Senate debates

Wednesday, 15 August 2018


Restoring Territory Rights (Assisted Suicide Legislation) Bill 2015; Second Reading

5:25 pm

Photo of Deborah O'NeillDeborah O'Neill (NSW, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Innovation) Share this | | Hansard source

Just as we headed into senators' statements, I was making a point about the contribution to the debate by Senator Steele-John with regard to people with disability. I acknowledged the importance of his contribution to the debate. I also wanted to put on the record the words of the much loved Stella Young, Australian comedian, writer and disability advocate, who wrote on the implications of legalising assisted suicide for people living with disabilities. I acknowledge that many of us felt we lost an amazing Australian with her passing. This is what she said:

People make all sorts of assumptions about the quality of my life and my levels of independence. They're almost always wrong.

I've lost count of the number of times I've been told, "I just don't think I could live like you," or "I wouldn't have the courage in your situation," or, my favourite one to overhear (and I've overheard it more than once), "You'd just bloody top yourself, wouldn't you?".

…   …   …

Also, social attitudes towards disabled people come from a medical profession that takes a deficit view of disability. This is my major concern with legalising assisted death; that it will give doctors more control over our lives.

Senator Steele-John's confidence in legislators to create legislation that adequately protects people is a confidence I don't share. In my view, legislation, no matter how well crafted, considered and critiqued, cannot cover all the areas of concern that have been articulated in this place by many—and, hopefully, with some clarity in my contribution to the debate this morning. I'm also sure that there are many more concerns that haven't been raised in the course of this debate that are yet to be elicited and will deserve careful consideration. In my view, we're all right to fear assisted suicide as an extension of an increasingly alarming statistic of self-harm and suicide that reveals the despair of so many in our nation at this time.

Senators, data consistently demonstrates lower support for euthanasia and assisted suicide amongst physicians than the public. There's a reason for that. They know a lot more than most of us about the way in which people move on from this life. They see it all the time. They fight against death's victory every day. But to ask them to take a different position in relation to death, to demand by law that they offer services to the end of life, is fraught with extreme practical and moral risk for the medical profession and, indeed, for all of us and our families. Physician-assisted suicide is legal in the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, Colombia, Canada and five US states as well as in Switzerland. Research that reviews the practices of those jurisdictions indicates that between 0.3 per cent and up to 4.6 per cent of deaths are reported as euthanasia. If we were to apply that 4.6 per cent of deaths to the Australian death statistics of 2016, which were 158,504 Australians, that would mean 7,291 Australians could be removed from this world by assisted euthanasia if we were to follow these international trends. In jurisdictions where assisted suicide has been legislated for some time, the legislative containment that accompanied those first laws has slackened. Research shows that safeguards are being violated, with studies in Belgium now indicating that up to 32 per cent of physicians assisting suicide had gone outside the regulations.

Former Prime Minister Paul Keating published an article last year in the context of the Victorian debate. He said:

… the advocates support a bill to authorise termination of life in the name of compassion, while at the same time claiming they can guarantee protection of the vulnerable, the depressed and the poor.

No law and no process can achieve that objective. This is the point. If there are doctors prepared to bend the rules now, there will be doctors prepared to bend the rules under the new system.

The original containment of eligibility for assisted suicide has been extended in those jurisdictions in which assisted suicide is now legal. It's been extended from consenting adults to young children to the mentally ill to newborns with disabilities. I remind senators that right now in this country one in five Australians at any time are suffering from mental ill-health of some sort. In 2016, 2,866 Australians lost their lives to suicide. Research revealed around 65,000 people attempted suicide every year and that hundreds of thousands of people are affected by the impact of a suicide death. We're on a collision course between this national malaise and the potential of assisted suicide legislation, especially when depression and cancer collide. I want to note that the finding reported in European Psychiatry in 2012 indicates that family members in Switzerland who assisted the suicide of someone they loved reported after the fact a 20 per cent rate of post-traumatic stress disorder.

I will not be supporting this bill. I'm accused of being a person of faith and I freely admit to it. My faith does colour my view of the world and it enriches it. I've often wondered what people mean when they make a case for euthanasia by arguing that people should be allowed to die with dignity. In my world view, every person has dignity and value simply because they exist. It matters not their sex, gender, age, colour, race or, certainly, creed. I can never be persuaded that human beings need to have control over their bodies or their minds to have dignity. In my world view, each and every person, from conception to their last breath, is endowed with a dignity that is inherent in their very existence. Dignity is not something you lose on your journey to death.

How can legislating for the healers at the heart of our health system to actively bring on death not be a conflict of interest for doctors? How can legislating for the healers at the heart of our health system to actively assist in suicide not immerse them daily under the extreme burden of ongoing and profound moral dilemma? The profession itself is not united in asking for these powers. Indeed, there is a very lively debate amongst doctors on the public record.

Like everyone in this place and like Australians across the country, I've lost people I love, four of them in my close family: my sister, my brother, my niece and my father—all from cancer, all from the illness that evidence shows triggers up to 75 per cent of the requests for assisted suicide. I've been in hospitals with the people I love as they have passed. Today seems a very good day to thank all those health professionals who cared for them as they passed and who cared for me and my family as we faced the profound loss and the initial throes of grief that engulfed us. I never for one moment doubted their care or their determination to preserve the lives of the people I love.

Colleagues, in this place we know there has been the articulation of the awareness of the complexity around making law around end-of-life procedures. This complexity—if this bill passes here and we do allow the territories to discern their own particular legislation—cannot be overstated. I remind colleagues that the Northern Territory and the ACT are both unicameral parliaments—as, indeed, is the great state of Queensland. I fear that the march across this nation towards the establishment of assisted suicide continues and that we may see the emergence of differentiated legislation that will deal with life and death in different ways across all of the jurisdictions. We train doctors for all of the country, yet we're preparing, with this legislation, to create rights that will differentiate responsibilities across the borders.

In closing, colleagues, this debate asks us to consider and come to a point of discernment about conflicting principles. On one side, there is the right of the individual and their autonomy, a position so championed here today by this bill advanced by the libertarian Senator Leyonhjelm and supported by many in this chamber. I put it to you, senators, that there is a disproportionate response to the issues of both mental and physical distress that have been discussed in the Senate over the course of the last two days. This is an argument that drives us to wholesale change to law at the request of few, to the detriment of many. Assisted suicide cannot, in my view, be safely legislated. On the other side is the right of the public to safety and natural assumptions and instincts that drive us to make lawful the protection of life.

I believe in the fundamental right of a person to live in a society that values their life. This should not be put at risk. A community needs to ensure that institutions such as the law and the professions—especially our doctors—value lives, will save lives and will not take life. I close with Paul Keating's comments:

No matter what justifications are offered for the bill, it constitutes an unacceptable departure in our approach to human existence and the irrevocable sanctity that should govern our understanding of what it means to be human.

5:37 pm

Photo of Mathias CormannMathias Cormann (WA, Liberal Party, Minister for Finance) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak to this bill, the Restoring Territory Rights (Assisted Suicide Legislation) Bill 2015, which seeks to undo a decision of this parliament 21 years ago. The vote on this bill is, rightly, a conscience issue because good people across Australia have strongly held views on both sides of this argument. Personally, I will vote against this bill, and that is because, as a matter of deep personal conviction and faith, I am committed to upholding the dignity of human life.

There is no circumstance in which I could or would vote in support of any bill which would either directly or indirectly legalise or facilitate the state sanctioned taking of a human life. Of course, like all in this chamber, I want to see the right care and support available for our terminally ill. I want to see high-quality care for those that go through this very difficult process as they approach the end of their life—the appropriate pain relief and palliative care to help facilitate dying with dignity. But I cannot support the official, state sanctioned, deliberate taking of a human life. It goes against everything I believe to be right. I do not believe there is a safe way that it can be legislated. I do not believe it can be legislated in a way which provides the appropriate protections to the vulnerable, depressed or the poor.

