10 December 2022
‘Euthanasia should be rejected on one unifying principle: the people who are most at risk are the most vulnerable, and a law which fails to protect vulnerable people will always be a bad law.’ It was with these words that I moved the second reading of the Euthanasia Laws Bill in the House of Representatives in 1996. The bill, which was subsequently passed by the Senate in 1997, effectively removed the ability of the territories from enacting euthanasia laws – and precluded the operation of the law which had been passed already in the Northern Territory.
The purpose of the bill was to restate the clear principle that the legislative assemblies of the territories had no power to make laws which permit or have the effect of permitting the form of intentional killing of another, whether conscious or unconscious, called euthanasia — which includes mercy killing — or the assisting of a person to terminate his or her life. It restated the existing law in the states and territories of Australia, with the then notable exception of the Northern Territory. Those laws allowed for the discontinuation of treatment and the most effective forms of pain relief, even if the pain relief coincidentally hastened death.
‘We have a conscience vote about how we respond to a person who says, “I want you to end my life.” A wise and prudent judgment must take account of human nature. To believe that with the stroke of the legislative pen all people will act altruistically is to condemn people to unconsented deaths. In the analogous situation of capital punishment, we maintain that if one innocent person is going to be killed, even after the very public and due process of the law with all its reviews and appeals, then that is too high a price. What we should do is to provide high quality palliative care and enact modern refusal of treatment legislation,’ I said in my speech.
The parliament, after a long and very contested public debate, passed the bill. Twenty-five years later, it has taken a different approach.
While the Euthanasia Laws Act is commonly referred to as the ‘Andrews bill’, it had wide support in the parliament. On the Labor side, members as diverse as Barry Jones, Leo McCleay and Lindsay Tanner supported it. There was a widespread belief that if euthanasia was to be introduced in Australia and available to all Australians, it should not be enacted by a handful of members of the Northern Territory assembly. The fact that people travelled to the territory to use the law reinforced this belief. As I discovered during the months of the debate, the indigenous people who constituted about a quarter of the NT’s population, were overwhelmingly opposed to euthanasia.
If a purely political history of the debate is to be recorded, it is that the ‘Euthanasia No’ campaign was one of the most effective electoral campaigns conducted in Australia. The fact that it was a relatively low-budget exercise reinforces the efficacy of the operation. While I was the public face of the political debate, a young Labor organiser, who later became a member of the parliament and minister, Tony Burke, was the director of the on-ground campaign. Had the lessons of that battle been utilised elsewhere, I doubt euthanasia would have been approved subsequently in the various states. But having been adopted by the states, it was inevitable that the Commonwealth legislation would be repealed. That it took 25 years is a testament to the enduring belief that the dignity of the human person is to be protected.
The repeal reflects the current zeitgeist in which the ethic of convenience trumps other considerations. Despite the realisation of the warnings of 25 years ago that once enacted, these laws would be extended to the disabled, children and even people without a terminal illness, as has occurred in other jurisdictions, legislatures have succumbed to largely emotional arguments. Intention is the cornerstone of our ethical and legal systems. A person may shoot another, but not be guilty of homicide, if the shooting was in self-defence, was provoked, or was an unforeseen accident. It is the intention to kill that makes an action the offence. Once the central moral and legal significance of intention is discarded, the boundaries that properly allowed for the refusal of burdensome or futile treatment become blurred with actions intended to cause death. While we rightly worry about suicide among youth, veterans and other groups, we now authorise it in other circumstances. We send a mixed message that some forms of suicide are permitted, as are actions to assist. This is a profound and concerning change.
Many predicted that championing the anti-euthanasia cause would end my political life. I survived a pre-selection challenge in 2000 and against challenges from high-profile and well-funded opponents in a series of elections, maintaining a healthy electoral margin and served in the cabinets of John Howard and Tony Abbott. There is a contemporary lesson here. I was always bemused when described as a ‘conviction’ politician. Surely, I thought, all parliamentarians should be people of conviction. Having convictions doesn’t mean refusing to engage in the compromise necessary in a democratic state, but it does mean endeavouring to base decisions on values and principles rather than polls and the social media. As John Howard once said, people may love or loath me, but they know where I stand. As I wrote in my biography of Joseph Lyons, ‘a true leader must be prepared to plant a Standard in the ground and proclaim “Here I stand” – and, if necessary – “Here I fall”’.
Successive elections reveal that the Australian people prefer politicians who unmistakeably stand for something, even if they don’t always agree with them. It is a lesson for parliamentarians of all eras.
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