Tuesday, 2 August 2022
Restoring Territory Rights Bill 2022; Second Reading
KEOGH (—) (): I rise to make a brief contribution in relation to this important piece of proposed legislation before us, the Restoring Territory Rights Bill 2022. I speak so that people can understand the position that I bring to this bill, a bill on which all members of this House and the Senate will have a free vote of conscience. I do support the principle of self-determination for a body politic such as our states and our territories. I also support the principle of subsidiarity, something that we see vested in our constitutional arrangements, meaning that decisions should be taken as close to the people who will be affected by them as possible. Certainly, as a Western Australian, I know that is something that we hold close in our conception of a federation here in Australia. But along with that, and in that constitutional arrangement we see, the Commonwealth Constitution does vest certain powers in the Commonwealth, and it does that in such a way that certain powers are exclusive to the Commonwealth and the Commonwealth has power to constrain the exercise of power by the states in certain circumstances. Of course, that is even more so when it comes to our Australian territories, over which this Commonwealth parliament has particular legislative responsibility.
When it comes to this particular bill, in the way that I see this legislation, I very much understand the purpose for which it has been brought forward by the members who have brought it forward and why they see this issue as important for their body politic and the people that they represent in their territories. For me, all lives are sacred and, as I have watched and observed the debate on legislation that would bring into effect the ability for people to seek euthanasia, I have not been impressed by the legislation brought forward, both as a matter of principle and also because in my view, from looking at the pieces of legislation in each of the different jurisdictions, they are too risky. The safeguards are insufficient, sometimes in general and sometimes for people at specific risk. I also believe that advancing down this pathway has the potential to put at risk the proper funding and support for palliative care across our various jurisdictions, and I believe that should really be the focus.
So, while I support the concept of self-government and actual self-government for our territories, right here today, in respect of this bill, we are being asked, and I am being asked, to exercise a Commonwealth legislative power. That is a responsibility that we all hold as members of parliament and as senators. It's for the reasons that I've mentioned that I, in exercising that power, cannot in good conscience support this bill, so I don't. But I do want to commend the members and senators from the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory, for bringing forward this legislation, and the government, for allowing this debate to occur.
I rise to speak in support of the Restoring Territory Rights Bill 2022. At the heart of this legislation is the right of those Australians who live in the territories to decide, through their elected representatives, whether to enact laws with respect to voluntary assisted dying, or euthanasia. I can't see any good reason why they should not have that right. Every state in Australia has passed legislation with respect to voluntary assisted dying. It seems absurd that Australian citizens just a stone's throw away over the border in New South Wales can debate and enact such laws, which they have chosen to do, but here in the ACT that right is denied to their fellow Australian citizens. If this bill is passed, this legislative anomaly will be corrected and the territories will have this right.
For over a decade, I've been a strong supporter of the right of citizens, in certain circumstances, to choose to end their lives with dignity and at a time of their own choosing, with appropriate safeguards in place. It was in 2010 that I first really considered this issue in earnest. Towards the end of that year, I was diagnosed with stage 3 melanoma. Back in those days, there was very little in the way of postoperative treatment available. After the operation that I went through, I was told that the chances of the cancer coming back were fifty-fifty and that, if it did so, there would not be very much that could be done. Fifty-fifty is a toss of the coin. I still remember where I was and what I was doing when I got that diagnosis.
I can tell you: when you get news like that, it really focuses your mind. The first question you ask yourself is what will happen to your family and what life will be like for your children without you there to help raise them. Another question I asked myself during that time was what the end might look like and whether I would want the ability to choose the time and place of my passing. I decided without doubt that I would like that ability. I may or may not decide to act on it, but I would like to be able to make that choice. Fortunately for me, I have so far ended up on the right side of the ledger. I've had excellent care through Professor John Thompson at Melanoma Institute Australia and participated in a drug trial there for several years. I should add that Professor Thompson and his fellow cancer researchers are unsung heroes of our nation.
While I appreciate that there are a wide range of opinions on this issue, my strong view remains that every Australian should have the right to choose the time of their own death in certain controlled circumstances. The New South Wales parliament only recently passed its laws with respect to voluntary assisted dying, and, as I have said, every state in Australia has done so. Both the Australian Capital Territory and Northern Territory self-government acts provide that their legislative assemblies have the power to make laws for the peace, order and good government of each respective territory. It's not only incongruous but illogical that there should be an exclusion with respect to the issue of voluntary assisted dying. The legislative assemblies of the ACT and the Northern Territory have clearly demonstrated that they are capable of responsively debating, formulating and implementing policies with respect to this issue. Statehood need not be and clearly should not be a precondition for that to occur. I support this bill and, in so doing, the rights of our fellow Australians in the ACT and the Northern Territory to have the same freedom to legislate on this issue that other Australians possess. I commend this bill to the House.
This private member's bill, the Restoring Territory Rights Bill 2022, removes the limitations imposed by the Euthanasia Laws Act 1997 on the right of the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory to consider laws that they might pass in their capacity relating to voluntary assisted dying. All states have passed laws allowing voluntary assisted dying. This private member's bill restores to the ACT and the Northern Territory the power to consider laws in relation to the same.
