Australia

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The Parliament of Victoria passed the Voluntary Assisted Dying Act in 2017

Victoria's Voluntary Assisted Dying Act (2017) has now come into effect. Including 68 safeguards, the Act gives Victorians with a terminal illness another option to consider at end of life, if it is of interest to them. As overseas evidence shows, the possible choice of voluntary assisted dying provides comfort and relief for the terminally ill and their loved ones. It demonstrates that the State respects the wider range of alternatives that dying patients may choose to pursue when faced with intolerable and unrelievable suffering.

The Act contains what is arguably the world's most detailed and carefully laid out safeguards.

Key aspects of the provisions are:

  • The person must be 18 years or over; and
  • Be ordinarily resident in Victoria and an Australian citizen or permanent resident; and
  • Have decision-making capacity in relation to voluntary assisted dying; and
  • Be diagnosed with an incurable disease, illness or medical condition that:
    • is advanced, progressive and will cause death; and
    • is expected to cause death within 12 months; and
    • is causing suffering that cannot be relieved in a manner the person deems tolerable; and
  • Doctors and other healthcare workers are not permitted to raise assisted dying — only to respond to formal patient requests.
  • The person must make three formal requests, the second of which must be written and witnessed by two independent people.
  • The person must make the request themselves. Nobody else is authorised to make the request, and the request cannot be made via an advance care directive.
  • Ordinarily, the minimum timeframe between first request and opportunity to take the medication is ten days.
  • The person must maintain decisional capacity at all three requests.
  • Two doctors must reach independent assessments that the person qualifies.
  • Only doctors who have completed specialist training for voluntary assisted dying may participate.
  • Any healthcare worker may decline to participate for any reason, without penalty.
  • A prescription dispensed for the purpose of voluntary assisted dying must be kept in a locked box and any unused portion returned to the pharmacy after death.
  • The person must self-administer the medication; except if the person is unable to, a doctor may administer. An independent witness is required if the doctor administers.
  • Establishment of an authority to receive assisted dying reports, to assess reports, and to refer unacceptable cases to disciplinary or prosecutorial authorities.
  • For Parliament to review summary reports; twice in the first two years and annually thereafter; a formal review at five years.
     

More information about the Act and how to access voluntary assisted dying are available from Health Victoria.

 

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Full list of safeguards in Victoria's voluntary assisted dying framework

Access

  1. Voluntary
  2. Limited to 18 years and over
  3. Residency requirement [Victorian resident and Australian citizen or permanent resident]
  4. Limited to those with decision-making capacity
  5. Must be diagnosed with condition that meets restrictive set of criteria [advanced, progressive and will cause death]
  6. End of life is clearly defined [death expected within weeks or months, not more than 12 months]
  7. End of life condition combined with requirement for suffering
  8. All of the eligibility criteria must be met
  9. Mental illness alone does not satisfy the eligibility criteria
  10. Disability alone does not satisfy the eligibility criteria

Request

  1. Must be initiated by the person themselves
  2. No substitute decision makers allowed
  3. Cannot be included as part of an advance directive
  4. Health practitioner prohibited from raising voluntary assisted dying
  5. Person must make three separate requests
  6. Must have written request [witnessed in the presence of a medical practitioner]
  7. Two independent witnesses to request [exclusions for family members, beneficiaries, paid providers]
  8. Specified time must elapse between requests [first and third requests must be at least 10 days apart with exception when death imminent]
  9. Additional time required to elapse between steps of completing process [second assessment and third request must be at least one day apart
  10. Must use independent accredited interpreter [if an interpreter is required]
  11. No obligation to proceed, may withdraw at any time

Assessment

  1. Eligibility and voluntariness assessed by medical practitioners
  2. Must be two separate and independent assessments by medical practitioners
  3. Assessing medical practitioners must have high level of training/experience
  4. Assessing medical practitioners must have undertaken prescribed training [to identify capacity and abuse issues]
  5. Requirement to properly inform person of diagnosis, prognosis and treatment options, palliative care, etc, [by both assessing medical practitioners]
  6. Referral for further independent assessment if there is doubt about decision-making capacity
  7. Coordinating medical practitioner must confirm in writing that they are satisfied that all of the requirements have been met

Medication management

  1. Person required to appoint contact person who will return medication if unused
  2. Medical practitioner must obtain a permit to prescribe the medication to the person
  3. Medication must be labelled for use, safe handling, storage and disposal
  4. Pharmacist also required to inform the person about administration and obligations
  5. Medication must be stored in a locked box

Administration

  1. Medication must be self-administered [except in exceptional circumstances]
  2. If physical incapacity, medical practitioner may administer
  3. Additional certification required if administered by medical practitioner
  4. Witness present if medical practitioner administers

Practitioner protections

  1. Health practitioner may conscientiously object to participating
  2. Explicit protection for health practitioners who are present at time of person self-administering
  3. Explicit protection for health practitioners acting in good faith without negligence within the legislation
  4. Mandatory notification by any health practitioner if another health practitioner acting outside legislation
  5. Voluntary notification by a member of the public of a health practitioner acting outside legislation

