Policy before party: women and political collaboration

In 2006, four women senators from different parties made history when they worked together across party lines to overturn the ministerial veto on medical abortion drug RU486.

What led these women to collaborate with their political ‘enemies’?

As with any politician, women are expected to represent their electorate and maintain party loyalty but to these tasks is added an additional pressure of whether to represent women’s interests.


Australian Labor Party Senator Claire Moore, Democrat senator Lyn Allison, Liberal senator Judith Troeth, and National senator Fiona Nash at Parliament House in Canberra.

Prior to 2006, RU486 was granted a special status and was subject to the Minister for Health’s approval for importation into Australia. Normally, medical drugs are approved by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) but a deal was done by then Prime Minister John Howard in 1996 with conservative Senator Brian Harradine to allow ministerial approval – essentially, a veto – on RU486. This created a situation that was considered intolerable to some female Senators.

Several women members of the Parliamentary Group on Population and Development (PGPD) found that across party lines they shared a common view: this ministerial veto needed to be removed. Medical abortion is an important alternative to surgical abortion for women in remote communities and for women from religious or ethnic backgrounds who require privacy and confidentiality.

Senators Claire Moore from Labor, Lyn Allison from the Democrats, Judith Troeth from the Liberal Party and Fiona Nash from the Nationals (not a member of the PGPD) co-sponsored the Therapeutic Goods Amendment Act (Repeal of Ministerial Responsibility for Approval of RU486) Bill 2005 to change the law. Although the amendment was about a TGA technicality, it became a proxy for debate about abortion and went to a conscience vote in parliament.

Marian Sawer’s research on this topic includes interviews with all co-sponsors (and other politicians involved with the bill’s successful passage) and provides invaluable insights on how the RU486 collaboration came about. My own interviews with some of the women revealed similar information, and further interviews I completed with other members of parliament revealed a high level of respect and recognition for this act of collaboration – something which politicians have begun to emulate increasingly in recent years.

The women involved on the RU486 Bill worked tirelessly and after countless conversations, number crunching, and many late nights, pushed their amendment into law. Other women were heavily involved in the process leading to the passing of the bill. This included Senator Ruth Webber garnering numbers in the Labor party room, while the government Whip, Senator Jeannie Ferris, organised Liberal numbers. It was reported that Greens Senator Kerry Nettle also helped ensure the bill’s passage and drew media attention by wearing a t-shirt directed at the Health Minister’s Catholicism that read: ‘Mr Abbott: get your rosaries off my ovaries’.

An overwhelming majority of women politicians in both houses voted in favour of the RU486 Bill in a conscience vote. The final vote in the Senate was 24 women voting Aye and three voting Noe. The bill passed in the House with no Third Reading division, but Parliamentary Library researchers put the percentage of women voting for the bill at 81%.

Whilst women do not necessarily vote on gender lines, their majority support for the bill demonstrates a substantive representation of women’s reproductive rights. Reviewing the Hansard, I discovered that women mentioned ‘women’ in their speeches more than men did. Of the 53 women that spoke in the debates, 23 of those women mentioned ‘women’ in their speeches, a total of 43%, whilst of the 100 men that spoke, 26 mentioned ‘women’, a total of 26%.

Women’s work in 2006, while not the first case of cross-party collaboration to occur, catapulted the tactic into the political spotlight, capturing the attention of other legislators. It was also used by women to attempt to change the law on pregnancy counselling services, but failed.

Women’s use of cross-party collaboration demonstrates structural gender problems in the Australian political system. Although it is a progressive strategy to work together across party lines, this collaboration was partly born out of necessity and allowed for an alternative way to change legislation. The norms and practices in parliament favour men and make it harder for women to present women’s issues: this was evident with RU486 as neither major party had a clear line on abortion, forcing women to work across party lines.

So, is collaboration now part of the political repertoire? Is it something women continue to use?

Women are no longer dominating the practice: their work in changing the law in 2006 caused other politicians to take notice. It is generally not the leadership who collaborate but those with less power. These actors generally do not have a ministry or shadow ministry of their own. Backbenchers are increasingly seeking out co-sponsors for bills and motions and making media appearances with minor party members and independents to promote an issue. The increase in minor parties and independents elected to parliament has helped create an environment more conducive to collaboration.

Cross-party collaboration gives backbenchers a chance to create policy. Often, the types of issues that collaboration centres on are controversial, meaning parties are hesitant to take a strong position, as was the case with abortion.

Marriage equality has been prominent in Australian politics for several years and has attracted cross-party collaboration.

A great deal of enthusiasm (with the resigned acknowledgement of eventual defeat) surrounded a co-sponsored bill for marriage equality in 2015. The co-sponsors of the bill came from a broad range of parties: Warren Entsch and Teresa Gambaro from the Liberal Party, Terri Butler and Laurie Ferguson from Labor, Adam Bandt from the Greens, and Independents Cathy McGowan and Andrew Wilkie. They were driven by a shared passion for marriage equality.

The two major parties had, until recently, resisted taking a position on marriage equality. The Liberal Party in particular is deeply divided on the issue. In her book Road to Ruin Niki Savva argues that it claimed the Prime Ministership of Tony Abbott – it may well contribute to the downfall of Malcolm Turnbull.

No longer can the government of the day rule by decree, passing legislation as it sees fit. Politics in Australia has never been quite that simple, but in more recent years politicians have shown a willingness to utilize the strategy of cross-party collaboration, even more so with the entrance of a variety of other parties – and therefore views – into parliament. If the trend continues, the phenomenon of collaboration may eventually be adopted by the leadership of the major parties. Perhaps this will go some way to re-engaging the public with Australian politics.

Adele Lausberg is a PhD Candidate at the University of Adelaide