Thursday, 8 September 2022
Restoring Territory Rights Bill 2022; Second Reading
I rise today to make a contribution on the Restoring Territory Rights Bill 2022. This matter has a lengthy history. A decision was made in this place 25 years ago to pass the Euthanasia Laws Act 1997, which amended the right of Australia's territories to legislate in this space. This bill intends to undo that decision.
Parliament has seen separate attempts over the last 18 years to hand the territories power to legislate assisted suicide. The first was in 2004, and the most recent was just last year. The bills were either voted down or scrapped. It must be pointed out that this bill has made another comeback under the guise of restoring rights to territorians. But ultimately it cuts through one of the very core values of our country which have been held since Federation, the sanctity of life. This bill is only about giving those living in the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory access to assisted suicide.
Personally I will not be supporting this bill, and that position comes from a deep and personal conviction. Under no circumstance could I ever support a human being ending their own life, whether it's sanctioned by the government not, and it simply does not sit right with my conscience. I believe life is sacred and life should not end on anyone's terms: not your own, not the doctor's and not the government's. The outcome of signing a paper by a doctor is the same as dying by any other method. Euthanasia is a relatively new practice in Australia, and it is one that is changing the way we view health care. Instead of investing in better palliative care in Australia, this bill puts that very thing at risk. If we continue to view euthanasia as a palliative care alternative, we will discourage further investment and research and better care for those who need it. In 2018 my colleague Senator Patrick Dodson told this place:
… 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.
Senator Dodson reflects on the grave disadvantages of euthanasia for Indigenous Australians, but these issues apply to all Australians. If we choose euthanasia as an acceptable palliative care option, then over time it will depreciate the value that we place on life. Intended or not, once you start something it always finds a way to advance itself. I do not believe that the sponsors of this bill intend to cause any harm, but over time as more people access euthanasia, Australians will become desensitised to its use as a genuine end-of-life option.
The Netherlands made euthanasia legal in 2001, and in 2005 they became the first country to decriminalise euthanasia for children. In Belgium, euthanasia was made legal for adults or, under rare conditions, emancipated minors in 2002. In 2014 they amended euthanasia laws to allow voluntary child euthanasia without any age restriction. The child can request it and verify that they understand what they're asking for, and with the parents and doctor's consent the child is euthanised. Over 27,000 people have been euthanised in Belgium since the laws were passed in 2002, and almost one in five of those were not expected to die of natural causes in the immediate future. People are now accessing euthanasia for psychological conditions, and this extract is drawn from the Journal of Medicine and Philosophy, volume 46, 2021:
Another point of controversy is the fact that the Belgian Euthanasia Law allows euthanasia for both physical and psychological suffering, but does not specify how the difference between the two should be conceived. The absence of any consensus or legal guidance on how to define psychological suffering makes it possible to use the concept in an increasingly broad way. Available empirical evidence and reports show that euthanasia is performed increasingly frequently in cases of psychological suffering (e.g. for schizophrenia, borderline disorder, or depression)
These mental health issues are, sadly, increasingly common here in Australia. However, what's distressing is that these conditions are treatable but the Belgian government allow these patients to euthanise themselves in the name of compassion or human rights.
I don't think anyone here would want to see Australia go down this path—the path towards an on-demand assisted suicide. But I remind this place that the territories do not have the same degree of checks and balances as the states do. We must ask ourselves: if we allow the territory authorities to pass assisted suicide laws, can we guarantee that the appropriate safeguards and checks will be in place to protect Australians? No, we cannot. The Australian Capital Territory government is the first and only government to have decriminalised the possession of small amounts of illicit drugs like ice, heroin and cocaine, the drugs that have caused so much pain and destruction in our community. How can we ensure that Chief Minister Barr does not take legislation of assisted suicide to the extreme, like we've seen him do with his drug laws?
Looking past my personal objections, our Constitution grants powers to the Commonwealth to make laws for the government of any territory. We've been given a great responsibility over our territories to make sure that there is a sufficient level of accountability. Passing this bill and granting the territories the right to legislate assisted suicide laws with limited accountability, in my view, is a risk far too high.
I wish to remind the chamber that, only two years after the Hon. Kevin Andrews introduced the Euthanasia Laws Bill 1996, the Northern Territory held a referendum to decide if it should become a state of the Commonwealth of Australia. It's pertinent to note that the Labor opposition of the day supported the 'no' campaign. Accordingly, the good people of the Northern Territory narrowly voted it down, and the result of this referendum meant that the Commonwealth continued to retain its oversight of this matter. I do not support this change. Do not pretend that this bill is about giving the same rights that states have to territories when the Northern Territory had the opportunity to have those rights but declined.
Having listened to the other contributions when we started this debate earlier in the week, I want to reflect on the fact that this debate has been engaged in in a very respectful way. I understand that there is a real diversity of views on this matter. People will come at this from all sorts of different perspectives, and I respect the fact that we are able to have a debate as important as this and do it in a respectful way. The discussion on this matter is of course very important.
But I encourage all senators to truly consider what's at stake here. Do we want to set ourselves on a path that could lead us in the same direction as that of other countries around the world—I cited the situation in Belgium—where we end up providing euthanasia, assisted suicide, for people with clinical diagnoses of depression, schizophrenia and other mental illnesses? As we've seen, there are countries where children are able to access these services. There's no law in Australia right now in any state that would allow that, but that's the point. The passage of this legislation here would enable the ACT and the Northern Territory to put in place laws without the same checks and balances that there are in the states, which could quite easily allow for an even greater move towards use of those services without limitations. I don't think that that is something that we'd want to see. So I urge senators, when you consider where you're going on the conscience vote that's appropriately before us here, to consider all of these matters, and I urge you to vote against this bill.