Home - Claire Moore - Labor Senator for Queensland

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

Senator MOORE (Queensland) (21:54): Many senators have put on record that many people have contacted them with concerns about this piece of legislation, the Restoring Territory Rights (Assisted Suicide Legislation) Bill 2015. Importantly, the thing that upsets me most is there is so much confusion in the community about exactly what this bill before us will cover. That actually upsets me greatly because we know that our community must have a genuine understanding about what is being discussed in this place, particularly when they are so concerned about an issue that they have taken the time to contact their parliamentarians.

The bill itself is very short and it's very clear. It has very straightforward objectives-four things:

The objects of this Act are:

(a) to reduce Commonwealth interference with the laws of the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory; and

(b) to facilitate competitive federalism in law-making;

and I know that particular quote is straight from Senator Leyonhjelm-

(c) to recognise the right of the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory to legislate for assisted suicide within their jurisdictions; and

(d) to repeal the Euthanasia Laws Act 1997 the enactment of which was inimical to the objects stated in paragraphs (a) to (c).

When I've responded to people who've contacted me with an understanding that this is what this bill refers to, they are often quite disappointed because they have very strong views about the issue of euthanasia. They are either strongly supportive and want it to happen or they are deeply opposed and they do not want to have euthanasia in our community under any circumstances.

But that is not what the debate is about in our parliament tonight. It's actually about what those objectives say. It's ensuring that the citizens of the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory have the right to expect their elected representatives to have the power to develop, debate and legislate on the issue of euthanasia if that is on their program. The reason we need this piece of legislation goes back to 1995, when the then parliament of the Northern Territory actually passed a piece of legislation which was incredibly innovative at the time and caused great discussion because it was the first time any jurisdiction in Australia had actually passed such a piece of legislation. It was called the Rights of the Terminally Ill Act 1995. It came into effect on 1 July 1996, and people remember that there was great interest. This was as a result of a very open and very longstanding debate. The core issues of that debate remain largely unchanged now, over 20 years later.

Read what was actually debated in the Northern Territory in 1995 and then here in this parliament in June 1996 with the bill introduced by Mr Kevin Andrews under the title Euthanasia Laws Bill 1996 to override that piece of legislation which was enacted in the Northern Territory. When you read the passionate debates from the Northern Territory and, later, in this place, you will understand that the issues at play are very similar to those which we've heard in many contributions on this piece of legislation this evening. People care very strongly about the issues of euthanasia. That's why the introduction of the bill by Mr Andrews was the first time that the federal parliament actually did intrude, take over and, absolutely, as said by Senator Leyonhjelm in introducing the bill, interfere with the laws of the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory. After many, many hours of deep debate, that piece of legislation, the Euthanasia Laws Bill 1996, was passed in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, which effectively overrode the only existing piece of legislation about euthanasia in our nation.

Now, over 25 years later, we have a piece of legislation here which is seeking to allow people in the two territories to have the same rights as people who live in our states on this particular issue. What happened here in that debate over 20 years ago is that the laws were changed. An element was placed into the self-governance laws for both the Northern Territory and the ACT which explicitly precluded them from having the right to debate issues around euthanasia.

So what we have before us is the opportunity, as parliamentarians, to weigh up whether it's time to ensure that there is equal opportunity around all of our country so that elected representatives can look at this incredibly sensitive, incredibly important and incredibly contested issue of euthanasia. One thing we know is that these debates will continue. Since the bill was introduced in the Northern Territory-it had been enacted for only a number of months and then it was overridden by our national parliament-there have been many debates amongst all states except my own-Queensland-which is considering having a discussion in its parliament.

I believe that there have been over 32 attempts at reform of the legislation around euthanasia since 1995. Nothing we do here tonight will stop the desire for people in our nation to debate euthanasia. I think it's important that not only the people who have been writing to us with their concerns understand but, importantly, that parliamentarians understand what is before us. This is not a debate around euthanasia, although many people have expressed their views and their concerns about it. That is their right but that's not what is before the parliament for consideration.