The bill before the chamber today is not about passing a law to impose voluntary assisted dying, also known as euthanasia. If this chamber and the Senate vote for this bill it will not permit people to make decisions to end their lives surrounded by family and friends when suffering terminal illness and the consequent pain experienced. Like so many in this place, I have witnessed the grievous and longstanding suffering of family and friends when pain is awful and unbearable and all personal dignity has been lost. These things are deeply personal, ethically challenging and even spirituality confronting. I have genuine concerns about the prospect of elder abuse and the legal protections necessary to avoid that. These are decisions that have to be made by my colleagues at the state level.
We need to do better in this country on palliative care. As long ago as September 2014 the Grattan Institute report Dying well pointed out that 70 per cent of Australians want to die at home but only 14 per cent do so. Dying in Australia is more institutionalised than in any comparable country that we think about, such as New Zealand, the United States, France and Ireland. In Ipswich, my home city, we have good palliative care delivered by charitable institutions in people's homes, the palliative care unit at Ipswich general hospital and the locally beloved institution known as Ipswich Hospice, but we need to do better in this country. We need to do much more when it comes to palliative care.
I do not think this bill rules out doing better in palliative care. It would not be our role basically to decide these things on euthanasia or voluntary assisted dying if we passed this bill. This is an act of parliament that seeks to undo something which happened to 25 years ago. It seeks to undo the imposing of a Commonwealth prohibition on the territories. It seems very odd to me that the parliament did this. Our federation is not fossilised; it's living, it's evolving, it's changing all the time. It's changed by referenda, by High Court decisions and by cooperative federalism, historically known as the COAG process and often called the national cabinet these days.
This is not to suggest there are not problems with voluntary assisted dying legislation in states and territories. If we were to look at our Constitution when it was first conceived and at people like Barton, Parkes, Deakin and others who were involved in it—at the time they were all blokes by the way; conservative, liberal blokes—we would assume that Western Australia may not join the federation and that New Zealand would be state of Australia. But we know what happened in the end: WA was in as a state and New Zealand is a separate nation to us.
Those opposite have long championed states' rights, but to listen to some of their speeches in this place, they support states when convenient but territories scarcely at all. Some of those opposite seem to want to maintain and even expand Commonwealth power. Robert Menzies must be turning in his grave. I say to those opposite: what rights for territorians? What do you wish to prescribe or proscribe? What responsibilities do you wish to strip from the territories now or in the future?
In this country now, New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland, Western Australia, South Australia and Tasmania have the power and the jurisdiction to make laws in relation to assisted dying. In other words, it's a state responsibility. But for Australians living in the ACT or the Northern Territory it's the responsibility of the federal government. This makes no sense at all to me, either in geography or democracy. Section 122 of the Constitution is being invoked by those opposed to this bill, but the federal government does have the power to pass laws in relation to the ACT and the Northern Territory. That is a strange thing to do with our federation.
I don't accept the arguments on political maturity, and nor can the absence of an upper house be reason not to return these rights to territorians. My home state of Queensland has not had an upper house for a hundred years, yet members of the Queensland parliament could make these decisions upon mature reflection and debate. Frankly, I don't think the fact that the Commonwealth parliament has a Senate is the best argument against this bill. In any event, for the many, many decades after the upper house was brought into the colonies and into the states, the presence of the landed gentry and business establishment infested the upper houses of the states. They were often elected without a democratic franchise and often without one vote, one value. So don't give me this nonsense about the absence of an upper house in the states and territories.
For some, this bill is about euthanasia, to which they have a religious, spiritual or philosophical objection. I do not have such objections, but I do have serious concerns about euthanasia and about the protection of the weak, the vulnerable and the suffering, and how this can be done with full autonomy and cognitive capacity. But this is a matter for those politicians who do or should have the right to make laws in respect of those things. In my faith tradition there are plenty of people who allege belief in absolutes on certain issues, as if there's a litmus test on the veracity and fidelity of faith. Life is sacred, they have said—and I have heard this argued in this place—forgetting the genocide, homicide, infanticide and regicide we see in parts of the Old Testament. Just look at Genesis or Joshua or Judges.
I'm more of a New Testament Christian myself. It's possible to believe in the fundamentals of faith without being fundamentalist. I've read the Bible almost every day since I became a Christian at the age of 16 in the back pew of my Baptist church. I do not think this is a matter of spiritual absolutism. The god I believe in is a god of love who wants us to love one another and who tells us, in the words of Saint Paul of Tarsus to live the nine visible attributes of a Christian life: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Those virtues could do with a bit more adherence into this place.
With respect, I don't see this as a debate about the sanctity of human life or similar issues. I see this debate for what it is in the pages of this bill. It's about whether people in Darwin or Canberra should have the same right to self-government and self-determination and legislative decision-making as people in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and even in my home city of Ipswich. These Australians, these territorians, should be able to decide this issue for themselves and not be subject to the dictates of people who don't live there—like me, or most of us in this place.
In summary, I'm voting for this bill. It's a tough decision for people of faith, I know. It's a conscience vote. I'm voting for territory rights, so that all Australians, no matter where they live, can decide this issue for themselves. They'll have their debates in their chambers, it will be passionate and well thought through and people will no doubt give good arguments one way or the other. But it will be in their legislative assemblies—where it should be—not in this place. I'm a Queenslander. The Queensland parliament has passed laws on this issue. The people of the ACT and the Northern Territory should do so or not do so. It should be their decision. They should decide this for themselves, and for that reason I'm supporting this bill.
