JOINT SELECT COMMITTEE ON VOLUNTARY EUTHANASIA
(Manly) [11.30 a.m]: I move:
(1) That this House, in recognising that the issues surrounding voluntary euthanasia are complex, controversial and of such significance that they should be voted on by all citizens at a referendum, appoints a joint select committee.
(2) That the committee inquire into and report upon the legislative and administrative issues involved in a referendum on voluntary euthanasia in New South Wales with the following terms of reference:
(a) consider legislative and administrative frameworks that have been proposed, are current or have recently been in practice;
(b) prepare the question to be put to the public for referendum in 1999; and
(c) prepare the affirmative and negative cases to be circulated prior to this referendum.
(3) That such committee consist of eight members of the Legislative Assembly and four members of the Legislative Council and that, notwithstanding anything contained in the standing orders of either House, at any meeting of the committee, any six members shall constitute a quorum provided that the committee shall meet as a joint committee at all times.
(4) That the committee have leave to sit during the sittings or any adjournment of either or both Houses; to adjourn from
place to place; to make visits of inspection within the State of New South Wales, other States and Territories and overseas.
(5) That should either House stand adjourned and the committee agree to any report before the Houses resume sitting:
(a) the committee have leave to send any such report, minutes and evidence taken before it to the Clerk of the House;
(b) the documents shall be printed and published and the Clerk shall forthwith take such action necessary to give effect to the order of the House; and
(c) the documents shall be laid upon the Table of the House at the next sitting.
I gave notice of this motion 15 October 1996, and it has taken almost two years for the debate to be called on. The motion refers to a referendum on voluntary euthanasia and the establishment of a committee to inquire into and report upon the legislative and administrative issues involved in such a referendum. The committee would also be required to look at legislative and administrative frameworks that have been proposed, are current or have recently been in practice. The motion also relates to preparation of the referendum question and the affirmative and negative cases. That is what the motion is about; it is about not introducing legislation to allow voluntary euthanasia. That is not the strategy.
Euthanasia legislation has been introduced in other Houses. It was introduced successfully in the Northern Territory and subsequently overturned by the Federal Government. It was introduced in South Australia and in the Australian Capital Territory - unsuccessfully. The motion does not go that far; it is about the development of a referendum question. It is not about members of Parliament going out on a limb on a controversial issue. Many members of Parliament are anxious about the issue of euthanasia. I shall relate some of the comments from honourable members I have spoken to without naming the members involved.
One honourable member was very nervous about any vote on euthanasia because he would lose his seat if he voted for it, even though in his heart he supported it. Another comment was that in marginal seats candidates supporting euthanasia would lose votes rather than gain them. That is one reason that members of Parliament are nervous about moving on the issue. One honourable member was particularly guarded. He recognised the political risk involved. Another was worried about a conscience vote. He said that he would lose his seat because of the powerful Catholic lobby. Those are the sorts of sentiments expressed by honourable members. I would like the matter to be dealt with on a conscience vote: members should vote not according to party lines but according to their conscience as to whether there should be a referendum on voluntary euthanasia. It is about supporting a process of moving gradually towards legislation. It is about Parliament taking the first step. Time is running out: the election is in March 1999 and I want a referendum question at that election.
This month is a milestone in the history of the euthanasia debate. It is the second anniversary of the death of Bob Dent in the Northern Territory. He died on 22 September 1996. The day before, on 21 September, he made a public statement using language we could all understand. He talked about his suffering, the grotesque demise of his body and the effects of medication. He argued that the promotion of a speedy death is more humane than prolonging the agony of dying. He made his own end-of-life decision - not the doctors. He rejected authoritarianism.
My motion provides a framework to determine various issues relating to a referendum. There is substantial community support for voluntary euthanasia. The figure is consistently around 75 per cent. I welcome in the public gallery Judy Wedderburn, a member of the committee of the Voluntary Euthanasia Society in New South Wales. Parliament’s fundamental goal is to translate community views into public policy and not to shy away from these issues. That is why I call upon members to consider this matter seriously and to support a conscience vote. John Ellard was the psychiatrist who certified that Bob Dent, the world’s first patient to die legally by euthanasia, was not suffering from severe depression. I have a very high regard for John Ellard, one of Sydney’s leading psychiatrists. In the month following Bob Dent’s death John Ellard wrote eloquently about his involvement with Bob Dent. In an article in the Sydney Morning Herald
of 4 October 1996 he stated:
Each of us is marching inexorably towards his or her own death. Fortunately, for most of our lives we do not know when or how it will happen. If we are particularly fortunate it will come suddenly, painlessly and unheralded; there are less happy alternatives. Doctors do not save lives; when it is within our skill we postpone death and diminish suffering. We can do no more.
He went on to state:
As doctors we must do our best to make that individual’s life as good as it can be made by treating the disease, easing the
pain, relieving the depression. There can come a time when all our efforts do not do enough. The pain, breathlessness, nausea, incontinence, smell, anxiety and a thousand other afflictions combine to make continuing what little life is left grotesque.
Palliative care can work wonders, but not miracles: there are some whose distress of body and mind cannot be relieved.