One point made was that the parliamentarians in 1996, when they were given the opportunities to debate the Northern Territory rules, were allowed to have open debate both in the House of Representatives and in the Senate. There was no attempt to stop the debate. In fact, it was actively encouraged. And, after a full debate in the House of Representatives, the bill came to the Senate and again was referred to a committee. There was major input from the community-over 1,000 submissions I believe-and then the opportunity was given to the Senate to actually pass the legislation.

Whatever we do in this debate in the Senate around the bill, I really hope that it will be given a firm opportunity in the other place to allow the process of democracy to continue so we won't again just have a private member's bill brought forward, causes a great deal of concern and discussion and then goes nowhere. People have invested a lot in this debate. They have considered their positions and shared them with everybody in this place. So it is important that there is an opportunity for the bill-in whatever form it takes, with whatever amendments-to be fully considered in the House of Representatives, so that the people who have been engaged in this debate, the people who have taken the time to express their opinions to their parliamentarians, will know that their parliament, the federal parliament, actually looked at the legislation.

We in the federal parliament do not have the authority to debate euthanasia; it is not within our purview. In fact, as we know, the only reason we have it before us now is because the parliament overrode territory legislation; otherwise, it would not be part of the federal responsibility. We have heard many people express their views and that is important. But where this fits in the overall debate is not an issue that can be controlled or determined in most cases in every state in Australia. It cannot be determined by the federal government getting involved.

Now, after all this time, we have one state that has legislated for their own particular purposes, Victoria, to have a form of euthanasia. They call it something different because the definitions change but nonetheless there is now a state that has gone through the process at the state level of debating and developing the legislation and then legislating. In this parliament we have no ability to interfere in what happened in that process. We can only do that with territories. And that is something that is really important for people to understand and that is the intent of the legislation before us.

I put on record and I have been on record many times saying this: I strongly support the ability of people to make informed choices where they have the opportunity to do so. And when we hear the arguments that are raging around this place about whether euthanasia is in fact something that should be supported or not, and you read the debates that happened in 1995, 1996 and more than 30 times since then, there won't be much difference. People will have strongly held beliefs. They'll quote similar exercises that have happened elsewhere; they'll quote things that have happened overseas. That will be part of the debate. We can have that, but people in the territories at this stage cannot.

I want to address one more element. This is something that truly infuriates me, and I want to put it on the record. It is the confected debate, which was had in 1995 and 1996 and in all the times it has been debated in the states and again in this place today, that puts up some kind of false contest between discussions around euthanasia and discussions around palliative care. I have worked in the area of palliative care and end-of-life care for more than 30 years. I have been involved in various organisations where we actually value, support and celebrate the amazing abilities of people across professional backgrounds who have worked to develop a very positive range of palliative care situations in our nation. When you read the discussions in 1996 in this place, there were many promises made at that time saying, 'We will make sure there will be strong palliative care available for all Australians, so there won't be any need for any other options to be put before communities when thinking of end of life.' We have failed dismally in that space-not because people do not have the skills, but because having strong, accessible palliative care to serve the needs for everyone who needs it has never been effectively resourced at either the federal level or any state level. That argument has been put in the debate tonight, and it will be put again. I know that every time there is a debate around euthanasia, it will come up.

It is not a real contest. There must be fully resourced, accessible palliative care services in our community for everyone who needs it. I think that's something on which we can all agree. But, please, don't use that as an argument that there should not be any further discussion around euthanasia. In terms of where we go in this debate, we must make sure we understand that there are a range of needs, a range of issues that should be considered. But for today's debate, it's exactly what we have on the record. I put this on the record: it is about Commonwealth interference with the laws of the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory, and to recognise the right of the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory to legislate for assisted suicide within their jurisdictions.

One other element in this bill is this: Senator Leyonhjelm has put in, as one of the core objects, to repeal the Euthanasia Laws Act 1997, the enactment of which was inimical to the objects stated in paragraphs (a) to (c). This bill seeks to make sure that act is repealed and that it will no longer have the ability to colour the debate on this very important issue for states and territories in Australia.