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Thursday, 28 October 2010
Page: 1076

Senator BOB BROWN (Leader of the Australian Greens) (3:35 PM) —The Restoring Territory Rights (Voluntary Euthanasia Legislation) Bill 2010 comes before the Senate again with the very serious intent of having it carried through to a vote. At the outset I want to thank the people within all parties who have agreed to a conscience vote on the matter. There has been some debate about whether the bill warrants a conscience vote because it is not about euthanasia per se; it is about restoring the rights of legislatures. It was the Andrews Euthanasia Laws Bill 1996, which took away the rights of the territories to legislate in these matters, that had a conscience vote and we are in effect reflecting that conscience vote some 13 years later in the Senate.

The bill to quash the Northern Territory rights of the terminally ill legislation, which was the first such legislation in the world, came before this parliament in 1996 and went through the Senate in March 1997 by, if I recollect correctly, a majority of three votes. But it did not just overturn the decision by Marshall Perron and the Northern Territory Legislative Assembly to legislate for the right of terminally ill people to seek assistance to end their lives; it took away from the Northern Territory the right to legislate in the matter of voluntary euthanasia ever again. And, by design, it also took away the right of the Australian Capital Territory and Norfolk Island legislatures to legislate in the matter as well.

This bill has two objects. The first is to recognise the rights of the legislative assemblies of the Australian Capital Territory, the Northern Territory and Norfolk Island to make laws for the peace, order and good government of their territories, including the right to legislate for voluntary euthanasia. Secondly, and more directly, the bill repeals the Euthanasia Laws Act 1997, the Andrews act, which removed the right of the territories to legislate on voluntary euthanasia. But I want to make it abundantly clear that, unlike a bill I brought before this parliament a year or two ago, this bill does not reinstate the Northern Territory Rights of the Terminally Ill Act. That matter came to the attention of the Senate committee looking into this legislation. I am very grateful to the committee because when we got into discussion with legal advisers it was found that my original legislation would not only restore the right of the Northern Territory to legislate in this matter, but would effectively restore the Rights of the Terminally Ill Act 1995, with no way that the territory legislation could then get rid of it. In other words, it had the exact opposite effect—it would have taken away of the rights of the territories—of the remedy I wanted to put into effect through this legislation. So this legislation has been altered. I reiterate that this bill, if enacted, will not restore the Northern Territory Rights of the Terminally Ill Act. That act is effectively quashed. It remains quashed and it cannot, and would not, be resurrected as part of the passage of this legislation.

What this legislation does do, however, is restore the right of those three assemblies representing the democratic wishes of the people of the Northern Territory, the ACT and Norfolk Island to be able to determine their own future so far as the matter of euthanasia is concerned. We are now in the extraordinary position where these territory legislatures can enact laws parallel to the states on everything except on this one thing—voluntary euthanasia. That should be remedied. To not rectify this wrong of 1996-97 is to take away the rights of the voters of the Northern Territory, the ACT and Norfolk Island. Having said that, the intent of the Andrews legislation at the time—and this was widely and popularly understood—was to override the Northern Territory legislation. The passage of that contentious bill through this parliament did just that. And that intent is still in effect, as it was in 1997, regardless of what the House of Representatives does if this bill were to pass the Senate as I hope it will.

The important thing here is to look at the democratic rights of the people living in the territories compared to those of people living in the states. It may be that the Northern Territory will opt for statehood in coming years, and I would support that if it happens. But until and unless that happens, the legislative assemblies of the Northern Territory, the Australian Capital Territory and Norfolk Island—as elected by the voters—are put at second-rate status compared to voters in the states by the taking away of their right to legislate for voluntary euthanasia should they wish to do so in the future. I would ask honourable senators to make a very firm deliberation and, whether or not they are in favour of voluntary euthanasia—and I, of course, am in favour of it; I am a keen advocate for it and have been all my parliamentary life—to separate their view on that issue from the issue of democratic rights, which is entailed in this legislation.

I am sure the issue of voluntary euthanasia will be canvassed by most speakers who add to this debate. The reality is that the opinion polls show that 70 to 80 per cent of Australians or more—and this includes people who live in the Northern Territory—favour legislation for voluntary euthanasia. It is not for us to use some artifice to prevent people in the territories—as against the states—from being able to look at such legislation if they wish. Indeed, when we get to the states, we can see the difference for the people in the territories who have been deprived of this right. In the last 24 months, legislation has come forward in the parliaments of Victoria, South Australia, Western Australia, New South Wales and Tasmania to give effect to voluntary euthanasia. So far, there has been no determination in South Australia or New South Wales, where the Hon. Cate Faehrmann, a Greens member of the upper house, has recently introduced legislation.

But how those parliaments debate and make their determinations is not the matter in question. This is a matter of high public interest—of quite extraordinary and ongoing public interest and indeed anguish. It has a right to be, because we are all subject to both life and death by definition of our taking part in this debate; and our constituents, likewise. There should not be a suppression of that debate amongst the half million to one million people who live in the territories as against every other Australian when it gets to debate at a political level.

I am hoping that, through the support of this chamber, this suppression of the rights of people in the territories on this one issue, contentious as it may be, will be withdrawn and hopefully—if this legislation gets through this chamber and the other place—the rights of the territories will be restored. I have to add to this, for those who do not know, that the very cause of this debate is that under the Constitution the Commonwealth does have the power to make laws for the territories, not for the states. The Constitution lays down the rights of the states in no lesser way than it lays down the rights of the Commonwealth, but when it comes to the territories, even though they have legislative assemblies, they can be overridden by the Commonwealth—indeed these days by the executive of the Commonwealth.

That is a matter I will continue to address because I think it should be quite extraordinary circumstances of national significance and requiring a full debate of the parliament—as indeed the Andrews bill did back in 1996-97—that sees the exercise of that law. Nevertheless, the Andrews bill which, by determination of this parliament, ended the Rights of the Terminally Ill Act in Northern Territory has an enduring other negative impact, which is to take away those democratic rights from that half million to one million Australians. Through this piece of legislation I hope to see this parliament maturely, wisely and quite fairly restore that right to every voter and every elected representative of the territories of Norfolk Island, the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory. I commend this bill to the chamber.