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Thursday, 16 February 2017
Page: 1237


Senator SMITH (Western AustraliaDeputy Government Whip in the Senate) (16:30): I am also grateful for the opportunity to speak in this debate this afternoon, because it allows me to touch on an issue that has always been very important to me. I will, at the outset, note that I am not a supporter of euthanasia. I am happy to explain my reasons at another time. I will also briefly note that the issue of assisted suicide is one that does seem to be again making its way onto the political and social agenda. Of course, we had a very significant national debate around these issues in 1997. It was a passionate public debate, with strongly held views on both sides and people's moral and religious convictions were feeding into them. It was a debate that was not necessarily conducted along party lines.

To illustrate the point, one of the most prominent opponents of euthanasia was the member for Menzies, Mr Kevin Andrews, whose private member's bill would be overturned by the bill now before us now. One of the most passionate advocates in support of voluntary euthanasia was, of course, the Hon. Jeff Kennett, who was then the Premier of Victoria. So leading the charge at the two opposite sides of the debate were two Liberals from the state of Victoria, who were not driven by partisan politics but by their own personal, moral and, certainly in the case of Mr Andrews, deeply held religious convictions. Now, that is not too dissimilar another issue which is currently a prominent issue in our national discourse: the issue of same-sex marriage. Yet there were no calls at that time, at least so far as I can recall, for a plebiscite on the issue. That is just a point I would like to make in passing: these issues are absolutely ones that should be dealt with, at all times, by parliaments.

I have seen reports that the issue of euthanasia is again about to be the subject of a parliamentary debate in the state of Victoria, with the state government there planning to hold a conscience vote on the issue. While I personally hope the law is not changed in this area, I am nonetheless pleased it is being dealt with by the state parliament, using a conscience vote of its members. I think, and have always thought, that that is the most appropriate, noble and self-respecting way to address these matters.

Euthanasia is a sensitive and complex issue. Community members understandably have strong views about dying with dignity and with minimal pain. The underlying principle of the government's investment in health services is quality of life, and this includes during end-of-life care. Of course, we also believe that people should have access to quality palliative care and relief from pain and suffering. Likewise, I believe that where possible, they should be able to choose the extent of active medical treatment they receive. But to my mind, this bill from Senator Leyonhjelm actually raises an issue that is much broader than euthanasia and that relates to the long-held and deeply cherished principle—for me, at least—of Australian federalism.

I said in my first speech in the Senate almost five years ago that I was unashamedly a constitutionalist and a federalist. That is still true today. I am a great believer that our founding fathers took great time and took great care to fashion for the nation a constitution that would stand the test of time. The evidence is resoundingly clear: our constitution has lived up to and stood the test of time. I have spoken previously in this chamber of the powerful influence that James Bryce's book The American Commonwealth exerted on many of the delegates who attended the first of the constitutional conventions of the 1890s, which created the constitution that underpins our system of government today. Bryce's work comprehensively established the benefits that flow from a system of government the clearly divides power between a central, national government and state jurisdictions, which by definition are closer to the people and accordingly have a better capacity to appreciate and respond to the more immediate day-to-day concerns of their constituents.

As a proud Western Australian—and I am sure I share that with Acting Deputy President Back—I am sure we could say, and I am sure other WA residents would also say, that this is more than a constitutional theory. For Western Australians, it is part of our lived experience. There is a reason that Western Australians were initially reluctant to join the Federation in the lead up to 1 January 1901. Likewise, it is not an accident that with each attempt a federal government has made to alter our nation constitution in a fashion designed to grant increased powers to Canberra, the yes vote in Western Australia tends to be noticeably lower than in other jurisdictions.

However, my view is that these problems have not emerged because of the design of our federalist system, as some would suggest. Rather, these problems have arisen because of political imperatives. There is a desire by federal governments—of both political stripes, I willingly admit—to overreach and to gather more power into their own hands at the expense of the states and territories. I think that what had sometimes been forgotten in this centralist zeal is that when you take powers from the states and territories, it is actually the residents of those states or territories you disempower—not the state or territory government.

The state MPs and ministers still get paid. All you will end up doing is transferring their workload to the Commonwealth and, in the process, taking the decision-making process further away from the people. This is a complete perversion of the principle of subsidiarity, which was one of the foundational principles of our constitutional form of government. The core elements of this principle were outlined most eloquently by one of Australia's most respected constitutional scholars, Professor Anne Twomey, writing in the Federal Law Review in 2008. In that, she says:

Subsidiarity provides that functions should, where practical, be vested in the lowest level of government to ensure that their exercise is as close to the people as possible and reflects community preferences and local conditions. The principle of subsidiarity places the onus on those who seek to place a function with a higher level of government to make the case for it.

