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Wednesday, 11 August 2004
Page: 2155


Mr McCLELLAND (9:58 AM) —The opposition supports the Criminal Code Amendment (Suicide Related Material Offences) Bill 2004. The bill contains offences which were originally introduced in the Crimes Legislation Amendment (Telecommunications Offences and Other Measures) Bill 2004. Earlier this week, I set out the background to the development of that bill. After its introduction in the Senate, the government agreed to split the bill in two, and it reintroduced them into the House last week as two bills. The government has also referred this bill to the Senate Legal and Constitutional Legislation Committee for inquiry and report by 6 September. I am previously on the record as commending that committee in particular for the very productive, balanced and constructive work that it has done on the process of legislation in quite often controversial areas. Again I reiterate my congratulations to all members of that committee, from all parties.

This bill would create two offences which in summary relate to the use of a carriage service, including the Internet, to access or make available material which incites or counsels suicide or promotes or instructs on a particular method of committing suicide. The offences require the prosecution to prove—and this is important—an intention on the part of the accused to use the material or for another person to use the material or, where relevant, to incite, counsel, promote, instruct in or commit suicide. For those who are interested in the debate, I draw their attention to the specifics of the legislation rather than second-hand accounts of the legislation. It actually involves that element of intention, which is a necessary ingredient of the offence. I ask that those who would argue against this bill have regard to the specific provisions.

Each offence, if proven on the basis of the requirements of intention, carries a maximum penalty of 1,000 penalty units, which is equivalent to $110,000. There are, of course, offences in each state and territory relating to the incitement of suicide. They by and large tend to be incitement to suicide by a specific individual and carry very substantial penalties—in some cases, periods of penal servitude. The offences in those state acts are expressed in different ways, using a variety of terms. These include aiding, abetting, inciting, counselling, procuring, inducing or instigating suicide. As I have said, the offences carry a variety of maximum penalties that range from five years imprisonment to, in some jurisdictions, life imprisonment. The bulk of the jurisdictions have penalties at the higher end of sentencing.

It should be observed that all of these existing offences can be committed using a carriage service, including the Internet. In that sense, the bill does not extend the criminal law to this subject matter for the first time. Rather, it establishes specific Commonwealth offences in reliance on the telecommunications power in section 51 of the Constitution. The government has referred in debate to Internet sites and Internet chat rooms that provide explicit instructions on methods of committing suicide and, in some cases, encouragement to do so. This is of course a concern, given that people, and in particular young people, are increasingly likely to turn to the Internet when trying to cope with loneliness or depression—not necessarily for instruction in suicide but simply in search of help for their problems.

I think anyone who advocates in favour of the cause of legislature agreeing to voluntary euthanasia should appreciate the potential risks of a young person, in particular, seeking support via the Internet and coming up to a site that actually promotes suicide. In the context of their mental framework they could see that as a justification for suicide or an acceptable way out of their problems rather than resolving them. We have in a democracy those who advocate a particular point of view, and understandably do so with passion, but when we are talking about extreme consequences it is important that passion, and in some cases dogma, does not blind to those potential risks those who are so advocating the proposal.

I have some personal interest with respect to this matter. Our family, the broader family unit, like so many Australian families, has experienced the consequences of a suicide in the family. It is something that cannot be ignored by those who would seek to agitate a broader political argument in favour of the issue of voluntary euthanasia in circumstances where someone faces a terminal illness. I draw that to the attention of those who would advance such an argument, in an uncompromising and dogmatic way, in seeking to oppose this legislation. I thought it appropriate to put those matters on the record. Moreover, delicacy is obviously required, even in the advancement of arguments in favour of euthanasia, whatever point of view you have on that matter.

It is clearly a difficult area to regulate and we must be careful to ensure laws are appropriately targeted at the issue. Many hundreds of members of the community have written to me expressing concern about the impact of the legislation on their right to campaign for law reform relating to voluntary euthanasia. As I have said, the right of Australians to advocate reform of the law relating to this or any other issue is fundamental to our democratic society. I note the government's statement that the offences are not intended to affect this right, but it is argued that fear of prosecution inevitably has a limiting effect on debate.

I believe members of our community are entitled to have the matter clarified beyond reasonable doubt to achieve that balance between the right to advocate in the interests of a cause that, unquestionably, people feel passionately about—that is, the right to voluntary euthanasia—and the other issues and the risks, particularly to young people, who I think it is fair to say are probably more likely to engage in Internet communication. Accordingly, I foreshadow that the Labor Party will be moving an amendment in the Senate which provides that the offence does not apply to the extent that it would infringe the implied constitutional freedom of political communication. There is in fact a precedent for this in the provisions included in the government's Anti-terrorism Bill (No. 2), which, as the Attorney-General's Department has said, recognises that legislation has an educative as well as a regulatory function.

We consider that the advocacy of reform of the law relating to euthanasia falls squarely within the implied freedom of political communication under its most recent formulation by the High Court in its decision in David Russell Lange v. Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 1997. Of course, the Senate committee will look more closely at these concerns and that proposal, with the benefit of more detailed submissions from the community and legal experts, and naturally we will consider any other recommendations that the committee might make for improvement to the drafting of these offences. Accordingly, the opposition support the passage of the bill in the House and we look forward to the Senate committee's report examining the broader issues.