It is by now apparent that what NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian assumed would be a relatively easy political exercise in legalising abortion on demand in this state has become anything but. As a result of her fundamental misreading of the extent of opposition to her plan to allow a conscience vote to rubber stamp abortion on demand, her judgement and leadership has now been called into serious question. That misreading included not merely the likely resistance within her own cabinet and among parliamentary members of her party, but also the wider coalition, the State Opposition and even the general public.
A self-made political crisis
The Berejiklian Government, which emerged from the March election with a mandate for its political and legislative program is, as a result, seriously divided. Numerous members of her Cabinet and her party have expressed their anger at not only the ambush nature of the legislation moved by Sydney Independent MP Alex Greenwich but the way in which, to this point, the legislation has been facilitated and bulldozed through the Parliament with both Premier Berejiklian and Health Minister Brad Andrews’ active compliance and support. No less a figure than the former NSW Minister for Women, Tanya Davies, a Liberal, told media the issue is now deadly serious. “I believe it is a crisis of government that we are facing, because my community is absolutely outraged that they have been shut out and denied any opportunity to participate in this process,” she told media.
What had been a relatively strongly-positioned government with a small but working majority is now reeling from the division and polarisation – both internal and external – which is entirely of its own making. This is, by any measure, a remarkable turnaround for the Premier who, in March, won the state election and, in so doing, gave Prime Minister Scott Morrison hope he could win at the federal level. Whether Premier Berejiklian can hang on to her position after having inflicted such a debilitating blow on her own government is now much more an open question than it was before.
The degree to which the issue has cost the Government both its unity and its wider program, and which also reveals that the political lesson has finally dawned in the minds of government members backing the bill, can be judged by the 180-degree backflip the Premier carried out this week in a clear attempt to limit and wind back the damage. On Tuesday, which was expected to see the Greenwich bill pass through the Legislative Council, the Premier instead urged the bill’s legislators to delay the final vote until the next sitting week of Parliament, due to commence on 17 September. Amendments to the bill, to this point almost all of which have been thrown out abortion’s supporters in the parliament, would also be considered at that time. Furthermore, the Premier assured colleagues in a fraught party room meeting that no further conscience votes would be held in the lifetime of this government, effectively signalling that the issue of euthanasia will not be put to Parliament until the next state election due no later than 2023, assuming that the government will run its course until then.
Key political lessons
There are a number of key political lessons to be drawn from the current malaise the government has inflicted on itself. The first is that even an ambush attack aided and abetted by the government’s most senior members which, in all likelihood, appeared set to crush any opposition has, for the time being, been deflected. Even though abortion’s opponents face an uphill battle in the weeks to come, they have tactically acquitted themselves impressively in uniting to oppose the most repugnant and deplorable piece of legislation ever to come before the Parliament. In so doing they have established at almost no notice an impressive cross-parliamentary alliance with extensive community support, good interior lines of communication and situational awareness which represents a real force for the future.
The remarkable rapid development of public opposition to abortion – such as the 77,000-strong petition signatures opposing the legislation gathered in less than two weeks – has undoubtedly come as a shock to the assumptions of those pushing for legalisation. While NSW police estimated a crowd size of around 3,000 or so persons, it now transpires that the size of the crowd which demonstrated in Martin Place in Sydney’s CBD on Tuesday evening this week may very well be somewhere between 5,000 to 10,000 persons – a far greater number than organisers were expecting.
Pro-life doesn’t equal pushover
The pro-life forces in NSW, meanwhile, have shown they are no pushover and are capable of inflicting political consequences which should not be underestimated. In the coming weeks they will very likely demonstrate that their resolve has not dimmed but increased, and that all those who supported the legalisation of abortion on demand can expect consequences between now and the next election – and those to follow.
Last week this paper saluted the 31 Members of the Legislative Assembly who voted for life (and by implication those in the Legislative Council who will). This week we salute the thousands who stood in Martin Place and all those who joined in sentiment and prayer from afar. Those in Martin Place showed that those who stand for life will not simply lie down and surrender – and will have to be reckoned with for a long time to come.