Many speakers in the first part of this debate on the Therapeutic Goods Amendment (Repeal of Ministerial responsibility for approval of RU486) Bill 2005 will make similar comments. There is much that I am going to say that has already been said, so I will try to amend my comments. It is important that, when we have any bill before our parliament, people understand exactly what the terms and nature of the legislation are. I hope people have taken the opportunity over the last several months to read the bill and the explanatory memorandum and to understand exactly what this debate is about. It is not a national referendum on the rights or wrongs, legality or morality of a woman's right to choose to abort. In fact, it seeks to clearly identify for all our community where the appropriate assessment process for the safety, efficiency and quality of a medication should be .
There has been no attempt to hide the purpose for which this medication would be used. In fact, throughout the evidence we have seen much information, medical and social. It has been from people who have used different forms of abortion treatments and people who are deeply opposed to that form of treatment-but people who wanted to have a say in the debate. My concern is that I am not quite convinced that the bill was the debate.
It is clear that there is an overwhelming interest in the safety of Australian women, and that is something that we all share. One positive aspect to come out of the volume of correspondence that we have all received and the level of interest is that there is an agreement that women in Australia must be safe and they must have safe choices. What we have before us to consider as a voting parliament is the assessment process.
Four women from across party backgrounds have combined to put before the parliament a private member's bill. We believe that we should reaffirm the right of the Therapeutic Goods Administration, the TGA as it is commonly called, to do the job for which it was established, for this particular group of medications. We talk mainly about RU486 because that is the drug that is most commonly known and that was most spoken about in the previous discussion in this place in 1996 when the amendment was first introduced. It did not refer, and does not refer today, only to RU486 but to a group of medications, as is public information and available on the internet. There is no confusion about that. But in common parlance throughout this debate and the correspondence process people have focused on RU486.
We have heard from previous speakers and no doubt we will hear in the future exactly what the role of the TGA is. Again, I really encourage people in this debate to look at the information and to find out what our TGA does. That would be a positive step. How are medications evaluated in this country and by whom? Exactly what processes are used? What follow-up is done? What roles do the various expert panels, which Senator Troeth described, have? Who takes positions on those panels? The key positions in the TGA are by ministerial appointment, so there is an acknowledgement that there is that link with the parliament. You do not wake up one morning and find yourself on an expert panel for the TGA. There is some expectation that you have gained that position through the community, through your scientific expertise and through your knowledge of the issue.
Our TGA is widely regarded and respected, not just in Australia. After all, about 50,000 medications have been viewed and assessed by this body-and I will not name them all; they are there on the website. You can find exactly what medications Australians are able to access after the TGA has fulfilled its role to ensure that they meet the safety, efficiency and quality expectations of our community.
What we are asking in our bill is that that expectation is extended to the group of medications that are used mainly for abortion. And that is the key difference in the debate. It has been the key difference in all the correspondence we have had. That has been what some people want the debate to be about. As I have said before in this place, if that is what people want to debate, bring it forward and have that debate. Have another debate at this level-I am not quite sure what the methodology would be-in this place about whether Australians want or support the right of women in the country to choose. One of the things I have found most confronting through the last few months is how many people want to tell me what most Australians want, how many tools they are able to bring forward to tell me what most Australians want and how many tools people are prepared to bring forward in their letters, emails, submissions and evidence that absolutely prove the comments they are making. But when you actually dig deeper, you find that people need more information and they sometimes do not really fully understand the information they are quoting with conviction. One of the senators on our panel used to ask the people who came before us: 'This particular amendment was put forward in 1996; we have lived with it for 10 years; what is different now?' We have moved with, amongst other things, the increase in worldwide knowledge on this form of medication. The evidence that is able to be accessed is of a greater volume and there is a much greater ability to test the drug because of the number of women who have used RU486. But for me, probably what has changed most in that 10 years is people's ability to access and feed back the information they can find on the internet. Someone commented today that we have been receiving a Google based argument in our inquiry. That has been proved by looking at the various internet links that people have used in preparing their submissions and their evidence. That in itself is a very good thing because it shows that people are interested in the topic.
The clearest message for me out of all of it was that we need to have this large volume of evidence efficiently and independently assessed. As has been said by previous speakers, this parliament is not the place for that form of medical assessment to be done. That kind of decision must be appropriately referred to the government body which has been designed to fulfil that role-and is seemingly quite confidently able to fulfil that role for all other medications in the country. To the people who raised questions about the efficiency, funding and processes within the TGA, my response is that if they have concerns about how the TGA operates then those concerns are valid for all medications. As some witnesses-not many-have raised concerns in this inquiry about the ability of the TGA to fulfil its role with regard to safety, efficiency and quality, perhaps what we should do is review the funding for and the processes within the TGA. I do not believe that is necessary. Instead of using that particular lever in making those arguments, we should be ensuring that we are absolutely confident with the Therapeutic Goods Administration on all levels. The feedback that we get from international sources and also from the various medical bodies in this country-many of whom felt that it was important that they give evidence to our inquiry-is that they have that faith. They also believe that there has to be effective interaction between the medical practitioners and the TGA accreditation body.
