Safe access zones around reproductive clinics

Legislative Council - 24 May 2018


The Hon. JOHN GRAHAM (12:32): I support the Public Health Amendment (Safe Access to Reproductive Health Clinics) Bill 2018. I will speak first about one of the flash points for this debate; that is, the situation in Albury, where this debate has been particularly important in the local community. Members have already told the House that Albury has only one publicly funded women's health clinic—the Englehardt Street centre—which serves a catchment of 300,000 citizens. The Helpers of God's Precious Infants group have for some significant time made their views clear outside the centre by engaging in activities that other members have already canvassed.

A social worker in Albury, who did not want to be named, was reported by the Guardian Australia as saying:

Many women end up travelling to Melbourne or Sydney for the procedure because they can't face the protesters, Some teenage girls do self-harm because they don't feel safe going to the clinic here, or they're worried they will be identified by the protesters and the whole city will know about it.

They don't have the resources to go to Melbourne or Sydney, their parents may not know, and they are so stressed and traumatised, they attempt suicide.

That is an upsetting view about what is happening on the ground.

What is the Albury community view of this bill? We know something about that because the member for Albury, Greg Aplin, has called for feedback, and I congratulate him on doing so. He received a 97 per cent approval response for exclusion zones. A newspaper report states:

Only a handful of 200-odd respondents to Albury MP Greg Aplin did not declare support for a NSW parliamentary bill which would ban protests and harassment within 150 metres of reproductive clinics.

That is consistent with the email messages that he received. This issue has been comprehensively discussed across the State, but it is particularly important for people living in towns like Albury and other places in the bush where equal access to reproductive health services is vital. That is not only my view; we have heard that it is also the view of the Country Women's Association. Annette Turner, the State President of the association, wrote:

The CWA of NSW was formed out of desperate need back in 1922. Country women were fighting isolation and an appalling lack of health facilities.

We also write to offer our strong support for this Bill. That is an incredibly important view to put because this is an issue in the city but it is doubly important in the bush. Getting access to services is critical and we must acknowledge the way in which these issues bite in those communities.

I grew up in Albury and I was a member of the local church community. In fact, I served at St Patrick's Church as an altar boy for some years, but I was sacked. I was charged with holding the prayer book for the priest. However, I grew quickly and all of a sudden no-one in the congregation could see the priest; all they could see were his arms stretching out on each side of the prayer book. I was given the message that it was time to quit.

One of the great things about living in Albury was the sense of community—which is not always evident in the city—and people knowing and looking out for each other. However, that also brings its own pressures because everyone knows everyone else's business. It is often more difficult in that situation when people are facing personal issues and they do not want to grapple with them or they are least able to grapple with them. There are other pressures and we do not want to add to them. Equal access to these services in country New South Wales is a crucial part of this discussion.

Members have repeatedly referred to the constitutionality of this bill. In my view, any effect on political communication is relatively insubstantial. This bill will not affect the right to protest on the steps of the Parliament, to advertise in the media, to write to elected representatives—which we have had plenty of in relation to this debate, and that is a good thing—or to direct other communications aimed at changing public opinion about abortion laws or influencing elected representatives.

All these things are not affected. I support the right to protest. I encourage people to protest on this issue. That should be the case. That is not inconsistent with the measures in this bill. In fact, we could go further to support the right to protest in this State. One thing we could do, following the recent decision of the High Court in relation to the Tasmanian protest laws, is repeal the New South Wales protest laws in relation to other matters.

My colleague the Hon. Penny Sharpe attracted some attention in this debate by pointing out that we have a 300-metre exclusion zone for whales in the State of New South Wales and that perhaps 150 metres for women is not unreasonable. I add this observation: It is not just the whales who get a better go. Under the anti-protest laws in New South Wales, inanimate objects such as coal seam gas wells are better protected from protests. I say that because I support the right to protest, but I support the right to peaceful, respectful protest. That set of ideas must be at the heart of the way in which we deal with these issues. It has to be based on respect for the strong views on both sides of this discussion.

The ideas of health, wellbeing and safety are at the heart of this bill. The prohibitions in this bill about communication are not directed at preventing "hurt feelings" or securing "the civility of discourse". These are purposes that have troubled the courts in the past. These measures are directed at protecting the safety and wellbeing, and the privacy and dignity, of persons attending or working at these clinics. That is a very important view to assert. I note correspondence from the New South Wales Council for Civil Liberties in which Therese Cochrane wrote:

The regular—and often extreme—harassment and intimidation of women accessing NSW clinics is indisputable—as is the inadequacy of current NSW law to provide protection from this harassment.

Similar provisions exist in 2 states and 2 territories.

I make a couple of final observations. When the law changes, it has a real impact on people's lives. As a useful illustration of this, on 25 May 2017 Philip Goldstone from Marie Stopes Australia wrote:

While I am based in NSW, I have the privilege of working in Marie Stopes clinics across the country. There is a marked difference between places that have safe access zones and those that don't. Since the zones were implemented in Victoria in 2016, the experience of entering our Maroondah clinic has changed. Where once staff and patients were yelled at and had graphic images thrust at them that are designed to misinform and manipulate, they are now able to attend the clinic in peace.

These laws do have a real impact on the lived experience of citizens. They will have a real impact on the lived experiences of citizens in New South Wales if, as I hope and expect, this bill is passed. I look forward to that day. I particularly thank my colleague the Hon. Penny Sharpe, who has led this discussion and debate over a long period for the Labor Party, and led it in the way for which she is known—with gentle, persuasive and persistent advocacy. That is an important factor in why we are here today. I also recognise the role of the Hon. Trevor Khan and all those on both sides of the Chamber who have supported this bill. I also thank two Victorian colleagues, Jill Hennessy and Fiona Patten, who have been pretty crucial in the Victorian discussion. Many of the facts and sources of information are due to the work they have done on this debate in Victoria. Whatever side of the debate a person is on, this is a more informed debate because of the work done by the Victorian Parliament in this area. I commend the bill to the House.