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Thursday, 16 February 2017
Page: 1242


Senator DI NATALE (VictoriaLeader of the Australian Greens) (16:47): I rise to speak in support of the Restoring Territory Rights (Assisted Suicide Legislation) Bill 2015. There are many grounds upon which this bill can be argued. Let me begin by discussing a point that was raised by Senator Gallagher, which is the issue of territory rights. In 1995 the Northern Territory Legislative Assembly enacted this legislation. It was the first time anywhere in the world that a legislature had authorised medically-assisted suicide. It was a very important piece of legislation. It was trailblazing. I believe that it is a fundamental right of any people to contribute to the laws which govern them. The Howard government, for reasons of their own, decided to use their constitutional power—a power that is only there, really, because of a quirk of history, that the territories were established after Federation and not before it—to run roughshod over the Northern Territory assembly's right to make laws affecting Territorians, and we reject that. It is on that basis—the right of the territories to enact their own legislation and not to have the Commonwealth use their own constitutional power to come over the top—that we believe that this bill has merit.

But it is not simply on that aspect of the bill that we think this legislation restoring territory rights should be passed. It is also because we in the Greens have a view that physician-assisted dying is an important concept whose time has come. We believe that, in a liberal democracy like Australia, everybody has the right to control the manner and timing of their death. We know that public support is overwhelming when it comes to the issue of the rights of the terminally ill. We know that every opinion poll conducted over the last few decades has shown roughly three-quarters of Australians support the concept of medically-assisted dying in the case of people with a terminal illness. We know that a poll by the Australia Institute in 2012 showed 71 per cent of Australians support it, and that experience has been replicated time and again. Only roughly 10 per cent of people do not support it, with a small number of people undecided.

Of course, public opinion is not the sole reason upon which we base our support for the rights of the terminally ill to choose the manner and timing of their death; it is also because in a liberal democracy like Australia, as I said, we believe that people have a fundamental right to control their own body. The real question that this bill asks is: 'Does someone else have the right to tell me that I need to go on living despite the fact that I have an experience of suffering that is unbearable and that I want to end?' We believe that it is the right of patients themselves to exercise that decision. As far as I am concerned, the right to have some control over the manner and timing of our own death is a classical liberal philosophy, which I know everyone in this chamber to some degree adheres to. If we were true to our commitment of the fundamental rights of individuals then we would have had physician-assisted suicide legislation a long time ago and indeed the Northern Territory legislation would still be with us today.

I can tell you from experience that physician-assisted suicide is happening already. The reality is that every year, hundreds of terminally ill people across the country are assisted to an early death by compassionate medical professionals. Sometimes it is done under what is called the doctrine of double effect—that is, the doctor administers a heavy dose of morphine to respond to pain when they know the consequence is that it may hasten that person's death. But that is not always the case. Sometimes, particularly in palliative care, doctors exercise discretion in conjunction with patients and so on. It is already happening. Do we want it to continue to happen in an unregulated environment? I think that presents us with some very acute dangers.

The good news is that this is a debate that this shifting. We saw a very substantial report prepared last year by the Victorian parliament's Legal and Social Issues Committee. The recommendations of that committee in favour of assisted dying legislation are going to be put to the Victorian parliament this year, when there will be a vote on physician assisted dying. There are some moves afoot in New South Wales as well.

I am very pleased that my Greens colleagues in many states and territories have been working tirelessly on the issue, as have hundreds of the enormously committed volunteers and workers in organisations right across the country. There is a real sense that this debate is moving and we are at last having in the right direction. I do believe that we will see assisted death legislation very soon. I am very optimistic about it.

It is not a decision I came to lightly—my own view as a GP who was forced to wrestle with this question. It is something I thought very deeply about. Death is not easy. We know, of course, that it is inevitable, but some deaths are horrible, agonising deaths. I have spoken to patients who have said to me, 'I do not want to continue,' and we know that in the last week or two of their life they experience intolerable suffering—people lying in bed drowning in a pool of secretions, basically suffocating slowly to death. We are allowed to stop feeding and we can sometimes remove the source of sustenance to people. That just makes the death more agonising and much more prolonged.

One of the people who contributed to this debate and really made a big impression on me was a man named Peter Short, who had oesophageal cancer. He was a very successful businessman who was in his 50s. His metastatic cancer ultimately got the better of him and he became a campaigner for physician assisted dying. He became a campaigner because he feared what those last few weeks and months of his life would look like and he wanted to have what he thought was a dignified death. It was a matter of just knowing that he had the option, because he basically had managed to secure the means to do it—of course illegally—should that occur. Just knowing he had the option made those last few months more bearable. Many people with a terminal illness will never choose to exercise the option, but they want to know that if the circumstances arise, if their suffering is intolerable, they have the option to say goodbye to their loved ones in a dignified way.

We, the Greens, will continue to advocate, not just to ensure the passage of this legislation—the Greens have similar legislation for restoring Territory rights—but we would like to see a national bill enacted. Hopefully, movement on this issue at the state level will continue, but, overall, what we need is an overarching national framework so that we have consistent legislation no matter what state you live in. We will continue our advocacy for it. We commend the passage of this bill.