Some have argued that this is not a bill to legalise assisted suicide or euthanasia but rather a bill to uphold states' rights. I would submit to the Senate that this is objectively wrong. Firstly, by definition, the territories are not states; they are territories. Under section 122 of our Constitution, the power to make laws for the government of any territory rests with the Commonwealth parliament. Having the constitutional power gives us the constitutional responsibility. We can't abrogate that responsibility. If we, as the Commonwealth parliament, vote in favour of this legislation, we are effectively voting in favour of legalising assisted suicide, except that we're doing so without having any capacity to influence the circumstances and the framework within which that is then done. We would be delegating the power to legalise assisted suicide to the territories. We would be abrogating our responsibility to ensure it is done in an appropriate way. As I say, I'm opposed to state-sanctioned assisted suicide. But even those who are in favour should ask themselves the question whether they are comfortable with being responsible for whatever form that state-sanctioned assisted suicide takes on the other side of a process in the Australian Capital Territory assembly or the Northern Territory assembly, over which we then no longer have any influence.

It is also important to remember that, in the year after the Andrews bill—which this bill seeks to overturn—became law back in 1997, the Northern Territory had the opportunity to become a state. The people of the Northern Territory, by majority vote, chose not to do so. If a majority of the people in the Northern Territory back in 1998, the year after the Commonwealth took away the Northern Territory's power to keep euthanasia legal, were offended by that and wanted to preserve their right to make laws into the future to legalise assisted suicide, then surely they would have voted in favour of statehood, which would have removed the constitutional power of the Commonwealth to continue to maintain the prohibition that is currently legislated. I put it to the chamber that the fact that, on the back of the federal parliament's intervention, they did not do so shows that the people of the Northern Territory at the time supported the actions of the federal parliament at that time.

In conclusion, I will vote no both as a matter of deep personal conviction and faith as well as on the basis that I do not feel comfortable to abrogate the responsibility to get the framework and safeguards right, if assisted suicide were to be legislated, to either the Australian Capital Territory or the Northern Territory. I don't believe that there is a safe way to legalise assisted suicide in a way that would not inappropriately expose the vulnerable, the depressed and the poor to inappropriate pressures. Finally, given that the Constitution gives the Australian parliament the power to enact this legislation, I believe we have a responsibility to maintain the legislation as it currently stands and not to undo the decision, which I believe was the right decision back in 1997, to prevent the territories from legislating state-sanctioned taking of human life.

5:42 pm

Photo of Anne UrquhartAnne Urquhart (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Australians who are terminally and incurably ill should have the right to choose a humane and dignified end to their life. They should be able to choose to end their pain and suffering, and their families should be afforded compassionate support in this decision. I rise to speak in support of the territories to legislate for assisted suicide in their respective jurisdictions. It is no longer appropriate, nor has it been, for the Commonwealth to interfere with the ability of the territories to determine their own legislative futures on this incredibly important matter. While the passing of the Restoring Territory Rights (Assisted Suicide Legislation) Bill 2015 will not automatically legalise assisted suicide in the territories, it will significantly improve the ability of those governments to demonstrate empathy and leadership to those who are suffering in their communities.

Australia is rapidly falling well behind the rest of the world on this issue. Switzerland has the world's oldest act, in effect since 1942, and, some 20 years ago, the state of Oregon in the USA enacted the Death with Dignity Act. There are increasing numbers of jurisdictions providing their citizens with the dignity of choosing when to end their suffering. There are now eight countries and six states in the United States where you can choose to die with assistance. In these jurisdictions, there are a range of safeguards and checks and balances to ensure that society's most vulnerable are cared for and protected. There are an extensive range of measures to avoid elder abuse, a commonly forwarded argument used by those against voluntary assisted suicide. To do nothing, however, is also, in my eyes, abuse. Poll after poll continues to show that a majority of Australians—indeed, up to 80 per cent of them—support voluntary assisted dying laws. It is abundantly clear that people want a choice in when and the way in which they choose to die.

The Northern Territory has shown leadership in this area before, as has the ACT. We would all be aware that the Victorian government has just become the first to pass its Voluntary Assisted Dying Act late last year. Tasmanian Labor continues to work tirelessly to demonstrate compassion, courage and leadership on this issue, fighting to win the right for those in our state to be afforded the dignity of dying when they see fit. My state colleagues have campaigned vigorously to end this example of government overreach. Government should not take on the role or the authority of telling people in excruciating pain when they can die; it is inhumane. The Tasmanian state Labor caucus believes people should have the right to end their life when they have a serious and incurable medical condition that is causing them to suffer in a way that is intolerable to them. I support them in those beliefs.

As incredible as palliative care and those providing the care can be, we must recognise that it does not alleviate all suffering for all people. No person should have to suffer intolerable pain but, rather, should be able to choose to die with assistance with appropriate supports and safeguards in place. During the numerous times that this topic has been debated, we have all heard harrowing stories of those forced to endure intolerable pain and suffering, sometimes for months and years on end. I have no doubt that all of us in this chamber have at some point been moved by a story or an experience of a family member or friend who wished only for their pain to end.

I've been touched by the story of Andrew Denman and his family. Andrew is a very well-known Tasmanian. Some of my colleagues here today would know him for his passion for our specialist timber industry. He shared his story with us after he watched his mother, Carol, die a long, protracted, terrifying and painful death. An advanced directive to cease food and water was enforced and she starved to death. I will paraphrase what he wrote when sharing his story with my Tasmanian colleague. Andrew wrote, 'Another injection, more pain, more suppositories, more indignity. It is excruciating to watch knowing that I made a promise to her not to ever let things get to this stage. I will be forever haunted by mum's pleading looks every time her eyes partially open, asking me to end it all.' At her passing, he shared, 'Mum died this morning at 11:00 am. She died a so-called good death imposed upon her by the laws of Australia. Thirteen days she lasted with no food or water—death by dehydration until her internal organs failed one by one.'

In May 2011, I lost my own father to cancer. Our family watched as he fought this disease until it took his life. He used to talk to us for a very long number of years about wanting to be able to choose when his life ended, when his suffering would be ended. It was his wish always to have control over the end of his life and, in the end, he had no control. Earlier this year, again we felt the sting of what's happened with overreach when we lost our mum. The night before she passed, sitting with her, she asked if I could make it end, make the pain go away with an injection. And, just like dad, in the end, she had no control.

People are suffering and they feel trapped within that suffering, with many looking for a way to peacefully make it end. They are not provided with that and, as leaders, we continue to actively deny them that. This denial must stop. In an attempt to gain back control, people are taking their own lives in the most horrific and tragic methods. Those who are suffering are sometimes making the decision to end their lives with often catastrophic consequences for their loved ones who find them.

The time to provide a legal framework for these decisions to be made is well overdue. It's time to eliminate this end-of-life trauma that many Australian families are having to experience. I support the bill before the Senate.

5:49 pm

Photo of Mitch FifieldMitch Fifield (Victoria, Liberal Party, Minister for Communications) Share this | | Hansard source

I'd like to lay down three markers to frame my contribution to this debate on the Restoring Territory Rights (Assisted Suicide Legislation) Bill 2015. Firstly, territories don't have equal constitutional standing with the states. States are sovereign and territories are creations of the Commonwealth parliament. Secondly, had I been in federal parliament in 1996, I would have supported the Kevin Andrews bill. Thirdly, had I been a member of the Victorian parliament in 2017, I would have opposed the Daniel Andrews bill.

Victoria made a mistake, and I don't want to see other jurisdictions make the same mistake. I can't do anything about what states may do, but I can around what territories do. My reasoning is straightforward. In jurisdictions, before Victoria changed their legislation, I believe there was adequate space in the law for parents, families and doctors to put in place good and appropriate palliative care. My experience with a parent in Queensland 21 years ago and a parent in Victoria 16 years ago is that this was the case. I'm deeply troubled by the current Victorian law at a number of levels. I can't support the Senate allowing a jurisdiction within the Commonwealth parliament's control to go down that same path. I'll, therefore, be opposing this bill.

