The protracted debate on whether or not to change Federal law to legalise somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT), or “therapeutic cloning” as it is more often referred to, demonstrated that despite a lack of financial funding, a powerful case, properly articulated to key decision makers, can win out over a financially well resourced and powerful lobby group.
Under the lead umbrella of the peak patient advocacy group, the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research in Australia (CAMRA), supporters of therapeutic cloning realised that an intensive lobbying effort supported by a grassroots and media campaign was vital: firstly, to change the Government’s plans, which were initially to maintain the status quo and effectively disallow a conscious vote on the legalisation; and secondly, to persuade a majority of the Senate and the House of Representatives to support the passage of enabling legislation.
From 2005, Res Publica worked with CAMRA in shaping and executing that campaign. By the end of 2006, despite major hurdles, the restrictions disallowing therapeutic cloning had been lifted bringing renewed hope to many hundreds of thousands of Australians suffering from chronic and life-threatening diseases and conditions.
The debate on therapeutic cloning arose in 1995 as a result of the Lockhart Report, a Government commissioned independent review of the operation of the Prohibition of Human Cloning Act 2002 and the Research Involving Human Embryos Act 2002.
Between June and November 2005, the Lockhart Committee, made up of eminent jurists, scientists, medical experts and ethicists, consulted the community extensively. They also undertook a review of recent scientific and medical advances in related matters.
Consequently, Justice Lockhart and his colleagues unanimously agreed on a report that was delivered to the Government on 19 December 2005. It concluded that the existing ban on human (reproductive) cloning should remain in place, but a key recommendation was that the ban on therapeutic cloning be removed “to allow research, within a rigorous ethical framework, into emerging scientific practices that will assist in the understanding of disease and disability.”
The sorts of diseases and conditions with the potential to be addressed by therapeutic cloning include: juvenile diabetes, Parkinson’s Disease, cancers, multiple sclerosis, heart disease, motor neurone disease and spinal injuries.
However, in June 2006, Federal Cabinet decided “The Government is not disposed to make any changes to the existing national legislative framework for research involving human embryos…” effectively blocking a Parliamentary debate and vote. At the same time, the Prime Minister (while stating he was sceptical that there was sufficient support either within the Party or the wider community) left the door open for Cabinet’s decision to be discussed with the joint Party Room when Parliament resumed for the Spring session on 15 August 2006.
In other words, a persuasive public affairs campaign was needed to ensure that there was sufficient discussion within the Party Room to change the PM’s mind and facilitate a conscience vote on a private member’s bill. Thereafter, the task would be to ensure that the enabling legislation passed through the Parliamentary processes.
While the budget did not allow for specifically commissioned research, we were able to conduct a close analysis of the Lockhart findings, conduct extensive desk research - taking into account lessons learnt form the US, UK and elsewhere, - and we reviewed independent and commissioned polling on public attitudes to the merits of therapeutic cloning.
We were also able to avail of independent research conducted by Roy Morgan showing that the vast majority of Australians (and Christians) supported therapeutic cloning.
Through a combination of desk research and meetings with Parliamentarians, we identified a core group of supporters within Government, Opposition and the Minor Parties (Democrats and Greens) and then analysed the likely support we could garner from Federal Government members to speak in the Party Room.
We also researched voting patterns on previous conscience votes, searched media reports, co-ordinated feedback from all the scientific and research groups and worked with our supporters within Parliament to gauge the likely voting intentions of all Senators and MPs.
This analysis of voting intentions suggested that if they were presented with the facts a clear majority of MPs in the House of Representatives were likely to support a change to the 2002 Act to allow therapeutic cloning but that the position of the Senate was at best unclear and looked like it would ‘come down to the wire’.
- Coalition Party Room
- Federal MPs
- Key influencers of the above, particularly:
- their constituents and the general Australian public, particularly those who suffered from diseases/conditions with the potential to be addressed by THERAPEUTIC CLONING research ;
- leading medical researchers, scientists and ethicists;
- media likely to comment on the debate;
- political and policy advisors to Senators and MPs.
In the lead up to the Coalition Party Room vote, the overall political climate didn’t suggest that the Party Room was likely to ‘roll’ the PM on this issue. Also, the reality was that those opposing therapeutic cloning represented a powerful, well funded lobby group with key supporters on all sides of politics.
