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Thursday, 8 September 2022
Page: 80

Senator McDONALD (Queensland) (17:17): I want to start by acknowledging the respect and consideration that has, in large part, been shown by others during this debate. As in all conscience debates, these are decisions and thoughts that weigh heavily upon us all, I'm sure.

I rise to discuss greater rights for the Northern Territory, but I have sincere reservations surrounding the possibility that euthanasia legislation will be a consequence. And while, as a North Queenslander and a northern Australian, I do have enormous sympathy for the cause of Territorians having greater autonomy without needing approval from the Commonwealth for the decisions they make, this is of course a result of the Northern Territory (Self-Government) Act 1978.

The Restoring Territory Rights Bill 2022 asks for more decision power on land acquisitions and employment disputes. I would normally think that this is an excellent move that would streamline the administration of the Territory and encourage productivity gains and development. But, as I said, I have sincere concerns with the other aspect of the bill, which will repeal the Commonwealth's rejection of the Territory's ability to legalise euthanasia. In all good conscience I cannot agree to figuratively hand a gun to someone knowing it would be used to end a human life, no matter the watertight legality of that person's being able to hold it.

I have reservations about assenting to this bill in its entirety until there is a much more serious discussion about the options to improve the range and availability of palliative care in the Northern Territory. Just this year, famed Aboriginal actor David Gulpilil was forced to undergo palliative care in South Australia, far from his Arnhem Land home, due to a lack of services. His family has described how distraught he was at not being able to die on country. It has been reported that this is a wide-ranging problem throughout the Northern Territory.

In January this year, the ABC reported that the then federal government had pledged to improve care options across remote Australia but had stopped short of outlining any specific future plans. The Northern Territory government is also reluctant to promise any new facilities for palliative care in the Territory bush, but said they've recently improved the end-of-life care services in Alice Springs and Darwin. The spokesman also said that the Northern Territory government would support patients who wish to die at home on country, including with transport back to country if that is the request from patient and family, but a study into remote area palliative care by research body BMC Palliative Care found that Aboriginal people have a growing need for palliative care but struggle to have convenient access to it or even information about it.

We also have to wonder exactly how much consultation euthanasia advocates have done with the Territory's population broadly and the Aboriginal population specifically. In the 1996 study by Territory government researcher Chips Mackinolty, referred to earlier by Senator Scarr, revealed that while so-called right-to-die advocates, of which he admits he was one, believed they could just travel around Indigenous communities educating people and be hailed as heroes, the results were the exact opposite. Twenty-one teams of researchers were tasked by the government with canvassing 900 Aboriginal people in the Territory. Of those 900 people, just two responded favourably to adopting the Rights of the Terminally Ill Act. The main reason given was superstition based on tribal belief that killing someone, even via a medical procedure sanctioned by somebody wanting to die, was abhorrent. Furthermore, they feared that if killing someone with doctor administered drugs was made legal by the government, those drugs could be used by others, either by sinister people with evil motives or kadaitja men and sorcerers to commit murder. I appreciate that this is not a view held right across the Northern Territory, but I believe it is our responsibility to ensure that we are protecting everyone—most importantly, the most vulnerable in our community.

The findings also stated that allowing medical professionals, usually the most trusted in Aboriginal communities, to end life would erode that trust and lead to people delaying treatment or seeking alternative remedies. Indeed, once the concept of euthanasia was explained to them, many Aboriginal people stated they would not feel safe going to the doctor anymore, even for minor ailments. The report author, Mr Mackinolty—again, a staunch advocate of euthanasia—made the sobering conclusion that the Northern Territory was certainly the wrong jurisdiction to legalise assisted dying. He did not say 'arguably' or 'possibly'. He was unequivocal: 'The Territory was certainly the wrong jurisdiction.'

What price do we pay for people delaying treatment, and ultimately becoming terminally ill, when early intervention could have saved their lives? How can we celebrate the Northern Territory having more of a say over its own destiny by knowing its most vulnerable people would be adversely affected by this aspect of the change?

The other grave concern I have is that we are simply offering a solution that is easy compared to the much more difficult task of ensuring terminally ill Territorians can access all treatment options. The Northern Territory has the lowest life expectancy in the country—an average of 74 years, compared to 80.5 years right here in the ACT—and its population is spread out far and wide from main population centres. It should be a matter of human decency and responsible government to ensure that seriously ill people have the choice of a full suite of treatments, not influenced simply by where they live or their personal finances.

I point the house to a recent development in Canada where reports have surfaced of people being encouraged to undergo euthanasia because they couldn't afford expensive treatment. In one case reported in the media, a war veteran with PTSD and an acquired brain injury was offered the following choices: undertake long-term and expensive treatment or euthanasia. How has the situation gone from 'we just want people to die with dignity' to 'maybe you should agree to be euthanased instead of paying all these nasty medical bills'? His conditions were serious but not considered terminal, and yet medical staff reportedly offered medically assisted dying as a money-saving option. I've heard from people concerned their loved ones could be convinced to end their lives by unscrupulous family members or spouses. So-called elder abuse isn't just limited to financial scams; it can manifest as physical harm and mental degradation, to the point that sufferers make major decisions that make no sense to their families. It is a great worry to people that greedy people will take advantage of sick, elderly relatives' fragile mental states to get them to agree to end their own lives.

A big part of improving medical care and treatment options is improving the Territory's economy, and one way to do this is to open up the vast gas reserves in the Beetaloo basin. A major reason for the Northern Territory's status as a nonstate is its reliance on Commonwealth funding to administer itself. Its population is small and extremely spread out, and many people live in the most remote part parts of Australia, which increases the cost to government to provide services. The obvious answer to the Northern Territory winning full statehood is for it to reduce its reliance on federal funding and to become more self-sufficient. The quickest way to do this, as I've said, is to unlock its vast gas and mineral deposits in areas such as the Beetaloo basin.

The Northern Territory Labor government is in financial dire straits. Its net debt as a percentage of GDP is the highest in the country, and, even with its impressive tourism offerings, a handful of operating mines, vast cattle stations and busy live export port, there are just not enough people and not enough money coming in. As long as the Northern Territory needs the federal government to pay the bills, the federal government will continue to have a say over its affairs. Meanwhile, right under its feet are some of Australia's largest deposits of oil and gas, namely in the Beetaloo and Georgina basins, worth billions of dollars. There is opposition to that from cattle producers, environmentalists and Indigenous groups, but, if a comprise can be found, the Territory could drastically improve its chances of self-determination as a state.

I would call on this federal government to continue the momentum gained by the previous government to revitalise the Northern Australia Agenda. The Territory is in dire need of more people, more industry and more development, and it beggars belief that, while the Labor Party thought floods in Sydney and Brisbane deserved instant action, large parts of the Northern Territory are cut off during every wet season, leaving people isolated and without access to fresh food. The Territory cannot grow and cannot determine its own destiny without federal attention and real, practical help.

The Northern Territory is truly special to Australia. It deserves to be granted more autonomy, but we must be mindful of unintended consequences. Specifically, I would ask that, before there be any further consideration given to allowing for euthanasia to be granted in the Territory, the people of the Territory ask themselves: Do they have suitable alternative care? Do they have end-of-life provision for palliative care? And is this something that they would truly want to contemplate, or are we just exposing the most vulnerable parts of our community to another risk?