Restoring Territory Rights (Assisted Suicide Legislation) Bill 2015 - Second Reading

I rise to speak on the Restoring Territory Rights (Assisted Suicide Legislation) Bill 2015. It may be argued that the only question being asked of us within this bill is whether the federal parliament should permit the territories to legislate in this space. However, I believe that this is a misguided view and that it is not the only question being asked of us here. The broader purpose of this bill is to allow the territories the legal right to legislate for euthanasia and assisted suicide. But firstly I want to address that question briefly.

Under the Constitution, territories have a different status to states. Territories are not provided the same rights and responsibilities. Our founders did this for a reason. The Australian parliament is provided the right under the Constitution to make laws for the territories. We need to have a broader discussion about the rights of territories in comparison to states and their place in our federation.

The law dictates that government must protect all individuals and govern in the interest of all Australians, and the previous speaker said we have no right to have this debate. Well I believe, even though we can't legislate for assisted suicide and euthanasia, we do have a right, as Commonwealth senators and as members in the other place, to put on record our views in relation to the issue. We exist as a parliament to provide for good government and to protect the most vulnerable at all cost.

Let's not forget why this bill is here, being debated right now. The answer is because Malcolm Turnbull, the Prime Minister, is willing to horse trade on such legislation. This is legislation that is so important to those who support the rights of the territories and to those of us who are ensuring that we put on record our view in relation to assisted suicide. But he is prepared to horse trade on this sort of legislation to ensure he stays Prime Minister of this country—although Senator Leyonhjelm, who is the one that the deal was made with, has said the Prime Minister has reneged on that commitment.

The question for this parliament and the broader community is: should we be giving doctors, or anyone else for that matter, the right in law to end the life of another person? And if we do, how do these laws affect society over time? The issue of voluntary euthanasia affects the entire community, and our emotions through lived experiences with our own loved ones often hamper the ability for reasoned debate on this issue, which is why this subject deserves the time of this place for a considered and lengthy debate. The issue of voluntary euthanasia and assisted suicide is one of the most emotional, challenging issues that politicians, whether it's at a Commonwealth level or at a state or territory level, will have to deal with.

Social regulatory policy, which acts to make a considered change in the way we view life and death, deserves the most serious of considerations, and should not merely be rushed through under the guise of territory rights. Legislation that allows a third party to end or to assist in the ending of another person's life is, without question, the most difficult space to legislate. For the state to codify in law circumstances to authorise the ending of a human life may be viewed as an impossibility because of the inability to ensure it's not abused. Let's be clear here: this is not a legislative space that allows for individual freedom or autonomy; it is actually outsourcing individual freedom to the state and a third party.

This is my major concern: I don't believe that it can be safely legislated. And once we legislate in this space and we end the lives of people within the community, it will erode the value and importance we place on life. We enter this place to make assessments and form judgements about our respective states, territories and fellow Australians. We must take that responsibility with the honour and humility it deserves. We must be acutely aware of the fact that our decisions are not binding for all time, and can be amended. Such proposed legislation in this space will never be able to guarantee that a human life will not be prematurely ended due to abuse or flaws within such a legislative framework, or the social, cultural and medical ramifications of such laws as time moves on. This reason alone should ensure that no such legislation should exist in any state or territory. No legislative framework can account for every individual and unique circumstance, and no amount of safeguards can take into account all variables in a person's life or particular circumstances.

Unfortunately, the Victorian parliament has been successful in this space and has legislated for this reform, and that's been referred to by many speakers in this debate. But that legislation will not take effect until May 2019. I would have thought that we need to take the time to see how that legislation is enacted, and whether or not the safeguards that are being proposed by those who supported that legislation will stand the test of time. As the former Prime Minister Paul Keating said during that debate in Victoria, 'No law and no process can achieve that objective.' We know that legislation gets amended all the time and we know there are social changes within the community, so I don't think you can use the fact that the Victorian bill has not been implemented as justification for supporting this bill.

It should be noted that, although divergent views exist on this issue within the medical profession, the Australian Medical Association believes that doctors should not be involved in interventions that have as their primary intention the ending of a person's life. Withholding and withdrawing treatment is ethically distinct from physician assisted suicide or euthanasia. We hear in this place on so many debates that we should be adhering to the experts' advice. Well, I don't think there are any experts that are more informed when it comes to assisted suicide and euthanasia than doctors. When the AMA is opposed to it—on the grounds they have articulated—then I think we should be adhering to that advice.

I do sympathise with anyone who is suffering with terminal or life-limiting illness or people who live with permanent pain. I do not question your right to argue for voluntary euthanasia, nor do I question your ordeal or your suffering. I cannot possibly understand your individual circumstances. However, my own lived experience—without such legislation—is that pressure can be put on older members of our community when entering the acute health system such that they feel that maybe they shouldn't be asking for a second opinion. I've had that life experience with my own mother. I know what it's like when you're told: 'There's nothing more we can do for you. We don't believe that surgery is going to give you quality of life.' My mother was able to demand that she have a second opinion. That second opinion was still that the chances of surgery were limited, but that surgeon was in fact prepared to proceed with the surgery that she needed. We were fortunate at that time, because my mother had her faculties; she was strong and opinionated. The surgery did take place and my mother had an additional 3½ years to enjoy her life, her grandchildren and her great-grandchildren. With the overseas experience, as I will talk about further, there is not always that option for people.