5:51 pm

Photo of Alex GallacherAlex Gallacher (SA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I also want to make a contribution to this debate on the Restoring Territory Rights (Assisted Suicide Legislation) Bill 2015. I want to take a slightly different tack at the start of my contribution. I actually think that it's appalling that the Prime Minister of this country has traded away about five per cent of the nation's legislative time with respect to a vote on another piece of legislation. In order to get Senator Leyonhjelm's vote on the ABCC legislation, the Prime Minister dedicated precious legislative time in this chamber to advance Senator Leyonhjelm's electoral prospects. The reality is we have no jurisdiction in this issue anyway. We don't have any jurisdiction to legislate for assisted suicide, euthanasia or the like. For a deal—in my view, a very tawdry deal—to be done on such an emotive and important issue of territory rights and euthanasia is just another symptom of the dysfunction of this government.

I rely on my information coming from those good people in the Parliamentary Library. If I get a Bills Digest, I ask the Parliamentary Library about it and they always provide all of the information. In the Bills Digest on this bill, there is a description of this deal—a clear and concise description—alleged by Senator Leyonhjelm and there is, at the end of the information provided, disagreement about what the deal actually was. It's contained in the Parliamentary Library's Bills Digest on the Restoring Territory Rights (Assisted Suicide Legislation) Bill 2015. For the life of me, I cannot understand how we can take an issue like this and make it a tradeable commodity for a vote on another piece of legislation. I find that very disturbing.

I've listened to the debate and many of the speakers on this. For what it's worth, I used to live in the Northern Territory. I have family that live in the Northern Territory right now. I've consulted with those family members in the Northern Territory. I had a brother in Royal Adelaide Hospital, very recently, getting treatment. My daughter-in-law's brother-in-law died at 43 of leukaemia after a very critical cancer treatment. His treatment was, incidentally, delivered mainly in South Australia. I've been lobbied quite substantially on this issue. One of the most compelling people who I've spoken to is that good person Andrew Denton. Andrew Denton pointed me in the right direction on a number of these matters.

Over a period of time, I've sourced the original legislation from Oregon, which, I think, was the first jurisdiction to put this type of legislation in place, and I've had a look at the legislation in Victoria. I can say very clearly that, if you look at the evidence and the assessment of what happened in Oregon—under the legislation there I think there were some 1,969 prescription recipients, and 1,275 of those patients actually ingested the medication—you can get a very good view of how big an issue this is. I understand the population of Oregon is currently 4.1 million. You can actually dive into the 2017 annual report and you can see that there were 143 deaths during 2017, and most of the patients, 80.4 per cent, were aged 65 or older. The median age of death was 74 years. As in the previous years, recipients were commonly white, at 94.4 per cent, and well educated, with 48.9 per cent having baccalaureate degrees.

I hear all the contributions from various sectors of the chamber and I listen to my colleague Senator Dodson, who says there are grave reservations in the Indigenous community. It's probably not the most pressing issue in the Indigenous community; I think that's fair to say. But if people are not accessing health services because of the fear—whether it's mistaken or whether it's a misunderstanding—that there is an assisted dying process, that's absolutely catastrophic, in my view.

I can go on about this probably more than most of the people in this chamber. I saw my father die during an episode of chemotherapy. In those days, chemotherapy was catastrophic. You would get a dose of chemotherapy which was so caustic that it overcame most of your bodily functions, but you got six weeks. You got six weeks of respite. I think, after two periods of that chemotherapy, he was at least able to put his affairs in order. He was at least able to do the things he wanted to do. He never wanted to go a second earlier. He endured. Ultimately he died of a heart attack while I was actually physically there, during an episode of chemotherapy. But it's come a long way from there.

Palliative care has come a long way from there. Just last week a colleague of mine, who was 76 years old and a president of the TWU South Australia and Northern Territory branch, was doing something that was probably a little untoward at the age of 76: moving a fridge. He suffered an incident when he was transporting that fridge and collided with a pole. He was admitted to intensive care and put into a coma. As always, our very, very good intensive care people did their absolute best to maintain life and the rest of his functions, but ultimately he was taken out of the coma and was found to have no cognitive functions. He basically had been deprived of oxygen; it was unclear how long he'd been in the car before the retrieval teams got there and took him to the appropriate facility. So the decision was made then that they would not continue with restoring his bodily functions or getting him to breathe unaided and, after a reasonably short period of time, he passed away.

I go from one end of the scale to the other end of the scale and, in the middle, I could stand here and reiterate many cases of friends and family—close family, including both my mothers-in-law and my first wife—who all went through cancer treatments and palliative care and passed in the company of their children, grandchildren, friends and relatives. I'm not certain that there are a great number of people who are rushing to take a solution here. The evidence, if we look at Oregon, is 4.1 million people and about 143 per annum in that 20-year zone. It's very clear. People like Andrew Denton and other very competent people in this space say: 'You need to recognise, Alex, that five per cent of people will not get the benefit of palliative care. Five per cent of people will suffer inordinately from their condition, and they should have the right to choose.' That's the prevailing argument. They also say that 40 per cent of that five per cent will not take it, but they should have the right to it.

I have been entirely conflicted by this debate. The argument in respect of people in the Northern Territory having the same rights as every other Australian is probably where I started out. I thought that looked like a no-brainer. What's the difference between an Australian in the Northern Territory and an Australian in South Australia? But when you dive back into it, there probably is a little bit of a debate. If you go back to the Northern Territory referendum on statehood, 94,000 people voted. That's probably smaller than a federal electorate. Of those, 44,702 voted yes, 48,241 voted no and there were 1,065 informals. There was an attempt to set up a bipartisan NT Legislative Assembly committee, chaired by former Chief Minister Steve Hatton. That committee proposed a draft constitution and said that it should be debated at an elected constitutional convention. The Hon. Shane Stone ignored that recommendation, nominating a convention membership of 53 members at short notice, and presented the convention's draft constitution, which was different from the committee's recommendations. The former CLP Chief Minister Steve Hatton later said that one of the campaign slogans at the time was 'We want statehood, not Stonehood.' So it was very clear that there was a very divisive character leading the Northern Territory at that time. It beggars belief that the Northern Territory would vote against statehood, but they did, and clearly because they had reservations about the way the place was being run.

The starting point of my statement is: if you can trade off five per cent of the nation's legislative time for a vote on another bill, what certainty will we ever have that there won't be another deal in the future which will change the parameters of whichever state or territory comes out and puts into place some assisted suicide legislation? I'm not certain that this is as clear-cut as people are making out. I've lived in the Northern Territory, and the saying in the Northern Territory is: if you're in pain, get on a plane. You're generally going to get better advice from specialists and/or medical treatment if you go to Adelaide or Melbourne or wherever. That's no criticism of the Northern Territory. It's a very small population base. Obviously, they can't have all of the attendant specialist services and expertise that a major population centre will have. They do great work. You can see that in the work they did with respect to East Timor and the like. But if you do get crook in the Northern Territory, a lot of people choose to get their treatment in another state.

I'm not sure, if we do not support this right to go and discuss assisted dying, assisted suicide or the like, that we're going to be doing anyone in the Northern Territory a great disservice. I'm not sure that anybody in the Northern Territory is really going to be tremendously upset. They may have an in-principle objection, but they voted against statehood because they didn't like the way their leader was taking them to it. That's essentially what the evidence says. They've been used very unfairly in this issue, in my view.

I asked initially: 'Why is this a conscience vote? Why hasn't our leadership done what they do on most issues?' The answer that came back was: it's a conscience vote because in 1998 it was a conscience vote. Okay, I'll accept that. I've sought some advice from the Northern Territory, and some of the advice coming back was: 'Shouldn't this be done at a higher level? Why should a small jurisdiction like the Northern Territory have to go through and do this?'

