Thursday, 18 March 2021
Today I rise with a heavy heart to speak about something that's happened to our country. We all make assumptions about the enduring values that underpin our society, and when those assumptions are shaken it rocks our very belief in the idea of Australia. I'd always believed that we were a society with a culture based on the Judeo-Christian ethic—one that believes in the sanctity of life and the dignity of the human person. Such a culture values individual human life and sees it as sacred, as I do.
We see the remnants of a life-affirming culture across our society, from the campaigns to reduce our road toll to the public and private funding of medical research to find ways to help keep people healthy and prolong life. We see it in the commitment of all governments—$10 billion annually—to prevent suicide. But, despite all of this, across the Australian states we are seeing the progress of euthanasia laws. Soul by soul and silently its wretched bounds increase, first in Victoria and then gradually in Western Australia and Tasmania, and others will follow suit.
In Victoria, they predicted there would only be 12 people euthanased in the first year, and yet there were 272 eligible applications and 124 deaths. The youngest was 36. The latest Victorian figures show that in the last six months of 2020, 94 people died from euthanasia. Is this really what we want as a society? And in a state where mental health presentations went up 23 per cent due to COVID, is it good that these laws are on the statute books? And, as each state joins the long march, the laws grow even looser and the access to death becomes easier. Who can ever tell us the safeguards are good enough when the outcome is final?
One of the catchcries of modern politics is we should listen to the experts. Well, why are the same people who chant that mantra ignoring the Australian Medical Association, who have consistently opposed such laws? I want to express my frustration at a society and a culture that is letting this happen without much organised opposition and without the public outrage that greeted such laws only 23 years ago. Have we really changed that much in the space of one generation about something absolutely fundamental?
I was at law school in the days of the Northern Territory euthanasia laws. Philip Nitschke came to address the students and I wanted to hear his point of view. What shocked me wasn't that Nitschke believed in the Northern Territory's laws but that he believed that if you were having a bad day you should be able to go down to Coles and by a death pill. The case for euthanasia is seductive—we should have control over our own lives, we should be able to die with dignity, people in pain should have choice—but Nitschke revealed the end game that day, and I became a deep opponent of euthanasia laws. I was always taught while there's life there's hope. We have all heard stories of people with terminal illnesses who wake up one day and are better. You can wake up tomorrow and respond to drugs differently. The cure may be just around the corner.
I remember the Northern Territory euthanasia laws and the woman who was the poster child for those laws appearing in television advertisements saying, 'Please let me die.' She got better, she lived and she became an opponent of euthanasia laws. The existence of euthanasia law says very much about how we value the lives of vulnerable and elderly people. I cannot forget that the most civilised and enlightened society in Europe, which wiped out six million of my people in the Holocaust, began their program of industrial murder by euthanising vulnerable disabled people thought to be in pain. I cannot in good conscious know this history and say nothing.
Today, those thought to be in pain are the vulnerable, the sick and the elderly. Everyone loves a new baby, so beautiful and full of promise, but a sick, vulnerable older person can challenge and frighten us. Those who have given us so much deserve to be well treated and valued right to the end, and yet the level of elder abuse is at an all-time high. People made to feel a burden on their families may make a choice from which there is no going back.
The fact that the Western Australian laws were trenchantly opposed by my friends Ken Wyatt and Senator Pat Dodson indicates the danger these laws pose to vulnerable Indigenous Australians. We should listen to the wisdom of our elders. Activists have scared people about death and pain, and yet here in Australia one of the wealthiest countries on Earth with one of the best health systems in the world, people have a broad range of end-of-life choices which do not amount to euthanasia. Properly funded palliative care, including proper education about it for all doctors and nurses throughout their careers, must be a national priority. We should be able to achieve a society in Australia where almost no-one's final days end in pain.
I devoted my maiden speech by the fight to prevent suicide, but today I feel the call to fight for life. As Dylan Thomas wrote:
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.