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WA’s assisted dying legislation highlights ACT’s second-class status

Ian Bushnell 16 December 2019 13
Legislative Assembly

The Legislative Assembly: The ACT’s parliament should be able to make its own laws, without being overruled by the Commonwealth. Photo: File.

The people of the ACT have again been reminded that when it comes to our political rights we are second-class citizens, despite 30 years of self-government and electing our own local representatives.

Western Australia’s historic passing of its own voluntary assisted dying legislation after months of heated and passionate debate on both sides only serves to reinforce how qualified and limited is the ability of Canberrans to govern ourselves.

In the mid-1990s, the Federal Parliament inserted subsections 23(1A) and 23(1B) into the Australian Capital Territory (Self-Government) Act 1988 (Cwlth) which exclude the ACT from the power to make laws with respect to voluntary assisted dying.

It was an arbitrary and deliberate exercise of power to frustrate the will of the ACT’s own parliament, and while it was directed then at a particular issue the message was clear: you are not mature enough to make your own laws and if we do not like what we see the Commonwealth will step in.

As Chief Minister Andrew Barr said last month, the continued operation of the subsections is increasingly absurd, given states like Victoria had legislated for voluntary assisted dying and now Western Australia has followed suit

“When the Federal Parliament inserted those subsections into out Self-Government Act, it was because they did not want us to be among the first jurisdictions to legislate for voluntary assisted dying. Now, it’s increasingly likely we might be among the last – if the Federal Parliament ever restores our rights,” said Mr Barr.

He was commenting after the passing of a motion moved by Tara Cheyne in the legislative Assembly calling on the Federal Parliament to:

(i) resolve that no Australian citizen should be disadvantaged with respect to their democratic rights on the basis of where they live; and

(ii) remove subsections 23(1A) and (1B) from the Australian Capital Territory (Self-Government) Act 1988 (Cwlth).

The issue was also raised last week by Canberra man Neil O’Riordan after a criminal charge was dropped for helping his terminally ill wife, Penelope Blume, prepare for her death.

Mr O’Riordan said he wanted the ACT community to debate voluntary assisted dying, and pursue legislation if the people wanted it.

“With other states debating or implementing new laws on this issue, the time is now for the ACT to act,” Mr O’Riordan told the court.

Penelope Blume and Neil O'Riordan

Penelope Blume and Neil O’Riordan, who wants the ACT community to debate voluntary assisted dying. Photo: Facebook.

Regardless of the contentious issue of voluntary assisted dying, the notion that the ACT, with one of the most educated and informed citizenry in the country and with a population not far behind Tasmania, cannot legislate on this matter is clearly unfair and out of step with democratic principles.

The ACT should not need to win statehood to be able to make its own laws without a paternalistic Commonwealth standing over it threatening to intervene at its whim.

The logical conclusion is that the Commonwealth should take back responsibility for the ACT, its maintenance and services, if its citizens cannot exercise fully their democratic rights.

The Chief Minister is an open supporter of voluntary assisted dying and argues the overwhelming majority of Canberrans also back legislating for it.

That may well be the case but he should be careful not to conflate the issues of assisted dying and Territory rights, connected though they may be.

The argument should not be for the Commonwealth to change its position so the ACT can legislate for voluntary assisted dying, but for the Federal Parliament not to have the power to prevent ACT citizens making laws for themselves on any subject, subject to the Constitution.

Yes, let us be able to have the debate and the right to consider whether we want and need to legislate accordingly.

But the case for Territory rights should not come down to whether you believe in voluntary assisted dying or not.

It’s time for the Commonwealth to trust the democratic process, drop the notion it can legislate whenever it feels the ACT has overstepped the mark and restore to Canberrans what is rightfully ours.


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13 Responses to WA’s assisted dying legislation highlights ACT’s second-class status
kim2614 kim2614 12:06 am 18 Dec 19

Acton, unlike you and Shan Weereratne I am proud of this city. You and Shan Weereratne seem to hate Canberra so much. Have either of you ever visited or lived in a third world city? I guess not. Canberra is one of the most liveable cities in the world and has been voted as such. I have lived and worked in Canberra for many years. I also have first hand experience with the dedicated staff at the Canberra Hospital and use public transport on a daily basis. I don’t use the tram but am a huge supporter for its expansion and this city going forward. But it is easy for people like you to denigrate and cherry pick news items to suit your agenda. All jurisdictions experience the same problems, not only Canberra.

kim2614 kim2614 7:03 pm 17 Dec 19

Shan Weereratne what do you mean “an inept local government running down the CAPITAL into a third world city”??? What absolute garbage. What planet are you people on?

    Acton Acton 11:03 pm 17 Dec 19

    Inept local government is correct.
    What distant planet would someone be on if ignorant of headlines like:

    ‘Emergency waiting times in Canberra the worst in Australia’
    ‘Transport Canberra’s problem areas where fewer people are taking the bus’
    ‘Committee recommends LDA land deals go to Integrity Commission’
    ‘The sobering reality of trying to rent in Canberra on a low income’
    ‘Rates danger looms for Government’
    ‘ACT’s NAPLAN results slip but Berry defends school performance’
    ‘Former chief minister accuses ACT government of price gouging on land’
    ‘Outrage at ACTPLA deal on Coombs development’

Robert McMahon Robert McMahon 9:38 pm 16 Dec 19

The people of the ACT should be able to vote on what laws they support or don’t. I’m concerned about the cannabis decriminalisation laws—but I should be able to express that view (alongside others) at the ballot box not by arbitrary Cth override. It’s called democracy.