One of the things I do disagree with Senator Leyonhjelm on is this position about competitive federalism. What does that mean? I can point to a couple of examples of what it means. It means that if you are a jurisdiction that is in favour of online gambling—and I'm not opposed to that—then you seek to base yourself in the Northern Territory, and that's essentially what's happened. I have no particular view on pornography or the rest of it, but when in recent times you want to go into that business, the place do you it is the ACT. That's what the history was.

I'm opposed to this notion of taking the smallest group of constituents, getting a position up and then trying to expand that around the country. Basically, I think my bottom line position is that I'm not convinced that, although a good death is desired by all, we can prescribe that adequately and in perpetuity. It will change. We've got an example here where a Prime Minister traded a position for a vote. So ultimately I'm going to come down on the basis that I'm totally unsure about the effect of what we're doing here on the Northern Territory and, on balance, I don't think we're going to strenuously disadvantage anybody in the ACT or the Northern Territory with regard to not passing Senator Leyonhjelm's bill.

I will sum up by saying I don't like the way it came to this chamber. I don't like the fact this nation's legislative time has been used as a bargaining chip. I'm unsure whether we can carefully and appropriately prescribe in perpetuity for end of life choice. My own lived experience of quite a number of people extremely close to me is that they all went the way they wanted to go, fighting for every last breath in their body and, really, surrounded by the people they loved. And I don't know if we should be doing too much more than that. Thank you.

6:07 pm

Photo of Anne RustonAnne Ruston (SA, Liberal Party, Assistant Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources) Share this | | Hansard source

Before I start my contribution on this particularly important bill before the chamber, can I just correct something that Senator Gallacher asserted during his contribution. He made the assertion that the government had allocated precious government business time in the Senate on this bill as part of a deal. This assertion has been made by previous contributors today, and it is not correct. The reason that this bill is currently being debated is that the Labor Party, the Greens and enough of the crossbenchers voted in favour of a motion to make this happen. I'd now like to move onto the substantive part of my contribution.

Before us today are two very serious concerns: one of great emotional divide and the other in pursuit of legality and federalism. It conflates the two issues of assisted suicide legislation and recognising the autonomy of the territories. I fear it is too simplistic to be debating this proposed legislation as it is. These are concerns that warrant full and frank discussion, whereas the Restoring Territory Rights (Assisted Suicide Legislation) Bill 2015 concurrently discusses multiple matters at once. Some have said it's not about territory issues, while others have said it's not about euthanasia. In the same vein, others have said this legislation before us goes to the rights of territories to make decisions for themselves and contend it does not ask senators to give a view approving or disapproving of euthanasia. Are we discussing territory rights or human rights? Are we discussing social issues, ethical issues, jurisdiction issues or constitutional issues?

The message falls flat on what is actually before the Senate. In my opinion, there are two intrinsically unique matters, each of which unfortunately masks the other. Before us currently, the legal inquiry cannot ignore the philosophical question, but, with equal merit, the philosophical concerns cannot navigate its legality. The two are individually separate, yet the very title of this bill binds them together.

There should be other means through which we can have a full and frank territory rights debate. Similarly, this is not the setting for an assisted suicide debate, with external motives potentially roadblocking a serious policy discussion that can touch the lives of all Australians. This bill purports to encourage competitive federalism. Territories have a distinct role within our federal parliamentary system—they always have—but the existence of the powers retained by the Commonwealth under section 122 of the Constitution can suggest that the debate before us is to be determined by political means, not legislative ones at the hands of local assemblies. The Commonwealth is the supreme law-making body and, as it stands, the Commonwealth can retain legislative oversight for the government of a territory.

In acknowledging the intentions of this bill, it confirms that the Howard government's Euthanasia Laws Act 1997 successfully repealed the Northern Territory Rights of the Terminally Ill Act 1995. To this end, the proposed legislation recognises the respective roles and powers of the territories and the federal parliament in acknowledging that the federal parliament is the body that is ultimately responsible for the laws of the territories. To ignore this important function without considerable consultation and dialogue could be ill-advised, and I'm not sure whether this discussion is rightly placed against this issue.

However, in saying that, I'm a strong supporter of the inalienable rights and freedoms of all people, underpinned by the most minimal government intrusion in their private lives as possible. Individuals are almost always best positioned to make their own choices. To this end, I appreciate Senator Leyonhjelm's pursuit. However, the inextricable linking of the two issues in this bill makes it impossible to separate the discussion. I firmly believe that these two distinct issues must be debated separately. Euthanasia and territory rights are not one and the same. By binding them together, we overlook their respective significance and unconsciously belittle their inherent worth. I deeply respect the views and opinions of all who have participated in this debate. However, I find myself unable to support all aspects of this bill.

6:12 pm

Photo of Matthew CanavanMatthew Canavan (Queensland, Liberal National Party, Minister for Resources and Northern Australia) Share this | | Hansard source

I am opposed to the Restoring Territory Rights (Assisted Suicide Legislation) Bill 2015 because I believe in the sanctity of human life. Leaving the state to assist and sanction suicide, in my view, would diminish the special and unique gift of human life. I recognise that, while the bill seeks to restore territory rights, it explicitly does so for the purpose of sanctioning assisted suicide. Indeed, the words 'assisted suicide' are in the title of the bill. While the matter of euthanasia is a matter for the states, the Commonwealth does have the constitutional right to legislate in this area for the territories. I believe this is a matter of such ethical importance that it should be reserved for the national parliament and not be delegated to jurisdictions that are not recognised as states under our Constitution. I will confine the rest of my marks to the ethical question of the legalisation of assisted suicide.

I want to very clearly outline in my contribution what I mean by euthanasia or assisted suicide. Euthanasia is a deliberate act that causes death. The failure to provide or to accept treatment is not euthanasia. The provision of pain relief, providing it's administered without the intention of ending life, is not euthanasia. I think we can all agree that we should seek to adequately fund palliative care to help all people at the end of their lives to avoid unnecessary suffering.

Of course, we don't all agree on whether the legalisation of assisted suicide is a good idea. This is a deeply ethical question and I appreciate and respect other views on this issue. My views stem from the ethical views that I hold—in particular, that there is a natural law that demarcates certain acts as good and other acts as evil. I've heard many times in this debate that we put down animals to end their suffering, so why shouldn't we allow humans to do the same? There are a number of things that I think are fundamentally wrong with such a metaphor. The first most practical one is that animals have no agency in their euthanasia. A dog is not asked for its permission before a needle is administered, because a dog cannot give its permission. It has no free will. Human beings do have free will, however. We are remarkable creatures. We are not mere animals. We have an innate desire to seek the good. We make choices after contemplation and consciousness. There is something unique, special and sacred about every human life, and we should fight to cherish and protect all human lives.

Another thing human beings uniquely do is love. We should celebrate and love life. That must start by learning to love our individual selves and the gift of human life that we have been given. That will let us love others as well and will let us seek a good and virtuous life. I believe that this parliament and the state more generally should pass laws that celebrate life and that help establish a culture of life; unfortunately, in my view this bill does not celebrate life.

Some will argue in rebuttal to me that assisted suicide will only be permissible in limited circumstances—those in great suffering or those at the end of their life. But a society is judged by the values it holds most dear, the thing it will not trade off for some other thing of higher worth. For a Judeo-Christian society, that most valuable thing, that thing that is most sacred, that cannot be violated, is human life. I believe that such a standard helps deliver more good. In a society that allows the state to sanction suicide, clearly human life is not the highest good, not the most sacred thing. Such a society is willing to trade off life for less human suffering. Instead, in such a society the greatest good would be the minimisation of human suffering and the promotion of untrammelled human liberty towards that end. This would be a fundamental change to the bedrock moral and ethical standards of our society.

