Anti-abortion campaigners are claiming victory over the Kew pre-selection result after encouraging Liberal members to grill senior minister Mary Wooldridge about her views on abortion.
Community Services Minister Mary Wooldridge lost preselection for the state seat on Sunday of Kew to former Stonnington mayor Tim Smith, despite the backing and intervention of Premier Denis Napthine.
It is understood that on Sunday’s vote the two candidates were asked whether they supported a review of a section of the Abortion Law Reform Act, which requires doctors who are conscientious objectors to abortion to refer patients to another medical practitioner who do not share those same objections.
Mary Wooldridge. Photo: Jason South
In January and again last week, Right to Life Australia president Margaret Tighe wrote to all 160 of the anti-abortion group’s Kew members and asked those who were Liberal members to quizz Ms Wooldridge on her views on abortion.
‘‘We have a lot of members in Kew. I just guessed some would be members of the Liberal party. I wanted to make sure those who could go to preselection were aware of the legislation,’’ she said.
Mr Smith is understood to have told more than 250 rank and file members on Sunday that he supported a review of Section 8 and would have voted against the Abortion Law Reform Act – not because it decriminalised abortion but because it went too far.
Ms Wooldridge, who voted in favour of the laws, is believed to have told members she did not support a review.
The Right to Life Australia letter sent to members said despite being a mother of three, Ms Wooldridge voted for the ‘‘infamous ’’Abortion Law Reform Act in 2008.
‘‘Putting it bluntly the legislation allows abortion up to birth on the grounds of the mother’s circumstances not only health wise, but also taking into account her social and economic circumstances! In other words – for any reason!,’’ the letter said.
‘‘A particularly disturbing aspect of the legislation is the requirement for a doctor to refer a woman for an abortion even if he/she is opposed to abortion – with a penalty for failure to do so – in other words, loss of registration!!’’
Balance-of-power MP Geoff Shaw has drafted a private members bill to change the state’s abortion laws, and said last week he hoped the bill would be before parliament in the next few months.
This comes as the state’s most prominent women’s rights organisation warned it was preparing to make abortion a state election issue.
Mary Crooks, executive director of the Victorian Women's Trust, said it was "a great shock" that Community Services Minister Mary Wooldridge had lost her Liberal preselection battle. She raised the spectre that it was in part a "pay back" for her support of abortion reforms in 2008.
Maverick independent Frankston MP Geoff Shaw has pushed for a change to the reforms, for which Ms Wooldridge crossed the floor. Mr Shaw has discussed a change to the abortion reform Act which makes it mandatory for doctors who are conscientious objectors to abortion to provide a referral to another medical practitioner without an objection.
Ms Crooks said the Liberal Party was in a "parlous position" that it could not preselect a parliamentarian of Ms Wooldridge's calibre who was known for her "incredible grasp on policy".
"I think that we have got to ask fundamentally why an outstanding parliamentarian such as Mary Wooldridge was not able to secure preselection," Ms Crooks told ABC Radio.
Ms Wooldridge was parachuted into the preselection battle after her seat of Doncaster was abolished after a redistribution. She lost to Tim Smith, a high-profile former mayor of Stonnington.
During preselection debates, both candidates were asked whether they would support a review of the abortion reforms of 2008. It was reported that Ms Wooldridge said she would not support a review but Mr Smith said he would.
Ms Crooks called for an investigation into whether a small coterie of "Catholic men" in the Kew preselection battle had campaigned against Ms Wooldridge as "payback" for her abortion reform support.
"I have heard various rumours swirling around last week that there has been a lot of fairly shady backroom plays being made around Mary Wooldridge and the fact that she supported the abortion reform," Ms Crooks said.
She said Mr Smith should be pressed on whether he had "cut a deal with Geoff Shaw and others" on abortion reform. She named federal social services minister Kevin Andrews as being among the "others" rumoured to be involved.
Ms Crooks said the Victorian community overwhelmingly supported the abortion reforms and any move to change them was "out of step" with the majority.
"I can sound both a clarion call and a warning to them. We are ready at the Victorian Women's Trust," Ms Crooks said.
"We have been preparing for something like this for many months and if it means that we have to work very hard to make it an election issue and to mobilise the vote of men and women around this state, then we will do it."
"I don't think that women's reproductive rights – and complex policy issues more generally in our society – should be held to ransom by a small group ... who are out of step with their peers within their Catholic Church and they're hellbent on winding it [the reforms] back. All I can say to them is: be warned.
"When women won that reform in 2008 they had a nasty sinking feeling that it was not going to go away and it was not cemented for all time.
"Women, I think, will come out strongly on this issue."