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.
Just before I call Senator Bilyk, I remind all senators that, because this is a conscience debate, I will be coming down particularly hard on any interjections, as all senators should be heard with respect and be allowed to express their views.
If I can begin by making a couple of comments about Senator O'Sullivan's contribution. I want to make it very clear: I've done a lot of work over many years with both Palliative Care Tasmania and Palliative Care Australia. The issue in this debate is that palliative care and voluntary—I underline 'voluntary'—assisted dying are not mutually exclusive. In fact palliative care can be a great resource in the area of voluntary assisted dying.
I thank my Labor colleagues in the House who introduced this bill, the member for Ballarat, Ms King, and the member for Eden-Monaro, Ms McBain. It's hard to believe that it is now 27 years since the Northern Territory parliament passed the Rights of the Terminally Ill Act. It was the first state or territory in Australia to legislate for and regulate the process of voluntary assisted dying. It's not euthanasia and it's not suicide; it's voluntary assisted dying. After the act was passed and before it was overridden by the federal parliament, seven people sought assistance to end their lives under the act. All seven had advanced stages of cancer. Of the seven, four were able to use the provisions of the act to end their lives. Another two sought assistance but died before the act became law, and one died after the act was repealed.
The Northern Territory's act was enforced for almost two years when the Australian Parliament passed the Euthanasia Laws Act 1997. The federal act prevented not only the Northern Territory but also the ACT and Norfolk Island from passing laws to allow for voluntary assisted dying. Since the bill was introduced there have been many attempts in this parliament through private members and private senators bills to repeal the provision of the Euthanasia Laws Act and restore the rights of the territories. I won't at length go into those various attempts to do that but I will say this: in 2016 a bill was introduced, this time a collaborative effort between Senator Di Natali and Labor Senator Gallagher, but, like most of the others, wasn't proceeded with. In 2021 during the last parliament, Nationals Senator Sue McMahon introduced the Ensuring Northern Territory Rights Bill. While there was some progress on the second reading debate, that bill did not come to a vote. The one bill that did make it to a division, Senator Leyonhjelm's bill, was negatived by a margin of only two votes.
So while we've been grappling with the issue of the rights of the territories to legislate for voluntary assisted dying, we have had extensive debates on the issue in all state parliaments. In fact, I think Senator O'Sullivan comes from Western Australia. Western Australia has voluntary assisted dying laws. So it's alright for the state that he lives in to have it. We didn't get a say in this chamber whether or not Western Australia got to do that but when it comes to the territories, we have to treat them differently. Every state parliament has now passed laws to provide some regulatory framework for suffering terminally-ill people to seek assistance to end their lives. As I said, this chamber did not get a vote to determine what every state did, so why do we have to do that for the territories? These laws take effect on various states and are already in effect in two of the six states.
In my home state of Tasmania, the legislation which passed was developed by Legislative Council member, Mike Gaffney, after a very long and very extensive community consultation process. This consultation process allowed the legislation to be very thoroughly scrutinised to ensure the language was consistent and correct, and that the checks and balances against misuse were watertight. The End-of-Life Choices (Voluntary Assisted Dying) Act 2021passed the Tasmanian parliament last year and commences operation on 23 October this year.
You will notice from the titles of the various repeal bills put forward in federal parliament that there have been a lot of terms used, a lot of terms bandied about and, as I said, some of these are inappropriate. It's really important that we get the terminology correct. We're talking here about voluntary assisted dying. We're not talking about euthanasia or suicide, as I've mentioned. Those against it use that language to run the emotive argument, and I find that not tolerable. You have to understand the bill. You have to understand what the word 'voluntary' means. We're not forcing anyone to do it. You hear all these horror stories, but I don't understand why it's alright for all the states to be able to do it and not the territories. If anyone can explain to me why that's alright and give me a logical argument, I'm happy to listen, but I haven't heard a logical argument about it yet.
Ending one's own life by suicide is usually the result of mental ill health such as psychosis or severe depression. Suicide is a tragedy—don't get me wrong—and every possible measure should be taken to reduce the incidence of suicide until we eliminate it entirely. By contrast, voluntary assisted dying is a rational act made by someone whose life-limiting illness is causing them intolerable pain or physical discomfort, and as a result they have no prospects for quality of life. Suicide tends to be preceded by isolation and loneliness—not always, but usually—whereas voluntary assisted dying usually brings patients closer to family and loved ones. As for euthanasia, this is a procedure used to kill someone painlessly to end their suffering. With voluntary assisted dying, the doctor provides the patient the means to end their life and thereby end their suffering, so ultimately the power to make the decision remains in the patient's hands. It's important we make these distinctions clear when we talk about voluntary assisted dying.