The problem with this change is that there is no clear definition of who is to decide what is too much human suffering and what restrictions would be placed around the maximisation of human welfare, even potentially at the expense of the suffering of others. At its limit, this philosophy replaces the 10 commandments with a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet. We can calculate one person's suffering—or the antiseptic jargon, 'their quality of life'—against the happiness of others. When human life is not infinitely valued, our lives literally become the inputs to a morally vacuous mathematical formula. This is not just a theoretical concern; it has been the lived experience of societies who have gone down this path.

Take the example of the Netherlands, where assisted suicide has been legal for more than 15 years. A recent survey found that 60 per cent of Dutch physicians do not report their cases of assisted suicide, even though reporting is required by law, and about 25 per cent of physicians admit to ending patients' lives without their consent. There is even a reported case where a Dutch doctor euthanised a 26-year-old ballerina with arthritis in her toes, because she could no longer pursue her career as a dancer, she was depressed and requested to be put to death. The doctor complied with her request and merely noted, 'One doesn't enjoy such things, but it was her choice.'

I fear that a right to die could soon transform into an expectation to die. This would then cause a fundamental shift in how we interact with our families and our loved ones. If we are seeking to maximise happiness, not protect life, soon people will be seen as, or will see themselves as, a burden on others, not someone with intrinsic value in their own life. I don't want to encourage a society where the disabled or sick are not seen as anything other than fully human with all the God-given rights that we all enjoy. Again, this is the lived experience of jurisdictions that have legalised state sanctioned suicide. The Oregon Health Authority found that 40 per cent of those who assisted a suicide cited being a burden on family or friends or their caregivers as their motivation to end their life.

As I said at the start of my contribution on this matter, my views on this are deeply personal; they do stem from the fundamental ethics that I hold. I do hope we can vote for life in this chamber, because I believe that, if we do not, we will return to a harsher, less forgiving world that we should not return to.

6:18 pm

Photo of Anthony ChisholmAnthony Chisholm (Queensland, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

When it became clear in the last sitting week that this bill was going to be debated, my initial view was this was a matter of territory rights and that it would be a relatively simple for issue for me to deal with. But, obviously, in the winter break, with the opportunity to engage with more people and to talk about the issues at stake in this matter, it became a more complex decision for me to make. I want to put on the record that I appreciate those people, from both sides, who have come and spoken to me about this. They've done so in good faith; they believe in their case. I very much valued the opportunity to discuss this issue with them. It would be fair to say that I am uncomfortable with euthanasia, without being outright opposed to it.

I keep coming back to this being an issue of territory rights, which I strongly believe in. A couple of things have influenced this more than others. Since the right of territories to legislate on this issue was taken away, we have seen state parliaments debate euthanasia legislation. Recently, we saw Victoria become the first state to pass that legislation, and that will begin in approximately 12 months time. And it is likely that, in other states throughout Australia, this legislation will be debated in coming years as well.

Some people opposed to this legislation have argued that the unique unicameral nature of the territories makes them unsuitable to deal with such complex issues. As a Queensland Labor senator, that's not an argument that I can sustain, given the make-up of the Queensland parliament, which has only one chamber. The thought that it would be able to deal with this in an adequate manner also gives me the confidence that the territories would be able to do so as well.

So, given that the debate has occurred in Victoria and other states and will likely occur in the future, I believe that territories deserve that same opportunity. I obviously urge them to progress that carefully, but I will be voting to support this bill, the restoring territories' rights bill, when it comes to a vote.

6:20 pm

Photo of Ian MacdonaldIan Macdonald (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I seek leave to speak for about five minutes.

Leave granted.

I thank the Senate for that. I had spoken very briefly previously, so I'm technically barred without leave, but I thank the Senate for giving me leave for this short period so that I may just put on record my views on the Restoring Territory Rights (Assisted Suicide Legislation) Bill 2015, although I suspect my views are reasonably well known.

I was one of the few senators who was in this place when the Andrews bill was first dealt with on 19 March 1997. At that stage, I opposed the Andrews bill, which actually brought about the situation that this bill is trying to reverse. If people are interested particularly in my views, I would refer them to my speech in the Hansard of 19 March 1997, where I indicated why I was opposing what was then euphemistically called the Andrews bill.

I just want to briefly also mention that I chaired the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee when it dealt with the exposure draft of a private senator's bill, the Medical Services (Dying with Dignity) Bill 2014. That committee looked into this whole question in great detail, and there were an enormous number of witnesses. The one that sticks in my mind most was the young man, a family man, who attended the hearings in Melbourne with his wife, his three children and his uncle, former Senator Jim Short. He had three or four weeks left to live. He asked us to bring the hearing forward so he could give evidence. He was pleading with the committee as someone who, in his situation, was terminally ill. He wanted to pass away with his family, his loved ones, around the bed, at a time of his choosing. He knew there was no hope. He didn't want to wake up at two o'clock in the morning and die by himself. It was the most telling piece of evidence given to the committee at that time.

The committee didn't make recommendations on the bill or otherwise. It did, however, raise some issues which I think Senator Leyonhjelm might like to look at. I'll just quote from the committee's report:

Although the evidence received enabled the committee to consider some of the provisions of the Bill in detail, there remain some technical issues with a number of the provisions of the Bill. These include clarification of the definition of a dying with dignity service, clarification around the definition of a terminal illness, the number of medical practitioners required to consider the request, consistency of definition around decision-making capacity, and the serious consequences for medical practitioners who relied upon the immunities in the Bill if such immunities were later found to be unconstitutional.

The committee went on to say:

The committee notes conflicting evidence it received in relation to the primary constitutional basis for the Bill under—

section 51 of the Constitution. It continued:

The committee was told that there could be very serious consequences for medical practitioners who relied upon the immunities in the Bill, if such immunities were later found to be unconstitutional. This concern is enlivened by the virtual certainty that any federal legislation dealing with voluntary euthanasia will face constitutional challenge.

That was for another bill that was before this parliament. The bill we're dealing with now would give the Northern Territory parliament the right to make these decisions. It's a bit strange to quote my own words, but back in 1997 I said:

My opinion is, I believe, no better formed than the views of a democratically elected parliamentarian of the Northern Territory—a parliamentarian who was required over a much longer period of time than I to determine how the laws of that state like territory should apply. I am not one of those who believe that because I am in the federal parliament my opinions are that much superior to those of representatives of the people of the Northern Territory.

So I would vote in favour of this bill, as I have consistently done when this has come before this parliament on a couple of occasions previously. (Extension of time granted).

I have heard a lot of the speeches here and I've had a lot of people come to talk to me, both for and against. I just want to make it clear that this is not like animals and it's not like dealing with someone against their will. We don't know what form a bill on this will take should one be introduced into the Northern Territory in future, but a lot of the conversation here talks about other people putting a person to death or agreeing to a person being put to death. The bills that we have looked at over the period of time are all about decisions by individuals who are capable of making decisions. People talk to me about dementia and people who are imposed upon or who are depressed. If a similar bill came into force in Australia, those people would not be eligible to make the decision, because you need a number of doctors to certify, first of all, that you are capable of making an informed decision and then, having made that informed decision, that it was your choice and not anybody else's—nobody could put you to death; it was solely your decision.

My own position comes from a brave Christian lady, a committed family person—in fact, my mother. She knew she was dying and she fought it for four years. In the last three years of her life, her quality of life fell by so much that she just wanted to go. There was nothing in it for her. She was being comfortably looked after, but she tried every trick in the book to terminate her own life. She couldn't do it. She eventually starved herself to death because it was the only way she could terminate her own life. (Extension of time granted). I do appreciate the chamber in this matter, which is a matter of conscience. I saw my mother in that situation back in 1997. In the end, after a long, uncomfortable and torturous battle, she did pass away, and I suspect that at the very end she was assisted in any case. I believe, from the medical profession, that this often happens.

