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Wednesday, 28 September 2022
Page: 29

Senator McCARTHY (Northern TerritoryAssistant Minister for Indigenous Australians and Assistant Minister for Indigenous Health) (11:15): Twenty-five years ago, when the Rights of the Terminally Ill Bill was introduced into the Northern Territory parliament, I wanted the Northern Territory parliamentarians to vote against it. Based on cultural and personal grounds, I certainly did not support it. Twenty-five years later, I still do not support voluntary assisted dying. But I do support the Northern Territory parliament having the right to debate what is an absolutely critical issue on behalf of the people of the Northern Territory—an issue that has been debated across Australia in every state parliament since the Northern Territory introduced it and then had it removed. The Euthanasia Laws Act was passed by the Commonwealth parliament in 1997. All of the states have passed laws allowing for voluntary assisted dying in Australia.

Of course, as we all know, it was the Northern Territory where we saw not only Australia's first legislation on euthanasia but the first in the world. The NT parliament passed these laws on behalf of their constituents who voted for them to represent them. It was a democratic decision. The sky didn't fall apart, but the Howard government saw fit to stomp over the democratic rights of Territorians, throw out their fair decision and gag them for half a century—and still to this day. A lot of Territorians were very upset as they saw the Andrews bill developed, debated and, eventually, turned into law.

I looked through some of the speeches from the Territory. I knew then of those politicians who were there. There was a speech introduced by the then Chief Minister, Marshall Perron, a most passionate advocate. And there were speeches by the late Maurice Rioli and Mr Wes Lanhupuy, two First Nations people in the parliament at the time—two people with very different views on to how to approach this most sensitive issue. That's what democracy is about, that's what the Westminster system brought to this country: an opportunity for parliaments to be able to debate—to agree, to disagree—and to be heard with respect.

I would like to share with the Senate the story of Bob Dent, one of those Territorians who paid very close attention to the Andrews bill. He did this in his final days. Mr Dent became the first person in the world to die using a voluntary euthanasia law, and he was one of only four to access the NTs Rights of the Terminally Ill Act before it was overturned by the federal government. Mr Dent, a former pilot and carpenter from Darwin, had prostate cancer, which infiltrated his bone marrow, deteriorating his body. Before Mr Dent passed away, he sent a letter to all federal politicians, to make it clear how he felt about the Andrews bill. Part of his letter read:

I read with increasing horror newspaper stories of Kevin Andrews' attempt to overturn the most compassionate piece of legislation in the world. (Actually, my wife has to read the newspaper stories to me as I can no longer focus my eyes.)

If you disagree with voluntary euthanasia, then don't use it, but don't deny me the right to use it if and when I want to.

Of course, it's difficult to imagine how he might have felt knowing a democratic decision that affected his life so deeply and so personally could be stomped over and dumped at the whim of the parliament we're all standing in today.

I acknowledge the advocacy and hard work of Luke Gosling MP and Alicia Payne MP in bringing this bill to the parliament to finally right a wrong that was made here in this same parliament 25 years ago.

This bill has been a long time coming. In 2022 Territorians and Canberrans still have fewer democratic rights than their fellow Australians in the states and hopefully this bill is going to change that. For 25 years the ACT and the Northern Territory have been banned from legislating, let alone debating, the issue of voluntary euthanasia. It is something that all other states can do and now have done.

This bill before the Senate does not in any way legislate voluntary assisted dying. I need to make that very, very clear. It simply proposes to give the territories equal democratic rights to debate and legislate this issue within their own parliaments. It's not something that should be deliberately conflated and confused for political advantage. This is ultimately an issue of territory rights, of Australians living in the territories having the same rights as fellow Australians in the states.

The bill proposes to remove archaic restrictions preventing the Australian Capital Territory and Northern Territory from passing any legislation which would allow for voluntary assisted dying. These restrictions, as I said, were introduced in 1997 through the passage of a private member's bill introduced by Mr Kevin Andrews MP.

This attempt here today is, of course, not the first in this parliament to remove Kevin Andrews' restrictions and restore territory rights, but I certainly hope that it is the last and that this one will be successful. Since the passing of Andrews' legislation there appears to have been around nine bills subsequently introduced into parliament with the intention of granting one or more of the territories the ability to pass their own laws relating to voluntary assisted dying, and all of these have been private members' bills.

I acknowledge the work and good intentions of all those who have attempted to restore territory rights, albeit unsuccessfully. It is fortunate that we do have a government here today that has given us a chance to finally, in my view, and hopefully, correct this wrong and make a change.

Before the election the Albanese government committed, as a priority, to facilitate the introduction of this bill to restore the rights of the territories. This is, fortunately, a piece of legislation that can bring a lot of us together. We saw the territory rights bill pass the lower House with an overwhelming majority. It had the support of members of the Greens, the coalition, Labor and the Independents.

I would like to touch on a few issues that have been raised here so far. I also want to give my own view, as I did at the outset, that as a Yanyuwa Garrwa woman I am deeply aware of the cultural concerns in terms of assisted dying. I also know that in our way people do want to go back on country when they feel that they know their time is near. I have a very personal view about this issue. Should this bill pass and get to the Northern Territory parliament to debate it I will probably be one of the first people to urge the politicians there to vote against it, but they still have the right to debate it. The Australian parliament should not be taking away the rights of our fellow Australians in the Northern Territory and the ACT.

I do call on senators to see the importance of the territories and their respective parliaments, that they be enabled to have the debate that every state parliament has now had. Senators, if you are unsure, I urge those of you who are still wondering what to do to: please support this bill. Please do not make these Australians in the ACT and in the Northern Territory feel any less worthy than the Australians you represent in your respective states.