ABC CANBERRA DRIVE
WEDNESDAY, 24 MARCH 2021
SUBJECT: Territory rights and voluntary assisted dying.
ANNA VIDOT, HOST: Interesting development this week on Australian states’ moves to allow people who are suffering under certain circumstances to be assisted to end their own lives. This is a decision the territories are currently not allowed to make for themselves, the ACT and Northern Territory both currently and quite steadily lobbying the federal government or Parliament really to change that. But this week, Tasmania became the third state to legalise voluntary assisted dying, joining Victoria and Western Australia. South Australia will consider doing the same later this year. It took a while for Tasmania to get to this point. It's the fourth time these laws have been considered over just over a decade, and this latest effort took about three years to get from inception to successful passage through Tasmania's upper house last night. The ACT and Northern Territory are blocked from even debating similar legislation in our legislative assemblies, because of a piece of Commonwealth legislation. The Federal Labor MP for Fenner Andrew Leigh is among those who want that to change, and he joins me this evening. Andrew Leigh, what do you make of the news overnight, first of all, that Tasmania has now joined Victoria and Western Australia to allow voluntary assisted dying?
ANDREW LEIGH, SHADOW ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR TREASURY AND CHARITIES: It's pretty remarkable, isn't it, Anna? I remember when there was one survey that looked at attitudes to euthanasia across the country. It found that the attitudes were coolest among Tasmanians. But now we've got half the states where voluntary assisted dying with safeguards is legal. As you mentioned, South Australia is looking into it. The Queensland Law Reform Commission is looking into it. It can't be that long until New South Wales makes moves in this direction. And yet, here in the ACT - the most progressive jurisdiction in Australia – we’re banned from even talking about it thanks to an anachronistic 24-year-old bill called the Andrews Bill, which prevents the territories from legislating on voluntary assisted dying.
VIDOT: Clearly this is a matter that exercises ACT and NT politicians to some degree, but what's your sense of the appetite among your federal Labor colleagues, but also just among federal MPs generally to reconsider this restriction?
LEIGH: I think there's strong support for it. Whether people are supporters or opponents of voluntary assisted dying, they're supporters of territory rights. I moved in the last Parliament with Luke Gosling, the Member for Solomon in the Northern Territory, to repeal the Andrews Bill. Luke is more cautious about voluntary assisted dying, I'm a strong supporter of it. But both of us strongly support territory rights. I know former chief minister Jon Stanhope took a similar approach as well. So we need to be backing territory rights here, but we also need to realise how massively out of step federal parliament is with popular opinion. So the ABC Vote Compass survey asked do you support the statement ‘should terminally ill patients be able to in their own lives with medical assistance?’ – 87 per cent in support. Seventy-nine per cent of Liberal Party voters, 84 per cent of One Nation voters, 77 per cent of Catholics, 78 per cent of Protestants, 71 per cent of people with another religion. This is not close. The vote in the Tasmanian Parliament wasn't close. This is an issue where the Australian people are strongly supportive of voluntary assisted dying with safeguards. Belinda Teh doing her extraordinary 3,000 kilometre walk from Melbourne to Perth raised awareness, but just brought out so many stories of the way in which people are needlessly suffering at the end of their lives when they've got incurable diseases.
VIDOT: Is this something you hear about from your constituents, Andrew Leigh?
LEIGH: Absolutely, and the stories are heart wrenching, Anna. People who are just so frustrated that they're not able to have their loved ones take control of their lives at the end - when their loved ones want to end their life under their own terms, to have those final conversations with friends and family, to go under the circumstances of their own choosing and to have people remember them as they want to be remembered. They stay angry about this issue for years afterwards. You know, that was Belinda Teh’s experience. But there's a range of constituents who still write to me regularly talking about the gut wrenching experience at the end of a loved one's life, when a loved one was pleading with them and they weren't able to do anything because voluntary assisted dying in the ACT remains illegal.
