LIFE ISSUES: by Paul RussellNews Weekly
Tasmanian euthanasia bill defeated... for now
, November 9, 2013
After 10 hours of gruelling and emotionally-charged debate, the latest euthanasia and assisted suicide bill in Tasmania was defeated 13 votes to 11 in the state parliament’s lower house on the evening of Thursday, October 17.
The Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill 2013 had been foreshadowed for more than two years. It had been the subject of a consultation (of sorts) in March this year, and then suddenly introduced on the last day of the winter sitting, providing only a fortnight’s effective notice of the debate.
This was strategically astute on the part of the proposers, Tasmania’s Labor Premier Lara Giddings and the state’s deputy premier, Greens leader Nick McKim. Their support wing, the Tasmanian Dying with Dignity group, most likely had already planned the bill, as well as their talking points and media strategy, well in advance of the bill’s introduction.
The bill itself was far and away the largest of its kind that Australia has seen so far, running to something like 52 pages. But its expansiveness did little to change the nature of this type of legislation. It was irredeemably flawed and could not protect people from abuse. Certainly, some MPs may have been swayed by the weight of paper and the verbiage; but the bill, if passed, would have posed a considerable danger to vulnerable Tasmanians.
A research paper by two academics from the University of Tasmania, Ms Hannah Graham, an associate lecturer in criminology and sociology, and Dr Jeremy Prichard, a lecturer in criminology and criminal law, roundly criticised the March 2013 discussion paper circulated by Giddings and McKim.
The academics’ paper also examined the record of euthanasia and assisted suicide laws in Belgium, the Netherlands and the American state of Oregon. They concluded that people had every reason to be deeply concerned about the operation of the laws in those places. However, their warning was dismissed by Premier Giddings as “scaremongering”.
On the morning that the debate commenced, the Law Society of Tasmania delivered an 11-page criticism of the bill, citing 19 distinct problems and going so far as to suggest that the bill was unworkable in its current form. The Law Society made it clear that it had no ethical or moral position on the bill at all, and was simply evaluating the bill in an objective fashion.
An additional and irrefutable submission was lodged with MPs by members of the rights-based disability group, Lives Worth Living. They challenged the bill’s treatment of disability and clearly identified how the bill was likely to discriminate against people living with disability.
The parliamentary debate itself was long, gruelling and emotionally charged. For the most part, it was conducted with respect and due deference. However, the normally, respectful chamber turned sour on two distinct occasions. Liberal MPs Rene Hidding and Michael Ferguson are well known for their socially conservative dispositions and, along with a few others, seen as the leaders in the chamber on such matters. As each rose to speak, they were constantly interrupted and aggressively challenged by Giddings and McKim, so much so that at times the atmosphere of the chamber was more like that of an outdoor political rally than of a parliamentary debate.
Another strong and vocal Liberal opponent of the bill, Jacquie Petrusma MP, spoke lucidly and with vast experience about the risks that the phenomenon of elder abuse held for elderly Tasmanians if the bill was passed.
As no one was prepared to contradict this important point, she was able to deliver her speech in relative quiet. However, Jacquie Petrusma was to face a mean-spirited challenge of a different kind during the second debating session when, extremely ill, she was refused a voting pair by the Premier Giddings and had to stay in the chamber, in significant difficulty, for the entire debate — just to ensure that her vote was counted.
A number of MPs referred to the high volume of mail they received from constituents, both for and against the Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill 2013. One of them disclosed that the ratio of mail was four-to-one against the bill. This made a mockery of the claim, in a poll released by Dying with Dignity only days earlier, that 80 per cent of Tasmanians supported the bill.
The final parliamentary vote on the bill was 13 MPs against and 11 in favour of the bill. However, it should be noted that the Speaker of the House of Assembly, the Hon. Michael Polley MP, was himself on the floor of the chamber and not in the Speaker’s chair when the vote was taken. Had he been in his chair the vote would have been tied at 12:12, after which Polley could have negated the bill on his casting vote.
The ratio of 13 to 11 looks like a victory by two votes, but it was really only one vote separating the winners and losers.
A win? Yes, but too close for comfort.
Unfortunately, like Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator, the euthanasia bill will be back.
Paul Russell is founder and director of the Australian network, HOPE: Preventing Euthanasia & Assisted Suicide www.noeuthanasia.org.au, and vice-chairman of the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition (EPC) International. He blogs at http://blog.noeuthanasia.org.au