Labor has been anxious to sharpen the abortion issue against Tony Abbott in the election run up and now it has a way of doing so.
The government has signalled that it wants to put the abortion drug RU486 on the Pharmaceutical Benefits list. It is beginning the process of negotiating over price, before the matter formally goes to cabinet.
And in the discussion of RU486 it is spotlighting Abbott’s record on abortion to try to cast doubt on his assertions that he would not use office to pursue his anti-abortion beliefs.
The timing of the advice for the PBS listing is coincidental, but the latest iteration of the RU486 saga is perfectly tailored for Labor’s “misogyny” narrative about the opposition leader.
Abbott was the health minister who tried to keep ministerial control of the importation of the drug. It took a conscience vote of the parliament in 2006 to put the say in the hands of the Therapeutic Drugs Administration.
All this was against the background of Abbott’s 2004 passionate speech denouncing the number of abortions in Australia.
In the run up to the election, the opposition leader has been trying to bland out his past, and to say as little as possible on the matter. His mantra is that abortion should be safe, legal and rare.
But if the government can focus attention, Abbott is caught in a bind. He doesn’t want to give the slightest ammunition to his government pursuers. The further he has to move away from his old hard-line position, however, the more he will disillusion part of his conservative base, who remember what he said before.
One can’t help wondering what Cardinal George Pell, who is close to Abbott, thinks about all this.
On Friday Abbott was asked, in the context of RU486 being headed for the PBS, whether there was anything a Coalition government would do differently in that process.
“Essentially no”, he said. “When I was the health minister we invariably took the advice of our professional advisers when it came to the safety and the efficacy of drugs.”
Asked whether he was under pressure from groups, he said: “Look, I understand that there are lots of people who are concerned to try to ensure that we have a humane society which deals decently with women who are in a very difficult position.
"And I certainly have always said that the whole issue here was to try to ensure that we empowered women, to try to ensure that we gave women in a very difficult position all the support they needed to make what was for them the best possible choice”.
Yet Abbott is still stuck with his 2004 sentiments in his address titled “The ethical responsibilities of a Christian politician”, to be found on his website.
Then he said: “The problem with the contemporary Australian practice of abortion is that an objectively grave matter has been reduced to a question of the mother’s convenience… To a pregnant 14-year-old struggling to grasp what’s happening, a senior student with a whole life mapped out or a mother already failing to cope under difficult circumstances, abortion is the easy way out.”
Then there was this rather arresting line, “When it comes to lobbying local politicians, there seems to be far more interest in the treatment of boat people, which is not morally black and white, than in the question of abortion which is.”
Health minister Tanya Plibersek is leading the charge to raise doubts about how Abbott would behave as PM.
“I noticed… Mr Abbott is now saying that he won’t interfere with the listing of these drugs”, she said on Friday. “That does go against several decades of statements in his public life and I guess it’s possible that he’s made a complete 180 degree turnaround on this issue.
"I suppose people would question whether once he’s made one complete 180 degree turnaround, whether he’ll do another 180 degrees and end up back where he started. But that really is a question for him.”
DLP senator John Madigan, who is strongly pro-life and might share the balance of power in the Senate after mid-2014, says that “Tony Abbott’s position has shifted with the seas – it’s come in and out with the tide”. Madigan has a private member’s bill that would ban Medicare benefits if an abortion was for the purpose of gender selection.
You can bet that between now and when RU486 is listed on the PBS there will be a considerable campaign from the pro-life lobby. A front page Sunday paper story said: “Couples expecting baby girls have demanded abortions because they wanted a boy instead, doctors have revealed”.
Abortion is mainly a state law matter. The Commonwealth comes in on Medicare funding and PBS drugs. The chances of Abbott as PM disturbing either would seem minimal – he would be bound by undertakings not to do so, to say nothing of the attitudes of colleagues. But the issue is dangerous for him because it can be used to reinforce the anti-women profile the government is trying to construct.