Territories deserve say on legalising voluntary euthanasia

Politics can make for strange bedfellows. In 1997, when the Catholic conservative federal Liberal MP Kevin Andrews was leading the fight with a private member’s bill to repeal the Northern Territory’s law legalising voluntary euthanasia, Labor MPs were at the time being encouraged to support the bill by Labor’s leader of the house Tony Burke, who was then executive director of Euthanasia No!

Two years earlier, the NT had become the first jurisdiction in the world to legally allow a terminally ill patient to end their life with medical assistance. In September 1996, Bob Dent, who had terminal prostate cancer, became the first person to use the law. Three more people ended their lives legally before the law was nullified by the Howard government, which passed the Euthanasia Laws Act under powers in the Australian Constitution which allow the national government to veto a territory law.

Canberra MP Alicia Payne and Solomon MP Luke Gosling have introduced a private member’s bill to repeal the Andrews bill and allow territories to debate voluntary assisted dying laws.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

Twenty-five years on, and Burke has found himself shepherding a new private member’s bill to a vote. That bill would restore the right of the NT and the ACT to pass laws relating to assisting dying. It passed this week in the House of Representatives 99 votes to 37, and is expected to be voted on in the Senate in September.

Not surprisingly, the latest push to repeal the federal law – an attempt in 2018 failed to pass the Senate by two votes – is being led by Labor MPs Luke Gosling, who holds the Darwin seat of Solomon, and Canberra MP Alicia Payne.

They are lobbying colleagues to back the bill on the principle of the rights of territories, which they argue should have the same power as states to make laws for their citizens, while leaving the broader ethical debate on assisted dying to the respective territory parliaments. The Age supports this view.

During the past five years, every state in Australia has passed laws allowing for voluntary euthanasia, with NSW the last to do so in May this year. Since South Australia handed control of the NT to the Commonwealth in 1911, the territory has been given increasing authority over its own affairs. In 1998, it narrowly failed to gather enough support in a referendum to become a state.

The Australian Capital Territory, which was also created in 1911 by the Commonwealth with land from New South Wales, has followed a similar path to self-government. Except for the Commonwealth’s veto power over territories, which is enshrined in the Constitution, the ACT and the NT have elected parliaments that have all the authority of the states.

It is therefore time for the people of the ACT and the NT, through their elected representatives in their respective parliaments, to have their say on whether they should follow the states and enact voluntary euthanasia laws.

The federal veto on euthanasia in the territories is a paternalistic law which should end. It was born at a time when the act of allowing a terminally ill patient to end their life with medical assistance was considered highly controversial.

Today, that is no longer the case. After extensive debate in state parliaments across Australia, safeguards have been built into the laws to ensure the rights of all involved are respected and protected. While The Age supported the Victorian euthanasia laws when they were introduced in 2019, what is at stake here is more fundamental. That is the right of those who live in Australia’s territories to have the final say over what laws they live under on issues that have nothing to do with the federal parliament.

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