The core strategy and messages adopted to overcome this hurdle and achieve support in the Party Room was as follows:
• demonstrate to Government Senators and MPs that the majority of Australian voters (including Christians) support the extraction of stem cells from human embryos for stem cell research;
• demonstrate that the claim that therapeutic cloning, rather than other less contentious forms of research has the potential to benefit hundreds of thousands of Australians suffering from chronic and life-threatening illnesses and conditions is a widely held belief within the global and Australian scientific community;
• highlight the fact that other developed nations, such as the US, UK, Israel, Sweden and Singapore were already permitting their scientists to undertake research using therapeutic cloning and therefore we faced the prospect of Australian researchers leaving Australia, and our science falling way behind and potential treatments and cures being denied to many Australians.
Once we’d overcome the hurdle of persuading the PM to allow a conscience vote on a private members’ bill, our strategy shifted to identifying the voting intentions of all Senators (because our preliminary research suggested that while a bill would enjoy clear majority support in the House of Representatives, Senate support was, at best, unclear) and developing specific, targeted plans to address the particular identified concerns of individual, uncommitted Senators.
This targeted lobbying was supported by an orchestrated on-going grassroots community campaign via CAMRA to its constituent members and a national media relations campaign.
The tactics employed were direct communication to MPs and Senators by CAMRA and other groups. We also contacted sufferers of the diseases and conditions that scientists think that therapeutic cloning may address, and supplied them with the key facts and asked them to make their views known to Senators from their State and to their local MPs.
Overlaying this grassroots approach were regular meetings with and written communication to Senators and MPs.
A regular stream of press releases and media briefings was employed to amplify our messages and to counter many of the myths being pedalled by some high profile opponents of therapeutic cloning.
We also established CAMRA as the central co-ordinating vehicle for all supporters of therapeutic cloning, including the scientific and research community, to ensure that lobbying and media relations efforts were coordinated, so there was a consistent delivery of messages and optimum allocation of our combined resources.
Specific activity included:
- daily media relations activity involving TV, radio and print;
- regular presentations in Parliament (involving members of the Lockhart Review and other opinion formers);
- preparation of a submission to and appearance at a Senate Community Committee Inquiry;
- close liaison with those in Parliament supporting the issue to track ‘undecided’ Senators (and to a lesser extent MPs) to ensure that we had an accurate voting tally;
- and finally, in the days immediately prior to the vote, focused lobbying on the two Senators (Bob Brown and Nick Sherry) who remained undecided.
Therapeutic cloning supporters within the Government were persuaded that the issue was of such importance that they risked collateral political fallout and challenged the Cabinet decision in the joint Party Room on 15 August 2006. The Prime Minister immediately recognised the mood, shifted his position and decided to allow a conscience vote on a Private Member’s Bill.
The Hon. Senator Kay Patterson’s Private Member’s Bill was passed by the Senate on November 7, 2006 by the narrowest of margins – 34 votes to 32 (a tied vote meant the bill was defeated). Both Senators Sherry and Brown (who were identified as undecided and lobbied in the days prior to the vote) voted in favour of the Bill.
As anticipated, the Bill’s passage through the House of Representatives on December 5, 2006 was much smoother, passing by 82 votes to 62.
Unlike the opponents of therapeutic cloning, our communications campaign was run without any significant funding yet it clearly cut-through, largely we believe, because the facts, once communicated in a measured logical way, were compelling to the community, the media and the majority of Federal politicians.
Despite the barrage of media comment from a well funded and resourced opposing lobby, it is worth noting the following:
- In the vital period June – November 2006, when Coalition Party Room members and then Senators were making up their minds, virtually every mainstream media outlet gave the issue in-depth coverage;
- in every media outlet, the op-ed pieces in favour of therapeutic cloning heavily out-weighed the anti-lobby, and;
- most reassuringly, all the national and major metropolitan newspapers ran lead editorials supporting therapeutic cloning and calling on the Government to allow a conscience vote. Not a single lead editorial emerged supporting the ‘anti’ campaign.
From a lobbying perspective, our analysis of voting intentions in the Senate proved entirely accurate and we were able to identify and approach those Senators whose votes were ultimately crucial to the outcome.
The influence of CAMRA’s campaign is clear from a review of the sample media clips in the appendix both in terms of CAMRA’s role in commenting and in terms of delivering the agreed key messages. The role of CAMRA’s campaign is also widely acknowledged by the scientific and medical community and by the political community, as evidenced by the supporting material in the appendices.