I’m in Darwin at the moment for Committee hearings into two separate private Senators’ Bills. One, introduced by Bob Brown, is aimed at restoring the right of the Northern Territory Parliament to legislate in areas relating to euthanasia. The other was introduced by me and is aimed at instituting a national system for providing compensation to the Stolen Generations. Unfortunately, being in Darwin means I had to miss the housing affordability inquiry hearings in my home town of Brisbane. Tuesday morning we hear peoples’ views about compensation for the stolen generations. The Monday hearings were into the euthanasia issue. A lot of people appear to have strong and unequivocal views either for or against euthanasia laws, but I find it quite a complex and difficult issue. Even though it is very unlikely that the legislation will be brought for a vote in the Senate prior to my term expiring at the end of June, I am still a member of the Committee inquiring into the matter and want to express some views in the Committee’s report.
Bob Brown’s Bill as it stands has the intent of trying to make the pervious euthanasia laws passed by the Northern Territory Parliament in 1995 operational once again by repealing the federal law from 1997 which quashed it. However, some of the legal advice to the Inquiry suggests that it is uncertain whether that can lawfully be done. The fallback option would be simply to restore the power of the Territories (including the NT) to be able to once again legislate on euthanasia should they wish to do so again in the future. The law passed by the federal parliament in 1997 not only quashed the NT law, but prevents the NT (or the ACT or Norfolk Island) from being able to legislate at all on the issue of euthanasia.
I fully understand that euthanasia is an issue people can have very strong feelings about, but I sometimes find it frustrating when people on either side of the issue express views in absolutist or strident terms. At its worst, a picture is painted where one is either a religious fanatic with no care for individual suffering who is trying to impose their religious beliefs on everyone else or else a death worshipper with no respect for the sanctity of life who is happy to see old people bumped off just to stop them taking up valuable space in nursing homes. I don’t think cartoonish portrayals of the perspectives help the debate at all, but I must say the vast majority of evidence presented at this hearing from all aspects of the issue was presented in a constructive and non-judgemental way. (One brief exception was the suggestion by former NT Chief Minister, and chief architect of the original NT euthanasia law, Marshall Perron, that the views of religious organisations on this issue should be dismissed. I can understand why he would be hugely peeved that the NT was quashed, but I still think this sort of statement is excessive).
One witness I was especially interested in hearing from was Dr Philip Nitschke, who is probably the best known euthanasia advocate in Australia, and is also the doctor who carried out euthanasia on the four people who were able to make use of the Northern Territory euthanasia law before it was quashed by the federal Parliament. While I have plenty of sympathy for the pro-euthanasia position, in the past some of his public statements and actions have made me quite uneasy. But I was quite impressed with his contribution to this hearing. His views are very strong, but he presented them very articulately and succinctly, and didn’t try to weasel around some of the complexities of the issue.
Similarly, I’ve found the judgementalism of the Australian Christian Lobby a bit hard to stomach at times in the past, especially on gay and lesbian issues, and I was pleasantly surprised that in the main their presentation stuck to the substance of their concerns – although their submission also contained one of those over the top assertions, stating that “voluntary euthanasia is never a truly free decision” – a statement they did back away from under questioning.
The evidence from the Palliative Care Unit at Royal Darwin Hospital was also very interesting. One of their witnesses stated that some people are averse to entering palliative care in Darwin specifically because of a misplaced fear that they may be euthanased, while very occasionally people still arrive from elsewhere in Australia specifically hoping to achieve that outcome.
I am sure high quality palliative care significantly reduces the number of people who want to bring a premature end to their life. However, even with best palliative care in the world, I find it hard to believe that there would not still be some people, even if only a small number, who come to a fully considered, informed and rational decision that they still want to bring their life to an end. The question really boils down to whether or not such people should have a legal right to seek and receive assistance for this, or whether providing such a right creates some sort of unacceptable risks to other more vulnerable people.
It’s certainly an issue which still generates significant public interest, with about 450 submissions to date. The Committee reports in mid-June, although it should be emphasised that private Senator’s (that is, non-government) Bills often do not get brought to a vote. Personally, I’d be surprised if the federal government wanted to re-open this issue by allowing it to come on for a full debate and vote, but one can never tell.