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Sunday, June 20, 2021

ACT sidelined in euthanasia debate

The national conversation – to the extent it’s not been derailed by Covid – has turned to voluntary assisted dying. And it’s a big debate, worthy of the close attention of every Australian.

Parliaments across the country are voting to legalise euthanasia. The Victorian Parliament passed legislation in 2017, and WA and Tasmania have followed suit. Reform bills are expected to pass the Queensland and South Australian parliaments imminently. Only the biggest state, NSW, holds out – for now.

And, of course, so do the territories. Not for any want of interest in the issue, but for want of power. More than 20 years ago, the Commonwealth Parliament used its constitutional power to rule that the territories had no business dabbling in euthanasia reform. This was despite the Northern Territory, under a Country Liberal Party chief minister, having already become the first parliament in the world to legislate on this subject. That legislation was killed off in 1997 by the Commonwealth ban.

The argument driving the Federal Parliament at the time – hinted at but never explicitly stated – was that no responsible legislature would take such a radical step as to make it legal to choose to die, and the Feds were thus “protecting” territory residents from their own wayward politicians.

Today, with two-thirds of Australia’s population presently (or imminently) provided with access to voluntary assisted dying, that argument lies in tatters. The Commonwealth ban – always an exercise in short-sighted paternalism – needs to be removed.

The ban needs to go not just because it is conceptually bankrupt but because it is keeping ACT citizens out of a debate in which vital choices need to be made. Because while there is a certain inevitability about making euthanasia legal in Australia, there are serious dangers if the wrong kind of euthanasia is enshrined in legislation.

As the headlong rush to legislate gathers pace, some of the safeguards built into the original Victorian legislation have been let slip. The Victorian act requires a patient to initiate a discussion about assisted dying, whereas more recent bills dispense with that requirement. The WA and Queensland provisions allow nurses to take the place of doctors in certain circumstances. And whereas earlier bills require that a patient have less than six months to live, the Queensland bill extends that period to 12 months.

This may not appear to be much of a slippery slope, but in fact it is. For some, the real objective is to be able to choose to die at a time, and in the circumstances, that they decide. The problem with this model is that, inevitably, people other than the patient sit around the decision-making table.

Families play a role in such decisions, and their influence may not always be motivated by the best interests of the patient. The inconveniences of problematic ageing, family conflict and inheritance issues can all skew that discussion.

Considered parliamentary debate is called for. The ACT parliament is mature enough to have such a debate.

Letter to the editor in response:

Letter to the editor: what is the right kind of euthanasia?

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