The same sort of situation happened with my sister, a very Christian lady. She fought the good fight for so long, but, in the end, she was begging to move on. There was no quality of life. There was nothing in it for her. She knew she couldn't last and she just wanted to terminate her despair and hurt at an earlier time. Those are my two personal experiences, and a lot of experiences have been related to me by others. I acknowledge that many other people in this chamber and across Australia have a different view to me, but that is my view. I wanted to put it on the record yet again. I thank the Senate for their indulgence for me being able to do this.

6:30 pm

Photo of Bridget McKenzieBridget McKenzie (Victoria, National Party, Minister for Regional Communications) Share this | | Hansard source

Over the course of this debate, I've been able to listen to many senators provide their second reading debate contributions on the Restoring Territory Rights (Assisted Suicide Legislation) Bill 2015. I would like to thank them all for their thoughtful, considerate and compassionate contributions irrespective of which side of this debate they're on. This is a very personal matter. I recognise your contribution, Mr Acting Deputy President Williams, around the concept of dying with dignity. You made some very poignant points that the Senate should read if they didn't get a chance to hear your contribution.

For many people around this debate, they've argued that this is actually a bill about state and territory rights. I took the opportunity to read the second reading speech of the mover of this bill, and there's not a lot there. It makes very clear through the second reading speech that this is about euthanasia. I guess Senator Leyonhjelm wants to move this bill because he's concerned that the law says we are only permitted to die by our own hand without assistance. For me, that is how it should be if you feel life and death are part of the human experience. The joy of life, the mixed experience of living and the finality and inevitability of death are part of the human condition. For me, it is a bit like what the Stoic Seneca said: 'death is the wish of some, the relief of many and the end of all.' It is, for me, part of that human journey.

Additionally, when we look at dying and making sure that the experience of death for those in Australia is as painless, sensitive and compassionate as possible, we've come a long way. Think about the last two decades and how palliative care is practised in this country now. Patients and families have the choice to ensure that their emotional, spiritual and physical care needs are being met, and everybody can be supported by a professional who's trained and knows how to assist. We need to focus on that aspect of the death experience. It's not a state, territory or Commonwealth government's role to say who should live or die. It is an individual's decision. We know from experiences overseas that if we open a decision then we get perverse outcomes. It is a government's role to actually protect the most vulnerable in our society. Even opening the door by a fraction to the potential of another person, another officer of the state or the state itself to be taken advantage of for monetary gain or convenience is something that I can't be a part off. I will be voting against the bill.

6:33 pm

Photo of Steve MartinSteve Martin (Tasmania, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise today to put on record my position on the Restoring Territory Rights (Assisted Suicide Legislation) Bill 2015, introduced by Senator Leyonhjelm. This bill is one of the most important. It quite literally deals with the prospect of life and death. This is not an issue that I or honourable senators can take lightly. Regardless of one's philosophical and emotional views on this issue, such significant changes must be considered with the wellbeing of territorians foremost in our minds. For the record, I am a supporter of an individual's right, when facing the prospect of long and painful suffering with no hope of recovery, to have the ability to choose to end their own lives.

But, like many issues that come before us as parliamentarians, this issue is not black and white. I cannot simply impose my beliefs about voluntary euthanasia on this matter when asked whether or not to support this bill. I would like to recognise the work of former Chief Minister of the Northern Territory, Mr Marshall Perron, in passing Australia's first euthanasia laws some 22 years ago. This was our country's first attempt at giving the terminally ill the option of making an informed decision to end their own lives. However, within two years this legislation became invalid after the passing of the Euthanasia Laws Act 1997 by this parliament to amend the Northern Territory's and Australian Capital Territory's self-governing acts to remove those territories' ability to legislate in this area. It is this change, made over two decades ago, that we are now essentially being asked to overturn.

I have sat and listened carefully to the contribution of honourable senators to this bill. I have also watched with great interest the public contributions of the Chief Minister of the Northern Territory, the Hon. Michael Gunner MLA; and the Chief Minister of the ACT, Mr Andrew Barr MLA. They have framed this argument around this debate to be one of the legislative rights of the territories. In fact, thousands of dollars of territorian taxpayers' money was spent by their respective governments on taking out full-page adverts in The Australian to put forward their case. However, I strongly hold the view that such arguments overtook the core function of this bill. The fact is that, if this bill were to pass the Senate and the other place, it would enable territorian parliaments to legislate once again in the area of voluntary euthanasia, and legislate they would. Whilst I acknowledge the passionate contributions of territory senators in this place, particularly that of my Nationals Senate leader, Senator Scullion, this is where my greatest concern with this bill begins.

Whilst considering this bill, I reflected on the debates on this matter in 1996 and, in particular, I reflected on the second reading contribution of the honourable member for Menzies in another place, where he said:

          I believe that these words of the honourable member for Menzies in the other place are just as applicable to this debate as they were two decades ago.

          I would like to place on the record my recognition of Australian territories' rights to make laws for those Australians who call these unique parts of our nation home. However, I cannot in good conscience offer my support to this bill, which will provide the territories the ability to legislate in the area of voluntary euthanasia—certainly not without ensuring that appropriate safeguards are put in place, because the fact is there are no second chances for us as legislators if we get this wrong.

          It is a matter of public record that the original Rights of the Terminally Ill Act of the Northern Territory, passed by the Legislative Assembly of the Northern Territory in 1995, was carried by just a handful of votes in a unicameral parliament, unlike the parliaments of other jurisdictions, with the exception of Queensland, who themselves have instituted a comprehensive committee system. The territories do not have a house of review. There are no other legislators to provide sober reflection on such complex matters, which are literally ones of life and death. The decisions on these matters are left in the hands of just 25 members in a chamber which maintains a government majority. Whilst I do not wish to cast aspersions in any way on the competencies or efforts of the hardworking members of our territory parliaments, I firmly believe that such a final matter should be canvassed by a group of concerned citizens in greater numbers and be subject to substantially more legislative scrutiny. This just further adds to my concerns that the safeguards, as well as the processes, which will determine if and how an individual can choose to end their life, are simply insufficient.

          I conclude by saying that, as legislators, we cannot create laws that will cover every aspect of someone's life. We can only put into place laws that, to the best of our knowledge, with consultation and experience, will not only provide freedom of choice but also adequately protect people. Given those concerns, I will not be supporting this bill, and encourage honourable senators to do the same. Thank you.

          6:40 pm

          Photo of Peter Whish-WilsonPeter Whish-Wilson (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

          I've thought long and hard about this over many years. I don't want to give the impression that I'm being simplistic in what I say tonight, but dying with dignity and voluntary euthanasia decisions made to end life and end suffering are happening informally anyway, from my personal experience. My dearly beloved grandpa passed away a few years back. Sadly, I wasn't there that night, but my family were. A family discussion was had, medical staff were consulted and my grandfather was given a dose of morphine and sent on his way. Having spoken to many friends, I understand this is quite common.

          Tonight, I want to very quickly tell a story about a friend of mine. Her mother was terminally ill and was suffering. They put an end-of-life plan in place. They lived on the North Coast of New South Wales. When their mother deemed the time was right, the family were going to convene at a coastal town. They knew the family doctor very well. All of them had known the family doctor, including the mother, and it was agreed that he would be there when the time was right and she would die with dignity under her own terms, with her family and loved ones there. As it turned out, when the time came, the doctor was away on leave and a locum was in town. When the mother said she was in pain and she wanted to go, they called the doctor and the locum said, 'She has to go to emergency.' He refused to administer a dose of morphine. Although the family tried to plead with the doctor, he said, 'No, it's against the law. She's going to emergency. She needs medical help.' They put her in an ambulance to take her to Brisbane emergency, some 45 minutes away, and she died in the ambulance, alone, on the way to the hospital. Her family were sitting in the lounge room when they got the phone call. They had planned this for months. That's what their mother wanted: to die with dignity. How many other stories do you need to hear about people who choose to end their life on their own terms?