Years ago I was actually opposed to voluntary assisted dying, but my views is changed. Some recent experiences, of course, have had a profound effect on my thinking about the topic of death and dying—how I die, how much dignity I have when I die, and how I may want the choice to be mine. I mean, I might get run over by a bus tomorrow! Heck, wouldn't there be a whole lot of people interested in my position? But if I've got the choice, and I'm in such severe pain, with no quality of life, then I want to be able to make that choice.
Only a few years ago I stayed for two weeks by the bedside of a very close personal friend who was dying in a palliative care suite. I'd known my friend for over three decades. We were partners in crime together for over three decades. I'd witnessed her cognitive decline over several years resulting from early onset dementia. At the beginning of those two weeks she lost the ability to swallow, and the doctors expected her to only live for one other day. She held on for two weeks, receiving regular pain medication. It was a great relief to her loved ones when the suffering finally ended. I'd changed my view on voluntary assisted dying before this incident, but it still had a profound effect on me nonetheless, and probably just served to reinforce my views.
Seeing people die or dying changes your perspective on death. I used to be a nurse. I've seen people die. I've laid out the dead. I've seen people have to hang on, being kept alive with no quality of life, and I cannot accept that that has to be the way for the people in the territories if it doesn't have to be the way for the people in the states. But we've got a bit of a culture in Australia where we treat death like a taboo subject. We don't talk about it nearly enough, whereas in other cultures they're much more open about the subject. We even seek to substitute straightforward words like 'death' and 'dying' with euphemisms like 'passing away' or 'passing'. I'm committed to turning this around, as a lot of people in this chamber know. As co-convenor of Parliamentary Friends of Palliative Care for a number of years, I've spoken extensively about the need to plan for and discuss our end-of-life wishes in order to have a good death. We do it when we're having a baby. We have plans to have babies. People want women to have a good birth and a good experience. When it comes to dying, we should have the same respect.
Part of our discomfort with the idea of assisted dying is probably brought about by our discomfort with the idea of death generally and our reluctance to discuss it openly. I'm sure more people would be open to the idea of voluntary assisted dying if they openly discussed the topic of death as well as what their dying wishes are. That's why I love the idea of death cafes, an initiative that's gaining popularity, in which people get together over tea or coffee and have a frank, open discussion about death.
More discussion about death would also help to overcome the pervasive misunderstandings about palliative care. I am disappointed to hear people voice suggestions that arguing for investment in quality palliative care is somehow an excuse for not rendering assistance to terminally ill patients to end their own lives. As I said, they're not mutually exclusive. It frustrates me because I'm both a supporter of voluntary assisted dying and a strong advocate for quality palliative care. I speak to palliative care people regularly, so I know they understand that palliative care can assist with voluntary assisted dying. As I said, it's not an either-or proposition. I do suggest, as I have earlier in my contribution, that these views are put forward by people who quite often have a very narrow understanding of what palliative care is. So, while I'm here, let me bust some of the myths.
Palliative care is not just pain management and other care at the very end. It's not just for dying people in a hospital bed, and it's not just for old people. Palliative care is for anyone of any age, including children, who has a life-limiting illness. It can be provided to people in the final days or the final years of life. It can be provided in any setting: a hospital, an aged-care facility, a home or even out in the community. It addresses the physical, social, emotional, psychological, cultural and even spiritual needs of the patient. For example, if you've got a life-limiting illness and your dying wish is to go bungee jumping, having someone to take you bungee jumping could be a form of palliative care. For anyone listening, I hope this example helps to broaden your perspective on palliative care.
Having conversations about our dying wishes and investing in quality palliative care in Australia are two ways we can ensure that people with life-limiting illnesses have the best end-of-life experience possible. Isn't that what we want for them? Shouldn't we all want that for anyone with a life-limiting illness? Regardless of how good palliative care is, we know it will not end all the pain, all the suffering and all the discomfort. There is a need for other options for people whose quality of life cannot be assured. For many patients advocating for voluntary assisted dying, just the knowledge that this option is available gives them comfort and lessens their fear, even if they may never exercise that option.
While in this contribution I've spoken at length about voluntary assisted dying, let's be clear that here we are debating not whether to legislate for assisted dying here but whether to allow the territories to do so, just as we allow the states to. This is not fundamentally a debate about voluntary assisted dying but a debate about territory rights. That much is made clear by the title of the bill. Going back to Senator Leyonhjelm's bill, I spoke in the debate on the second reading of that bill four years ago. I want to quote a paragraph from that speech. I said then:
I do not believe it's for me as a senator elected to this place to determine whether the Northern Territory or the ACT should legislate for voluntary assisted dying, just as it's not for me to determine whether Victoria, Tasmania, South Australia, Western Australia, New South Wales or Queensland should. It's not for me to decide whether the safeguards of the Northern Territory's or the ACT's assisted dying legislation are sufficient. I support this bill because I do not see it as fair to treat territorians as second-class citizens and to say to them: 'The states are mature enough to govern themselves, but you need federal oversight.' That is essentially what this parliament did when it passed the Euthanasia Laws Act in 1997.
