3 October 2018

ACT Legislative Assembly displays politics at its best

| Rebecca Vassarotti MLA
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ethos and legislative assembly

The recent debate on increasing access to abortion exemplifies the true ethos of the ACT Legislative Assembly.

Few people will argue that the ugly side of politics has been on display in recent months in the Federal Parliament. With nightly reporting of the worst of politics, it is easy to think that our entire political system is completely broken. It is easy for us to form the view that all politicians have forgotten that their job is to serve the public good rather than themselves.

Of course, this is not true. Most of the time politics is conducted civilly and constructively. Unfortunately, we know that the poor behaviour is newsworthy and gets reported. A result of this is that the positive work that gets done in parliaments every day can get obscured and forgotten. While we need to know about the times where politics doesn’t deliver great results, the public is rarely exposed to the times where politics works well, and the situations where individual politicians engage in a debate of ideas in a manner that is respectful and edifying.

Last week in the ACT Legislative Assembly this is exactly what happened. While the outcome of the debate to increase access to medical abortions for women in the ACT was reported, there was little focus on how this debate was conducted. This is a shame given that this was an instance where politicians displayed passion but did not let their personal views get in the way of respectful debate.

I will admit that I was not hopeful that the tenor of the debate on this issue would be positive. The signs were not good, given the strong views held on these types of issues by our local politicians. These are the types of debates that are often the ones most at risk of descending into sniping and hard ideological debate. This is due to the fact that these debates are the ones that go to the core of people’s belief systems and values.

To my surprise, last week that didn’t happen. Instead, this debate led by women on both sides of the house was characterised by respect and reflection. While deeply held views that were very different were firmly expressed, the processes of the Assembly were used powerfully and respectfully. I think the right outcome was achieved with better access for women requiring a termination. I am also grateful that our political representatives demonstrated how political debate should be conducted positively and constructively. I can’t help but think that a parliament that has a majority of female members has impacted on the way in which business is being done in our names.

The whole process has made me reflect on the times in which politics has inspired me and made me proud. From the power of the apology to Australia’s stolen generation, to the passing of the marriage equality legislation, to the swearing-in of Australia’s then youngest female parliamentarian Roslyn Dundas to the Legislative Assembly in 2011.

What are the moments where politicians have inspired you and made you proud?

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I can remember being part of a protest outside the LA against the proposed ban on X-rated videos in the ACT the day before Anzac Day in 1990. The ACT was the only place in Australia where the videos were legal and the territory supported a thriving mail order trade a few years before the Internet.

The pressure on ACT politicians to ban the videos had been immense for more than two years. Almost everyday there were letters in the CT, politicians were being inundated with letters and propaganda calling for a ban and the Murdoch newspapers had run an intense campaign to get the videos banned.

The Bill for a ban was introduced by Dennis Stevenson who was elected as an independent promising to abolish self-goverment but quickly became a hard-right warrior.

The sentiment at the end of the protest was that we’d done our best to oppose the ban, but that the MLAs would be swayed by the immense pressure that was put on them. Incredibly inside the Assembly the MLAs stood firm and the Bill for the ban was defeated.

I’ll never forget unwrapping the CT the next morning – Anzac Day – and reading that we had indeed won.

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