          So, while I understand that these things need to be carefully thought through and there need to be the right checks and balances, I believe—and it may sound simplistic—that this kind of thing is happening anyway and decisions are being made. It isn't actually official or regulated or legal, but it happens anyway. We probably will never get statistics on that, but certainly that's my experience. You may want to take a sample and ask the question: who should be making decisions about this? Of course, we are voting on this tonight, and they may very well vote on legislation in the Northern Territory. The people we should really be asking are those who are terminally ill and are in the situation where they may wish to die with dignity. None of us, I hope, in this chamber are in that situation. Some of us may be one day. They are the people we should be asking. I find it very difficult to sit in here and listen to people saying it's against their values and their beliefs. It's actually the people who are suffering who should be the ones making this decision, not us in here today, and we should provide the ability for them to do that.

          On behalf of Senator Di Natale, I would like to indicate that we do not intend to move the amendments as circulated following any second reading vote. Those amendments were on sheet 8493.

          I will conclude my contributions by saying I do support this legislation. I think it's critically important that we give every human being the right to go on their own terms and to die with dignity. We should accept that death is a fact of life and we should deal with it in a mature and open way.

          6:46 pm

          Photo of Anne UrquhartAnne Urquhart (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

          I seek leave to incorporate the speech of Senator Carr into Hansard for this debate.

          Leave granted.

          Photo of Kim CarrKim Carr (Victoria, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research) Share this | | Hansard source

          The incorporated speech read as follows—

          I support this bill, which removes a longstanding injustice done to citizens of the Northern Territory and the ACT.

          And that's all it does.

          It is not a bill that legalises medically assisted suicide.

          Or which creates a system of safeguards to define and regulate the circumstances in which people may seek medical assistance to end their lives.

          It may be argued that there are two separate issues:

              My answer to both questions is yes, and I wish to state briefly the reasons why I believe this bill should be passed.

              I am one of the few in this place who took part in the 1997 Senate debate on the legislation the bill seeks to overturn.

              My view has not changed.

              In 1997, I said:

              "I am probably the last one in this chamber to argue that the state has no right to interfere in the lives of its citizens.

              To the contrary, I believe that the role of the state is to provide some form of sensible regulation which is vital for the fair and equitable running of a society.

              Therefore I won't say that the state has no right to tell a person when they can or cannot die, because I am aware that people are already making those decisions.

              What I believe the state must do is ensure that people have access to safety, proper medical advice, and as much decent care and support as can be given.

              There are others who also oppose the bill before us today on the grounds that the state has no right to restrict the freedom of an individual to seek their own death and to seek medical assistance to do that.

              It gives me a sense of ironic pleasure to quote John Stuart Mill, who argues that 'the only justification for restricting freedom through law is to prevent harm to others'.

              It puzzles me somewhat that so many of the free marketeers in this Parliament, who would normally proclaim the sanctity of the individual and invoke the name of Mill, are in this instance opposing the individual's right to self-determination.

              I also acknowledge that many senators support this [1997] bill on genuinely held religious grounds ... However, Australia is a secular nation, and as its Parliament we have an obligation to make secular laws, not religious ones."

              One of the consequences of the 1997 Act was that it restricts equality before the law on the basis of where people live.

              If you live in one of the states, your state's parliament is considered competent to legislate on euthanasia.

              But if you live in the Northern Territory or the ACT, your territory's assembly is denied that competence.

              The bill now before us removes that geographic inequality.

              And in doing so, it would restore to the territories the right to allow their residents to seek medical assistance to end their lives if they are facing a protracted, painful death from incurable illness.

              There is no justification for elected parliaments refusing to allow individuals to make that decision.

              If you apply the John Stuart Mill test—that a restriction of freedom is only justified to prevent harm to others—who is harmed when the law denies individuals of sound mind the right to end their lives in the circumstances I have described?

              The harm is done to the individuals whose autonomy has been denied.

              They have lost control over their lives.

              A law on assisted suicide should stipulate appropriate safeguards to ensure that personal autonomy is respected.

              The Northern Territory law overturned in 1997 did have these safeguards.

              That is also true of the assisted dying law recently enacted in Victoria.

              It is important to be aware of this, because one of the most common cited reasons for opposing voluntary euthanasia is the fear that some people will not be choosing freely when they ask to be helped to die.

              Perhaps, the opponents of assisted suicide say, because of subtle pressure from families who see them as a burden.

              Or pressure from hospitals that are short of beds for patients who will recover.

              These are familiar scenarios put forward in the course of any debate on euthanasia.

              It is claimed that legalising voluntary euthanasia will start us on a slippery slope to a society of manipulation and abuse.

              I do not accept the notion that we cannot devise laws to avoid such an outcome.

              And I remind senators that the unregulated environment that applies in every Australian jurisdiction except Victoria is much more likely to result in the manipulation and abuse of the terminally ill.

              We should not pretend that medically assisted suicides do not already take place, but without safeguards.

              Opponents of medically assisted suicide like to evoke images of fascist regimes that used euthanasia to eliminate the unwanted.

              That is not what the NT Act overturned in 1997 and the present Victorian Act allow.

              Both those laws contain safeguards to prevent abuse — safeguards that do not exist in jurisdictions without such laws.

              The NT law allowed medically assisted suicide only in strictly defined circumstances.

              A person seeking assistance to die had to be an adult, and suffering from a terminal illness causing severe pain for which there was no treatment acceptable to the patient.

              They had to have proper medical advice about the likely course of their illness, and about other options such as palliative care.

              The doctor had to be satisfied that the patient was of sound mind and acting voluntarily, after due consideration and without restraint.

              A second doctor with specialist qualifications in treating the patient's ailment had to confirm the first diagnosis.

              A psychiatrist had to confirm that the patient was not suffering from treatable depression.

              There had to be two cooling-off periods.

              Seven days between the patient requesting medical assistance to die and the issuing of a certificate authorising that assistance.

              And another 48 hours between the certificate being issued and being acted upon.

              A request for assistance to end life could be rescinded by the patient at any time and in any form.

              And, the law provided penalties for any person who attempted to influence a doctor to end the life of another person.

              And for anyone who improperly induced another to sign or witness a form requesting medically assisted suicide.

              Under the NT Rights of the Terminally Ill Act, no doctor or other health-care professional could be obliged to assist someone to die.

              There was no attempt to force people to act against their moral beliefs.

              A law with those stringent safeguards is not a law that de-values human life.

              It is a law that respects the choices people make.

              I support the principle that the will of the Senate should not be distorted.

              If a senator is not able to attend because of ill-health, it is appropriate that pairing arrangements are made.

              In this case, arrangements are made informally and not through the parties.

              This is a conscience-vote bill.

              Accordingly I have agreed to pair with Senator Sinodinos.

              However, for the reasons I have set out I hope that this bill will be passed.

              The Northern Territory and the ACT assemblies should be able to resolve this matter democratically, just as the parliaments of the states are able to do.

              That is the question posed to us by this bill, and our answer should be yes.

              Photo of Scott RyanScott Ryan (President) Share this | | Hansard source

              I'm taking this relatively rare opportunity to participate in debate as President. This is an issue that most people have a well-developed opinion of, based on deeply-held personal, philosophical and even political values, and experiences of loved ones and friends, as well as professional experiences and insights. Both sides of this debate are, I believe, motivated by the highest aspirations to care for our fellow citizens. Defending human dignity comes in various forms and there is nothing more difficult than caring for those most vulnerable in their last days, weeks or months.

              Both perspectives on this issue are entirely respectable. I don't believe any should condemn another for holding the opposite view to that which they hold in this debate. But, in outlining my position and why I'll be opposing this legislation, I would like to explain the perspective I bring and the reasons I hold that view, both in principle, regarding the issue of euthanasia, and the administrative matter—the authority of this parliament in relation to the territory legislatures.