kim2614 kim2614 7:45 pm 16 Dec 19

Acton seems to be a regular commentator on this site. He is an armchair critic who has a pattern of trying to bring his comments around to Andrew Barr and ACT Labor who he has a very unhealthy dislike for. Acton is again venting his uninformed views. With other states around the country able to have their say on voluntary assisted dying, the ACT is denied that right. This article just highlights the lack of rights Canberrans have which, guess what, Andrew Barr, Tara Cheyne and the Greens are taking seriously, working hard to rectify this inequality so that restrictions which bar us from making our own laws on voluntary assisted dying can be lifted. I certainly can’t argue with that. The ACT Conservatives (pretending to be Liberals) and Zed Seselja, again out of step with the majority of Canberrans, have consistently taken opposing views. I suspect Acton may be a Liberal Party staffer.

    Acton Acton 11:58 am 17 Dec 19

    No Acton is certainly not a Liberal Party staffer, never has been and is as frustrated as everyone else is about the lack of progress in getting voluntary assisted dying legislation in place. Read the article carefully to understand the problem with the proposed solution. This issue is so important to so many people not to be sacrificed or turned into an ACT Labor point scoring exercise. It needs a coordinated, bipartisan and strategic approach.

Tara Cheyne Tara Cheyne 7:22 pm 16 Dec 19

Thank you for bringing attention to this important issue. Our petition has just hit 1000 signatories - let's keep up the momentum and make it clear this is just not on 👉 https://www.change.org/p/restore-territory-rights

Shan Weereratne Shan Weereratne 1:10 pm 16 Dec 19

Self government with very limited powers was forced upon the residents of the ACT against their wishes in true democratic style. The Federal government specially the Liberals drive a sword into the heart of the territory regularly with the intention of destabilising thr city. The Territory is bearing all those scars now with an inept local government too running down the CAPITAL Canberra to a third world city and an equally weak opposition totally helpless to make a change. The Federal politicians elected by Canberrans from both sides of the divide too have an easy run in Canberra making no impact whatsoever and simply keep enjoying tax payer perks with glee giving very little back to their constituents. The infrastructure in the ACT is hardly impressive and cost of living ranks along the costliest.

John McAvoy John McAvoy 9:16 am 16 Dec 19

Never give your government the power to murder it's citizens. They have steered the debate to make you feel that this is all about ending the suffering of people with chronic pain and that our compassion should allow them to ease that suffering. What they don't tell you is that this suffering can and has been eased in the past by proper medical care and attention and that this is a more human if not more expensive option. Euthanasia is cheap it saves a fortune on medical needs and ends the inconvenience of having to take care of elderly patients on a long term basis.So don't fool yourselves by thinking the government is doing this for the benefit of the suffering. They are instigating this policy for two reasons one because it is the cheaper option and two because it can be extended to other problems like the prison system. The next scale in euthanasia is to extend this program to the legal system and give the authorities the right to get rid of the undesirables of our society. Come on people how many of us went good riddance to bad rubbish when Ivan Millat died. Why did we have to look after him for so long. He was dying anyway why not just inject him and save us the bother and expense of looking after him. There are a number of prisoners who should be afforded the same treatment. Giving a government the right to murder it's own citizens makes it cheap for them could be extended to other parts of society and will eventually be used as a tool of law in which judges have the right to sentence to death people before the courts. Like protestors people that don't like government policy union members or members of opposition parties. The list goes on. So be careful for what you wish for it will have devastating consequences for us all.

Travissi Gilbert Travissi Gilbert 7:29 am 16 Dec 19

Thanks Zed

Acton Acton 7:19 am 16 Dec 19

The incompetence and political naivety of the ACT government and specifically Barr is once again on display. Do not conflate two issues. Do not manipulate the issue of assisted dying as a lever for territory rights. Pushing (i) is inflammatory, divisive and unnecessary.

    JS9 JS9 12:53 pm 16 Dec 19

    Hogwash. If you had any understanding of how things get on the ‘political agenda’, you’d understand perfectly well why particular policy matters which are a perfect example of an underlying problem (in this case the lack of rights for the Territory foisted upon us by Howard) are the best way to try and get a matter on the agenda and solved.

    Why is it inflammatory, divisive or unnecessary? It is a practical example of an area where the Territory does not have rights to set its own legislation in place. I don’t have a firm view on the policy matter one way or the other, but our assembly should have the ability, as it does with the large majority of other issues, to debate and vote on the matter, and for that to be in force.

    John Moulis John Moulis 1:57 pm 17 Dec 19

    It’s not an underlying problem or an example of the ACT not having rights. We need the Federal veto so that joke laws and ideas don’t get implemented.

    Many of us remember the Penises For Peace. At a trade show at EPIC in 1988 a group of protesters appeared naked from under a replica missile singing and chanting. That same group appeared at several other demonstrations after that. In the first self government election in 1989 some of the parties running were The Sun-Ripened Warm Tomato Party, Party! Party! Party! and A Better Idea. The Sun-Ripened Warm Tomato Party almost were elected.

    Even the mainstream parties come up with weird ideas. Remember in 1999 when a Liberal (!!) Chief Minister Kate Carnell wanted to bring in legal heroin and free drugs for addicts? The Feds vetoed it and for months we heard this bumph about “Territory rights”.

    I don’t want people like that being able to run roughshod over us and bring in their stupid schemes, laws and ideas. The ACT has proven that we cannot be trusted and for that reason there needs to be a brake on the ACT Legislative Assembly.

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