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Abortion: Don't Blame the Voters

By Helen Pringle - posted Wednesday, 3 November 2010

The Australian Family Association (AFA) last week released a report entitled "What Queenslanders Really Think about Abortion" (PDF). On the basis of the report, the AFA warns that an average electoral swing of 12% would be generated against Queensland members of parliament if they voted for decriminalisation in any conscience vote on abortion. The report was sent to all members of the Queensland parliament in an effort to form their consciences on the issue.

The publication of the AFA report followed on the not guilty verdict in the recent Cairns trial related to abortion. The basis of the report was a telephone poll of 400 Queensland voters conducted on 15-17 October, the weekend after the trial, with 13 questions designed to delve deeply into attitudes on the question of abortion. However, the AFA report actually adds little to the findings of the 2006 report of the Australian Federation of Right to Life Associations, "What Australians Really Think about Abortion" (PDF). The two reports have the same cover layout and go over much the same ground, but the earlier report does not link attitudes on abortion to voting intentions.

It is clear that the chief aim of the AFA report is not in fact to look more closely at Australians' attitudes on abortion, but to dissuade Queensland members of parliament from pursuing its legislative decriminalization. The report notes that 55% of canvassed voters said that an MP's support for decriminalization would make no difference to their voting intentions, with another 26% saying they would be less likely to vote for a MP supporting decriminalization, and 14% saying they would be more likely to vote for the MP in that case. At the launch of the report, the AFA spokesman Alan Baker noted, rather oddly, "This represents an average swing of 12 per cent."


Mr Baker was explicit about the aim of the report in warning MPs against supporting decriminalization. In this context, he noted what he saw as the success of a "humble education program" in unseating the ALP member for Aspley, Bonny Barry, at the 2009 state election. Barry had announced her intention to introduce a bill to decriminalize abortion, and according to Baker, his humble program targeted her on this ground and had contributed to her defeat. At last week's launch of the AFA report, Voters for Life spokesman Luke McCormack also made its aim explicit: "I'd like to say to the radical fringe [seeking to change Queensland's abortion laws] we know what you're up to and Queenslanders when they find out will demonstrate their opinion at the ballot box."

The question of the polling methodology of the AFA study is a topic for analysis elsewhere. What I want to draw attention to here is the mistaken idea that the AFA draws from the report: that the chief obstacle to abortion reform is the beliefs and voting patterns of electors. In fact, the chief obstacle to reform has little to do with voters' attitudes, but everything to do with the will of members of parliament to pursue legislative change in this area.

Take Alan Baker's example of Bonny Barry. Voters for Life and other pro-life organizations did target her seat in 2009, and Ms Barry did lose her seat. But voting records provide no evidence to support a causal connection between these two events, and especially not a 12% swing connection. The Queensland ALP sustained around a 4.7% swing against it in 2009, with Ms Barry suffering around a 7% swing. Family First polled a meager 633 votes in Aspley, 2.4% of the primary vote, hardly evidence of the salience of pro-life voting intentions among electors. Barry's Liberal National Party opponent, Tracy Davis, appears to have no connection to Right to Life and no public commitment either way in regard to abortion. Antony Green's analysis of the Aspley result focuses on Anna Bligh's planned closure of a hospital in the area as decisive, as did Davis' first speech in parliament.

Bonny Barry's position on abortion is unlikely to have played a significant role in her defeat, and certainly not a decisive role. Other factors were at play, just as they were present in the most cited Australian example of electoral retribution on a parliamentarian for support of abortion reform, Michael Maher's defeat at the 1987 commonwealth election.

Maher lost the marginal seat of Lowe for the ALP in 1987 after Right to Life had campaigned vigorously against him for refusing to support an amendment to the Human Rights Bill that defined life as beginning at conception. Labor women politicians like Meredith Burgmann have often cited Maher's defeat as an example of the risks of support for abortion reform by MPs.

But Maher's defeat does not bear out any such interpretation. Right to Life Australia did target the seat of Lowe in 1987, using part of its small total electoral budget of $25,000. However, Maher was a devout Catholic father of five children, a supporter of NSW Right to Life, and an outspoken critic of abortion (saying, "I believe that abortion is an evil thing and philosophically wrong"). Members of the ALP reportedly called him "Father Maher".


Maher had won the seat of Lowe at a 1982 by-election, after it had been held for 32 years by Billy McMahon (himself a supporter of wide access to abortion). Going into the 1987 election, Maher held Lowe with a slim margin of 2.3%, and he lost the seat by only 80 primary votes. In his own explanation of the defeat, Maher cited opposition to the proposed national ID card, pensioner anger with government policies, and the general swing against Labor in Sydney (the 3.8% swing against Maher was no greater than the average swing against the government in metropolitan Sydney). There is simply no evidence to support a claim by either side in the abortion debate that Maher's loss came because of support for abortion reform.

A more recent example of the myth of popular retribution on parliamentarians who support abortion reform concerns Pauline Hanson. In 2003, Hanson's advisor David Oldfield announced that he was writing a book about her, and referred to an incident when Hanson was asked about her view on abortion at a public meeting on the Darling Downs in May 1998. She had replied, "It is every woman's right to determine her own body". Oldfield argued that Hanson's supporters were religious and conservative, and were angered by this inadvertent revelation of her views on abortion: "She got cornered and was asked these questions. She started to give answers along the lines of how a woman's body was her temple. People freaked out…. It probably cost two seats in the 1998 State election".

Again, however, there is no evidence to support Oldfield's claim about the electoral repercussions of Hanson's response, nor did Oldfield provide any. In fact, shortly after the Darling Downs incident, it was reported that several One Nation candidates in Queensland had responded to a survey by the Women's Electoral Lobby and the Queensland Women's Interest Coalition asking for their views on women's issues. Of those who replied, six argued that abortion should be removed from the Criminal Code and brought under the Queensland Health Act. Four of the candidates supported a woman's right to choose. Their electors failed to freak out, at least not in the sense that Oldfield meant: One Nation received 22.7% of the primary vote across the state, and gained 11 seats in the Legislative Assembly.

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About the Author

Helen Pringle is in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the University of New South Wales. Her research has been widely recognised by awards from Princeton University, the Fulbright Foundation, the Australian Federation of University Women, and the Universities of Adelaide, Wollongong and NSW. Her main fields of expertise are human rights, ethics in public life, and political theory.

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