This is not the first time I've risen in this place to speak on this matter. Every few years, the old arguments are dusted off and freshened up and someone wants to raise the flag on this issue or thinks the numbers might finally be in their favour to turn the tables. In the last parliament I said that I rose with a heavy heart; today the weight is doubled. I'm sad that we are fighting what I sense will be a losing battle. I think that, in time, we will look upon this as a huge mistake, but even if the Restoring Territory Rights Bill 2022 is passed I will not regret standing here today and being counted. There are times in your life when doing so is important, and today for me is absolutely one of those days.
I'm standing to speak about something that I know, at the very core of my being, is wrong. We've seen in the past that where this goes is monstrous. Nothing about what we're doing today is enlightened or compassionate, even though the proponents' intention may be to do so. As we rip apart these laws, what we are doing is ripping apart the values our society has stood for.
I want to directly address the argument that's been made by the mover of this bill, the member for Solomon. He's argued that this is just about territory rights and not about euthanasia. I have great respect for the member for Solomon, but I could not disagree with him more. This bill endorses no other right than the right to kill his fellow Territorians. We hear a lot about territory rights. Well, I can't think of any political movement in history that has asked for rights and freedoms in order to kill people. This is a perversion of what liberty is about, and we should be deeply troubled by the idea that we are crossing this line. Let me be clear: this bill deals with only one right, and that is the right to pass euthanasia laws in the territories.
The Northern Territory and the ACT are territories, not states, and there are reasons why the federal parliament has additional responsibility over these places. In 1998 the Northern Territory voted against statehood; it chose to be a territory, and it did so recognising the ongoing supervisory jurisdiction of the Commonwealth. Both the Northern Territory and the ACT have no upper house—no house of review—and laws can be rushed through incredibly quickly. It should not be within the remit of the territory governments to authorise the deaths of their citizens.
As the shadow minister for Indigenous Australians, I'm particularly concerned about the implications of euthanasia for Indigenous people. Indigenous Australians facing high rates of disease are particularly vulnerable to euthanasia legislation, and the Northern Territory government cannot be trusted to manage the introduction of something like euthanasia in a way that will have anything near the necessary safeguards. We've seen that the Territory government, at the end of the Stronger Futures legislation, has been completely incapable of managing alcohol restrictions in communities, and the consequences have been devastating. Instead of creating a situation in which restrictions were in place unless opted out of, the Territory removed restrictions automatically. The Northern Territory government's failures are causing massive increases in domestic and sexual violence and hospital admissions. Given the record of the Northern Territory government, how can we expect that something like the introduction of euthanasia will be properly managed, with adequate safeguards, and will not have devastating consequences in these places?
Euthanasia also runs counter to the values and beliefs of many Indigenous Australians. Many Aboriginal leaders have been clear that euthanasia is fundamentally at odds with their culture. In 1996, the introduction of the Northern Territory euthanasia laws was met with strong opposition from Indigenous people. As Dr Djiniyini Gondarra OAM told the Senate committee at the time:
It does not fit into our customary law. It seems to be seen as a form of sorcery, that you are doing something to somebody else. You cannot create a law within a parliament to take somebody else's life.
In 1996 Chips Mackinolty was commissioned by the Northern Territory government's Aboriginal steering committee to go to Aboriginal communities and to record people's views on the Rights of the Terminally Ill Act to feed back to government. Twenty-one community meetings were conducted across the Territory, with about 900 people participating. The results were virtually unanimous. Only two participants expressed support for the legislation, and at every single meeting people were strongly opposed to the legislation.
Indigenous leaders also voiced strong opposition when Western Australia introduced euthanasia. Senator Pat Dodson and Mr Ken Wyatt both opposed the law in their state, recognising the significant risk it presents to Indigenous people and the lack of meaningful consultation that had taken place. Anangu Pitjantjatjara woman Melissa Thompson wrote to WA MPs saying she was deeply concerned about the legislation. She said:
The last thing we all, Aboriginal people, need is another avenue to death. I don't want another death sentence for all my people and all of Australia.
Senator Pat Dodson has rightly argued that we must work harder to achieve stronger health outcomes for Aboriginal Australians instead of introducing laws to help them end their life. In 2018 he told the Senate:
… more needs to be done to ensure that First Nations people are receiving palliative care within their communities. Where First Nations people are already overrepresented at every stage of our health system, it is irresponsible to vote in favour of another avenue to death. Paving the way for euthanasia and assisted suicide leaves First Nations people even more vulnerable, when our focus should be on working collectively to create laws that help prolong life and restore their right to enjoy a healthy life.
I say, 'We should listen to our elders.'
In both the ACT and the NT, more palliative care services are needed. During 2020-21, Western Australia accessed MBS-funded palliative services at 10 times the rate of the Northern Territory and at nearly twice the rate of people of the ACT. As Dr Michael Casey, chief executive of the PM Glynn Institute, says:
People say voluntary-assisted dying is about giving patients a choice, but if dying patients cannot access the palliative care services they need, they really don't have a free choice. We need to do more to ensure that everyone who needs good quality palliative care can access it, wherever they are and whatever their circumstances, before considering a momentous step like euthanasia.
