Commonwealth should give back territories' power to legislate for themselves - Transcript, 2CC Radio


MONDAY, 24 MAY 2021

SUBJECTS: Territories’ right to legislate on voluntary assisted dying; Upper Hunter by-election; Prime Minister’s focus on photo ops instead of vaccines.

LEON DELANEY, HOST: The Federal Member for Fenner, Andrew Leigh, is today at some point introducing a motion into the federal parliament to seek the restoration of territory rights in matters of determining assisted dying laws. Andrew Leigh is on the phone now. Good afternoon.


DELANEY: Thanks for joining us. Have you, in fact, presented your motion as yet?

LEIGH: I have. It was debated at 11 o'clock this morning and it's now up to the Government as to whether they'll bring it on for debate. It's high time we got this thing fixed, Leon. It's been a quarter of a century since parliament took away the rights for Canberrans to have euthanasia debated by our local Assembly. Since then we've seen three states go ahead and enact euthanasia laws, and yet 700,000 Territorians aren't able to have their parliaments debate the issue.

DELANEY: OK, the so-called Andrews Bill was introduced to overturn the legislation that was created in the Northern Territory, as you say, a quarter of a century ago. One of the arguments put forward for that bill was that it was to prevent the territories, the ACT and the NT, from getting ahead of the states where no such euthanasia laws had previously been passed. Obviously, now that we have three states that already have such laws, and two more at least that are actively pursuing those laws, that's an argument that no longer holds water, isn't it?

LEIGH: Bang on, Leon. If you take somebody who opposes euthanasia like Frank Brennan, he said that it’s only in exceptional circumstances in which the Commonwealth would overturn the territories' powers. What are those exceptional circumstances? Well, one of those is where no state has legislated. That was Frank Brennan in 2008, but now we've moved on considerably. Every state in Australia has considered euthanasia. You've got eight US states and the District of Columbia that have now enacted euthanasia laws, plenty of European countries have gone ahead. We've gotten the safeguards much more carefully understood now, Leon, than we had a generation ago. It's high time that the ACT Parliament had the opportunity to debate the issue. Mary Porter has done important work on it. Tara Cheyne's picked that up since she took over from Mary in the Assembly. All of the ACT Parliament supported the overturning of the Andrews law. Unfortunately Zed Seselja doesn't. He's one person who won't stand up for the rights of Territorians, but all of the ACT Federal Labor representatives - Dave Smith, Alicia Payne, Katy Gallagher and myself - all support repealing the Andrews law.

DELANEY: Of course, it's important to be clear here: what you're trying to overturn is the question of territorial self-governing rights and the impediment to those rights. You're not necessarily trying to get the Federal Government to agree to assisted dying laws, just to the right of the territories' legislative assemblies to debate such a proposal, should they wish to.

LEIGH: Exactly, and so my colleague Luke Gosling from the Northern Territory says he personally has misgivings about euthanasia, but he believes that the Northern Territory Assembly should have the opportunity to debate those issues. He's standing up for Territorians in a way that, sadly, Zed Seselja isn't.

DELANEY: OK, what does self-governing actually mean, because the ACT and the NT are not states. They're clearly not the same type of entity. Doesn't that justify the idea that perhaps they don't necessarily have the full extent of the same powers?

LEIGH: They don't have the full extent of the same powers, Leon, but the purpose of the Andrews law was to take away an additional set of powers from the territories. It's very explicit that the territories have certain powers under the Constitution, and under the Andrews law the power to legislate over voluntary assisted dying was taken away. Now, back then, support for voluntary assisted dying was over 60%. It moved up to over 70% the following decade. Now, it's in the 80s. There's a majority of Coalition voters, Catholics, Protestants, who support voluntary assisted dying. Frankly, Federal Parliament is lagging a long way behind the rest of the community on the issue of euthanasia.

DELANEY: OK, you're making a fair bit of noise about this issue and it's unlikely to get anywhere because the Government is pretty much, I think, embedded in its position, so why is this so important to you?

LEIGH: It's about territory rights. We've got to make sure that our territories have the opportunity to legislate on the issue of euthanasia, and the issue is incredibly important to individuals. I met with Katarina Knowles yesterday. She's a woman whose dad suffered from Parkinson's disease and decided that he wanted to end his life with dignity. He couldn't do so using drugs. The only way he could do so, Leon, was by refusing food. It took Katarina's dad five weeks before he finally starved himself to death, an agonizing death for him physically and agonizing emotionally for his family. There's no reason why families should have to go through that. We have the appropriate safeguards in place from ways in which voluntary assisted dying has been done in other places. It's simply a question of, as the lobby group Andrew Denton set up saying, ‘Go Gentle’: giving people the opportunity to go gently under their own terms.

