Thursday, February 09, 2006

Who Are These Faceless Men*?

Anyone who read yesterday's Senate Hansard, could be forgiven for thinking that the government of this country is slipping into the hands of a cabal of anonymous, unaccountable "experts", rather than a Cabinet of well-known, unaccountable Ministers. Well, that seems to be what a few of the opponents of the THERAPEUTIC GOODS AMENDMENT (REPEAL OF MINISTERIAL RESPONSIBILITY FOR APPROVAL OF RU486) BILL 2005 obviously believe:

Senator FIELDING (Victoria—Leader of the Family First Party) (5.34 p.m.) - Everyone has an opinion about abortion. It is one of those controversial issues that sparks great community debate. We have seen that in the last few weeks in relation to the abortion drug RU486. This debate has been prompted by a private member’s bill introduced by a National Party senator, Fiona Nash. The Therapeutic Goods Amendment (Repeal of Ministerial responsibility for approval of RU486) Bill 2005 is designed to shift responsibility for approving the drug from the health minister to the Therapeutic Goods Administration - that is, the TGA - a body which examines the safety of drugs. Put simply, the question is: who decides on RU486? Do we want our elected leaders deciding whether this drug should be approved in Australia or do we want to give that decision-making power to unelected bureaucrats?

Family First believes that this is a unique drug which raises major social policy and ethical issues as well as medical and safety issues. We cannot consider the social policy issues without taking into account community attitudes ...

Family First strongly believes that policy decisions should never be made by unelected bureaucrats; their job is to advise on policy and implement policy decisions.

Senator BARNETT (Tasmania) (5.47 p.m.) - I stand here today to oppose the Therapeutic Goods Amendment (Repeal of Ministerial responsibility for approval of RU486) Bill 2005 and its repeal of ministerial responsibility for drugs, including abortion drugs, in the category of restricted goods ...

How can this cocktail of abortion drugs, together with the controversial drug RU486, which is currently under intense scrutiny around the world, be the sole province of a team of unelected officials who would have ultimate arbitrary powers? RU486 can be used in the early to mid stages of pregnancy, up to 20 weeks. What is stopping another drug being designed in the months or years ahead to kill an unborn baby late term? Nothing at all. It would be up to an unelected team of bureaucrats, no matter how expert, in the TGA. What a cop-out for federal members of parliament.

Senator POLLEY (Tasmania) (6.20 p.m.)
- I rise to speak on the Therapeutic Goods Amendment (Repeal of Ministerial responsibility for approval of RU486) Bill 2005...

The competence of the TGA is restricted to assessing medicines on medical grounds. Leaving out the cruel human rights considerations raised by RU486, the faceless public servants of the TGA should not make the decision. RU486 is not comparable with any other drug that may be considered by the TGA ...

Senator JOYCE (Queensland) (8.34 p.m.) - This is a very historic time in our parliament. There are very few times that one has the opportunity to have a responsibility for making a decision about a defining social issue that will permeate through the annals of our nation. It will be acknowledged as a personal position of commitment by the senators in this chamber. As with many other historical debates in other parliaments throughout the world, your position on this shall be written down in history and your role judged by history accordingly. As it is a conscience vote, it does the unusual thing of definitively stating who you are and the ethical issues that drive you.

This is a debate about the role of government and on the question of its determination in the lives of others and on the question of life itself ...

There is one thing that has definitely been portrayed during this debate, and that is that this is a highly contentious issue by reason of the closely held views of the citizens of Australia. The proponents of this bill believe that this ethos of political representation should not be respected. They believe a direct political remedy, reflected in the ministerial authority, should be subordinate to an unelected bureaucrat. By removing the path of authority on an issue, we allow the progression of unelected bureaucrats to attain the mantle that we believe, and the community believes, we have been elected for. The minister should be responsible for reflecting a hands-on role on contentious issues.
[my emphasis in all cases]

So who are these bureaucrats and experts who will usurp the authority of the Parliament, if this Bill passes? The bureaucrats are the public servants who work for the Therapeutic Goods Administration of the Department of Health and Aging. Apparently, they are not accountable to the Minister for Health - which would hardly surprise anyone, given the new conventions the Howard Government has adopted on Ministerial and Departmental accountability. And the experts are the members of the Australian Drug Education Evaluation Committee:

Role of ADEC

The ADEC is appointed by the Minister for Health and Ageing and provides advice to the Minister and the Secretary of the Commonwealth Department of Health and Ageing through the Therapeutic Goods Administration, on:
  • the quality, risk-benefit, effectiveness and access within a reasonable time of any drug referred to it for evaluation;
  • medical and scientific evaluations of applications for registration of prescription drugs (e.g. new chemical entities, new forms of previously registered drugs and therapeutic variations to registered drugs).
The Committee also provides services to other Government departments, committees and community-based organisations on a wide variety of regulatory matters related to prescription medicines.

But, once again, under the current understanding of the Westminster system, they're not accountable either. If we went back to holding public servants and Ministerial appointees accountable to Ministers, we might have to go back to holding Ministers accountable to Parliament. And we can't have that now, can we?

* - and women of course.

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