Growing numbers demand right to die, a call that can’t be ignored
BEFORE last year’s Victorian election I predicted in this newspaper that the Australian Sex Party’s Fiona Patten would win a seat in the Legislative Council. This occurred and the feisty Ms Patten is now one of those Upper House MPs who hold the balance of power.
With the Sex Party not standing in this month’s NSW election there is another minor party that deserves attention.
Formed nationally in 2013, the Voluntary Euthanasia Party (NSW) has endorsed Shayne Higson as its lead candidate for election to the NSW Legislative Council on March 28, 2015. Higson began advocating for medically assisted dying legislation after her mother’s harrowing death from a brain tumour in 2012.
The Voluntary Euthanasia Party is keen to draw attention to the fact that last month the Canadian Supreme Court unanimously overturned a 20-year ban on physician-assisted suicide. The Court agreed that rational adults who cannot tolerate the physical or mental suffering caused by an incurable disease or disability should have the choice of asking a doctor to help them to die.
The court suspended the effect of the ruling for 12 months. This gives the conservative Canadian Government, which argued against the decision, the chance to craft a new law. When it does, Canada will join The Netherlands, Switzerland, Luxemburg and Belgium, as well as several US states, in allowing mentally competent, hopelessly ill individuals the right to receive medical assistance to end their lives.
Last year, 84 per cent of surveyed Canadians agreed that “a doctor should be able to help someone end their life if the person is a competent adult who is terminally ill, suffering unbearably and repeatedly asks for assistance to die.
In Australia, we have had no such court case and the Australian Medical Association is vigorously opposed to voluntary euthanasia. But we do have very similar levels of public support for medical aid in dying.
In eight national polls in the past 20 years, popular support for voluntary assisted dying has increased from just under 70 per cent to more than 80 per cent. These levels of support are very similar, regardless of gender, age, political persuasion or religion.
A Newspoll survey in 2012 showed that 88 per cent of Anglicans and 77 per cent of Catholics agreed that a doctor should be allowed to meet a request from a hopelessly ill patient for help to die. Support from Greens, Labor and Coalition voters runs at 88 per cent, 84 per cent and 82 per cent respectively.
Despite this, all efforts to pass legislation allowing medically assisted dying in Australia have so far failed.
In NSW in 2013, a Bill to legalise assisted dying was defeated in the Legislative Council by 23 to 13. And in Tasmania last year a government-supported Bill lost by one vote in the Lower House.
These votes were “conscience votes, theoretically unrestrained by party policy or leadership and allowing members of Parliament to vote according to their own moral, ethical, or religious beliefs. The most remarkable fact about these votes was that not one Coalition member voted in favour. If they are at all representative of their electors, then more than 70 per cent of them should have voted “yes. However, research shows that party membership still remains the most important influence on conscience votes and that MPs generally vote with their party colleagues.
Yet with the exception of some other minor parties in Australia only the Greens support voluntary euthanasia as part of their official party policy. Regrettably, there is no indication that either the Coalition or the ALP will adopt such a position any time soon.
In 2013, in response to this failure on the part of the big parties, a group in Canberra founded the Voluntary Euthanasia Party and nominated six candidates for the Senate election that year.
Last year, the VEP contested the Victorian election and, although itself unsuccessful, its preferences helped the Sex Party to win an Upper House seat. As was made clear in her maiden speech last month, Fiona Patten intends to act quickly to refer a voluntary euthanasia bill to the Victorian Law Reform Commission.
In the election on March 28, the VEP is standing 21 candidates for the NSW upper house. Shayne Higson says that the recent Canadian court decision “makes us all the more determined to raise assisted dying as a major election issue.
To send a clear message to the major parties, Higson hopes citizens will Vote 1 above the line for the VEP in the NSW Legislative Council. “Now is the time to make a difference here in Australia and the NSW state election is a significant step, she says.
Former president of Dying with Dignity NSW, Richard Mills, who is also a VEP candidate in the NSW election, points out that although Christians generally are very supportive of voluntary assisted dying law reform, church hierarchies are not. Similarly, while a substantial proportion of doctors are in favour, the Australian Medical Association is definitely not.
The churches and the AMA are powerful opponents and governments are reluctant to take on a fight over an issue that does not seem to them to be a vote changer.
But for the vast majority of voters, the fundamental issue is that of choice. No one is obliged to use an assisted dying law or to participate in its administration. Patients who seek medical help to die must act voluntarily and there is no suggestion of any mandatory involvement by doctors or nurses if they do not wish to participate in helping a patient to die.
The position of the VEP, and the majority of those who vote for the Coalition and the ALP, is that, as it’s your life and your death, it should be your choice. It is as simple as that.
In Australia all political parties need to understand that they can no longer ignore this important if sometimes sensitive issue.
Emeritus Professor of History and Politics at Griffith University, Ross Fitzgerald is the author of 36 books, including ‘My Name is Ross : An Alcoholic’s Journey’.
The Weekend Australian, March 14-15, 2015, Inquirer, p 24