VIDOT: Andrew Leigh the federal Labor Member for Fenner is my guest on ABC Radio Canberra this evening, the day after Tasmania became the third Australian state to legalise voluntary assisted dying - something that it's not even open to the ACT or Northern Territory legislative assemblies to debate at this stage because of the Andrews Bill. Would you be looking to revisit your private member's bill in any capacity in this term of Parliament, Andrew Leigh?
LEIGH: Absolutely. Warren Snowden, who is the member for Lingiari, the other house seat in the Northern Territory - he and I have a private member's motion which is on the notice paper, calling for the government to bring on the repeal of the Andrews Bill for debate. We believe that it's past time that this happens. And there's been very thoughtful work done here in the ACT. Mary Porter looked at the other countries around the world which have voluntary assisted dying and the safeguards they have in place. Tara Cheyne has been campaigning tirelessly in order to get the Federal Parliament to change its position on this. Organisations like Go Gentle with Andrew Denton at its helm have been making a very strong case that the time has come to repeal this anachronistic law. Kevin Andrews is leaving Parliament at the next election. He was defeated for preselection, and I think that that does remind you that the era where the territories would have moved ahead of the states is well past. Now it is the territories being prevented from doing something that half the states have done.
VIDOT: Interestingly when this sort of was back in the news a month or so ago now, Senator Zed Seselja, the ACT’s Liberal senator of course, was asked about this. He's on the record and has consistently been on the record that he does not support voluntary assisted dying, and that has certainly been a barrier to him moving on the Andrews Bill. I'm paraphrasing, but asked about whether he would consider territory rights if it was more of an omnibus bill, looking at some of the areas including police force - you know, being able to raise a police force - if you looked at those issues, then he might be willing to discuss or consider voting for that kind of legislation. Which would, I mean, down the track lead to voluntary assisted dying blockages also being lifted from the federal parliament. It was a shift of sorts, this delineation that Senator Seselja drew between the conscience vote issue on a voluntary assisted dying specifically versus broader territory rights. Is that something you've had the chance, the opportunity to discuss with Senator Seselja to this point or that you intend to?
LEIGH: I haven't, Anna, but I've got to say it sounds on its face a pretty bizarre proposition. The fact is that the Andrews Bill was the one that specifically carved out the issue of euthanasia from territory responsibilities. So we ought to restore to the territories the power that they had in 1995 to legislate on voluntary assisted dying. When this came up for debate in the Senate - when David Leyonhjelm did a deal with the government so there'd be a couple of days of debate in the Senate - shamefully Zed Seselja did not vote to support territory rights on this issue. Gary Humphries would have. Gary Humphries took the view that he supported territory rights - even on issues where he disagreed on the substance, he wanted the territory assembly to have the power to make the decision. But Zed Seselja didn't take that stance. It sounds like his successor in the assembly, Elizabeth Lee, has a different view. If that's the case, that would be very welcome. If we could get full consensus right across the territory assembly on this, that might send a strong message to the Federal Parliament that the Andrews Bill has got to go.
VIDOT: What do you think it will take for the federal parliament even to just bump this up the notice paper in a very crowded federal political landscape, to actually consider it let alone passing a repeal?
LEIGH: Well, it interesting you say it's a crowded political landscape, Anna. I get that when people are watching the news and seeing that Parliament House seems to be treated like Animal House by some people. But the fact is that when we look at what the House is debating at the moment, there's almost nothing on the government's legislative agenda. It would be very straightforward for the government to allow a debate over the repeal of the Andrews Bill right now. There's space on the legislative agenda because this is a government that really isn't doing very much. So we could get it done swiftly. It would have, I think, strong support across the Labor Party. I think it would also enjoy strong support among my federal Liberal colleagues. After all, many of them have state counterparts who voted in favour of voluntary assisted dying in their state parliaments.
VIDOT: No doubt we'll be talking a bit more about this this year, I suspect, Andrew Leigh.
LEIGH: Let’s hope so.
VIDOT: Thank you for your time.
LEIGH: Thank you, Anna.
Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.