HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES, 1 AUGUST 2022
In 2016, Canberra man Nebojsa Pavkovic died on his 61st birthday.
He was at the end of a five-week hunger strike inside a body which he knew was no longer working. Mr Pavkovic had been suffering from Parkinson's disease for a decade and had come to the decision, speaking with his family, that he wanted to end his life. He was, however, unable to do so through voluntary assisted dying and had to do so through the much more traumatic and painful approach of a five-week hunger strike. As daughter Katarina Knowles said, 'He was really, truly bedridden, and it was just the worst.'
I spoke to Katarina a year ago, when I was moving a private member's motion in this place to repeal the Andrews ban - to finally allow the ACT and the Northern Territory to have the same rights as the states to legislate over voluntary assisted dying.
We are now in a situation in which this parliament is lagging behind the broader community. Surveys in the 1980s suggested that public support for doctor-led voluntary assisted dying was somewhere in the high sixties, in the 1990s, when the Andrews ban was passed, it was in the mid- to high seventies, and in the past two decades support has been in the eighties, and yet it has not been possible for those in the territories to have the same debate over voluntary assisted dying as those in the states. They have been prevented from doing so by an anachronistic ban put in place 25 years ago.
It's important to remember the state of the world back then. That was a stage in which the Northern Territory had been first in the world in introducing voluntary assisted dying laws and there was a concern that people from states might go to the Northern Territory in order to use those laws. So the Andrews ban overturned the right to the Northern Territory and in so doing the ACT became collateral damage. The ACT hadn't legislated at that time, but the Andrews ban swept up the ACT just because it could.
And, as those who argued for the Andrews Ban put it, the ban was put in place because the territories had moved before the states. Frank Brennan asked the rhetorical question in a submission: 'Should the Commonwealth parliament overturn a territory law?' He answered his own question as follows: 'Only in very rare circumstances where no state has similarly legislated.' We are not now in a situation where no state has similarly legislated. We are in a situation in which every state has similarly legislated. So to hold back the territories is to hold back two jurisdictions from putting in place the very same laws that are in place in every state.
The fact is that just a short drive from this parliament is New South Wales, a place which has enabled voluntary assisted dying. And so the argument has been turned on its head. While the concern might otherwise be that people would travel to the Northern Territory in the mid-nineties to take advantage of those laws, now it is the concern that while the vast majority of Australia has legislated for voluntary assisted dying, the territories are carved out. People in the territories who wanted to choose the circumstances of ending their own lives would need to travel now to a state.
I mentioned before the strong community support for voluntary assisted dying. I want to take the House to a few statistics that illustrate quite how strong that support is. According to Vote Compass, voluntary assisted dying is now supported by 87 per cent of Australians, 79 per cent of coalition voters, 77 per cent of Catholics, 78 per cent of Protestants. We now have a situation in which many European countries, many states in the United States and the District of Columbia have legalised voluntary assisted dying.
It is also the case that the territory legislatures have grown up. The ACT was an eight-year-old parliament when the Andrews ban took effect. It's now in its thirties and is a debating chamber the equal of any state parliament.
I want to acknowledge the advocacy work of Andrew Denton from Go Gentle; Andrew Barr and Tara Cheyne from the ACT, who were here in the House this morning to hear the members for Solomon and Canberra introduce this private member’s bill.
I want to recognise the members for Bean and Lingiari who support this private member’s bill and Senators McCarthy and Gallagher in the other place.
I want to note that while Labor territory representatives are united in our support for this bill, around half of those that I’ve named do not themselves support voluntary assisted dying. They are standing on the principle of territory rights, recognising that they want those parliaments to be able to have the debate, but making the case that in the end they hope those territory assemblies do not go ahead and enact voluntary assisted dying. And so I hope those in this parliament who themselves have personal misgivings about voluntary assisted dying will nonetheless vote for this bill on the basis of territory rights.
I have been pleased to have a range of conversations with those on both sides of the House and on the crossbench about this important bill. In many of those conversations I have noted the commitment to territory rights. I know that many coalition members who are listening to this debate also have misgivings about voluntary assisted dying. Many of them, if they were in state parliaments, would have voted against the legalisation of voluntary assisted dying that has now gone through all of the state parliaments, but the coalition has a strong commitment to federalism. As others have put it, if you want to be in the fight against voluntary assisted dying, run for a territory parliament, because that's where the debate should take place—in the Northern Territory Legislative Assembly and on the floor of the ACT Legislative Assembly.
It should no longer be the place of this House to hold back the territories from doing what every single state has done. The Andrews's ban was wrong in 1997, but it is utterly ridiculous today for that ban to stay in place. I draw coalition members' attention to the words of then Liberal Chief Minister of the ACT, Kate Carnell. She argued in 1987 against the Andrews's ban, saying that it was 'limiting our self-governing powers' and that 'what is at issue here is nothing less than the democratic rights of the citizens of the ACT'. That principle is one that has been shared by former senator Gary Humphries and by Marshall Perron in the Northern Territory. There is nothing about restoring territories' rights that is inherently a Labor value. It should be supported by those in the coalition too.
For me this has been a long process. In the 45th Parliament I moved a bill to repeal the Andrews's ban. In the 46th Parliament I moved a private member's motion to remove the Andrews's ban. In neither case did the then government bring that debate to the floor. It is to the credit of the Albanese Labor government that this debate has been brought to the floor. I do note that, when the Andrews's ban was debated in this place 25 years ago, the Prime Minister was one of those who personally spoke out against the Andrews's ban. Prime Minister Albanese has been extraordinarily consistent in his support for territory rights, in his recognition that voluntary assisted dying is appropriately an issue to be debated by territory parliaments.
People may well differ on the question of euthanasia and voluntary assisted dying, but they ought to be united on territory rights. I acknowledge the hard work of Senator Leyonhjelm in a previous parliament in trying to get this through the Senate and the fact that that vote came down to just a few votes in the Senate. This time I hope the vote in the Senate will be much stronger, much more overwhelming. When it happens the sky won't fall in. The territories will debate voluntary assisted dying. They may choose to follow the states or they may not, but it's appropriate that those legislatures have that debate. It's appropriate that a conversation about an issue that enjoys the support of nearly nine out of 10 Australians should be debated in the territories, as it was in the states.
I say to any members of the House who are currently unsure of their position on a conscience vote: we don't have conscience votes in this place very often and my door is open if you want to speak about these issues. I would love the opportunity to engage you in that conversation. I would love the opportunity to make the case that so many of my constituents in the electorate of Fenner have made to me—that they should not be second-class democratic citizens; that they should have the very same rights over this issue that people in states currently enjoy. So come and knock on my door. Come and knock on the door of the members for Bean, Lingiari, Solomon or Canberra. We'd be pleased to speak to you about this issue. We respect the diversity of views on the question of voluntary assisted dying, but we call for your support for the fundamental democratic principle of territory rights. I commend the bill to the House.
Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.