The right to die is a right most Canberrans can agree on, says Andrew Leigh MP

Andrew Leigh MP 20 October 2021 20
Andrew Leigh MP

Member for Fenner Andrew Leigh says the time has come for Canberrans to vote on the right to die. Photo: File.

What do 87 per cent of Australians agree about? Not which party to vote for, and certainly not which football code to barrack for. You also wouldn’t find 87 per cent agreeing about tax, or whether cats make better pets than dogs.

Yet when it comes to voluntary assisted dying, the ABC’s Vote Compass survey in 2019 found that 87 per cent agreed with the following statement: ‘Terminally ill patients should be able to end their own lives with medical assistance’. That included 79 per cent of Coalition voters, 77 per cent of Catholics and 76 per cent of Protestants.

Some Canberra families have suffered enormously because of the current laws. Earlier this year, I met with Katarina Knowles, whose father, Nebojsa Pavkovic, was left unable to walk and talk after suffering from Parkinson’s disease.

Eventually, he opted not to use a feeding tube – effectively starving himself to death. It took five weeks for him to die.

“He was really, truly bedridden and it was just the worst,” described Ms Knowles.

In recent years, five of Australia’s six states have passed laws legalising euthanasia. At the end of October, the sixth and last state, NSW, will begin debating the topic. If it passes, every state in Australia will have allowed voluntary assisted dying.

In some sense, this is not surprising. For more than a generation, a majority of Australians have supported voluntary euthanasia. Parliament is finally catching up to popular opinion.

Yet not everyone will have the right to die with dignity. In the ACT and Northern Territory – home to around 700,000 people – voluntary assisted dying will remain illegal, thanks to a bill that passed the Federal Parliament in 1997.

Back then, the target of the bill was the Northern Territory, which had moved ahead of the states by passing euthanasia laws. Federal parliament not only struck down its laws, but for good measure also banned the ACT from enacting voluntary assisted dying legislation.

The result now is absurd. Australia’s most progressive jurisdiction is barred from passing laws that are supported by nine out of 10 Australians, and which already apply across most of the country.

During the years, I have stood up for territory rights by attempting to remove the ban on the territories enacting euthanasia laws. In the last parliament, I moved a private member’s bill alongside Luke Gosling MP, who represents the Darwin seat of Solomon. In this particular parliament, I moved a private member’s motion calling on the Morrison Government to bring on a debate over territory rights.

Many of the arguments used by supporters of the 1997 law now apply in reverse. Back then, it was said the territories should be prevented from rushing ahead of the states. Now, they’re trailing behind.

Back then, it was said the ban was necessary to prevent people migrating to the Northern Territory to die. Now, there is a real prospect that territorians who wish to end their lives might relocate to a state.

Support for repealing the bar on territory euthanasia laws spans a wide spectrum, including some – such as Luke Gosling and David Smith MP – who support territory rights despite having reservations about euthanasia.

Every member of the ACT Legislative Assembly supports territory rights. At the federal level, every territory representative in the House of Representatives – Alicia Payne, David Smith and myself – supports territory rights. And three of the four territory senators – Katy Gallagher, Malarndirri McCarthy and Sam McMahon – support territory rights.

The sole holdout is Senator Zed Seselja, a politician so conservative that he voted against territory rights in 2018, and whose well-known opposition to territory rights caused his Northern Territory Coalition colleague, Senator Sam McMahon, to drop references to the ACT from her territory rights bill. It’s something Seselja’s predecessor, Gary Humphries, never would have done.

Has a more anti-territory politician ever represented a territory than Seselja?

Back in the 1990s, not everyone in Federal Parliament wanted to deprive territories of the right to pass euthanasia laws. As a newly elected member of parliament, Anthony Albanese told the House: “I oppose this bill because I support human dignity. I oppose this bill because I support freedom of choice. I oppose this bill because I support civil liberties. I oppose this bill because my Christian upbringing taught me that compassion is important.”

A quarter of a century on, it’s becoming clear the Morrison Government is determined to keep opposing territory rights. They won’t budge even if NSW joins the other five states in enacting euthanasia laws.

The dismissive response of Attorney-General Michaelia Cash to ACT Minister for Human Rights Tara Cheyne shows the Liberals have no intention of repealing this cruel limit on the democratic rights of territorians.

It will take an election – not a polite letter – to bring about change because under the Morrison Government there’s Buckley’s chance of the ACT getting our democratic rights back.

Andrew Leigh is the Federal Member for Fenner, and Shadow Assistant Minister for Treasury and Charities. His website is andrewleigh.com.


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20 Responses to The right to die is a right most Canberrans can agree on, says Andrew Leigh MP
Acton Acton 7:37 am 21 Oct 21

Zed is only one of 4 ACT senators so why don’t one of the others sponsor a bill? It can’t just be the fault of the Morrison Liberal government because nothing happened during the many years of the Rudd Gillard Rudd Labor governments. Someone is being hypocritical and disingenuous.

    chewy14 chewy14 10:03 am 21 Oct 21

    4 ACT senators?

    I must have missed that change, haha.