A major concern was raised in the recent inquiry about the group of drugs listed as a result of the amendment passed in this place in 1996. If the major concern about that group of medications identified in this bill is their safety, surely that should be able to be assessed by the body which is qualified to do the assessment for all other medications. A clear message out of the inquiry should be the reinforcement of the role of the TGA. Surely we would be able to agree on that. However, if the difference goes deeper than that and is specifically about the usage of the medication, there will be no agreement. There cannot be agreement on that issue, because the evidence, the passion and the emotion around the issue of abortion in this country continues to be great. I believe that none of that debate was unexpected by the people putting up this particular private member's bill. However, that is not reason enough not to put forward the bill. What we need to do is to take up our responsibility as elected members of parliament and see what we can do to ensure the safety of Australian women. The debate must reinforce the role of the TGA to ensure that Australian women have effective and safe choices, and our community must ensure that they are treated with respect and have their judgments respected. It is not good enough that people are prepared to impose on others their particular views and ideas about what is right. A question that I consistently asked people who came before our committee who were in the medical profession and who were giving evidence about their concerns about the safety of RU486 was whether there was anything in the proposed legislation that would force them to use this particular medication. Where was the compulsion to use this process? There is none. The amendment that we have put before the parliament carries no compulsion. The amendment that we have put before the parliament gives clear responsibility to a group that has been developed for that job.
I do not think it would have been possible to have this full debate without getting into the debate about abortion in Australia. However, when we are considering this particular piece of legislation we must move away from those issues and focus on the safety and medical aspects. I know that is difficult. I know that there are people in the community who have made cases that the particular use of this drug means that there is an extra role for elected politicians. I do not agree with that premise. As has been said before, the legality or otherwise of abortion is determined at the state government level. Various parliaments have passed various rules about that. It is important that our community fully understands that. The issues about the morality of the drug lie with individuals. People must have the freedom and the respect to make up their own minds on those issues. I am hopeful that there is the degree of respect in our community to allow those decisions to be taken with freedom and independence. I am concerned that so many people who wished to have their say in this debate were unsure about the exact terms of the debate. They are still confused about whether or not we are looking at legalising RU486. They are still concerned about anything that we will be doing in this particular process that would in any way force people to take actions with which they would not be comfortable. I ask that those people who are involved in this debate please read the legislation. Ask the questions. Do not confuse this debate with one that you may wish to have. This is not the time or the legislation.
I want to acknowledge some of the people who are in the gallery who have been working in women's health for many years and who have been deeply involved in these discussions. It is important that in processes like this their voices are heard.
After this round of debate, we will have more. Regardless of how the vote goes tomorrow afternoon in this place and in the House of Representatives, the discussion will not end. No piece of legislation, no amendment, remains unchanged. There is nothing in our democracy that should be outside the ability to be reviewed by this parliament; by any parliament. In terms of how we do it, however, what I hope is that we can learn through this process that we can discuss difficult issues and are able to have very serious disagreement. All of us would acknowledge that the last few public hearings have not been the easiest things to get through, but we have survived. One of the messages out of this process should be that we can have these debates and that we are mature enough to be able to have different perspectives yet clearly understand what our roles are.
At this time, I seek leave to table a series of petitions on this issue that we received yesterday, which I have passed through the two whips.
Senator MOORE-I will read what the topic is-what people were signing. These petitions were clearly on the topic of the legislation.
We, the undersigned, believe medical experts, not the Federal Health Minister, should determine the availability of RU486 in Australia.
My hope and expectation, in terms of our democratic system, is that people who are prepared to put their names to these petitions as well as the letters and statements have fully read the legislation and understood what it was about. My hope is that this debate will ensure that the people of Australia will fully read the legislation and understand the real issues.
The Google aspect of this process should be admired, because it means that people have taken an interest. I think the degree of interest surely reinforces the need for appropriate medical, safety and efficiency assessment so that our goal to ensure that women are safe is obtained and that we in parliament are able to appropriately do our job, not pretend that we know what all Australians want, nor that we know what should happen and that we have any special ability by being elected to this place to have skills beyond our own knowledge-and that includes being able to assess medical safety, regardless of how knowledgeable we are in other ways. I commend the people who made the effort to be part of the process, to contact the senators and to be involved, but I beg that you actually understand and accept what we are debating and do not get confused with some other debate.
08 February, 2006