Going back to my speech, my fundamental objection to the Euthanasia Laws Act is that it created two classes of citizens in Australia: those who are governed on state matters by their state parliaments, and those who have federal oversight on matters that would normally be dealt with by their territory parliaments. I understand that the Constitution gives this parliament the power to deny territorians certain powers that are afforded to the states, but I see no compelling reason whatsoever for asserting those powers. As far as I'm concerned, doing so treats territorians as second-class citizens and it smacks of paternalism.
Our Constitution was adopted over 100 years ago. It's imperfect, but improving it is a difficult and expensive process. One way we can improve the operation of our Constitution without the expense of a referendum is through the conventions we choose to follow. I believe that giving the territories the same legislative powers as the states is a convention that we should agree to adopt and uphold, even if our Constitution allows us to do otherwise. It's worth noting that other speakers during the debate on Senator Leyonhjelm's bill supported the bill despite their personal opposition to voluntary assisted dying.
I would urge anyone in this place who opposes voluntary assisted dying to consider upholding the principle that territorians should have their own right to decide. After all, imagine if the tables were turned.
RICE () (): This bill has challenged my thinking very deeply. I've come to this parliament to consider every piece of legislation that comes before us, and it is my obligation to the people of this country to pursue a deeper level of understanding of argument for and against each piece of legislation, never taking anything for granted, especially on an issue as serious as permitting society the ability to end human life.
I've heard very shallow arguments from my fellow federal Labor colleagues from the Northern Territory and our very own Northern Territory Labor Attorney-General, who claimed: 'This is purely about giving Territorians rights, and anyone who opposes this is effectively denying our rights as Territorians to make our own decisions.' In my opinion, taking a human life is far more serious an issue, deserving profound consideration, as opposed to political pointscoring or gaslighting to elicit a supporting vote.
Given our Northern Territory Attorney-General, Chansey Paech, our Senator Malarndirri McCarthy, and the member for Lingiari, Marion Scrymgour, are of Aboriginal heritage, I would have hoped that they would consider the possible consequences for, and the current deeply held concerns of, the Territory's Aboriginal population, who are some of our most marginalised Australians. The Northern Territory has the highest proportion of Aboriginal Australians in the country, at 30 per cent of our population. The majority of this population consists of those whose first language is not English and who experience the lowest levels of education, the highest levels of unemployment and welfare dependency, the lowest life expectancy, the highest rates of domestic and family violence and the greatest health challenges in the nation. Voluntary assisted dying is incompatible with the Closing the Gap health and wellbeing targets of closing the gap in life expectancy within a generation by 2031, and significant and sustained reduction in suicide of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people towards zero.
The Northern Territory government are also charged with the responsibility of protecting the lives of Territorians, but have recently acted contrary to this duty, instead using human rights as the basis for their argument to allow alcohol to be consumed again in remote communities. They've argued that an alcoholic should have the right to drink themselves to death. And if that alcoholic is also a violent perpetrator, their potential to commit violence has been prioritised by this Territory government over the rights of the perpetrator's victims to live a life free from all forms of violence. It is a human right for every man, woman and child to live a life free from any form of violence, including alcohol related violence.
Despite desperate pleas from vulnerable community members and leading Aboriginal health and legal services, this Northern Territory Labor government, who now seek the right to debate voluntary assisted dying, completely ignored these pleas. I now field distressing calls on a regular basis from people who are experiencing the immediate consequences of the Northern Territory government's actions. These individuals and their communities are retraumatised by the alcohol fuelled violence that has returned to their communities. In two communities in central Australia, families have fled due to feuds. Children's lives are disrupted, as are the lives of those now being displaced. This is contributing to the gangs of children now back on the streets of my hometown, who are not attending school and who have no adult supervision. So you can forgive me for having no faith or confidence that this current Northern Territory Labor government is capable of determining legislation that lends itself to ending the lives of human beings.
My other concern speaks to cases I have come to learn of in other countries like Canada, where laws allowing assisted dying have seen individuals who have been misdiagnosed with a terminal illness end their lives wrongfully; or cases where a prognosis has been delivered to a patient estimating they only have months to live, when, in fact, they have had years left, but the consequences of the initial prognosis has brought their lives to an end prematurely. There is the mental capacity of individuals seeking assisted dying to be considered. There have been cases of individuals who have ended their lives without involvement of family members, who sadly learned only after their loved ones had passed away that they had sought assisted dying. The mental capacity of these individuals was not known or considered by treating doctors, yet if family had known they still would not have been able to challenge their loved ones' request due to the legislation's determinations.
