Labor abortion policy

State and territory Labor branches are slowly moving towards a binding vote for elected members on the issue of abortion, setting up for a fight with the more conservative members of the party.

It is expected that both the New South Wales and ACT branches of Labor will debate motions on the contentious issue of removing the conscience vote for elected members on abortion at their conferences this weekend. As it stands now, abortion and marriage equality (until 2019) are two of the few issues where Labor members are allowed a conscience vote, but given the vote on marriage equality will be binding after this term of Parliament, there are now moves to remove the other conscience vote for abortion. There are two motions put up by ACT Labor for Choice tomorrow:

  1. ACT Labor supports removing a free vote on abortion in the Australian Labor Party’s National Rules, and implementing a binding vote in favour of a woman’s right to choose on all members of the party elected to public office;
  2. ACT Labor calls on its delegates to the next National Labor Conference to vote in favour of implementing a binding vote in favour of a woman’s right to choose on all members of the party elected to public office.

A similar motion calling on removing the free vote from the national platform passed the Tasmanian Labor conference earlier this month, and other state branches are believed to be working towards similar motions ahead of the national conference next year.

Labor for Choice national organisers Briony Roelandts and Grace Flanagan told Crikey that a woman’s right to access safe, legal and affordable abortion is core to Labor’s values of alleviating economic and social inequality.

“The conscience vote on abortion in the ALP’s national platform means that Labor cannot stand together against pro-life campaigns. The statistics are clear, in Australia one third of all women and people with reproductive abilities will have an abortion in their lifetime and over 80 per cent of Australians believe that women should have the right to choose. If members of parliament truly wish to serve their communities, they should support legal, safe, affordable, accessible abortion services,” they said in a joint statement. 

Abortion laws in Australia are largely determined by the states or territories, but the federal government does play a role in deciding the legality and access to abortion drugs such as RU486.

[Case closed: experts loudly back decriminalisation of abortion in Qld]

Emily’s List members in the Labor Party already support choice, but the aim of the motions is to lock in the remaining members should the matter come up for debate in any level of government. It is not a purely hypothetical issue, or one aimed at protecting the right to choose from a conservative government that might attempt to roll back reproductive rights. Abortion remains in the criminal code in some states. In a recent conscience vote in New South Wales Parliament on a Greens bill to decriminalise abortion, three male Labor members voted with the government to defeat the bill. Labor’s health spokesman Walt Secord said that although he voted for the bill, the bill itself was flawed.

Should the motion get traction and get all the way to national conference, it could potentially cause a breakaway from the party by the union best believed to represent Catholic members — the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association (SDA). The Shoppies union and its elected members are the most conservative within the Labor Party and have a long history of opposition to marriage equality and abortion. In a 2007 submission to a Victorian Parliament inquiry on abortion, for example, the SDA said “abortion should not be decriminalised. It should remain a serious criminal offence under Victorian law, and this law should be enforced with justice in order to protect innocent human life, and to maintain due respect for the sanctity of human life.”

Some within Labor are questioning whether the SDA would remain affiliated with Labor if a binding vote on abortion were to become part of the national platform, but the union has in the past relented on its hardline positions in the face of overwhelming support for a change in policy for the party. As the SDA stared down the barrel of its members being bound on same-sex marriage after the next election as a result of the 2015 national conference platform change, the union chose to drop its opposition to marriage equality. The union did not respond to a request for comment by deadline.

[All over the Shoppies]

Roelandts and Flanagan did not say whether they were concerned about an SDA breakaway from Labor, but said Labor members should be focused on representing their electorate. 

“The concern of all of Labor’s representatives should be over their community’s health and how well they are representing their electorate. This motion simply ensures that all members elected to public office for the Labor party use their vote to support women. If the ALP truly wants to be the political party for women, we need to ensure that all our representatives support a woman’s right over her own body.”

SDA-aligned former Labor senator for Western Australia Joe Bullock resigned from the Senate last year, just over two years into his term, citing the 2019 binding vote for marriage equality as one of the reasons he could no longer represent the party in Parliament.