We've heard many of my colleagues talk about palliative care—and that there should not be a choice between palliative care and end of life, or assisted suicide. The reality is that we have the power in this place—and governments have failed over too many years—to adequately resource palliative care so that people have the support that they need, whether that's in their own home, in an aged-care home or in acute care. What we need to do is not just talk about the need for greater resources; we collectively need to ensure that the government of the day and future governments resource palliative care, because that in itself can assist with ensuring that people have the end of life that they want, with their loved ones. My concern is that legalising voluntary euthanasia and, effectively, allowing the state to legislate to end human life is a fundamentally flawed answer and not an adequate answer in a society where human life should be viewed as paramount. As I said, palliative care needs to be available to people in their homes, in hospices and in aged-care facilities.

In my own home state, in northern Tasmania, we have been fighting for a standalone hospice to assist people with their end-of-life issues so they have the support they need. My colleagues from my home state have not supported that view; they didn't put pressure on the former Labor government to fund such a hospice. So I would like people, instead of just giving the words and talking, to actually walk the walk and ensure that a hospice for northern Tasmania is going to be funded by a future state government.

Quite frankly, until we have adequate services to support all people who are dying, why are we even considering this option? Bioethics professor Margaret Somerville, who has observed voluntary euthanasia in Canada for decades, argues that euthanasia is being used as a cheaper alternative to psychiatric and palliative care. Public policy is not infallible, but often public policy and law changes are in fact flawed. A law that would allow voluntary euthanasia is fraught with potential for abuse and medical malpractice. It's better that voluntary euthanasia does not become law, because if one person's life is extinguished prematurely and wrongly, then the state would be responsible for the killing of that human life. Such laws, as a matter of public policy, are not worth the risk to people's lives.

When considering the necessity and practically of new laws, it's best to look at overseas jurisdictions that have already introduced similar laws and see what has happened with those laws and how they have changed. One may argue that such legislation in those jurisdictions is operating effectively if individuals are being granted their wish to end their life on their terms. However, I argue that the legislation which has been instituted in other jurisdictions is flawed because human life has been extinguished prematurely and without the consent of the person. Effectively, in many jurisdictions the state is killing people where voluntary euthanasia laws have been established.

Belgium and the Netherlands have legislated euthanasia and we have seen the decline from the initial legislation that was introduced there. The Physician-assisted deaths under the euthanasia law in Belgium: a population-based survey study demonstrated that 32 per cent of euthanasia deaths recorded in the Flanders region of Belgium occurred without explicit consent. The research found that this was occurring because the groups were vulnerable and because there had been a change in the way that citizens and the medical profession viewed end-of-life measures since the inception of voluntary euthanasia laws. Many of the people who were euthanised were either terminally ill or suffering from dementia or other neurological diseases. Euthanasia in Belgium and the Netherlands is being used to end life prematurely when in fact voluntary euthanasia is supposed to control the way and conditions in which a person wishes to end their life.

Switzerland has also passed voluntary euthanasia laws. The Swiss statistics office reported that there were 965 reported assisted suicide deaths in 2015, up from 742 in 2014 and 86 in 2000. The number of assisted suicide deaths in Switzerland nursing homes via the Exit suicide clinic increased from 10 in 2007 to 92 in 2015. They reported that the Swiss association for ethics in medicine found this trend alarming and stated, 'To end lives in this way gives the practice of assisted suicide an institutional seal of approval.' In August 2015 a healthy, depressed British woman died by assisted suicide the Switzerland. In 2014 a Swiss assisted suicide study found that 16 per cent of people who died at Swiss assisted suicide clinics had no underlying illness. In May 2014 the Exit suicide clinic extended assisted suicide to healthy elderly people who lived with physical or psychological pain. In the last two years 77 people suffering from mental health issues and 173 people who had no physical suffering, but who suffered from addiction and loneliness, were euthanised.

The definition of an illness is expanding, with the Netherlands now considering euthanasia for people who are satisfied with their time on earth and have completed their life. The Netherlands legislated for euthanasia in 2001, and now the age of eligibility for euthanasia is 12 years of age. In 2015, Belgium extended the right of voluntary euthanasia to children. In September 2016, a 17-year-old was euthanised and recently it was revealed that two children, aged nine and 11, were euthanised. We must realise that, once someone is diagnosed with depression, they are not in the correct state of mind to make a life-and-death decision. For most people suffering from a terminal illness, depression is likely. If such a bill were to pass in the territories or any state in Australia, there is no reason why the experience of Belgium, the Netherlands and Switzerland would not be replicated. Over time, legislation will be amended, and there is no reason at all that we wouldn't consider that what's happened internationally wouldn't happen in Australia.

I often say that greed and self-interest are almost as certain as the sun rising in the east. The potential for the abuse of voluntary euthanasia laws is stark and is a major concern to any state which is considering legalising voluntary euthanasia. This is not about religion. The concerns I have are shared with agnostics and atheists. This issue is about the ethics of civilisation and the importance of a person's life. We need to balance individual rights with what is in the public interest. It's not in the public interest to provide doctors carte blanche on what constitutes a worthwhile life. Any change to the Hippocratic Oath places a dangerous amount of power in the hands of a third party, taking away individual rights. Where voluntary euthanasia has become law, choice is an illusion and the laws are open to abuse. People have come forth with stories of elder abuse and coercion by family members, doctors and nurses. Some of these stories are about death by lethal injection or assisted suicide. We've all heard the stories about people with disabilities whose quality of life was deemed unworthy by doctors. Voluntary euthanasia and assisted suicide at a state or federal level is not the correct legislative action for a government to take in the care of the terminally ill and the most vulnerable people in our communities.

I admire the contributions to the debate by both sides, whether they support euthanasia or not. This is the place where we should have the opportunity to voice our concerns. My concern is ensuring that we are protective of those who are most vulnerable in our communities and that we continue to value the sanctity of the life of every Australian.