23 May 2022

New government offers fresh hope for voluntary assisted dying laws in Canberra

| Claire Fenwicke
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Elderly person in hospital bed

The NSW Parliament passed voluntary assisted dying laws on 19 May 2022. Photo: Dying with Dignity NSW.

“The people have spoken.”

That’s the opinion of Jeanne Arthur, president of Dying with Dignity’s ACT branch. She’s spent years campaigning for the Legislative Assembly’s right to debate voluntary assisted dying laws.

She celebrated alongside her NSW colleagues when it became the final state to legalise voluntary assisted dying, and now she thinks it’s the ACT’s turn.

“I hope we’ll be able to follow shortly. All we can do is hope and keep on working,” she said.

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Under Commonwealth law, the ACT and Northern Territory’s governments cannot even debate whether voluntary assisted dying should be legalised in their jurisdictions.

Ms Arthur said the issue was extremely complicated.

“The Commonwealth has constitutional and legislative power over us,” she said.

“This is a serious inequality. If you are born [in the ACT] or move here, you now lose that right to decide if you wish to die.”

She hoped the new Federal Labor Government would open the door to rectifying the imbalance.

“I think Federal Parliament has no moral or ethical leg to stand on,” Ms Arthur said.

“In my experience, when writing to prime ministers and other ministers, the response is always ‘wait and see’, ‘we’ll see what other people have to say’ … It’s become a territory-rights issue because the Federal Parliament made it a territory-rights issue.”

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A national referendum would have to be held to repeal the Commonwealth’s power over this issue.

“This may not be of interest to the rest of the country, but the rest of the country will have to get involved if there’s a referendum,” Ms Arthur said.

For now, Ms Arthur said she would study the NSW bill to sharpen Dying with Dignity’s proposal to the ACT Legislative Assembly.

“Our task is to look at legislation across the country, see its strengths and weaknesses,” she said.

“Then the issue is to get Federal Parliament to repeal the Euthanasia Laws Act 1997, and in the longer term, we need to amend Section 122 of the constitution.”

The Australia Institute has also called on the Commonwealth to allow Canberrans to decide for themselves.

Executive director Ben Oquist said research showed that most Australians wanted the Territory to have the right to choose.

“Canberra is a grown-up city, and ACT residents should not be second-class citizens,” he said.

“The citizens of the ACT deserve the same democratic rights afforded to Australians living in the six states.”

An Australia Institute survey found 76 per cent of Australians backed allowing territory governments the chance to legalise voluntary assisted dying in their own jurisdictions.

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The NSW Parliament passed the Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill 2022 on 19 May.

At the time, ACT Attorney-General Shane Rattenbury called for Territorians to be able to make the same decision.

“We are still subject to an outrageous, discriminatory federal law that prevents territories from making laws on voluntary euthanasia,” he said.

“It’s time to overturn this ridiculous law and let ACT residents decide for themselves.”

Independent MP Alex Greenwich originally introduced the bill in the NSW Parliament.

“It’s now time for the federal parliament to legislate to allow people in the ACT and Northern Territory the same rights,” he said in a statement on Facebook.

Federal Labor pledged a parliamentary debate and conscience vote on the issue during the federal election campaign.

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