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Thursday, 26 June 2008
Page: 3480


Senator BARNETT (11:18 AM) —At the start of my short time available to speak on this, I would like to reflect on the comments of Senator Crossin’s analogy, where she compared abortion with euthanasia. I wonder whether there may be an opportunity for her to clarify those comments. I find such a comparison deeply disturbing—that we are able to kill unborn Australian babies and that therefore there should be some sort of equal right to support for the euthanasia legislation. If my understanding of her comments is incorrect, perhaps Senator Crossin could correct the record. We will have a look at the Hansard to clarify that.

Solstice day, 21 June, was also Motor Neurone Disease Global Awareness Day. Last week I had the honour of hosting a breakfast for Motor Neurone Disease Australia. One thing that we are all entirely supportive of is support for more funding and resources for palliative care. That view was put at the breakfast last week—and it was the view of all members of the Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs—that there should be further and significant funding and resources for palliative care in this country. So we are at one on the importance of palliative care. However, we are not at one on this bill being put forward by Senator Bob Brown. On behalf of Liberal senators, and as deputy chairman of the committee, we are deeply concerned about the draft bill and consider that it should not proceed under any circumstances. These concerns are so significant that it does not warrant the recommendations and amendments put forward by Senator Crossin and the Labor senators. The bill is inaccurate, unclear and ambiguous, and it creates considerable uncertainty about the status of the Northern Territory (Rights of the Terminally Ill) Act.

I want to particularly draw the Senate’s attention to the report of the Liberal senators and note that during the nine-month period when the act was in effect, there was a reference in our committee proceedings to a study published by the Lancet. Its principal author was Professor David Kissane, consultant psychiatrist and professor of palliative medicine. Dr Philip Nitschke was a co-author of that paper, and I note that Dr Nitschke is here in the gallery today. Four people were assisted to terminate their lives by Dr Nitschke under the RTI Act. No other medical practitioner made use of the provisions of the act to assist any other person to terminate life.

The Lancet study and evidence from Dr Nitschke to our committee raised serious doubts about the effectiveness of the act in ensuring competent psychiatric assessments of patients before they were administered euthanasia. The previously undisclosed admission by Dr Nitschke that he had personally paid the fee for the psychiatric assessment of one of the patients he euthanased gives rise to a serious concern about a potential conflict of interest. That is just one concern that we wanted to raise, and our report is set out in terms of the range of other concerns. Dr David van Gend summarised other problems with the administration of the RTI Act in this way. He said:

The four levels of medical safeguard that were built into the act were either diminished or blatantly violated ...

We have particular concerns with the inadequate safeguards under the act which Senator Brown wishes to restore to life. We are particularly concerned about the slippery slope argument and the possible move from voluntary euthanasia to involuntary euthanasia.

A number of other issues were raised, and we want to raise them very briefly with the Senate today. They relate to the Aboriginal issues in the Northern Territory. We received a good deal of evidence which expressed serious concern about the impact that this would have on, and its inconsistency with, Aboriginal culture and Indigenous culture. Based on the evidence that was put, it is our view that it poses a threat to the health of Indigenous Northern Territorians.

With respect to euthanasia tourism, it is noted that, of the four people who were euthanised during the time when the act was operating, two were from outside the Northern Territory. So euthanasia tourism is clearly a concern because the act has no residency requirement, and we received a good deal of evidence about that.

Several submissions drew attention to the problems in the jurisdictions overseas, particularly in the Netherlands and in Oregon. The Festival of Light Australia pointed out some of those concerns. I do not have to go into them today, but I did want to make the comment that the overseas experience certainly persuaded us against supporting this legislation put forward by Senator Brown. From a personal point of view, I certainly believe in the protection of human life and the sanctity of human life, and I think that all Australians, no matter what colour, what shape or what size, deserve respect and dignity. I know that view is held by many in this chamber and throughout this great country.

In conclusion, I want to thank the secretariat, in particular Peter Hallahan, Sophie Power and Hannah Jones, for their wonderful work and the professionalism with which they pulled together this report. We thank them very much for their assistance. Finally, I want to thank the many witnesses who appeared before our committee in Sydney and also in Darwin and for the submissions that were made to our committee.