    Although I agree with you about the base politics and disingenuous arguments being used.

    The Territory has the same rights as everyone else, the MP is free to lobby to change the law at the appropriate level of government that has the power to oversee the issue for the ACT.

    It has precisely zero to do with a lack of democratic rights.

    JS9 JS9 10:47 am 21 Oct 21

    Que? Where did we suddenly steal an additional 2 senators from ha!

    Both sides of government at federal level have shown scant regard for properly aligning rights of citizens in Territories to the rights of citizens living in States. Don’t expect anything will change any time soon.

    There is zero viable justification in my opinion for the two territories to have differing arrangements to the states on matters such as this, in terms of their rights to make self-determined decisions about such matters.

    chewy14 chewy14 12:45 pm 21 Oct 21

    JS9,
    I think there’s clear justification for the ACT government to not have the same legislative powers as the state governments.

    Although you could also argue that some of those state governments shouldn’t have the powers they do either.

    thehutch thehutch 1:36 pm 21 Oct 21

    There does need to be a difference in the powers of a territory v state, though this should be limited to things that impact on the ability of the federal government to undertake its functions. Federal intervention on this issue, is more about ideological reasons than any impact on the federal government governing.

TheSilver TheSilver 6:38 am 21 Oct 21

How about the government stop restricting freedom of association, freedom of movement, the right to privacy and freedom of speech before we worry about this. Core freedoms first.

Samuel Gordon-Stewart Samuel Gordon-Stewart 2:39 am 21 Oct 21

I find it bizarre that the majority of society seems to think suicide is tragic and has to have ample resources thrown at preventing it, while at the same time cheerleading for people to be able to kill themself if a medical person helps them do it.

I believe everyone has the right to end their own life without assistance. I draw the line at assistance. It can be a very murky line between genuine assistance, coercion, and murder, and once someone is dead it is too late to work out if they really wanted to die. The only way to be entirely sure that it’s a voluntary and wilful decision is for the death to be entirely self-inflicted with no assistance whatsoever.

Denise Bourke Denise Bourke 11:33 pm 20 Oct 21

More dodgy research on this eh? Like the research on having weed in family backyards? Kids form addictions without parental consent, and then rely on it through life's stresses. I had one run into the back of my car stopped at lights, going uphill. Labor doesn't care if a suffering person hasn't received adequate care and their family is stressed. Andrew Leigh promoted RightToDie for patients with degenerative diseases where new research is making inroads every 6 months. Why not supports for NDIS eg indoor pools? If ACT gov want to keep blaming the Feds then stop promoting RightToDie and go back to being a council.

Iain Somerville Iain Somerville 5:55 pm 20 Oct 21

This is not just about the right to choose to die. It is also about Canberrans being classed as lessen citizens by being denied a right the almost every other Australian has. NSW are moving toward accepting this right and soon the ACT will be the only jurisdiction that will not have it.

Dominic O'Sullivan Dominic O'Sullivan 5:27 pm 20 Oct 21

Probably not, Andrew.

Daniel Duncan Daniel Duncan 5:18 pm 20 Oct 21

who did you pol?

Zoe Ayliffe Wagner Zoe Ayliffe Wagner 1:32 pm 20 Oct 21

Agreed. Such an important issue, which Canberra should be leading the way on.

    Linda Stapleton Linda Stapleton 4:47 pm 20 Oct 21

    Zoe Ayliffe Wagner bit late for 'leading the way' as everyone else has already begun...well others at least.

    Zoe Ayliffe Wagner Zoe Ayliffe Wagner 4:59 pm 20 Oct 21

    Linda Stapleton agreed, I feel like Canberra is being unfairly held back on an issue that has such consensus here.

高島智矢 高島智矢 11:56 am 20 Oct 21

The level of religious influence on politics is staggering and the only reason why this has not been passed. Time to go after the churches.

    Henry Kivimaki Henry Kivimaki 2:02 pm 20 Oct 21

    高島智矢 Death or life ? ... light or darkness ? Evil or good ? ....

Michael Ryan Michael Ryan 11:25 am 20 Oct 21

...cue the faux outrage from Zed and his cheer squad...

David Newman David Newman 11:23 am 20 Oct 21

I know the constitutional rules, but it defies commonsense that the Federal level can overrule the ACT Government’s decisions on this when they (understandably) can’t overrule State decisions

    Linda Stapleton Linda Stapleton 4:46 pm 20 Oct 21

    David Newman and yet it has

    David Newman David Newman 5:27 pm 20 Oct 21

    Linda, exactly. It’s as if the ACT’s and NT’s residents have a lesser right to self determination than residents of the states. How is this acceptable?

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