ABC RADIO CANBERRA MORNINGS WITH ADAM SHIRLEY
MONDAY, 24 MAY 2021
SUBJECTS: Territories’ right to legislate on voluntary assisted dying
ADAM SHIRLEY, HOST: Andrew Leigh is the Federal Labor Member for Fenner. He's planning on moving a motion in Parliament that would assert the ACT's right to govern for itself, including on the issue of voluntary assisted dying. Andrew Leigh, good morning to you. Thanks for your time.
ANDREW LEIGH, SHADOW ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR TREASURY AND CHARITIES: Good morning, Adam. I loved your introduction there, talking about a young child. You know, you think about the ACT Assembly being eight years old when the Andrews Bill was passed, taking away the power to legislate over euthanasia, and as you say it's now a grown-up jurisdiction. It's in its 30s with all the maturities of the state parliaments, half of which have passed laws enabling euthanasia.
SHIRLEY: The reason I did it is because some people in the ACT might not be aware, as we've talked about several reasons, the way that the federal government can intervene and change what the ACT tries to do for itself. What's prompted you to attempt this now?
LEIGH: Adam, one of the arguments that was made by those who argued for taking this power away was that none of the states had moved. People like Frank Brennan acknowledged that this was an extraordinary thing to do, but he justified it on the basis that the states hadn't legislated euthanasia.
We're now well past that point. We've got Victoria, Western Australia and Tasmania legalising voluntary assisted dying. Euthanasia is supported by 87% of Australians, 79% of Coalition voters, 77% of Catholics, 78% of Protestants. The idea that the ACT and the Northern Territory should be barred from even debating it is utterly anachronistic.
SHIRLEY: Is it the figures that you quoted before? Is it the status of the other states? What has motivated you to try and move this motion through at this time?
LEIGH: It's really about bringing the ACT up to democratic parity with the states. I know this is a big issue in the Northern Territory as well. The NT News has editorialised on its front page to have that power restored. The restoration of the power is supported even by people who don't support voluntary assisted dying, but who believe in territory rights. It's just no longer tenable to have the ACT barred from debating euthanasia.
SHIRLEY: And what sort of crossbench support or support from government members do you believe you have on this motion? Because that will be crucial, obviously, to moving it through.
LEIGH: The challenge with private member's motions is they very rarely come to a vote. Certainly, if it were to come to a vote I'd be confident that I'd be able to reach out to those crossbench members, but the Coalition just isn't willing to even bring these things on for debate. I think it's a real pity that the party that says it stands for freedom and individual liberty is preventing people having the freedom to make decisions around end of life.
I met yesterday with Katarina Knowles, whose father passed away after a tragic illness, and at the end, he decided that he was going to simply refuse food. It took him five weeks to die, an extraordinarily painful death. If he'd had the option of euthanasia he would have been able to end his life with dignity, to say goodbye at a time of his own choosing, rather than have to starve himself to death.
SHIRLEY: It's an important step you speak about in allowing debate on the motion to then proceed to a phase where it might be passed or denied. What's required to allow debate on the motion you're bringing forward and what would that achieve?
LEIGH: It's simply about the Morrison Government choosing to give it parliamentary time. This is an issue where I think the numbers are now there in the parliament. It's a bit like same-sex marriage, Adam, where the parliament lagged well behind public opinion. That's something you can see very clearly now, with the Federal Parliament's ban on the territories legislating on euthanasia and public opinion around euthanasia. We're in a very different world from where we were a quarter of a century ago and it's time that this anachronistic bar was lifted.
SHIRLEY: Have you attempted behind the scenes to speak to any government members just to try and get their support, or at least get them to consider the bill?
LEIGH: I have, and I hope that there will be government members who speak out in favour of territory rights, even if they oppose voluntary assisted dying. It's just not appropriate any longer to say that the territories shouldn't be able to legislate around euthanasia. It's an issue that I know touches so many families. People worry about end of life care, they worry about their grandparents, their parents, they worry about their own end of life, what would happen if you're in a vegetative state and wanted the chance to end your own life under the terms of your choosing.
The safeguards have developed a lot since the 1990s, when Northern Territory passed that first euthanasia law. We now have a whole lot of US states which have passed voluntary assisted dying laws, so there's very careful work that has been done on putting those safeguards in place.
SHIRLEY: You're hearing from Andrew Leigh, he's the Federal Member for Fenner and will move a motion to bring forward debate on the issue of territory rights, particularly on voluntary assisted dying, and that the ACT could have its own right to govern for itself on that issue.
Do you think that's a priority, or are you happy with the Commonwealth having the ability to override ACT laws such as that? 1-300-681-666 is the phone number to call, the SMS is 0467 922 666. The Federal Parliament's move on this is crucial, even though this has been a long-running argument, and the current ACT Government has been pursuing and advocating for laws that would allow the ACT to govern for itself. On 0467 922 666, this text simply says "Good morning. My dad would like this option to be available." It's 9:43, keep your thoughts coming as well on 1-300-681-666.
Dr Leigh, what is the process? When do you anticipate you'll bring this forward depending on other parliamentary business in this sitting week?
LEIGH: Debate takes place at 11 o'clock today, Adam, and I hope that then there would be an opportunity to have a vote further down the track, but it really depends on the Morrison Government. There's so much pressure and hard work that's been done here in the ACT. I know my federal colleagues Katy Gallagher, Alicia Payne and Dave Smith support it. There's been good work done by Mary Porter in the Assembly, now picked up by Tara Cheyne. Organisations like Andrew Denton's Go Gentle have been making the thoughtful case for voluntary assisted dying.
It'd be nice if Zed Seselja came on board. I know there were times in the past when Gary Humphries very clearly stood up for territory rights. Zed Seselja wasn't willing to do that when this was debated in the Senate a couple of years ago, and that's disappointing. He ought to be in favour of territory rights even if he disagrees on the substantive issue.
SHIRLEY: Given he's your Territory colleague, representing a similar area, have you had direct discussions with him, pleading the case?
LEIGH: I haven't, but I know many euthanasia advocates have and they've scratched their heads as to why he won't support territory rights. Indeed, you know, you'd look at somebody like Jon Stanhope who personally opposes voluntary assisted dying but always believes that the bar on the ACT legislating on this issue should be lifted.
SHIRLEY: And if this latest push by yourself and others fails, if it's not allowed a debate within the within the parliament, what's the next step, if any?
LEIGH: We just keep the pressure up. We've got to keep the pressure up to get change happening. You know, even the ACT Liberals have come on board with this. There is a strong bipartisan push in the Northern Territory. 700,000 Territorians are saying to the Federal Parliament it is utterly undemocratic that we can't do what half the states have done.
If somehow federal parliament seems to think it's OK for Tasmania, Victoria and Western Australia to legalise voluntary assisted dying, and yet the issue can't even be talked about in the territory parliaments, that is bizarre, anachronistic, untenable. We will keep the argument up until the law is changed.
SHIRLEY: A key point for many ACT residents will be if debate is allowed in the parliament today as a result of your motion. We'll watch and see. Thank you for your input on why you're bringing this motion for today, Andrew Leigh.
LEIGH: Thanks for the conversation, Adam.
SHIRLEY: Andrew Leigh is the Federal Member for Fenner.