Assisted suicide: the question of life and death

Assisted suicide: the question of life and death

Assisted suicide: the question of life and death

February 3, 2017

If you think it’s time the ban on assisted suicide was lifted in your state, you can lobby your local politician and ask them to do something about it. Indeed, you can do the same if you are opposed to assisted suicide and want the ban to remain. That’s what representative democracy is all about.

But if you’re from the Northern Territory or Canberra, don’t bother. The politicians who represent you in the territory parliaments have no power to change their laws, so lobbying them would be a waste of time.

This has been the case since 1997, when Kevin Andrews, from the Melbourne suburb of Doncaster, succeeded in having a private member’s bill pass through the federal parliament that prohibited the parliaments of the NT and ACT from amending their own laws to remove the bans on assisted suicide.

This was an odd thing for a backbencher from Victoria to do. Kevin Andrews clearly wasn’t serving his constituents. He was closing down representative democracy and adult decision‑making for people who lived hundreds of kilometres away from his own constituents.

Banning the people of the territories from making up their own mind about assisted suicide is government overreach. Rather than focus on cutting taxes and regulations and delivering basic government services, we have politicians who think their role is to tell other people how to live (and end) their lives.

The people of Victoria will get a chance to debate the details of assisted suicide this year, with the Victorian Government currently drafting up a bill. The people of NSW will have their chance too, with backbenchers from various parties to release a bill in coming weeks.

A bill to remove the ban on assisted suicide recently failed in South Australia, with the vote in parliament tied at 23 to 23 before the speaker cast his vote against it. While that was a shame, that’s democracy in action.

But the people of the NT and ACT are denied any chance to pursue their own democratic approach.

Push to overturn bill

I have a bill in the federal parliament that would overturn the Andrews bill and allow the parliaments of the territories to come to their own conclusions about assisted suicide. I’ll be pushing this bill hard this year. Those in favour of assisted suicide will support my bill, but I am also seeking support from those who oppose assisted suicide but nonetheless believe the territories should be free to debate and amend their own laws.

I support removing the ban for the simple reason that we should own our own lives. If we are not free to end our lives, with assistance if necessary, then we are not free at all. But I am also a supporter of federalism – the Commonwealth government should stick to its constitutionally prescribed role and not interfere in decisions that are the prerogative of the states and territories.

Clearly, if we are to allow assisted suicide it needs to occur with appropriate safeguards. Any decision to die must be explicitly and demonstrably voluntary and without coercion. No bill for assisted suicide will pass an Australian parliament if it allows doctors or family members to make the decision. This requires a broad conversation about how to ensure it is always voluntary.

Such a conversation will require considerably more honesty than is normally found in political debates. Who do we trust enough to verify that a much loved parent genuinely wants to die? What role should we allow government? The different approaches by the states and territories will be instructive in getting it right.

Governments are not playing a positive role at the moment. Governments ration care in public hospitals by putting elderly Australians on agonising waiting lists. There is a higher level of medical screw-ups in public hospitals compared to private hospitals. And it is governments that turn a blind eye when doctors induce death in patients who have not requested it. Legislating for assisted suicide will at least prompt governments to check that doctor‑induced deaths are only at the request of the patient.

Suicide has been legal for decades. Yet when we become too frail or ill to do it for ourselves, governments continue to intrude into this most fundamental personal decision. And if you live in the ACT or NT, there’s no point even telling your local MP how you feel.

David Leyonhjelm is a Senator for the Liberal Democrats


First Published in the Australian Financial Review