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

 Tuesday 14 August 2018

I rise in support of the Restoring Territory Rights (Assisted Suicide Legislation) Bill 2015. I'd like to outline at the outset that I also am a supporter of Victoria's dying with dignity legislation. I very much support the democratic principle that people living in the territories should have the same access as people living in states to parliamentary debate and votes on voluntary assisted dying legislation. I say that because, at its heart, this bill is about the right of all Australians, not just those living in the states, to determine the laws which they are governed by. I believe that it's a fundamental tenet of our democracy and that it is undermined when citizens of the same country have differing capacities to participate in political decision-making on the basis of where they live.

In this country, the states are generally responsible for laws on euthanasia. The Commonwealth has no constitutional authority to legislate in relation to euthanasia other than in the territories. But, under the Commonwealth Euthanasia Laws Act 1997, citizens of the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory are denied the right to debate and enact policies which would authorise voluntary euthanasia. We all know that that came about after the Northern Territory, in 1995, legalised voluntary euthanasia, albeit for just eight months, before the Commonwealth parliament passed what was known as Kevin Andrews's bill, which prevented the ACT and the Northern Territory from legislating on euthanasia; hence the bill that we have here in front of us in the Senate today, which repeals that legislation.

However, I think it is important to note that this bill does not seek to legalise euthanasia in those territories. The legislative assemblies of a territory would still have to legislate to permit euthanasia, and they may, of course, never utilise that capacity. On that point, regardless of our own personal views in this place—and I do recognise that it is a conscience vote—I think that we really must acknowledge that this is an issue on which state and federal parliaments are seen to be lagging behind community sentiment. There's been polling that suggests that some 75 per cent of Australians believe terminally ill patients should be able to legally end their own lives with medical assistance. That shows that a national conversation should not take place while there are jurisdictions that are deprived of the deliberative power to address this issue.

If I look at the parliament of my own home state of Tasmania, for example, Tasmania has had three bills in the last 10 years seeking to legalise voluntary euthanasia. One of them was in 2009. I had the opportunity to participate in that particular bill when I was in the state parliament. I think after that there was one in 2013 which came very close, bar one vote, to being successful and then another in 2016. I understand that currently there is discussion within the Tasmanian parliament about there being another bill presented before too long. I'm looking forward to that because I think there is a real possibility that a Tasmanian piece of legislation could indeed get up.

If we look at other states, Western Australia has just had an inquiry, and it is just about to report. Victoria, of course, has successfully passed euthanasia laws, and I think in 18 months it will be implemented. New South Wales had a bill recently that was only defeated by one vote. That shows you, in a sense, that, slowly but surely, parliaments across the nation—other than those in the territories that don't have that right currently—are actually moving forward with this legislation for dying with dignity, and they're doing that because they're responding to the community sentiment in our nation.

This capacity for choice and for genuine debate only becomes more important as the issues at stake increase in their complexity. In one respect, this bill is about restoring to some Australians the right enjoyed by most other Australians to choose the laws that bind them. In other respects, this bill concerns the enabling of every Australian citizen to participate in nuanced and genuine discussion about how and when they wish to die. Voluntary euthanasia is a complex issue, and I have deep respect for those who have personal experiences and sincerely held beliefs that have led them to a position different from my own; however, I personally support legislative changes that would give the Australian people the right to die with dignity and to free themselves from the appalling suffering that chronic and terminal disease can inflict. It is indisputable that, despite the best efforts of skilled doctors and quality palliative care services, a small number of people have intolerable and unrelievable suffering at the end of their lives and want the choice to end that suffering, even though they will die a short time earlier than perhaps they would have done. The community has every reason to expect that we, as parliamentarians, will respond to that, and that we will respond ethically, compassionately, respectfully and responsibly to their needs; hence there have been so many jurisdictions that have brought these laws to their parliaments.

When a person only faces suffering and has no reasonable prospect of improvement, I believe a humane society should give that person a clear choice: to continue life with the support of well-resourced palliative care or to receive the help of a physician to voluntarily end their suffering with dignity and humanity. Either choice must be genuine, made without external pressure or coercion, and of course subject to strict safeguards to ensure it's not abused. But I say to those senators in this place who are against voluntary assisted dying: I, too, value human life, and it's because of that that I have come to my position of supporting someone's right to end their life if they have unbearable, intolerable suffering and disease. My view has been formed by the experiences of individuals from across Tasmania and Australia who have shared their stories with me, not least when I was a member of the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee's inquiry into the Medical Services (Dying with Dignity) Bill 2014.

Listening to Peter Short during the inquiry was a compelling and illuminating experience. Peter testified whilst suffering from a terminal illness. He highlighted his priorities: saying goodbye on his own terms in his own home with his family at a time of his choosing. Peter valued life intensely but was determined to make the case for every individual having a choice. He said to me: 'I don't want to die, but I want to go out of what has been an incredible life with an incredible family on the best note I possibly can, and I want to die in that way.' Both paths are dignified. What is undignified is not having a choice. He said that no-one suffering unrelievable and intolerable pain should have to carry on living.

While doctors always try to ensure that death occurs with dignity and comfort, this outcome does not always occur, and sometimes it's impossible. That's why Peter felt that voluntary assisted dying was a compassionate and humane approach. In recognising his life and the legacy of his advocacy for dying with dignity legislation, I hope that one day we're able to honour that by actually having that legislation pass across the country. He felt that no-one with unbearable suffering should have to go on if they choose not to. Peter believed that assisted dying legislation is possible in our country without being a threat to vulnerable people, and he wrote that on his blog nearly every day when he was alive. I agree with him. Australia can learn from other international jurisdictions like the Netherlands, Canada and parts of the US how sympathetic euthanasia laws can work. The risks are minimised in a consistent, safe, legal framework where people are able to make fundamental choices about their life if they judge it cannot continue in a dignified manner.

To those who are concerned that legislation of voluntary euthanasia would lead to patients' lives being terminated against their will, I suggest that is more likely to occur when vulnerable people cannot communicate openly about their wishes for fear of the repercussions for their doctors and for their families. People living with terminal illness and chronic disease, and the people who love them, suffer immensely. That suffering should not be compounded by the prospect of a painful and protracted death or by the fear that a wish to die with dignity will have legal ramifications.

Life is precious. We are all reminded of that all too often. We know it is finite. Life is a mixture of the good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly, and we should embrace that complexity. I believe wholeheartedly that we should make the most of the time we have, taking up all the opportunities and challenges with which we are faced and which together make up the experience of being human. But life is no longer truly life when it's defining characteristic is suffering with no hope of improvement, only the fear that it might get worse. Our capacity to recognise and celebrate the daily challenges inherent in being human is fundamentally abrogated when every experience is coloured by unending pain.

I have voted in favour of a bill, as I said, in the past that would have legalised voluntary euthanasia when I was a member of the Tasmanian parliament along with Senator McKim, who is in this place as well. And, although its focus is different, I support this legislation today for the same reasons that I supported that legislation in the Tasmanian parliament—that is, to enlarge the capacity of Australian people to make choices about the way in which they live their lives.

The laws that bind us and the manner in which we die are two of the most fundamental components of human existence. Along with a more complete citizenship, this bill grants Australians in the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory greater agency over both. I think it is our responsibility, indeed our duty, as senators in this place—as I would hope it is for those in the other place—to recognise that we need to respond ethically, compassionately, respectfully and responsibly to the needs of those people suffering in Australia who want us to give those same legal rights to anyone in Australia who may be in a position where they have no other choice but want to end their life and do it with dignity.