In my view, no parliament in Australia should have euthanasia on its statute books, and yet since 2017 every state has passed legislation to make euthanasia lawful. Euthanasia laws in Australia are young, but they're already leaving a significant mark. In Victoria, 331 people died in the first two years following the introduction of the law. Advocates there predicted there would only be 12 people a year when the law first came in. In Western Australia, 171 people were euthanased between the commencement of their law, in 2019, and May 2022. In the latest report from Victoria, covering the period January to June 2021, the youngest applicant for euthanasia was 18—eighteen! Every other state has now legalised euthanasia and is waiting for that law to come into effect. In a few short years our definition of what makes life meaningful and our understanding of the value of life have been quietly and significantly altered.
One of the catchcries of modern politics is that we should listen to the experts. Why are the same people who chant that mantra, ignoring the Australian Medical Association, which continues to oppose such laws? Very soon it will be normal for Australians to consider the idea that they might end their own life. With this law, we are fundamentally changing the relationship that people have with government and the compact that we have with one another. There is never a time in which a person's life is expendable. The consequences are broader than we would like to believe them to be.
When we look at the international experience we see, too, that there's a contagion effect over time, and more people choosing to end their life themself when facing terminal illness. In Oregon, where euthanasia was first legalised, an average of 34 people died each year for the first 10 years. Now an average of 134 people die each year. In the Netherlands, 4.4 per cent of deaths were from euthanasia in 2017, compared to 1.9 per cent of deaths when the law was introduced in 1990. Legalising euthanasia means people who may never have considered ending their life now find themselves presented with that option. Other jurisdictions also show a tendency for the conditions under which it is permitted, to grow looser as time goes on.
Today some might accept that terminal illness can make life unbearable, such that it should be ended. Tomorrow, we may start to wonder if perhaps a permanent severe disability of the sort that makes you unable to speak or toilet yourself makes life so unbearable that it should end. Next we will wonder about mental illness. If someone suffers from depression, should that be a reason, too, to say, 'I've had enough'? I'm not talking here about a fantasy world. That road is precisely the one that has been walked in places that legalised euthanasia many years ago.
Today in the Netherlands euthanasia is available to children and to people with dementia or mental illness, rather than just physical disabilities. In Canada, within five years the categories of people accessing euthanasia expanded to include people with disabilities even though they don't have a fatal condition. How can we tolerate the idea that a disabled person's life should not be defended with as much fervour as that of an able-bodied person? As Dr John Fox, a disability advocate in New Zealand, argued during that country's recent euthanasia debate, why is it that a 25-year-old fit and healthy rugby player goes to a doctor and says he wants to end his life and is referred to all sorts of services to help him find meaning and hope again, but if a 25-year-old disabled man goes to a doctor and says he wants to end his life, he's offered help to do so?
It's not compassionate to tell a suffering person their life is not worth fighting for. It's not a kindness to leave people in the position that they find themselves considering ending their life in order to prevent themselves from being a burden. I know that's not the motivation for those who argue for euthanasia, although I do believe that the consequences are very real. I do want to acknowledge that the motivation for euthanasia legislation is often a deep desire to alleviate suffering. There's enormous strength of feeling in the arguments for euthanasia and the innumerable stories that lie beneath the discussion we are having today. Many people who are sitting through the debate fill their minds with the image of the last days of someone they've loved, someone whose suffering they'd do anything to alleviate. Some of us sitting here know that buried in the code of our own DNA is the potential for a terrifying illness, the sort that would mean a long, slow deterioration, with all our capacities slipping away at a pace that seems too slow to bear.
The suffering of life is real and the terror of facing our bodies fall, perhaps slowly, messily and painfully, is real. Yet what we debate today is not just the end of life for ourselves and the people we love; it's a very real decision about how we define how meaningful and valuable a person 's life is when they're at their most vulnerable. I believe our compassion must be stronger and deeper than passing this law would enable. We must commit ourselves to the best care we can manage for those who are sick. We must hold the value of a person 's life even when they can no longer see it for themselves.
In Oregon, detailed statistics have been kept for years, including about what has motivated a person to end their own life. The top five reasons do not include pain but do include a feeling that people are a burden on their family and friends. In February this year a woman in Canada with multiple chemical sensitivities, a condition affected by chemicals and smoke, decided to end her life through euthanasia. Eight days before her medically assisted death, she filmed herself saying, 'The government sees me as expendable trash, a complainer, useless.'
In Australia we've seen a significant rise in mental illness and suicide over recent years, and we know that many people, particularly older Australians, are vulnerable as they wait for months to receive services. It's not alarmist to acknowledge that legalising euthanasia makes people even more vulnerable. We also know that medical advice can change, treatments can be found and medical assessment about a prognosis can be wrong. While there is life, there is hope.
In the last parliament I spoke about how we continue to see the remnants of a life-affirming culture across our Australian society. I've always believed that we are a society with a culture that believes in the sanctity of life and the dignity of the human person based on our Judaeo-Christian values. Such a culture values individual human life and sees it as sacred, as I do. We see the remnants of our life-affirming culture across our society, from the campaign to reduce our road toll to the public and private funding of medical research to find ways to keep people healthy and to prolong life. We see it in the commitments of all governments—$10 billion annually to prevent suicide. We saw it during COVID as we committed ourselves to taking action that would keep people safe and alive no matter their age and health status, shutting down large parts of our country for two years just to save lives.
