Since becoming Federal Health Minister, Tony Abbott has demonstrated a casual, at times even antagonistic, relationship with facts that don’t support his moral views. This week’s performance on Insiders continued this lamentable tradition. The Minister claimed that non-Government politicians supported “human cloning”, that the Government’s own expert panel recommended the creation of “human animal hybrids”, and that a private member’s bill sponsored by Senator Natasha Stott Despoja would “force” pro-life organisations to “refer people to abortion services”, and deny federal funding to those that didn’t.

In fact, the Lockhart Committee, as well as every reputable scientists in the country, has supported a ban on reproductive cloning: the implantation in a woman’s womb of an embryo created in the lab using a technique called Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer. Senator Stott Despoja’s bill does not require any pregnancy counselling agency to refer a woman for an abortion. It simply demands that all services advertise in ways that make clear to women whether they are pro-life or pro-choice.

It is noteworthy that while the Health Minister copped criticism from all sides for what Queensland Liberal MP Michael Johnson labeled “clearly inaccurate language”, and what Senator Stott Despoja described as either “confusion” or a deliberate attempt by the Minister to mislead the public, the Prime Minister is unconcerned. “Everybody can express their view”, he told ABC radio. “Tony Abbott should not be restricted in what he says just because he’s the Health Minister”.

But this response misses the point. Abbott is not being condemned for what he believes, or for making his views plain, but for playing fast and loose with the facts: a problem that his status as Federal Minister for Health arguably makes worse.

Exaggerating, sensationalising, decontextualising, misconstruing, mischaracterizing and misleading are all variations on the dishonesty charge. In one case, there is a hair to split. In response to concerns raised predominantly by pro-life groups that the demand for human eggs left women vulnerable to exploitation, the Lockhart committee did recommend a lifting of the ban on scientists pursuing the derivation of embryonic stem cells from somatic cell nuclear transfer undertaken on animal eggs. However, the recommendation clearly stipulates that such embryos “not [be] implanted into the body of a woman or allowed to develop for more than 14 days.” Hardly the living and breathing Transylvanian chimera evoked by the Health Minister’s “human animal hybrid” claim.

But charges of inaccuracy must be upheld for the remainder of the Minister’s remarks. In fact, clarifications on the point the Minister fudged with regard to pregnancy counselling were repeatedly offered during hearings into the bill conducted around the nation last month.

Some may see such criticism as beside the point. Isn’t the Health Minister’s only crime his willingness to be more open and honest than other politicians about this passions and biases? Surely, given the chance, all politicians attempt to shape law and policy to fit their ideals. Why else pursue power?

This is true to a point. But use and abuse of power are two different things. Telling fibs to discredit one’s opponents and their case for change, not to mention relying on the prestige of high office to bolster one’s falsehoods, is just not cricket. Rather, it is a condemnable means-to-an-end strategy that disregards the rules for fair play in the service of winning at all costs.

Further, those who operate in this fashion rule themselves out of the role of honest broker in the event that their preferred approach is not the one delivered by democratic processes. This has been the case with Abbott and the drug RU486. Having fought so hard, and at times unfairly, to prevent the removal of his ministerial veto over women’s access to the drug (phrases like “backyard miscarriage” and “pop and forget” pill peppered his contributions to the debate), significant questions hang over his capacity to impartially oversee the post-conscience-vote processes required to bring the drug to the market. In May, a pharmaceutical company executive revealed that the Minister and his office threatened his company with adverse consequences if it applied to register the drug in Australia.

“The thing I enjoy most as a politician,” Tony Abbott said recently, “is the opportunity to be taken seriously when you say something”.

Too right. And with such power comes responsibility. Tony Abottt is no fool. He’s more than capable of getting across a brief, if this is what he wishes to do. Minister Abbott’s failure to get the facts right when issues of gender, reproduction and sexuality are at stake undermines the quality of public debate on such matters.

It also casts doubt not just on his fitness for high office, but the wisdom of the man who keeps him there.

Publication history

Stem Cell D-Day  The Age
2006-08-28