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Friday, July 23, 2021

MLAs unite for ACT right to legislate on euthanasia

In a rare show of cross-party co-operation, ACT Labor, Green, and Liberal politicians unanimously moved that the Federal Government restore Territory rights so the ACT can vote on voluntary assisted dying (euthanasia).

Tara Cheyne, Minister for Human Rights (Labor), Attorney-General Shane Rattenbury (Greens), and Canberra Liberals leader Elizabeth Lee called on the Federal Government to introduce and bring on for debate a bill to remove passages in the ACT (Self-Government) Act 1988 that prevent the ACT from passing laws permitting euthanasia.

These passages were introduced 24 years ago, through the Euthanasia Laws Act 1997 (the ‘Andrews Bill’), which also prevents the Northern Territory from legislating on euthanasia.

Ms Cheyne called the Andrews Bill “cruel, needless, senseless legislation … which restricted our democratic freedoms; our democratic rights”.

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Ten million Australians can access euthanasia, Ms Cheyne said. Voluntary assisted dying is now legal in Victoria, Western Australia, and Tasmania. Other states are debating or will debate euthanasia legislation this year.

“Through their parliaments, the vast majority of Australians will be able to participate in this important democratic process, simply by virtue of living in a state,” Ms Cheyne said. “But not citizens of the ACT. And not citizens of the Northern Territory.”

Mr Rattenbury called the situation “farcical”. The Federal Government had taken back legislature powers it granted the ACT at self-government, allowing it to legislate on everything except euthanasia: “One of the most important issues in their lives: the manner of their own death, their health and dignity, and that of their families and loved ones.”

Mr Rattenbury argued that the imposed restriction on the Territories’ independence was “simply the exercise of political power by people in Federal Parliament who either oppose voluntary euthanasia, or who are too scared of any political risk associated with supporting euthanasia. … They make a mockery of self-government, and they tell ACT citizens that they are second-class citizens, and less worthy than people living in the Australian states.”

Ms Lee agreed that the ACT Legislative Assembly should have the right to legislate on this matter on behalf of Canberrans, just as it had the right to legislate on other matters dealt with by State and Local Governments across Australia.

Ms Cheyne, Mr Rattenbury, and Ms Lee invited all members of the Legislative Assembly to sign a letter to all Members and Senators of Federal Parliament by the end of this sitting week.

Comparing euthanasia to gay marriage, Chief Minister Andrew Barr said that change was inevitable; social reform was difficult in Australia, but took the work of many good people.

ACT Greens MLAs Rebecca Vassarotti and Johnathan Davis also spoke in favour of the motion.

Ms Lee emphasised that euthanasia would be a conscience vote for her party. “The issue … is not an easy one. The Canberra Liberals acknowledge and respect the very diverse views on voluntary assisted dying in the ACT community.”

Ms Cheyne noted that the Federal Government has only once allowed the Bill to come on for debate by the Senate, in 2018. Although many Liberals voted against the motion – including ACT Senator Zed Seselja – so, the Canberra Liberals pointed out, did seven Federal Labor senators.

Senator Seselja has said he was open to discussing Territory rights, but not if put in the context of euthanasia.

Ms Lee said she had raised the matter of Territory rights with the Prime Minister, and would continue to do so.

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