But these remnants of the life-affirming culture are disappearing inch by inch and soul by soul, and the decision they're making with this bill cripples our culture even more. In this regard, and in a very personal sense, I cannot forget what 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 disable people who were thought to be in pain. I cannot in good conscience know this history and say nothing. The law impacts who we are and what our culture looks like going forward. It operates as a standard setter and as a teacher, and this law endorses a cultural change that I hoped we would never see.
I want to finish with the words of Dylan Thomas that I quoted last time I spoke on these issues in this place. It's galling to me that the proponents of euthanasia have called their organisation Go Gentle to make their case. They're turning on its head, in my view, all that Thomas was saying in his famous poem. Indeed, I think we should rage for life. We must rage for life. As Dylan Thomas wrote:
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
The 1997 decision by John Howard's coalition government to prevent territory governments passing assisted dying laws was always cynical, undemocratic and inhuman. In order to shoot down a decision that they were ideologically opposed to, they robbed the territories of basic democratic rights and held back progress on voluntary assisted dying laws, causing needless suffering for so many families for the past 25 years. As with too many decisions made here, there was so little regard for the human cost, so little regard for the misery caused by those elected to serve the people. It's shameful.
I want to say that the Greens have a long track record of supporting territory rights. Over a decade ago, the Greens passed a territory rights bill, but it was reversed by the Abbott government. It's a basic question of equity. Currently, residents of the territories are being treated as second-class citizens. If citizens of the states are allowed to access voluntary assisted dying schemes, citizens of the territories should be allowed to do the same—and, I might add, this should also be the case for other constitutional laws passed by democratically elected bodies.
How is it that people in, say, the Northern Territory have less capacity to make decisions in their collective interests than people in Queensland or New South Wales? This proposal should not even be controversial. This cynical decision from the Howard years is not compatible with a basic respect for democracy. If people who live in states are allowed access to voluntary assisted dying schemes, the same rights need to be extended to the territories. Territory rights are fundamental Greens values, and it's a core Greens policy that individuals have the right to make self-governing choices. While this bill won't in itself reinstate the Northern Territory's voluntary assisted dying legislation from 1995, which was callously overridden by the Howard government in 1997, it will clear the obstacle for new legislation to be brought to that effect.
For years now, the Greens have been at the forefront in states and territories of the fight to deliver on assisted dying laws and give people in unbearable pain choices around their death. On being elected in 2017, my colleague in Queensland state parliament Michael Berkman worked very closely with the community to ensure that VAD was legislated last year in my home state. We've also seen the Greens work with groups like Dying with Dignity and other important community voices to help deliver VAD laws in Victoria, Tasmania, Western Australia and, this year, New South Wales. We do this work because we believe this is a fundamental right for people. Terminally ill people in pain have a right to choose to die with dignity.
I want to point out that having a right to voluntary assisted dying simply means giving people a choice. Voluntary assisted dying is just one of many options, and having it on the table can give peace of mind, even though only a tiny minority of patients will actually use it. It means that those in pain have options available to them if and when they need them. This gives reassurance that suffering is not inevitable as well as access to this option where needed. The Victorian parliamentary inquiry into end-of-life choices, in its final report in 2016, acknowledged:
… simply having the option to choose assisted dying has a palliative effect in and of itself by enabling people at the end of life to reclaim control of their situation.
Importantly, voluntary assisted dying also gives people the chance to say goodbye to family and friends. Finally, regulated VAD gives a clear framework for doctors and healthcare workers when dealing with terminal patients in immense pain who want to die.
Of course, appropriate safeguards should be in place. Inbuilt protections in the scheme mean VAD is only available to those who really need it and there are appropriate checks to ensure they are of sound mind. Appropriate safeguards and regulations in this area protect the vulnerable and protect healthcare workers from inappropriate requests.
Opponents of these laws will tell you that improved palliative care is the answer, but this is not the view of the medical profession. Doctors and patients have for many years now been advising us that palliative care alone is not sufficient. Regulated VAD with appropriate safeguards is overwhelmingly supported by medical professionals. Of course, palliative care should be expanded, but there will still be cases that are deeply distressing for families and patients, where the pain relief offered and the sheer indignity of the illness will not be meaningfully ameliorated by palliative care.
So there's no medical, moral or political argument for holding back VAD legislation. It's been introduced in most states across Australia now. It's high time the territories were given back the right to pass this kind of crucial legislation. We're in a situation now where, in the Northern Territory, a person in unbearable suffering must have this suffering prolonged against their express wishes, all because politicians in this place 25 years ago made a cynical political decision, and the Territory government has no recourse to change this situation. This bill finally gives Australia the chance to correct this wrong and give the people of the territories the ability to put and pass new legislation on crucial issues like voluntary assisted dying.
