Former Prime Minister John Howard with Michael Ferguson (far right)
On June 13, the Tasmanian House of Assembly was presented a firsthand account of a woman forced to travel from Hobart to Melbourne to access an abortion.
This scenario has not been altogether uncommon since Tasmania’s only private provider of surgical abortions closed in December 2017, spurring the state government to instead subsidise overseas voyages to Melbourne clinics.
The account, read by Tasmania’s opposition health spokesperson Michelle O’Byrne, was penned while the 39-year-old author sat alone in the clinic’s waiting room.
“I’m sitting here feeling beyond vulnerable, I’m feeling less of a person,” she wrote.
“I’m feeling invisible, I’m feeling alone, I’m feeling ashamed. This is my first true intersection with a health policy that fails Tasmanians. That failed me.”
It has now been confirmed the anonymous author was former Cricket Australia employee Angela Williamson.
Williamson was sacked from her position as a government relations manager, after voicing her opinions on Twitter about the state government’s decision to not offer interim surgical abortions in public hospitals.
It was also alleged by The Sydney Morning Herald that a senior government member told Cricket Tasmania about her trip to Melbourne – a piece of gossip once rampant among political insiders and the Hobart press gallery.
Labor recently alleged the senior government member that revealed Williamson’s position to the cricketing body was Tasmanian Health Minister Michael Ferguson.
It is a charge he denies, though Labor has since referred the case to Tasmania Police for investigation.
“Any suggestion that the government has disclosed private information, not on the public record, to either Cricket Australia or Cricket Tasmania is false,” Ferguson said.
While Ferguson comes across as affable – he once shouted me a drink at a craft beer festival, which I was very grateful for – many who have dealt with him mention his rigid adherence to Christian ideology.
Ferguson is the former director of the Tasmania Family Institute — a pro-life, Christian lobby group — and an avowed anti-abortion advocate.
The former federal member for Bass ran an advertisement prior to the 2007 federal election praising himself for having “spoken in parliament in defence of human life” and deriding his opponent, ALP candidate Jodie Campbell, for endorsing “legalised abortion on demand”.
More recently, an ABC investigation in June reported doctors were wary of complaining about restrictions on abortions, as they feared reprisals from the Health Minister in the form of funding cuts.
Others feared, had they voiced their concerns to superiors, that they could lose their jobs.
When probed about the overarching issue in budget estimates on June 25, the argument Ferguson parroted was that Labor never offered surgical abortions under the previous government, so neither should the incumbent.
Ferguson maintained a similar line on June 13 and downplayed the fact of women having to travel to Melbourne for the procedure, saying it was a choice they had made for themselves.
In June, he announced funding for Pregnancy Counselling and Support Tasmania — a pro-life counselling service — would double to $40,000 a year for the next three years.
Even taking Ferguson at his word in the Williamson case, his other actions indicate a near abdication of his responsibility to act within secular community expectations as Health Minister. It appears he has acted within the expectations of his strict Christian beliefs, in a state that is the least religious in the nation, according to census data.
For her part, Williamson told Crikey the feelings of betrayal she felt in regards to the Health Department had intensified “a million times” since sitting in that Melbourne waiting room.
“I was absolutely gutted, because I chose to speak up to make sure what happened to me didn’t happen to anyone else,” she recalled.
“I feel really strongly that the best policy reform I’ve ever seen is when people speak up, and tell their stories, and governments listen. I genuinely thought the government would listen and take immediate action.”
Stefan Boscia is a freelance writer and former journalist for The Examiner in Launceston.
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