In the end, the final vote on the stem cell legislation was as close as it could have been: 34 to 32 in favour of the “Yes” side. One more vote for the “No” camp and the legislation would have been defeated, meaning any number of senators can now claim to have had the casting vote.

The closeness of the vote illustrates just how testing the issue has been for individual senators. As Andrew Bartlett blogged last night:

I would have preferred the extra day or two to think further about the matter and discuss my concern with others, and I really didn’t reach a conclusive view in my head about how I would vote until the very final minutes…

Those in favour of the legislation seemed to be keen to just bring on the final vote as soon as possible – I presume because they had such a slim margin in favour and they were worried that waverers might change their view overnight.

My lack of enthusiasm for the vote I ended up casting in favour was such that it is possible I would have taken a different view tomorrow, so I guess in that sense their strategy worked…

Given his prevarication, why didn’t Bartlett abstain, especially given the weight of his vote? That would have “been a bit of a cop-out”, he tells Crikey. “With an issue of such importance, you’ve got to take a position.”

But on the broader issue, “I’m still not convinced I did the right thing”. While I eventually went the way I did, he says, I really do think the issue of the “worth of the entity we’re creating” is something we’ve got to talk about a bit more as a community. “I don’t think we did that very well at all, from all sides frankly.” 

Bartlett’s “Yes” vote is consistent with his support in 2002 of legislation allowing the use of surplus IVF embryos for research, but Bob Brown, who voted against the earlier legislation, has chosen to vote in favour of the current bill. Like Bartlett, Brown acknowledged that neither side of the debate was overwhelmingly compelling:

Are we doing good or are we doing harm? In the end, I’ve come to the conclusion that this legislation will do more good than harm.

While Bartlett and Brown appear to have made a decision based on the lesser-of-two-evils approach, others felt the issues more strongly, giving rise to some entertaining rhetoric:

Natasha Stott Despoja (Dems): “This is the happiest days of my parliamentary life…We avoided a Luddite moment.”

Julian McGauran (Lib): “It has all the pride equal to a Nuremberg rally – a rally of Dr Strangeloves chanting for such weird experiments as the creation of hybrid embryos, mixing humans with animals.”

Andrew Murray (Dems): “I do not fear that I will live to see centaurs, minotaurs or satyrs.”

Steve Hutchins (ALP): “We don’t know what doors we will be opening if we pass this bill.”

Ron Boswell (Nats): “We entered a race and we created two types of embryos, one born to live and the other created to die. I don’t think it is a particularly good day for Australia.”

For a full list of how each Senator voted, click here.

Peter Fray

Fetch your first 12 weeks for $12

Here at Crikey, we saw a mighty surge in subscribers throughout 2020. Your support has been nothing short of amazing — we couldn’t have got through this year like no other without you, our readers.

If you haven’t joined us yet, fetch your first 12 weeks for $12 and start 2021 with the journalism you need to navigate whatever lies ahead.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

JOIN NOW