He was a good man; much of his life has been devoted to relieving the suffering of others. Over the years he had wrestled with the eternal questions and reached his own answers. When his time came they stood him in good stead. As his cancer slowly killed him and his agony of body and spirit increased, he knew what was best for him. I was able to play a small part in giving him what he wanted and needed and in delivering him from his suffering. If I had not done what I did, I would have been ashamed for the rest of my life.
John Ellard also said:
I have been associated with clinical medicine for the best part of half a century. Those who believe that euthanasia has not happened until now have been walking around with their eyes closed. The human condition is infinitely complex. It would be comforting if we could devise laws regulating all possible events to everyone’s satisfaction. Let us try, but let us not shrink from the possibility that it cannot be done.
So spoke John Ellard, the man who played a role under the Northern Territory legislation: he certified that Bob Dent was competent, coherent, willing and at the terminal stage of his life and that he was not suffering from severe depression. Public opinion has consistently been in favour of parliamentarians picking up on the community mood and moving towards dealing with the issue of euthanasia and putting it in some form of legislative framework. It is difficult to draft appropriate legislation but there have been many efforts. There are models that prevail and it is possible to come up with good and safe legislation that builds in proper safeguards. In October the Letters Editor of the Sydney Morning Herald
spoke about the enormous number of letters the paper had received, particularly from senior citizens. The editor then quoted one of the correspondents, who said, among other things:
The Government should listen to the wishes of senior citizens who are vitally concerned with the outcome of this issue rather than the ‘do-gooders’ more concerned with their own public image than our welfare.
The Letters Editor also said:
On another level, a serious concern has emerged that the principle of the separation of Church and State is under threat with the Andrews bill.
The Andrews bill was one of the consequences of the Northern Territory legislation where there was clearly a lack of separation between church and state. I met with representatives of the Uniting Church on 16 October 1996 and I appreciate the support and counselling I have received from the church in its attempts to further the debate on euthanasia, in relation to which they are at odds with other churches. My view is that euthanasia is the ultimate act of compassion for a patient who is willing, competent and coherent at the final stage of a terminal illness. I seek the support of this House for this motion to establish a committee to develop the process for a referendum, the actual question to be asked and the yes and no cases.
(Northcott) [11.40 a.m.]: I speak briefly in the debate on the motion moved by the honourable member for Manly. I indicate at the outset that the position of the coalition will be set out by the honourable member for the North Shore at a later time. I am one of those who strongly oppose euthanasia, and nothing I have read or heard since the debate in this place last year has changed my view. However, it is also my view that the honourable member for Manly is well intentioned; he is exhibiting the sort of approach that ought to be taken if this issue is to be considered in detail. At one level I welcome an inquiry. I do not support this inquiry, but I welcome the concept of an inquiry because each inquiry that has been conducted overseas has come down against legislation in relation to euthanasia. That has certainly been the case in the United Kingdom and Europe.
So in a sense, as an opponent of euthanasia, I do not fear an inquiry. I believe an inquiry would be some benefit in the sense that it would educate people like my friend the honourable member for Manly about what I believe is their wrong perception of the issue. In a sense the euthanasia debate in this place last year came about the wrong way around. The debate was led by public opinion rather than by informed fact. I suppose it is that point that the honourable member for Manly is trying to address. As someone who was brought up in the Northern Territory, I simply do not believe this issue should be governed by State or Territory parliaments. Voluntary euthanasia is an issue of national significance.
The honourable member for Manly and others argue in favour of a State-based approach, that is, having six, seven or eight separate laws relating to the one issue. But if the issue is to be addressed it should be addressed at national level. The Northern Territory, where I grew up, has fewer residents than the local government area in which I live. I would not take advice from Hornsby council on this important issue, and I do not believe the Northern Territory should have led or attempted to lead
Australia last year and the year before in relation to this issue. I reiterate that I am an opponent of voluntary euthanasia, but if the issue is to be addressed seriously at all, it ought to be addressed at a national or supra-State level.
In respect of the request by the honourable member for Manly for a referendum I simply say that we are elected to Parliament to lead. We are not elected to Parliament so that we can behave like Pontius Pilate and return the responsibility for making decisions about issues such back to them. At present across Australia there is a concern that people in places such as this House are not displaying the leadership expected of them by the electorate. I believe referenda on these sorts of issues is a wimp’s way out. Parliament - and preferably the national Parliament in my view - ought to make a decision, adhere to that decision and bear the consequences of it.
(Tamworth) [11.44]: I support the motion of the honourable member for Manly to set up a committee to consider a referendum on voluntary euthanasia. Contrary to what the honourable member for Northcott has said, I believe the community should be consulted on critical major social changes such as euthanasia and capital punishment, an issue in relation to which I tried to get a bill through Parliament some time ago. In the past the community has been consulted on less significant issues than euthanasia. Earlier today the honourable member for Georges River said, in relation to electoral fairness, that if the members of the community were asked for their opinion, they would say that people should be able to prove their identity before voting.
The arguments are a little hypocritical, but in relation to major social change there should be a vehicle by which the community can by consulted. Contrary to some suggestions, I believe that playing politics with these matters in this Chamber may lead to the issue not being addressed in the way it should be addressed. Issues such as this should be put to the community. I oppose voluntary euthanasia, but it is an issue in relation to which the community should have the right to have some input.
Debate adjourned on motion by Dr Refshauge.