DELANEY: Now, I also believe you held what you describe as a telephone town hall last week. How many people did that involve, and what were their views?

LEIGH: We got about 500 people on the call, and it's a terrific way of just having a conversation about a range of issues. We covered a whole host of different questions, but you can also do a little poll with it, so while people are talking they can press a button for various polls. One of the questions we put to people is, 'Do you support euthanasia?' We got over 80 percent supporting euthanasia. Then, the question 'Do you support the ACT Assembly having the power to legislate over euthanasia, regardless of your views on that?', and around 9 out of 10 people on the call supported that.

DELANEY: I know that in the Northern Territory there are people that believe they should be moving towards becoming a fully fledged state. Is something like that likely ever in the ACT, or is that completely off the table?

LEIGH: I don't think so, Leon. We're a bit like the District of Columbia in the US. We're a creature of the Constitution, set up as part of the compact that formed Australia. I think territory status will remain for us, even if the Northern Territory was to have another vote and decide that eventually they would become a state. That's OK. I think we should be proud Territorians. There's no shame in that. But there's also no reason why the Federal Parliament should further limit the powers that were given to the ACT Assembly in the Constitution, in the Act to set up the ACT Assembly.

DELANEY: OK, as I said, I don't think the Government's going to shift its position on this, but what happens now? You've put your motion to the parliament. Is it going to stand a snowflake's chance in hell?

LEIGH: I don't think this particular attempt will succeed, Leon, but I'm very confident we're on the right side of history. We're just gonna keep on making noise about this. We've got to. It's the right thing to do. We know ultimately that we're on the right side of the debate in terms of territory rights. We're on the right side of the debate in terms of euthanasia. The Federal Parliament needs to scrap the Andrews law. I'm not confident that the numbers would have been there even five years ago, but I do think that things have moved now. I find it very hard to imagine that if Scott Morrison allowed a vote on this it wouldn't go through both houses.

DELANEY: And on a different topic, do you believe that there are any implications for Federal Labor out of the weekend's by-election in Upper Hunter in New South Wales?

LEIGH: I think it shows that if you've held a seat for 90 years, chances are you will continue to hold it. It's not since 1910 that a candidate who wasn't from the National Party or the predecessor party to the Nationals didn't hold that seat. The Nats were always going to win, but they saw a considerable drop in their primary vote, so I think they need to be asking themselves why people peeled off to independents rather than sticking with the party that-

DELANEY: -But isn't that the same question for the Labor Party to ask themselves with a 7-point swing against them?

LEIGH: I'm sure there will be conversations going on in state Labor about this, but we need to be pretty realistic. It is a National Party seat. No surprise that it was returned to the Nationals on the weekend.

DELANEY: OK, some are suggesting that the positive result there for the Coalition might tempt the Prime Minister to call an early federal election. Do you think he will and are you ready for it?

LEIGH: Bring it on. Anytime Scott Morrison wants to hold an election Labor is ready. The fact is that this is a government which has been like Seinfeld without the laughs. It's a government which has been about nothing for eight years. Even in the latest budget they spent an extra $100 billion, but what have we got to show for it? They've got wages going backwards, no serious answer to climate change, no answer to declining test scores or productivity. These are huge challenges facing the country, Leon, but the Government's just not up to it. They great with rolling out the red carpet for the smiley photo ops, but hopeless at doing things like delivering a vaccine roll out on time.

DELANEY: Was that a reference to those photographs of Scott Morrison that Air Force bases walking the red carpet?

LEIGH: Wasn't that an amazing picture? You've got to wonder which country we're living in when the Prime Minister decides that his number one priority is to have red carpet rolled out in front of his plane.

DELANEY: I'm not sure it was his decision, was it? Come on, now. Be fair.

LEIGH: This is a micromanaging Prime Minister.

DELANEY: I don't know. I think you're drawing a long bow, now.

LEIGH: Every single detail. He is an ad man going back, of course. He's the ad man who was once fired as head of Tourism Australia, and so he's very focused on those optics.

DELANEY: I've unleashed fury now, haven't I? I've let you go and you're going for it for all it's worth.

LEIGH: Look at the actual substance. What did he need to do this year? He needed to get quarantine right and he needed to get vaccination right. Quarantine is a schemozzle, and the vaccine rollout is months behind schedule. We were promised 4 million by the end of March. We're still not at that threshold now and we're in the back half of May. This is a Prime Minister that needs to spend less time trying to get himself on the evening news and more time trying to get jabs in people's arms.

DELANEY: Thanks very much for talking with us today.

LEIGH: Real pleasure, Leon. Thank you.


Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra

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Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.