I rise to give support to the Restoring Territory Rights Bill 2022. Having recently observed the passing of the Voluntary Assisted Dying Act in my home state of New South Wales, I was relieved to note that all states in our country, Australia, have now embraced some form of voluntary assisted dying legislation for people dealing with the most painful of illnesses and the resulting undignified final moments of their lives. However, as amendments to the Australian Capital Territory (Self-Government) Act 1988 and the Northern Territory (Self-Government) Act 1978 established, the autonomous governing of our territories was restricted to prevent any potential for either the ACT or the Northern Territory to ever enact similar voluntary assisted dying legislation without a resolution of this parliament.
In my first speech—delivered in the House last Thursday, 28 July—I spoke of the liberal philosophies of John Stuart Mill and the harm principle. I realise that I will not be the only member of this place making reference to Mr Mill, but I believe his principles warrant mention nonetheless. It is the job of government to clear the way for its citizens to act in whatever way they may choose, so long as those actions do not negatively affect the lives of others.
We all have stories of friends, family members and other loved ones whom we have seen live through a terminal illness—one whose suffering creates such a painful condition that it cannot be tolerably relieved. We witness our parents and grandparents spending the last months of their lives in dreadful pain with no prospects of recovery. The memories of the suffering of these people will be forever etched in the minds of their families as the last ounce of their dignity drifts away.
I make note that this bill does not require any new legislation to be enacted by either of the territories. Accordingly, I believe in self-determination. Constituents of the ACT and the Northern Territory are responsible enough to elect their own territory parliamentary representatives. They presumably should be deemed responsible enough to enact legislation relevant to the needs and desires of their people. All states throughout this country have set a safe, rational and controlled example of voluntary assisted dying provisions, which would undoubtedly be deemed persuasive by territory legislatures in crafting their own reforms.
This bill is not, and never will be, in support of state sanctioned murder. As displayed by the legislation passed by every state in this country, individual decision-making by the patient is paramount. The patient must have capacity. They must be free from external coercion. All of the safeguards, which include appropriate assistance and consultation with medical practitioners, must be in place.
Voluntary assisted dying legislation enshrines freedom. It is the freedom of a person facing imminent death to seek support in their decision. It is also the freedom of a medical practitioner to refrain from offering that support, and the freedom of institutions, now and into the future, to refuse to provide assistance to assisted dying. Indeed, passing legislation related to voluntary assisted dying will not impinge on the rights of those that don't want to choose this pathway. However, not supporting such legislation will deny that option to those that do.
Vigorous yet respectful debates have been held in the various states of our country around voluntary assisted dying. It is now appropriate that our territory parliamentarians be similarly able to avail themselves of the opportunity to discuss, debate and, if appropriate, enact legislation regarding voluntary assisted dying. I have been inundated over the past week or so by people within my electorate of Hughes asking that I endorse this bill. In those circumstances, I commend this bill to the House.
This bill purports to be about territory rights. It is, in my view, a very clean handball. It is in fact about voluntary euthanasia. I think there is only one outstanding issue around state rights, or territory rights in this case, and it is voluntary euthanasia.
As you would well know, Madam Deputy Speaker Sharkie, this job we have entails us meeting hundreds of people. Most of them are good. The vast majority of them are good. But not all of them are. Sadly, in this job we meet some of the worst. I'm always appalled when I see families squabbling over inheritances from deaths that have not yet occurred. They do come to our office from time to time, families lined up to get their hands on mum or dad's money. Some children have got themselves into a position of having power of attorney, or even enduring power of attorney, over mum or dad and actually sell up mum's house without letting her know. I've had that. It makes you really question the fundamental goodness of people, whether it is there in every character.
I do know that those people that are offended should be protected at every possibility. Others convince mum and dad to underwrite their latest business venture—I'm sure you've come across that one—then the business venture goes south, and mum and dad lose their house. They lose the lot, and siblings are already positioning themselves for the carve-up.
This thing within the euthanasia acts around Australia, which says that the person choosing euthanasia should be of sound mind and able to exercise their own judgement without being influenced by others in that judgement, is sound thinking. That makes sense. But how hard is it to say to an elderly parent: 'Maybe it's not worth all the trouble, Mum. You know how your last operation went. Helen and I had to come up here and see you. It's a long way for us to travel. We've got families. You know how much pain you had. Something else is probably going to go wrong with you if you have this operation.'
Make no mistake: as I said, this bill we're facing here—and I thank Peter Dutton and our leadership team for making this a conscience vote in the coalition party room—is about voluntary euthanasia. I lay on the table that I am a practising Christian. I don't go to church quite as often as I should, but I try to get there. In fact, I went to St Peter's Cathedral, the Anglican cathedral in Adelaide last Sunday. I'm not an Anglican, but I remember being inside that wonderful cathedral. This really isn't the time for levity, but I can tell you: when you sit in there on a winter's morning you're as far from the fires of hell as one can possibly imagine. It was freezing. As I said, I'm a practising Christian, but I don't actually bring a particular religious view to this debate about voluntary euthanasia. I'm not sure what the Bible said to us about this, and I don't bring that judgement. I understand that many people don't see the Bible as their guiding force in life, so I take it, really, just as an issue of human rights and trying to protect the rights of those who I think need protection as they get older.
