As voluntary euthanasia laws take effect in Victoria, one of Australia’s leading constitutional law experts says that Canberrans are effectively “second class citizens”, who cannot take charge of our own futures.
Professor George Williams says that the Howard-era laws that stop the territories from legislating on euthanasia “have no place in a modern Australian democracy if they mean that people living in Canberra don’t have the same rights as people living in Sydney”.
In 1995, the Northern Territory became the first Australian jurisdiction to legalise euthanasia, but less than two years later the Commonwealth passed legislation banning the ACT and Northern Territory from legalising assisted death. The ACT has attempted several times to pass legislation on assisted dying while being stymied by the Federal government.
The Northern Territory’s first chief minister, Paul Everingham, revealed last year that when the NT gained self-government in 1978, then prime minister Malcolm Fraser had given him a guarantee that the Federal government would never interfere in their affairs.
“It’s quite an exceptional situation,” Professor Williams said. “The Federal government can add whatever legislation they want at any time because unlike the states, the territories have their power subject at all times to the Parliament’s control. The euthanasia prohibition could easily be removed but it does require a new law to go through both houses of Federal Parliament, and unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be much will to do so.”
The Victorian laws were passed after extensive debate in 2017, and at the time, Northern Territory Chief Minister Michael Gunner urged the federal government to once again address the issue of the territories’ rights to enact their own legislation without being overridden by the Commonwealth.
Last year, Senator David Leyonhelm introduced the Restoring Territory Rights (Assisted Suicide Legislation) Bill 2015 but after two days of debate in the Senate, the bill was defeated by 36 votes to 34. The debate split the Senate after both major parties were given a conscience vote.
Following the vote, Member for Fenner Andrew Leigh and Luke Gosling, Member for the NT seat of Solomon, introduced a Private Member’s Bill to restore territory rights. While the legislation was prompted by the euthanasia issue, the bill itself sought to restore territory lawmaking rights. It was introduced into Parliament, but was never brought on for debate.
Region Media understands that Andrew Leigh is continuing to pursue the cause and will discuss paths forwards with his Opposition colleagues. Mr Leigh said that it was now more than 20 years since the Commonwealth limited the lawmaking powers of the territories.
“This isn’t just about euthanasia – it’s about territory rights. It’s simply wrong that Federal law denies Canberra’s representatives from debating euthanasia. Whether you support or oppose voluntary assisted dying, it’s time we let the ACT Assembly discuss it.
“We Territorians deserve to have our democratic voices heard.”
Professor Williams said that so long as there appeared to be little momentum in Parliament to change the Howard-era legislation, the ACT’s only other option was to follow the Northern Territory in seeking statehood. “But that is a much longer and harder road,” he said.