The national conversation – as long as it was not derailed by Covid – has turned to voluntary assisted dying. And it is a great debate, worthy of the attention of all Australians.
Parliaments across the country are voting to legalize euthanasia. The Victorian Parliament adopted legislation in 2017, and WA and Tasmania followed suit. The reform bills are expected to be passed shortly by the parliaments of Queensland and South Australia. Only the largest state, NSW, is resisting – for now.
And, of course, the territories too. Not for lack of interest in the issue, but for lack of power. More than 20 years ago, the Commonwealth Parliament used its constitutional power to rule that the territories had no reason to embark on euthanasia reform. This was despite the fact that the Northern Territory, under the leadership of a chief minister of the country’s Liberal Party, had already become the first parliament in the world to legislate on this subject. This legislation was removed in 1997 by the Commonwealth Ban.
The argument for the Federal Parliament at the time – raised but never explicitly stated – was that no responsible legislature would take a step so drastic as to make the choice to die legal, and the federal authorities were thus “protecting” residents. from the territory of their own wayward politicians.
Today, with two-thirds of Australia’s population currently (or shortly) having access to voluntary assisted dying, that argument is in tatters. The Commonwealth ban – always an exercise in short-sighted paternalism – must be lifted.
The ban must be removed not only because it is conceptually bankrupt, but because it keeps ACT citizens out of a debate in which vital choices must be made. Because while there is some inevitability in making euthanasia legal in Australia, there are serious dangers if the wrong type of euthanasia is enshrined in law.
As the frenzied race to legislate accelerates, some of the safeguards built into the original Victorian legislation have been dropped. Victorian law requires a patient to initiate a discussion about assisted dying, while more recent bills dispense with this requirement. The WA and Queensland provisions allow nurses to substitute for physicians in certain circumstances. And while previous bills require a patient to have less than six months to live, the Queensland bill extends that period to 12 months.
It might not seem like a slippery slope, but it actually is. For some, the real goal is to be able to choose to die at a time, and under the circumstances, as they choose. The problem with this model is that inevitably people other than the patient sit around the decision table.
Families play a role in these decisions and their influence is not always motivated by the best interests of the patient. The downsides of problematic aging, family conflicts, and inheritance issues can all skew this discussion.
A thoughtful parliamentary debate is called for. ACT’s parliament is mature enough to hold such a debate.