I think it is a dishonesty in this bill to claim that it's about the territory rights. On that issue of territory rights, section 122 of the Constitution provides that the Commonwealth has the plenary power to legislate for the territories. I make the point that in the case of the Northern Territory it was in 1995 that this bill was enacted but in fact in 1998 the citizens of the NT actually rejected the right to become a state. They rejected the opportunity in a referendum. So perhaps they didn't want to make this decision and a lot of other decisions that go with statehood, and it was ceded to the Commonwealth. They knew that the Commonwealth had taken this position of saying, 'On these issues we will have the say here in Canberra,' and in 1998 the people of the Territory had an opportunity to say, 'Well, we'll reject that and become a state in our own right,' but they chose not to. So the power does reside here, because they chose not to take that pathway to statehood.
On euthanasia in particular, I have to say that voluntary euthanasia is something I thought was a good idea when I was younger. I would have argued the case for voluntary euthanasia, probably many times, at two o'clock in the morning after I'd consumed a couple of bottles of red with some mates. The point is that we didn't have the responsibility for the decision within that debate. It's part of growing up, isn't it? Maybe becoming a member of the Parliament of Australia is a major step in our growing up, because you know that the decisions we make here actually make a difference on people's lives and you have to own the result. A little later on this evening I will be speaking about the government's intention to abolish the cashless debit card, to all intents and purposes. They will have to own whatever results come from that decision. So, if we make a decision in this place which is, as I said, a de facto decision to allow for voluntary euthanasia in the territories, in fact we have to take ownership of that decision. It's not an ownership that I'm prepared to take.
You can't be on the right side of every argument. I mean that in an individual sense. I know there are people who have been through this terrible situation of watching a loved one die, and they will say to people like me: 'You wouldn't let a dog live through this existence. Why don't you allow for the said person to issue an instruction to end their life?' In those terms, I don't disagree with that argument, and I understand why they reach that position, just as I've pointed out that we see the other side of it as well. I find it difficult to be a hundred per cent confident that we won't see a distortion of that decision. So we need to take that responsibility for people who maybe aren't as in control of their lives as they might say they are, who maybe have been coerced. I think the risks are too high, because, if there is one person taken from this world against their will under legislation that we are basically voting for or against in the parliament, today, tomorrow or wherever it comes, that will be an error that is obviously irreversible. I will not be supporting the bill. I suspect it will pass—I think it will probably pass quite well—but I'll be able to sleep with my conscience intact.
I rise to also say this bill, the Restoring Territory Rights Bill 2022, is a bill about euthanasia, however you want to put it, from a territory that chose not to be a state. I also note that the territories are where you will most likely find those who are the most vulnerable to mistakes that become part of this process.
I have a very strong philosophical position; I have never hidden it. I don't think that anybody has the right to kill another person. Whether a person is aware of their rights or not, you do not have the right to kill another person, unless they're a clear and imminent threat to yourself, such as what we see in times of conflict with the Defence Force or with a police man or woman. But to say to a person, 'My objective now in life is to make sure that I kill you'—and that is what they are doing; they are killing—I think debases who we are.
I have just gone through the process of nursing, with my family, my father, who passed away last week. He was 98½ years old. He was bedridden. We looked after dad for four years. Prior to that, my mother had a stroke, and we looked after mum. It's my own personal view that that added to my life; it didn't detract from it. My father was an incredible asset. Obviously, I miss him dearly. At times, yes, it was hard work—really, really hard work. Obviously, with issues of personal hygiene, it's tough. It can be really tough. I want to acknowledge the work done especially by Rebecca, who was almost a saint looking after him, and my sister and brothers. It would have been so easy, though—because sometimes your loved ones are not so loving, and, as they are not so loving, they can be—
A division having been called in the House of Representatives—
Sitting suspended from 17 : 43 to 18 : 03
One of the issues we have with euthanasia is that sometimes patient's loved ones are not that lovely. This is an issue, especially in a place like the Northern Territory, where duress will come into play. What do I base that on? I base it on the experience of places such as the Netherlands. Here is a quote about one of the issues in the Netherlands—and I got this from the Guardian, so I'm not getting it from some crazy right-wing scribe. It says:
Van Baarsen's scruples have crystallised in the country's first euthanasia malpractice case, which prosecutors are now preparing—
Three further cases are now under investigation—
It involves a dementia sufferer who asked to be killed when the time was right, but when her doctor judged this to be the case, she resisted.
The patient had to be drugged and restrained by her family before she finally submitted to the doctor's fatal injection.
The doctor who administered the dose, who has not been identified, has defended her actions by saying that she was fulfilling her patient's request and that, since the patient was incompetent, her protests before her death were irrelevant.
We don't think of the Netherlands as a backwater. We don't think of it as an unsophisticated country. They were one of the first in this area. This shows quite clearly the progression of where these issues end up. The whole point of medicine is the preservation of life, not the destruction of life.