I have a niece in her early 30s whose kidneys collapsed some years ago. She has two children in their early teens. She decided recently that she no longer wanted to live, and ceased attending her dialysis appointments. It was deeply concerning to us as a family that she had come to this conclusion. It was very likely the fact that the increased level of toxins in her blood due to avoiding dialysis was contributing to her inability to make sound decisions about her health. As her family, we did everything in our power to keep her alive. We had her committed to care and arranged counselling for her to better understand the need for her to keep fighting for her life and continue to be dialysed. Her children needed their mother. This is why I fight for better life outcomes and a better quality of life for all Australians, especially our most marginalised—to respect the sanctity of life by fighting to save lives.
While I acknowledge that the other 70 per cent of the Northern Territory is not Aboriginal, I have a responsibility to all of our Territorians. The proposed repeal of Kevin Andrews's bill does not create equality between states and territories, as the following points show. First, territories and states are fundamentally different. The Northern Territory (Self-Government) Act 1978, or NTA, is an act of the Commonwealth parliament and can be changed as parliament sees fit. State constitutions subsist under section 106 of the Constitution and are protected by it—they cannot be changed by the Commonwealth parliament. Second, the Commonwealth parliament has plenary power over the territories under section 122 of the Constitution. That can't be changed, save by referendum. By contrast, the Commonwealth parliament may legislate in matters affecting states only within the powers granted to it by section 51 of the Constitution or exclusive powers like defence. Third, the administrator of the Northern Territory is appointed by the Governor-General; state governors are appointed by the Queen. Fourth, by virtue of subsection 53(5) of the NTA, the Northern Territory parliament does not have power to confer on courts or tribunals powers to resolve employment disputes. That restriction remains. Finally, and importantly, under section 72 of the NTA the Commonwealth indemnifies the Territory in relation to any claim for damages which, but for the NTA, could have been brought against the Commonwealth. That means that the Northern Territory does not stand on its own two feet but is supported by the Commonwealth.
Therefore, the Constitution demands that every one of us, the elected members of federal parliament, take greater responsibility for the territories within our nation than for our states—whether we like it or not. But if this bill is to pass, because of my very grave concerns I would urge any Northern Territory government that wishes to debate legislation for voluntary assisted dying to undergo thorough consultation with Territorians of all backgrounds—especially our most vulnerable constituents. I would also especially urge those who argue this bill is about supporting only the rights of Territorians that once you've determined the legislation you put it to the vote of the people of the Northern Territory so that it may truly reflect their wishes and rights.
I have thought more deeply about this issue than any other issue I have thought about in this place. I have changed my view from a past time, when I may have taken a more classically liberal approach with respect to matters such as this, to one where I reflect deeply on the threat to the most vulnerable in our community in relation to the passage of this legislation.
If this bill, the Restoring Territory Rights Bill 2022, was only about the rights of territorians, it would not be a conscience vote. Recognition of this as a conscience vote includes a recognition that it is about something more than just the rights of territorians. I do not believe that the ends justify the means, nor do I believe that you should focus entirely on the means and disregard the ends, or the results of what happens. Hence, when I come into this place and consider an issue such as this, I consider it in terms of protecting the vulnerable. I consider the consultations with our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, our First Nations people. I consider the unintended consequences of this legislation. I consider all of those issues. And in terms of those safeguards, in terms of consideration given to those issues, I see there is barely a page of consideration to those matters.
The reality is that the Constitution of Australia places an obligation on us to consider whether or not the legislation that was introduced by a previous parliament should be repealed. We have the power therefore we have the responsibility, and it's up to each and every one of us to determine how we discharge that responsibility. And I pay tribute to Senator Nampijinpa Price with regard to her position, her ethical position. It would not have been an easy thing to do that, being a senator from the Northern Territory, and it has echoes of the great Edmund Burke who, when he had to speak to his constituents in Bristol in that famous speech, he said: 'When I come to parliament I'm not just here as your cypher, I bring with me my own conscience. I have to apply my own wisdom to that which is before me.' I really do congratulate Senator Nampijinpa Price on that speech. I have material concerns in respect of voluntary assisted dying, and the more I look into it—and I have looked deeply—the more concerned I am across a number of bases. I think Senator Nampijinpa Price, her comments in respect of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are very, very important to consider, and I'll be making some comments in that respect as well.
The first point I want to make is that voluntary assisted dying is not entirely a private act. This is not like freedom of speech or freedom of religion because, by its very nature, in terms of the processes initiated through voluntary assisted dying, if you choose to go down that path you are involving others. You're involving the medical profession. You're involving the state, which has to have checks and balances to try to assess whether or not a person's consent is valid or invalid. You're placing obligations on a whole range of people. It is not just a single private act; this is broader than that. I will seek to bring that into stark relief shortly.
It also has national significance. We have international human rights obligations, which we have entered into, including in respect of the disabled that have been entered into by our country on a national level. We are the provider of the NDIS, which we hope provides services to our disabled such that they never get into a position where, because they haven't received adequate services, they are forced to choose—a Hobson's choice that the only way they can end the suffering because they haven't been provided adequate services is to go down the voluntary assisted dying route.
