A bill which would have restored Territory rights to legislate on assisted dying has been defeated in the Senate
The bill, introduced by Liberal Democrat senator David Leyonhjelm, was narrowly defeated by 36 votes to 34.
Tasmanian Nationals Senator Steve Marting paid tribute in the Senate to Marshall Perron, former Chief Minister of the Northern Territory, who 22 years ago passed Australia’s first euthanasia laws.
Within two years this legislation was rendered invalid by the passing of the Euthanasia Laws Act 1997, which amended the NT’s and ACT’s self-governing acts and removed their right to legislate in this area.
Senator Martin said he recognised the Territories’ rights to legislate for their electorate, but could not “in all good conscience” support the bill.
“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,” he said.
“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.”
NSW Senator Deb O’Neill said that data “consistently” supports greater support amongst the public than amongst physicians for assisted dying.
“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,” she said.
She said that research that reviews the practices of international jurisdictions which permit assisted dying indicates that between 0.3% and up to 4.6% 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.”
Other Senators argued passionately in favour of the Bill.
Opposition Whip in the Senate, Tasmanian Senator Ann Urquhart, said that Australians who are terminally and incurably ill should have the right to choose a “humane and dignified” end to their lives.
“Government should not take on the role or the authority of telling people in excruciating pain when they can die; it is inhumane,” she said.
“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.
“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.”
Senator Leyonhjelm expressed disappointment at the result, saying it demonstrated that his colleagues in the Senate were “out of touch” with their constituents and that almost 80% of Australians supported voluntary assisted dying in some form.
“It was deeply frustrating to hear so many Senators argue against my Bill in the misguided belief my Bill would somehow impact negatively on the provision of first-class palliative care for the terminally ill,” he said afterwards.
“But this was never an either/or argument. All Australians, no matter where they live, have the right to decide for themselves when it comes to end of life treatment.
“I was also dumbfounded that some supporters of legalising voluntary euthanasia voted against the Bill.
“It makes no sense that people living in the state of Victoria now have some control over the manner in which they chose to die in the face of intolerable suffering, yet other Australians are denied even having the chance to vote on such a critical issue.”