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Wednesday, 15 August 2018
Page: 106

The PRESIDENT (18:46): I'm taking this relatively rare opportunity to participate in debate as President. This is an issue that most people have a well-developed opinion of, based on deeply-held personal, philosophical and even political values, and experiences of loved ones and friends, as well as professional experiences and insights. Both sides of this debate are, I believe, motivated by the highest aspirations to care for our fellow citizens. Defending human dignity comes in various forms and there is nothing more difficult than caring for those most vulnerable in their last days, weeks or months.

Both perspectives on this issue are entirely respectable. I don't believe any should condemn another for holding the opposite view to that which they hold in this debate. But, in outlining my position and why I'll be opposing this legislation, I would like to explain the perspective I bring and the reasons I hold that view, both in principle, regarding the issue of euthanasia, and the administrative matter—the authority of this parliament in relation to the territory legislatures.

First, the matter of euthanasia. I am a liberal first and foremost. I start from the principle of limiting the actions of the state or the collective will of people limiting the autonomy of their fellow citizens. But I'm not a libertarian. A liberal believes in the existence of the state and that there are limits on the autonomy of individuals. The debate over where to draw this line is the defining one in a liberal democracy. Every instinctive liberal, at some point, comes across the writings of JS Mill, with his famous harm principle that, in short, provides the framework to assess whether a restriction on the choices an individual can make is legitimate and asks: does it bring harm to others?

On another matter, if Mill was correct—and I think he was—that there is a legitimate limit that someone cannot voluntarily submit themselves to slavery, then I think euthanasia needs to be considered differently to other matters of choice, because, when it comes to matters of ending life, there is a different element because of the finality of the consequences of any choice or incident.

I fear euthanasia not because I distrust individuals but because I distrust the state and the scope of it that now exists with the public health system we are all part of through a very strong and effective national insurance system and the public provision of health services. I fear it not because engaged citizens, like many of us in this chamber, are able to navigate the health and aged-care systems; I fear it because of the risks to the most vulnerable, who do not have the capacity for choice many of us have. I simply do not believe the checks and balances can guarantee that no innocent person will have their most important right, that of life, taken from them through the lack of care or even the feeling of being a burden upon those close to them or their fellow citizens. I also fear the inevitable expansion of this to those not equipped to make such a choice, let alone the pressure they may feel in the most difficult of circumstances. I happen to oppose capital punishment in all its forms, no matter the justification claimed, because I do not believe the state has a right to take a life and because I believe the risks of error are too grave to contemplate, and that thinking drives me in this particular instance as well.

Second, I'd like to turn to the issue of territory rights. Territories and states don't have rights; people do. The territories have a different status in our constitutional arrangements than do the states. The people of the territories are in a different situation than are the people of the states. Therefore, we have a different set of responsibilities here than we do with respect to the states. I note that this parliament has previously legislated to prevent the states and territories from enacting capital punishment. While I agree that such a regime has no place in Australia, I find it difficult to accept as persuasive arguments about territory rights and disregard the fact that it's actually about the issue in question—in this case, euthanasia. I don't raise this to draw into question the motives of anyone, only to explain my own position.

We do have a different role with respect to the citizens of our territories than we do with respect to the citizens of our states. It is not about this parliament forcing its view on the territories; it is about my responsibility that I feel to the citizens of the territories. As someone who does not believe that euthanasia can be made safe, that there are risks of it causing the most grievous harm to the innocent, I have a responsibility to protect the citizens of the territories for whom this parliament is ultimately responsible. Accordingly, I will be voting against this bill.