5 September 2022

Second Reading – Restoring Territory Rights Bill 2022

I rise to join this debate on the Restoring Territory Rights Bill 2022, a bill that, across the major parties, is quite rightly a free or conscience vote in its consideration. I rise to join Senator Gallagher in supporting this bill.

The bill for me is a series of simple questions that, with the elapse of time, have only become even more straightforward. Personally, I’m of the opinion that the Euthanasia Laws Act 1997, imposing restrictions on the legislative abilities of the territories with regard to voluntary euthanasia should never have been enacted in the first place. Entrusted and empowered as the territories are with all manner of life and death, tax and spend, lock people up or let-it-rip type powers, it was always anachronistic for the Commonwealth to have decided that the one limitation on the territories compared with the states would be on the questions of voluntary euthanasia or voluntary assisted dying.

For me, personally, the right to voluntary assisted dying, and to access that, has always been one that humane societies should make available, albeit with appropriate safeguards. Let’s be frank: death and all that comes with it isn’t pretty. We don’t really like to think or talk about it, but it’s unavoidable and, ultimately, the process of dying always has the same tragic ending. For some of us, we will avoid prolonged pain and loss of dignity but potentially lose the opportunity to say our farewells to loved ones or to put our affairs in order. For others, time will be on our side, but the preservation of dignity or of quality of life will not. For a comparatively fortunate few, they will face a middle ground, where farewells are possible but pain or suffering is not prolonged. Voluntary assisted dying makes the kind of pathway of avoiding prolonged pain, suffering or loss of dignity available to more who choose to access it.

The question of choice is a significant and determinative factor. No person should ever feel pressure to leave this life before they’re ready, but nor should people of sound mind, clear intent and genuine need be deprived of the ability to make that choice. To make that last point in the inverse, people of sound mind, clear intent and genuine need should not be forced into months or years of cruel and prolonged suffering or loss of dignity because of the judgement or attitudes of others. My body, my life, my choice—a very sound liberal philosophical approach, as long as those choices don’t harm others.

Many will come to this debate with personal experiences of loss and the agonising death of loved ones that inform their opinions. I respect those approaches and, like most of us, have experienced some of my own. But, for me, the fundamental principles of choice and empowerment lead me to support voluntary assisted dying. Others will come to this debate with faith-based and ethical beliefs that inform their opinion. To those colleagues: I respect your beliefs and will always defend your right to live by them but urge you not to impose them on others.

However, as Senator Gallagher has rightly emphasised, this bill is not per se a voluntary assisted dying bill. It simply restores the rights of the territories to make their own laws on this matter. You don’t have to agree with me or others on questions of voluntary assisted dying to support this bill. My opening thesis was that consideration of the questions relating to the support or otherwise of this bill has only become more straightforward with the passage of time. When the restrictions on the territories were passed and put into law, the Northern Territory was at the time the only jurisdiction in Australia to have enacted voluntary assisted dying laws. While I pay tribute to former Northern Territory chief minister Marshall Perron and those who supported him in the passage of those laws, I also acknowledge that, at the time, it was an act of legislative adventure by the smallest legislature in Australia. They were ahead of their times and were penalised for being so. In the intervening decades, every Australian state has enacted voluntary assisted dying laws. To maintain the restrictions on the territories put in place in 1997 would be even more anachronistic and inappropriate than was the imposition of them in the first place. Far from enabling legislative adventure by the territories, this bill we consider now will only enable the territories to play legislative catch-up. Rather than inventing their own safeguards, the territories can now adopt the best of the safeguards and approaches already legislated across all six of the Australian states, who have already legislated for voluntary assisted dying. But whether they do so, under this law, would still be a matter of choice for the ACT and the Northern Territory. This bill will not impose voluntary assisted dying legislation upon them, just the right to enact it if they choose, thereby giving their citizens the ultimate right to choose.

I urge all colleagues in this place to back choice and equality of opportunity for those across the territories, for those who reside in the territories, and I urge them to support this bill.