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Thursday, 26 June 2008
Page: 3481

Senator BARTLETT (11:24 AM) —I would like to congratulate Senator Brown for bringing forward the Rights of the Terminally Ill (Euthanasia Laws Repeal) Bill 2008. I think it is a very important issue that needs more debate. As I indicated in my personal comments in the report, Senator Brown’s bill is quite similar, if not the same, to one put forward by Senator Allison not so long ago. I would also have to say that I do not agree with either of them. A majority of the committee did have the view that the bill should not proceed, but for differing reasons. As a reflection of the fact that this is a conscience vote matter, it is appropriate that the committee not have a majority and a minority report but simply reflect the evidence and some of our individual views. It was a short inquiry, and this is a very short debate on what is a big issue regarding one of the most fundamental aspects of human life, which is the enormity and mystery of death.

Just briefly on the issue of Territory rights, as I reflect in my additional comments, I have a lot of sympathy for that. I very much understand how infuriating it must be for Territorians to be potentially able to be overridden on any matter. Nobody likes that. But if you are going to apply that principle, I think you have to apply it universally, not just to arguments and issues that you agree with. Unless people want to simultaneously argue that Northern Territory land rights laws should also be handed over to the Territory then I think you have to set that argument aside. I do support statehood for the Territory. I do think we would be better off having a national framework for euthanasia in which all Australians, whatever state or territory they live in, live with the same overarching framework and standards. That is the way I would like to see the debate go.

The issue of euthanasia itself is vexed and complex. I get frustrated with how advocates from both sides of the debate sometimes present it in what I think is an oversimplistic or a polarised way. I do not accept at all the suggestion that those who are opposed to it are all religious zealots with no concern at all for human suffering, imposing their religious values on other people, versus the other view—which we have just heard put a little bit by Senator Barnett—that advocates of euthanasia have no respect for human life and no consideration of human dignity. I think everybody has concern for human dignity and the sanctity of life; they just view it differently in terms of how our laws should interpret that and where you balance the competing values involved.

The issue of human dignity is a big one for advocates of euthanasia, as it is for all sides. The concern for human suffering and the concern for the vulnerable also apply to those who are opposed to euthanasia. As I say in my comments, I am supportive of the principles behind the arguments put forward by advocates of euthanasia, but I am apprehensive about whether they can be adequately and safely legislated for without leaving vulnerable people in an even more vulnerable situation.

I recall a well-respected disability advocate—a person on the progressive side of the spectrum, not your stereotypical so-called religious zealot—saying to me that they were very concerned about the potential change in attitudes that comes with euthanasia where a right to die that can be effectively and safely implemented by people who are powerful and well-resourced could potentially become an expectation or almost a duty to die for the powerless, for the disabled and for those who are seen as marginalised. I do not in any way suggest that is what euthanasia advocates hope to see, but I think they are potential issues.

I was very impressed with the evidence that Dr Nitschke gave in Darwin. I thought he was very clear and consistent in the evidence and in the argument he put forward. I do think there is too much loose language here for what is such an important, fundamental and complex issue. To just have vague language and sloganeering is not good enough, certainly when it comes to looking at laws. You can make your broad case, but when you are looking at what laws we pass that is not good enough. That is why I think we need to de-polarise the debate and accept there are valid issues and valid concerns on both sides, and it needs to be far more nuanced. As I said, I have apprehension about whether euthanasia could be safely implemented, but I would like to see it if it could be done. I am not religious at all, so that is not the issue for me.

I am someone who has examined issues of depression and suicide, and the causes behind them. Euthanasia is a form of suicide and is one that a lot of people think is a positive form, and that is why they usually do not use the word ‘suicide’. We think of suicide, quite rightly, as a bad thing. (Extension of time granted) If we are using language such as a right to die and the right to have assistance to die then it is a big shift for people who think regularly about whether or not they want to die—not because they have a terminal illness but because they are just contemplating whether they want to end their life. We need to think about that more fully and debate that more fully. That is why I think bills like this are desirable, so we can have that debate and explore those issues in a more nuanced and deeper way. I hope the future Senate does that.