In other reports, you can see this extended into other areas. Euthanasia is a very cheap form of palliative care. It also inherently will give rise to people basically putting words into other people's mouths: 'Of course, when you're ready to go, just let us know. Life must be hard for you. It must be tough. You must feel like you're a burden.' I'm very blessed and very lucky to have a great family, but I can imagine in other areas, to be quite frank—my father's life would have been one that people would have put pressure on. They'd say: 'You're in the house all day. People have to stay in the house with you. It locks up finances. Things can't go anywhere.' We have to focus, and we have to also remember that the views of people at a certain point in their life—it has been noted by the previous speaker—may not be their views at a later time in their life. The view of the person is contingent on the mercurial nature of human conscience, and that can change over time in how they perceive life. I think it's really important that our endeavours in a medical area do not have as an option that a facility will assist you to kill yourself, because one of the biggest problems with that is that someone has to assist you. That inherently goes down a path where we become arbitrary and, I think, hard. We lose a section of our humanity.
Given the issues with palliative care now, there are so many things that we can do to aid a person at the final stages of their life, which will happen to all of us, of course. But this is where our endeavours must be focused, not on a shortcut of, 'We'll kill you.'
Also, in part of the European experience with psychiatric disorders, euthanasia is now being deemed as a mechanism for removing the hardship of life. Schizophrenia can be a reason for euthanasia. There was one case where it was obesity. These are not circumstances that bring unbearable pain, but they can be determined and be utilised as a mechanism for a person to bring about the termination of a person's life:
Between October 2007 and December 2011, 100 people went to a clinic in Belgium's Dutch-speaking region with depression, or schizophrenia, or, in several cases, Asperger's syndrome, seeking euthanasia. The doctors, satisfied that 48 of the patients were in earnest, and that their conditions were "untreatable" and "unbearable," …
How do you end up at that point? I hope that that shocks people and they say, 'That's an absurdity; that's wrong.' They started from the extreme cases of terminal cancer. But that's where it starts. All these things start in a spot; where they end up is somewhere entirely different. To stop that boulder rolling down a hill, you don't give it a push at the start. When you go down the path of euthanasia, you've given the boulder a little push, and where it ends up is entirely different to where your aspirations are later on.
Why this is more pertinent to the Northern Territory, of course, is that we have so many problems there that we've got to manage. We have child molestation, a problem that has to be fixed, as well as alcoholism, drug addiction, unemployment and extreme violence in communities. What do they all point to? Why do these social maladies exist? They exist because there is a febrile insecurity and vulnerability there. Why would you insert into that the option of euthanasia? Anybody should be able to diagnose that you're opening yourself up to something at some stage where, inevitably, someone who is vulnerable will be killed. If you really look into that person's heart at that moment and say—I've been there before and said to a person, my brother, as they had the PAP mask on and wanted to take it off: 'Tim, do you want to die?' He looked at me and went, 'No, I don't.' I said, 'That's the answer.' The answer is no, I don't. If that meant another half hour of life, another hour of life, another day of life—but you don't want the pressure on that person. It's got to be not an alternative. You don't want that pressure, because it will happen. People will be killed who don't want to die, but under the pressure of people surrounding them they will convince themselves that they are an inconvenience. By a wink, by a nod, by inference, by innuendo, by a whole range of mechanisms, they will be convinced that they're an inconvenience, and so to help other people out they will give up the most precious thing that they have, their life.
In any way, shape or form, no matter what form it comes into this parliament, I will fight against euthanasia as an alternative, not so much for it starts but for where I know it will finish. If anybody can show me an example in Europe where it is not the case then let's hear it, because I certainly show you cases where it is. They all started from a righteous position, and now the discussions are something entirely different. If someone says, 'We are wiser in Australia and we'll put the covariates in place so this will not happen,' no you won't. Australia is just like everywhere else. It will follow the same track and end in the same position that it ends in everywhere else. Human nature is ubiquitous. This is something we have to be careful of.
I know how parliament works. This is the issue du jour and has been for a few years. It will get up—I'm not a fool—but it's wrong. Just because things get through this parliament, it doesn't mean they are right. This will get up, but it's wrong. It shouldn't. The fruit of the labour and the intention is that people will die. Inevitably, people will die who don't want to die, and that will be sanctioned death by the state against the wishes of the person. The next debate will be about what extensions are to happen to the euthanasia debate—how it can be broadened—when there are so many other things. Shouldn't this parliament be paramount in wanting to maintain life, not destroy life? I have a faith. It's not premised on faith—everyone says that—but it's not. It's premised on logic. When you close your eyes and think, 'Do I want to die?' The answer generally is no.
A government member interjecting—
Don't interrupt. Inevitably it's about euthanasia being the paramount issue within this. You've got to make a statement. It is certainly a consequence of this. As a consequence of this, there needs to be brought into the light what outcomes there are. I'm putting on the record what I truly believe is one of the paramount outcomes. A euthanasia bill will go through the territory parliament, and if the territory wanted to be honest on another issue—they did have a vote as to whether they wanted to be a state, and they voted against it, so they're a territory. If you want to be a state, make yourself a state. If you're going to be a territory, acknowledge that territories, by their very nature, have the oversight of the Commonwealth.
In closing, I do not support this, because ultimately it's convenient for more palliative care, which has the capacity to go into a very evil corner. It will inevitably drift from the certain to the grey, because that always happens. Its clear path, as clearly prescribed in other countries, is that where this starts is not where it finishes. I've identified clear cases of where this has gone into a very sullied and evil place where people are being killed against their wishes. It's not something made up. It's there. One of the main reasons I'm in this parliament is to do my very best to preserve life and to make people's lives better, not to be a party to anything that kills people.