We're the provider of health services. Palliative Care Australia, after the most recent election, wrote to the new government and said, 'Congratulations'—as they should do, as each association would do—'we hope you look at the shortage of palliative care services in this country.' So we are all put on put on notice. Everyone in this place is put on notice that there are inadequate palliative care services in this country at this point in time. What if a person is in that invidious position of trying to get access to palliative care services, concerned, scared of the pain, scared of the suffering when they haven't got access to that service? I say to you: we should make sure they've got access to those palliative care services first. That should be our primary responsibility.
I'm going to read to you from a very disturbing article from Canada, a First World country that in many ways is very similar to Australia. I make this point first. In Canada's annual report on medical assistance in dying, they give the statistics for the rates of medically assisted dying in Canada between its introduction in 2016 and 2021. The number of people accessing voluntary assisted dying in Canada has increased from 1,018 in 2016 to 10,064 in 2021, a tenfold increase. So let's have a look to see what is actually happening Canada. I quote from a very recent article by Maria Cheng, a medical writer with Associated Press:
TORONTO (AP)—Alan Nichols had a history of depression and other medical issues, but none were life-threatening. When the 61-year-old Canadian was hospitalized in June 2019 over fears he might be suicidal, he asked his brother to "bust him out" as soon as possible.
Within a month, Nichols submitted a request to be euthanized and he was killed, despite concerns raised by his family and a nurse practitioner.
They've got all the safeguards in Canada. We can have pages and pages of safeguards in legislation, but we have to ask ourselves: what is the practical reality? The article continues:
Nichols' family reported the case to police and health authorities, arguing that he lacked the capacity to understand the process and was not suffering unbearably—among the requirements for euthanasia. They say he was not taking needed medication, wasn't using the cochlear implant that helped him hear, and that hospital staffers improperly helped him request euthanasia.
"Alan was basically put to death," his brother Gary Nichols said.
This is happening in Canada, a First World country, at this point in time. I'll give you another example from this article on what is actually happening on the ground in Canada:
Before being euthanized in August 2019 at age 41, Sean Tagert struggled to get the 24-hour-a-day care he needed.
Sound familiar? Is that happening in Australia? Of course it is.
The government provided Tagert, who had Lou Gehrig's disease, with 16 hours of daily care at his home in Powell River, British Columbia. He spent about 264 Canadian dollars … a day to pay coverage during the other eight hours.
Health authorities proposed that Tagert move to an institution, but he refused, saying he would be too far from his young son. He called the suggestion "a death sentence" … Before his death—
through voluntary euthanasia—
Tagert had raised more than CA$16,000 … to buy specialized medical equipment he needed to live at home with caretakers. But it still wasn't enough.
"I know I'm asking for change," Tagert wrote in a Facebook post before his death. "I just didn't realize that was an unacceptable thing to do."
In light of what is happening on the ground, the United Nations has written to the Canadian government raising concerns that its law breaches the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. This is in Canada. Here's another example, perhaps even more horrifying, from the same article:
Roger Foley, who has a degenerative brain disorder and is hospitalized in London, Ontario, was so alarmed by staffers mentioning euthanasia that he began secretly recording some of their conversations.
This is someone suffering from a deeply difficult disease, in hospital, being so disturbed by the conversations that health professionals in a First World country were having with him that he started recording them. This is what we found:
In one recording obtained by the AP, the hospital's director of ethics—
of all things—
told Foley that for him to remain in the hospital, it would cost "north of $1,500 a day." Foley replied that mentioning fees felt like coercion and asked what plan there was for his long-term care.
"Roger, this is not my show," the ethicist responded. "My piece of this was to talk to you, (to see) if you had an interest in assisted dying."
That's what's happening in Canada. It's an article from August—just last month.
In relation to the position in the Northern Territory and our First Nations People—I'm not a member of our First Nations people, but when the concerns were raised in that regard I felt a moral obligation to do what research I could in relation to what the experience was in the Northern Territory and I came across this article. It's entitled 'Euthanasia: Right legislation: wrong jurisdiction?'
It contains an extract from a written statement by Chips Mackinolty to the Senate committee on legal and constitutional affairs' inquiry into euthanasia. Chips Mackinolty was charged by the Northern Territory with the obligation to go around to different Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory and consult with them in relation to the legislation which had been imposed or brought into effect in the Northern Territory. Following that consultation, even though personally he supported euthanasia, he was desperately concerned that voluntary assisted dying was inappropriate in the Northern Territory context. He was desperately concerned.