I believe that is a very sound basis for designing a constitutional system of government.

Unfortunately, what has happened—encouraged, as I said, entirely by both sides of our national politics—is that people have increasingly come to see the federal government not as a body which fulfils the functions delineated in section 51 of our constitution but rather as a sort of political insurance policy. In other words, when the state government fails them or does something they do not like, there is an expectation that the federal government will fix the problem or overturn the bad decision. I think that is a very dangerous expectation, and it is one that is damaging our constitutional foundations. Just because the seemingly unavoidable trend in Australian governance for many decades has been towards centralism—greater control for Canberra—does not mean it is preferable, and nor does it mean that it has to be inevitable.

Last year was a depressing one for Australian federalism. We had the sorry spectacle of state and territory leaders actively refusing to take back some legislative powers when they were offered by the Commonwealth. Recall just last April, when the premier offered state and territory leaders the capacity to share in income taxing powers. What did they do? Of course, with the exception of our own Colin Barnett, they ran a mile. Actually, all that was being proposed was returning some powers to the states that were theirs in the first place. It was hardly a 'radical' proposition.

Until 1942, state governments did levy income taxes. The wartime situation facing Australia saw the Commonwealth assume responsibility for income tax in 1942. And then, once the Second World War ended, the Commonwealth retained rather than gave back that responsibility, although there have previously been attempts to hand it back, first in 1977, when Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser proposed allowing state governments to levy an income tax surcharge or provide an income tax rebate to assist them in meeting their spending requirements. However, then New South Wales Labor Premier Neville Wran coined the phrase 'double taxation' and launched a scare campaign against the proposal. It was Wran's script that Bill Shorten and Chris Bowen were reading from in their shrill, confected outrage over the proposal just last year. Yet the integrity of their position is completely undermined by the outcome of the premiers' and chief ministers' meeting held in Adelaide on 21 and 22 November 1991. The communique to emerge from that meeting is significant. It was chaired by Labor Prime Minister Bob Hawke, and of the eight premiers and chief ministers attending that conference, six led Labor governments.

Let me read what the communique says. It says that all leaders 'reiterated their support for a national income tax sharing scheme based on providing states and territories with access to the personal income tax base and with a corresponding decline in financial assistance grants'. In fact, the leaders agreed on 'a figure of six per cent of the personal income tax base' as being appropriate 'without impinging on fiscal equalisation arrangements between the states'. They also agreed that the proposal was not just 'revenue neutral, but it is also economically sustainable', and that this conclusion was reached by both the Commonwealth Treasury and state Treasury officials. I know what you are thinking, Mr Acting Deputy President Back. You are probably thinking: 'How remarkable, the foresight, in 1991, and we have missed the opportunity. We missed the opportunity in April last year.'

Alas, this breakthrough agreement was mothballed one month later, when Paul Keating—whose infamous centralist tendencies would never permit him to grant greater autonomy to states—seized Bob Hawke's job and scuppered the deal. The proposal put to state leaders last year was actually far less 'radical' than the one agreed by a meeting of predominantly Labor leaders 26 years ago. Where is the appetite for reform amongst their modern-day successors? What the Prime Minister suggested last April would have more tightly aligned revenue raising and spending at the state level, created greater incentives for efficient spending and made state governments more accountable to their constituents. Surely any state or territory leader worth their salt should relish the prospect of greater autonomy in decision making and fiscal planning for their states.

The fact that today's crop of state and territory leaders—the vast bulk of them from the Labor Party, I hasten to add—failed to take opportunities to restore some balance to our constitutional arrangements is a damning indictment of their capacity for national leadership. I find, as I am sure others in this place find, their reluctance almost inexplicable—unless, of course, they do not want to be responsible for having to make these decisions for themselves and would rather take up the politically convenient option of Canberra bashing. That may well make life easier for poorly performing state and territory governments but it is not what those who framed our constitution intended, and it is not to the benefit of local communities, especially those that are a long way from Canberra, such as the ones that Senator Back and I represent in Western Australia.

So, if Victoria's premier, Daniel Andrews, does not think he is up to doing something that Joan Kirner thought herself more than capable of doing, he should simply admit it. If Queensland's premier does not think she can manage far less of a responsibility than Wayne Goss volunteered to take on 25 years ago, Queensland voters are entitled to know. Numerous opportunities have been offered to premiers and chief ministers to be what former Prime Minister Tony Abbott described as 'sovereign in their own sphere'. Consistently, they beg off and fail to take responsibility. It is high time Australia's state and territory leaders decided whether they wish to be leaders or simply managers. I think any bill that allows for a discussion of the virtues of federalism is one worthy of consideration. For that aspect alone, I thank Senator Leyonhjelm for bringing this issue to the attention of the Senate this afternoon.