For those of you outside Australia, the national political news of the week has been dominated by the conscience vote on RU486.
A conscience vote is one where the members are free to vote according to their own preference, rather than according to the party line as enforced by the whips. They are extremely rare in Australia; this is only the third conscience vote since the Howard Government took office close to ten years ago.
The bill in question was formally a matter of stripping the Minister of Health of the right to decide wether the drug RU486 should be available, restoring the approval decision to the Therapeutical Goods Administration. This is the case with all other drugs; in 1996, as part of a deal with Brian Harradine, a conservative Catholic independant senator from Tasmania who retired in 2005, the law waschanged so that women wanting access to RU486 had to apply through their doctor for approval from Health Minister Tony Abbott. None ever applied to Health Minister Tony Abbott, a devout Catholic. So the drug never became available in Australia, although it is used in many other countries, including the United States, the United Kingdom and New Zealand.
Late last year, Senator Fiona Nash (National, NSW) introduced the bill in the Senate as a private member's bill. This is also unusual; bills originated in the Senate cannot impose taxes or charges so most bills are originated in the House of Representatives.
Although some MPs showed that their ability to think for themselves had atrophied, others more thn rose to the occsion. Senator Lyn Allison (Democrat, Vic) spoke of how she had had an abortion when she was 18 (when the procedure was illegal). Treasurer Peter Costello (Liberal, Vic) spoke of being faced with a decision when his unconscious wife's pregnancy was impededing the medication that she needed to survive (both survived).
In the end, the bill was passed. The Prime Minister, throwing in the towel, permitted a verbal vote so numbers and votes were not fornmally recorded.
Already, four doctors have applied for prescribing rights as has the Royal Women's Hospital and the Shanghai Pharmaceutical Group, a Chinese pharmaceutical company that makes the drug, has expressed interest in importing it if it could find an Australian distributor.