He found that out of the 900 First Nations people he consulted with only two gave any support to voluntary assisted dying. What was most troubling was the fact that he believed it could be totally counterproductive and that Aboriginal people may not attend at health clinics because they'd be concerned with respect to what was associated with the health clinics. It could actually lead to that sort of additional dysfunction in that context. I'll quote:
However, for reasons I will explain, I am not convinced that acquiring objective knowledge of the contents of the… legislation had any significant impact on Aboriginal knowledge and perceptions of sickness and health, life and death. For this reason, it is my personal view that the existence of the… legislation presents—
Listen to this very, very, very carefully—
The… legislation presents a continuing threat to the health and wellbeing of many Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory.
This is someone who believed in the philosophy of voluntary assisted dying, but, after he travelled across all those communities, came to that view.
Here's another quote I'd like to give from that article:
It is worth noting, in this context, that private Aboriginal owned clinics have demanded, and received, written undertakings from staff that they will not participate in euthanasia so as to reassure patients that these clinics are 'safe' to attend. Legal and other reasons preclude this occurring in government clinics, and an attempt to amend the… legislation to exempt Aboriginal community clinics from participating in euthanasia failed to pass the NT Legislative Assembly.
Again, another quote:
I personally support my having access to euthanasia—but not in the Northern Territory. It is arguably the right legislation—but certainly the wrong jurisdiction. My reasons for this are both simple and complex.
I suggest to everyone that they read that article, and if this legislation goes through—it's likely to—that, in particular, the Northern Territory legislatures pay close regard to the words of Chips Mackinolty in that respect. It's very, very important.
This is a very, very difficult issue, an extraordinarily difficult issue, but having read extensively into the most recent experiences of what is occurring in first world jurisdictions, countries like our own—in Canada—and seeing how those experiences could translate into an Australian context, I simply cannot support legislation where the only safeguards we're given are no safeguards. There's just a page of legislation. In good conscience I simply cannot support this legislation.
DODSON () (): Four years ago, in August 2018, I stood in this place and spoke against a private senator's bill, the Restoring Territory Rights (Assisted Suicide Legislation Bill) 2015. That legislation failed, and not just because I voted against it. Now we have the Restoring Territory Rights Bill 2022 to consider. This bill will remove constraints on the legislative powers of the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory—constraints that were enacted in 1997 in order that the Commonwealth overturn Northern Territory legislation which was the first in the world to legislate euthanasia.
Four years ago—that is, more than two decades after the NT legislation was cancelled—euthanasia was legislated elsewhere across Australia. The Victorian parliament passed voluntary assisted dying legislation in November 2017, but it would not come into effect until June 2019. My home state of Western Australia was next. Legislation was enacted in December 2019, and I protested about that. Today every state in Australia has voluntary assisted dying legislation, although in some places the laws are yet to come into effect, so the landscape now is markedly different from that of four years ago. Euthanasia will soon be able to be practised in all parts of Australia—apart from the ACT and the Northern Territory.
The Northern Territory legislation, back in the mid-nineties, was called the Rights of the Terminally Ill Act—ROTI was the acronym—and four people took advantage of it before the Commonwealth intervened. I recognise that the legislation before us now, the Restoring Territory Rights Bill 2022, does not automatically revive the Northern Territory ROTI Act, but, as the explanatory memorandum spells out, it will ensure that the ACT and the Northern Territory parliaments will be able to allow their citizens the same rights as people living in the six states now hold. If the two territories want to follow suit, they will have the benefit of lessons from the legislation that the states have already worked upon.
Personally, I still hold the same reservations that I held four years ago about laws which license euthanasia or assisted dying, especially as they may affect First Nations peoples. But in the end I see euthanasia legislation as whitefella law, to be used by the non-Indigenous population. It's worth recording the research that was quoted previously by Senator Scarr. The research was into Aboriginal views on euthanasia, which was commissioned by the Northern Territory government when its ROTI Act was passed. The research team conducted 21 meetings across the Territory, involving 900 Aboriginal people from around 100 communities. They found that at least 90 per cent of those Aboriginal people opposed the legislation, as distinct from the 70 per cent support nationally for euthanasia. Palliative care was universally supported by Aboriginal people as the way people were traditionally cared for under their law, and that's still our way. We nurse our elderly into their death in our own communities, sometimes at great personal sacrifice. And remember this: in remote communities, as has already been alluded to, there aren't the palliative care services available that are supported elsewhere.
As I said in this place four years ago, any proposal by the Northern Territory to reintroduce assisted suicide legislation must occur in consultation with First Nations health services and communities because First Nations peoples are at a higher risk of being in a situation where assisted dying might take place. I said that four years ago.
I have pondered deeply how to approach the legislation before us now and, in spite of my fundamental spiritual opposition to euthanasia, I have never held to the slippery slope argument. I accept that adequate safeguards have been written into the laws that now prevail in the six states. They may not be adequate, but they're better than what was proposed. For that reason, and in recognition of the widespread non-Indigenous support for voluntary euthanasia, I intend this time to abstain from voting. I would not want to be the one person whose no vote sank this legislation.