              First, the matter of euthanasia. I am a liberal first and foremost. I start from the principle of limiting the actions of the state or the collective will of people limiting the autonomy of their fellow citizens. But I'm not a libertarian. A liberal believes in the existence of the state and that there are limits on the autonomy of individuals. The debate over where to draw this line is the defining one in a liberal democracy. Every instinctive liberal, at some point, comes across the writings of JS Mill, with his famous harm principle that, in short, provides the framework to assess whether a restriction on the choices an individual can make is legitimate and asks: does it bring harm to others?

              On another matter, if Mill was correct—and I think he was—that there is a legitimate limit that someone cannot voluntarily submit themselves to slavery, then I think euthanasia needs to be considered differently to other matters of choice, because, when it comes to matters of ending life, there is a different element because of the finality of the consequences of any choice or incident.

              I fear euthanasia not because I distrust individuals but because I distrust the state and the scope of it that now exists with the public health system we are all part of through a very strong and effective national insurance system and the public provision of health services. I fear it not because engaged citizens, like many of us in this chamber, are able to navigate the health and aged-care systems; I fear it because of the risks to the most vulnerable, who do not have the capacity for choice many of us have. I simply do not believe the checks and balances can guarantee that no innocent person will have their most important right, that of life, taken from them through the lack of care or even the feeling of being a burden upon those close to them or their fellow citizens. I also fear the inevitable expansion of this to those not equipped to make such a choice, let alone the pressure they may feel in the most difficult of circumstances. I happen to oppose capital punishment in all its forms, no matter the justification claimed, because I do not believe the state has a right to take a life and because I believe the risks of error are too grave to contemplate, and that thinking drives me in this particular instance as well.

              Second, I'd like to turn to the issue of territory rights. Territories and states don't have rights; people do. The territories have a different status in our constitutional arrangements than do the states. The people of the territories are in a different situation than are the people of the states. Therefore, we have a different set of responsibilities here than we do with respect to the states. I note that this parliament has previously legislated to prevent the states and territories from enacting capital punishment. While I agree that such a regime has no place in Australia, I find it difficult to accept as persuasive arguments about territory rights and disregard the fact that it's actually about the issue in question—in this case, euthanasia. I don't raise this to draw into question the motives of anyone, only to explain my own position.

              We do have a different role with respect to the citizens of our territories than we do with respect to the citizens of our states. It is not about this parliament forcing its view on the territories; it is about my responsibility that I feel to the citizens of the territories. As someone who does not believe that euthanasia can be made safe, that there are risks of it causing the most grievous harm to the innocent, I have a responsibility to protect the citizens of the territories for whom this parliament is ultimately responsible. Accordingly, I will be voting against this bill.

              6:51 pm

              Photo of David LeyonhjelmDavid Leyonhjelm (NSW, Liberal Democratic Party) Share this | | Hansard source

              In wrapping up the second reading debate on my Restoring Territory Rights (Assisted Suicide Legislation) Bill 2015, I wish to thank each senator for their contribution. We haven't had such a demonstration of individual honesty since the debate on same-sex marriage. In fact, I think this exceeds that debate. On the crossbench, we each form our own view about bills every day. But I understand this is a fairly novel experience for many in the major parties. I would particularly like to thank Labor and my crossbench colleagues for helping me bring this bill on for debate after it became clear that the Prime Minister was reluctant to stick to his deal with me. I have listened to as many of the speeches as possible, mostly while in my office, and I have been very impressed by the honesty and sincerity of my colleagues, if not necessarily all of their arguments. I know that the debate has been influential, with some senators changing how they were leaning in response to the contributions of other senators. That's good.

              Now that I have the floor, I hope the debate continues to be influential, because I'd like to dispel some myths and misrepresentations that have been repeated during the debate. We've heard that we don't need assisted suicide legislation as long as we improve palliative care resources. In fact, palliative care is not an alternative to assisted suicide. You can have both. Indeed, in my opinion, you should have both. But what we haven't heard is how the best palliative care is ineffective for one in 20 patients with a terminal illness. Those Australians die a slow death in agony, and we are unable to help them.

              We've heard how a nine-year-old girl was killed in Belgium, under the laws there. I'm personally not in favour of extending assisted suicide to children. But no mention was made when that subject was raised of the laborious processes taken to confirm consent. No mention was made of the untreatable brain tumour that, according to unanimous medical opinion, was to cause death in the near term, and no mention was made of the excruciating, untreatable pain.

              We've heard a lot about slippery slopes but no mention of how the loose European laws have always been loose and how the tight law in Oregon has hardly changed over two decades—so, no slippery slope. We've heard how doctors can't be trusted but there has been no mention of how doctors deal, right now, with dying patients in an unregulated environment. Assisted suicide laws that require crystal clear consent can actually save lives from doctors who think they know best. There are many overdoses of morphine given with absolutely no consent. We've even heard claims that assisted suicide laws would reduce the willingness of Indigenous Australians to attend hospital, for fear of being killed against their wishes. This is insane. The only thing that could make any Australians fearful of being killed against their wishes is irresponsible and baseless fearmongering, unrelated to any law that could be legislated in Australia.

              We will have an opportunity to further explore these issues in the committee stage, provided we pass this bill at the second reading. So I implore all senators: please question the fearmongering you have heard. Please ask yourself whether this fearmongering is coming from a source that knows what they are talking about, and please ask yourself what the basis of the fearmongering is, when this bill does not legislate for assisted suicide and the only legislation in Australia that does is the very tight legislation of the state of Victoria. But, contrary to what many have said, this bill is not about assisted suicide. It is about the freedom of the elected parliaments of the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory to legislate on assisted suicide.

              In 1995 the Northern Territory parliament adopted the world's first assisted suicide legislation. Four people took advantage of it to end their lives. However, in late 1996, with the debate extending into 1997, Mr Kevin Andrews introduced a bill into the Commonwealth parliament to overturn that legislation and to prevent the territories from legislating on assisted suicide. Twenty-one years later, that bill remains on the books, and yet, during that time, 14 jurisdictions have legalised assisted suicide in one form or another. Victoria is one of them. Other states, including WA, South Australia and New South Wales, have debated bills to legalise it and voted against it. However, the elected parliaments of the ACT and the Northern Territory can't do that. Big Brother, otherwise known as the Commonwealth government, doesn't allow it.

              Surveys repeatedly show that between 75 per cent and 85 per cent of the public supports assisted suicide, including in the territories. It's the social issue with the most clear-cut public support. It's been that way for decades too, as this week's Australian newspaper confirmed. If this parliament were genuinely representative of the people, this bill wouldn't be necessary. The fact that we don't have assisted suicide in this country exposes a serious flaw in our democracy. It reminds me of the old joke about when the parliament and the people disagree with each other: some people believe we should change the people because the government can't be wrong.

              I'm confident that there is majority support in this chamber for this modest bill and even greater support for the bill to at least reach the committee stage following the second reading. But I would like the support to be as strong as possible to reflect how this truly is a modest and reasonable bill. The time has come for this parliament to respect voters in the Northern Territory and the ACT. We in this parliament were all elected, but so were the members of the parliaments of the ACT and the Northern Territory. We are no smarter or more insightful than they are. We should not be denying them the ability to make decisions about a matter that their equivalents in Victoria, South Australia, Queensland, Tasmania, New South Wales and Western Australia can make. Whether we like the decisions those elected politicians make is not our concern. We can't decide whether assisted suicide should be permitted in the states, so what gives us the right to decide for those who are not in one of the states? I say we shouldn't make that decision. We should leave it to the people who were elected to represent them. I commend the bill to the chamber.

              Photo of Scott RyanScott Ryan (President) Share this | | Hansard source

              The question is that the bill be read a second time.