion care. Since then, we have seen little change and even littler improvement in the accessibility of abortion in NSW; in March this year, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that only two hospitals in NSW provide abortion services, those being John Hunter Hospital in Newcastle and Wagga Wagga Base Hospital. It goes without saying that these are not accessible for people living in Sydney. Labor failed to win the election in 2019, and have since largely refused to comment on the topic of requiring public funding for hospitals to go towards abortion care.
One can produce a whole host of polls which demonstrate that greater funding for, and greater access to, abortion care for all is very popular. An Australian Clinicians for Choice survey in January and February of this year found 68% of the 650 NSW residents surveyed believed that “every public hospital delivering women’s health services should also provide abortions.” The public voting response to proposed laws around restricting, or allowing, abortions since the repeal of Roe v Wade in the United States demonstrates huge popular support for accessible abortion care. Considering all this, and considering that NSW Parliament already voted in favour of abortion care under a Liberal Government in 2019, why won’t the Labor Government commit to actually improving access to reproductive health care in NSW?
The Federal Senate Inquiry into Reproductive Health Care Access passed down its final report in May of this year. It goes to great lengths to note the difficulties the vast majority of people wishing to get an abortion will find when trying to access one which is safe, timely and affordable. Despite this, the Inquiry does not determine that it must be mandatory for public health funding recipients to provide abortion care; instead it simply recommends that there should be more money for abortion care. “It is outrageous that private hospitals receiving public funding denied healthcare to pregnant people in need,” said Greens Senator Larrissa Waters, the chair of the Inquiry. She followed by saying, “[w]e could not get consensus agreement through the Senate inquiry to require private hospitals to provide abortion care as a condition of receiving public funding.”
Public funding for hospitals in this country goes to both public and private hospitals; thus, public hospitals are also not required to provide abortion care in order to receive public funding. As long as ‘conscientious objections’ are a legitimate reason for hospitals to not provide abortion care, no change in this area will ever be achieved. Further, abortion cannot just be offered in cases where the life of the pregnant person, or the health of the foetus, is at risk. Non-fatal illnesses are treated every day at hospitals; abortion is healthcare and must be accessible in all instances. The State and Federal Governments across the country must actively choose to no longer embrace cowardice around providing full reproductive healthcare for all.
Equality Bill –
Since government policy towards Women includes all women, Sydney MP Alex Greenwich’s proposed Equality Bill must be relevant to this discussion. The Equality Bill was introduced on the 24th of August, largely seeking to update portions of the Anti-Discrimination Act (ADA), particularly with regards to banning conversion therapy and enshrining self-identification for gender identity on state documents. The ADA changes include removing exemptions which allow private education institutions to discriminate against students and employees in certain cases, and limiting situations in which religious organisations can use discriminatory hiring practices to only roles relevant to religious practice. Legal protections are also proposed to be extended to those who are bisexual, asexual, non-binary and have ‘variations of sex characteristics’, and sex workers. There is a peculiarity to the sex worker part; it would be illegal to discriminate against sex workers as a population, but not against the act of sex work. Nonetheless, positive legislative change for sex workers is an excellent inclusion and is the result of many years of activism and demands from sex workers themselves.
Beyond this, The Equality Bill seeks to legislate the capacity for those 16 and above to consent to medical and/or dental treatment. This is particularly of importance to young people seeking gender affirmative care, although those under the age of 16 still need a counsellor to sign off on any treatment. It would also remove the requirement to undergo surgical procedures which change sex characteristics in order to alter state records of your sex.
On the problematic side, it would establish a lawful criteria for discrimination against transgender people in sport from the age of 12 onwards. It also fails to include legislation around outlawing medically unnecessary procedures on intersex children.
The State Labor Government has indicated it will not support this bill; it seems they intend to put it through the State Law Commission first. This would take a long time and seems tantamount to a delaying tactic; it also fits with NSW Labor’s strategy throughout their time in office, which is to commission a review first and act at an unspecified date much later, or never. Queer activist organisations such as Pride in Protest have expressed their desire for the bill to be passed immediately, with amendments to strengthen it, and have demanded further protections for sex workers, intersex people and queer people generally to follow. There are concerns that Labor may wish to include religious exemptions for conversion therapy bans, which would undermine the purpose of the legislation.
University Sexual Violence Taskforce –
For much of this year, End Rape on Campus (EROC) and Fair Agenda have been running a campaign for a Federal Taskforce to oversee, and combat, sexual violence on University Campuses. On Thursday the 14th of September, a report was tabled from the Inquiry into Consent Laws led by the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs References Committee. A cross-party committee, its recommendations included the following:
- That a third National Survey on Sexual Violence on campus be conducted, including students from age 17. This would be the second National Student Safety Survey.
- That the Commonwealth Government commissions an independent review of TEQSA’s (Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency) response to sexual violence on University Campuses.
- That the Commonwealth Government immediately implements an independent taskforce with strong powers to oversee Universities’ policies and practices around sexual violence, and to respond to sexual violence on campus and in student residences.
The recommendations were unanimous, despite Liberal Senator Paul Scarr chairing and three of the six overall members being in the Liberal Party. As these are simply recommendations, we must wait to see whether they are taken up by the Albanese Government. Nonetheless, to not take on these recommendations would be a very active decision by the Federal Labor Government to ignore this issue. In the meantime we may be cautiously optimistic that real oversight of sexual violence on campus across the country could be a reality sooner rather than later.
Further recommendations from the Consent Laws Inquiry include:
- For the Commonwealth Government to ‘assess’ the success of ‘pilot projects for specialised and trauma-informed legal services’ and fund them further if they are assessed as successful.
- For the Attorney-General’s Department to developed a ‘National Sexual Violence Bench Book’, specifically addressing rape myths, for ‘judicial officers’ to respond better to sexual violence
- Furthering the inclusion, and consistent assessment, of affirmative consent laws across the country.
Beyond the positive recommendations around sexual violence on campus, the Inquiry provides relatively little as to addressing sexual violence in broader society.
This is only a brief summary of the issues concerning women that have been broached by Parliament and the Labor Party this year, as discussion of the new updates for the ‘National Plan to End Violence against Women and Children 2022-2032, and discussion of Labor’s largely hostile approach to union campaigns in feminised industries like nursing and midwifery, are beyond the scope of this article. Nonetheless we see, as we have seen time and time again, that governments of any stripe will overlook the concerns of women and non-binary people until they are forced, by public pressure and popular movements, to act. Feminist activists must understand this, and equally understand that the Government approaches the concerns of Indigenous people, workers, migrants and more in the same manner. Feminist activists understand well the struggle of fighting for one’s rights when people across identity barriers don’t seem to care; this is all the more impetus for feminists to engage in and support all movements for liberation, to illuminate all areas of society with feminist politics and to demand feminist justice until none can feign ignorance as to its need.