I want to talk about other factors that have come in to weigh upon my deliberation. Many of you here would have been lobbied by faith based organisations to oppose this legislation. Some of those lobbyists have invoked my advocacy—in particular, about the anathema of euthanasia in First Nations people—to support their cause. The Australian Christian Lobby, for example, has campaigned against this legislation under the headline 'Protect Indigenous lives'. Yet this very same organisation, which purports to be concerned about First Nations peoples, has been peddling offensive propaganda which scoffs at the Aboriginal spiritual beliefs and belittles arguments for a First Nations Voice to this parliament.
Mr Martyn Iles, the managing director of the Australian Christian lobby, harangues his followers with video clips called 'The truth of it'. In an 18-minute rant back in June he railed against the Uluru Statement from the Heart as a 'pagan document', which he screwed up and tossed at the camera. A Voice to parliament, Iles asserts, is 'the agenda of critical race theorists' who want to divide people on the basis of their skin colour and to implant, in his words, 'some kind of trouble, some kind of cancer' into an otherwise good system. Iles compounded his offense in another video only a couple of weeks ago when he said he eschews the welcome to country because it 'affirms paganism and entangles one in false spirituality'.
I've been distressed by these scornful, hateful diatribes from so-called Christians, who are prepared to recruit First Nations peoples to support a campaign against euthanasia yet won't allow them a seat at the table. Those sorts of diatribes are injurious to respectful discussion. They have no place in our national discourse as we progress towards a referendum to entrench a Voice in the Constitution. Those opponents of the Voice to the parliament say that it will be divisive. Those same opponents fail to recognise that their argument is in itself divisive. I say that rather than dividing us a Voice will be an instrument of healing and reconciliation, a first step in the journey to resettle our relationship.
I want to start by acknowledging the respect and consideration that has, in large part, been shown by others during this debate. As in all conscience debates, these are decisions and thoughts that weigh heavily upon us all, I'm sure.
I rise to discuss greater rights for the Norther Territory, but I have sincere reservations surrounding the possibility that euthanasia legislation will be a consequence. And while, as a north Queenslander and a northern Australian, I do have enormous sympathy for the cause of Territorians having greater autonomy without needing approval from the Commonwealth for the decisions they make, this is of course a result of the Northern Territory (Self-Government) Act 1978.
The Restoring Territory Rights Bill 2022 asks for more decision power on land acquisitions and employment disputes. I would normally think that this is an excellent move that would streamline the administration of the Territory and encourage productivity gains and development. But, as I said, I have sincere concerns with the other aspect of the bill, which will repeal the Commonwealth's rejection of the Territory's ability to legalise euthanasia. In all good conscience I cannot agree to figuratively hand a gun to someone knowing it would be used to end a human life, no matter the watertight legality of that person's being able to hold it.
I have reservations about assenting to this bill in its entirety until there is a much more serious discussion about the options to improve the range and availability of palliative care in the Northern Territory. Just this year, famed Aboriginal actor David Gulpilil was forced to undergo palliative care in South Australia, far from his Arnhem Land home, due to a lack of services. His family has described how distraught he was at not being able to die on country. It has been reported that this is a wide-ranging problem throughout the Northern Territory.
In January this year, the ABC reported that the then federal government had pledged to improve care options across remote Australia but had stopped short of outlining any specific future plans. The Northern Territory government is also reluctant to promise any new facilities for palliative care in the Territory bush, but said they've recently improved the end-of-life care services in Alice Springs and Darwin. The spokesman also said that the Northern Territory government would support patients who wish to die at home on country, including with transport back to country if that is the request from patient and family, but a study into remote area palliative care by research body BMC Palliative Care found that Aboriginal people have a growing need for palliative care but struggle to have convenient access to it or even information about it.
We also have to wonder exactly how much consultation euthanasia advocates have done with the Territory's population broadly and the Aboriginal population specifically. In the 1996 study by Territory government researcher Chips Mackinolty, referred to earlier by Senator Scarr, revealed that while so-called right-to-die advocates, of which he admits he was one, believed they could just travel around Indigenous communities educating people and be hailed as heroes, the results were the exact opposite. Twenty-one teams of researchers were tasked by the government with canvassing 900 Aboriginal people in the Territory. Of those 900 people, just two responded favourably to adopting the Rights of the Terminally Ill Act. The main reason given was superstition based on tribal belief that killing someone, even via a medical procedure sanctioned by somebody wanting to die, was abhorrent. Furthermore, they feared that if killing someone with doctor administered drugs was made legal by the government, those drugs could be used by others, either by sinister people with evil motives or kadaitja men and sorcerers to commit murder. I appreciate that this is not a view held right across the Northern Territory, but I believe it is our responsibility to ensure that we are protecting everyone—most importantly, the most vulnerable in our community.
The findings also stated that allowing medical professionals, usually the most trusted in Aboriginal communities, to end life would erode that trust and lead to people delaying treatment or seeking alternative remedies. Indeed, once the concept of euthanasia was explained to them, many Aboriginal people stated they would not feel safe going to the doctor anymore, even for minor ailments. The report author, Mr Mackinolty—again, a staunch advocate of euthanasia—made the sobering conclusion that the Northern Territory was certainly the wrong jurisdiction to legalise assisted dying. He did not say 'arguably' or 'possibly'. He was unequivocal: 'The Territory was certainly the wrong jurisdiction.'
What price do we pay for people delaying treatment, and ultimately becoming terminally ill, when early intervention could have saved their lives? How can we celebrate the Northern Territory having more of a say over its own destiny by knowing its most vulnerable people would be adversely affected by this aspect of the change?
The other grave concern I have is that we are simply offering a solution that is easy compared to the much more difficult task of ensuring terminally ill Territorians can access all treatment options. The Northern Territory has the lowest life expectancy in the country—an average of 74 years, compared to 80.5 years right here in the ACT—and its population is spread out far and wide from main population centres. It should be a matter of human decency and responsible government to ensure that seriously ill people have the choice of a full suite of treatments, not influenced simply by where they live or their personal finances.
I point the house to a recent development in Canada where reports have surfaced of people being encouraged to undergo euthanasia because they couldn't afford expensive treatment. In one case reported in the media, a war veteran with PTSD and an acquired brain injury was offered the following choices: undertake long-term and expensive treatment or euthanasia. How has the situation gone from 'we just want people to die with dignity' to 'maybe you should agree to be euthanased instead of paying all these nasty medical bills'? His conditions were serious but not considered terminal, and yet medical staff reportedly offered medically assisted dying as a money-saving option. I've heard from people concerned their loved ones can be convinced to end their lives by unscrupulous family members or spouses. So-called elder abuse isn't just limited to financial scams; it can manifest as physical harm and mental degradation, to the point that sufferers make major decisions that make no sense to their families. It is a great worry to people that greedy people will take advantage of sick, elderly relatives' fragile mental states to get them to agree to end their own lives.
A big part of improving medical care and treatment options is improving the Territory's economy, and one way to do this is to open up the vast gas reserves in the Beetaloo Basin. A major reason for the Northern Territory's status as a nonstate is its reliance on Commonwealth funding to administer itself. Its population is small and extremely spread out, and many people live in the most remote part parts of Australia, which increases the cost to government to provide services. The obvious answer to the Northern Territory winning full statehood is for it to reduce its reliance on federal funding and to become more self-sufficient. The quickest way to do this is, as I've said, is to unlock its vast gas and mineral deposits in areas such as the Beetaloo Basin.
The Northern Territory Labor government is in financial dire straits. Its net debt as a percentage of GDP is the highest in the country, and, even with its impressive tourism offerings, a handful of operating mines, vast cattle stations and busy live export port, there are just not enough people and not enough money coming in. As long as the Northern Territory needs the federal government to pay the bills, the federal government will continue to have a say over its affairs. Meanwhile, right under its feet are some of Australia's largest deposits of oil and gas, namely in the Beetaloo and Georgina basins, worth billions of dollars. There is opposition to that from cattle producers, environmentalists and Indigenous groups, but, if a comprise can be found, the Territory could drastically improve its chances of self-determination as a state.
I would call on this federal government to continue the momentum gained by the previous government to revitalise the Northern Australia Agenda. The Territory is in dire need of more people, more industry and more development, and it beggars belief that, while the Labor Party thought floods in Sydney and Brisbane deserved instant action, large parts of the Northern Territory are cut off during every wet season, leaving people isolated and without access to fresh food. The Territory cannot grow and cannot determine its own destiny without federal attention and real, practical help.
The Northern Territory is truly special to Australia. It deserves to be granted more autonomy, but we must be mindful of unintended consequences. Specifically, I would ask that, before there be any further consideration given to allowing for euthanasia to be granted in the Territory, the people of the Territory ask themselves: Do they have suitable alternative care? Do they have end-of-life provision for palliative care? And is this something that they would truly want to contemplate, or are we just exposing the most vulnerable parts of our community to another risk?
Senators, one of the most powerful moments, I think, as an elected member in this country is being able to stand up and represent the people who put you in the place to represent them, whether it be at a local government level, whether it be at a state or territory level, or whether it be here, in the House of Representatives or the Senate. How incredibly precious is that opportunity to represent? And one of the most wonderful things about our country is our democracy—uplifting, a shared space where we can debate, agree, disagree and have the opportunity to make laws on behalf of the people who put us in these places.
I stood for the people of the Northern Territory in 2005 and represented the people of Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory parliament for a number of terms—an incredible honour: First Nations people of all different dialects, over 100 Aboriginal languages still maintained and still strong. Yet, when we come to an issue about whether the people—