Mandatory reporting

  1. Reporting forms set out in legislation
  2. Reporting mandated at a range of points and from a range of participants to support accuracy
  3. First assessment reported [to Board]
  4. Second assessment reported [to Board]
  5. Final certification for authorisation reported [to Board, incorporates written declaration and contact person nomination]
  6. Additional form reported [to Board] if medication administered by medical practitioner
  7. Prescription authorisation reported by DHHS [to Board]
  8. Dispensing of medication reported [to Board]
  9. Return of unused medication to pharmacist reported [to Board]
  10. Death notification data reported [to BDM and collected by Board]

Offences

  1. New offence to induce a person, through dishonesty or undue influence, to request voluntary assisted dying
  2. New offence to induce a person, through dishonesty or undue influence, to self-administer the lethal dose of medication
  3. New offence to falsify records related to voluntary assisted dying
  4. New offence of failing to report on voluntary assisted dying
  5. Existing criminal offences for the crimes of murder and aiding and abetting suicide continue to apply to those who act outside the legislation

Oversight

  1. Guiding principles included in legislation
  2. Board is an independent statutory body
  3. Board functions described in legislation
  4. Board reviews compliance
  5. Board reviews all cases of [and each attempt to access] voluntary assisted dying
  6. Board has referral powers for breaches
  7. Board also has quality assurance and improvement functions
  8. Board has expanded multidisciplinary membership
  9. Board reports to publicly [to Parliament every six months for first two years, thereafter annually
  10. Five year review of the legislation
  11. Guidelines to be developed for supporting implementation

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Palliative care specialist advances incoherent reasons to oppose VAD.

Director of Palliative Care at Cabrini Health, Associate Professor Natasha Michael, yesterday published an opinion piece in The Age newspaper. In it, she rails against Victoria’s voluntary assisted dying (VAD) Act which comes into effect on 19th June. Instead she articulates an arrogant and prescriptive view of what Australians should and shouldn’t be allowed, consistent with Catholic dogma, as I uncover.

Michael, along with fellow devout Catholic Dr Stephen Parnis, ‘tirelessly’ opposed the introduction of Victoria’s VAD law. They continue to actively oppose it, and her opinion piece reveals her spurious ‘reasoning’.

The Catholic Healthcare brick wall

More than half of all palliative care services in Australia are delivered through Catholic institutions, of which Cabrini Health is one arm. These institutions have determined that VAD will not be available in any of their facilities or via any of their services, even if the individual patient and doctor are supportive.

This arbitrarily limits access to lawful choice by citizens.

Confected ‘institutional conscience’

I say ‘arbitrarily’ because ‘institutional conscience’ is a confection: it doesn’t really exist. Only real persons have conscience. The fabricated dictates of any institution — presented as ‘moral rules’ — extinguish the actual real conscience of those who exist within it: at least, those whose conscience differs.

The upshot is that a specific cohort of religious, celibate men in Rome dictate whether Australian citizens can or can’t obtain lawful healthcare services from half the service providers.

So let’s examine what the institutional ‘conscience’ has to say.

Disgraceful framing in headline

We can’t let voluntary assisted dying negate our commitment to the ill”, Michael’s article headline screams.

Firstly, VAD is not available to the “ill”. It’s available only to those with terminal illness and intolerable suffering, according to 68 criteria.

Secondly, Michael invokes a false dichotomy of “negating a commitment”. VAD does not “negate a commitment”. Indeed, to fail to hear and respect a persistent, fully informed and tested request for VAD that meets all the criteria is to negate palliative care’s commitment to honour the patient’s deeply held values, beliefs and decisions.

Medical-coloured glasses

The introduction of voluntary assisted dying legislation in Victoria on June 19 will remind us of the occasional failure of medicine,” Michael says.

That’s it. The patient’s death is a failure of medicine, as though a person’s death is a medical event rather than a deeply human and private one of personhood.

It also flags the common but immature medical assumption that “death = failure”. Death is inevitable, not a “failure”. The key question about death for people with terminal illness is “how”, and Michael presumes to prescribe the “how”: being receptacles for interventions that she and her colleagues provide.

Let’s be clear. Many people are helped enormously by palliative care. That’s a great credit to the discipline’s specialists.

However, as Palliative Care Australia acknowledges, even the best palliative care can’t relieve all excruciating, debilitating and humiliating refractory symptoms.

Michael’s answer to this sometimes “failure” of medical interventions? Deliver more interventions, whether the patient considers them consistent with his own values, beliefs and circumstances or not.

They’re very heavily medical-coloured glasses indeed.

Three faux ‘threats’

Michael then invokes three faux ‘threats’ supposedly caused by lawful VAD in Victoria.

Faux threat 1: “Validating suicide as an acceptable choice”.

Michael exposes her own bias here: that all self-hastening of deaths are the same — that there is no meaningful difference between a dying person who is fully informed and whose rational choice for a peaceful assisted death has been extensively tested, with the violent and impulsive action of a person suffering a temporary, resolvable personal crisis, be it mental illness, substance abuse, intimate relationship breakdown or other circumstance.

Michael is pretty much on her own here. Most Australian doctors make a clear distinction between these very different contexts.

Faux threat 2: “accepting substandard medical care by supporting the lack of rigour in defining [VAD] eligibility”.

Michael overlooks that there is a major lack of rigour in existing, lawful end-of-life choices.

There are no statutory requirements for a patient to refuse medical treatment, even if the treatment would be life-saving.

There are no statutory requirements for the voluntary refusal of food and fluids in order to die, either.

More critically, despite terminal sedation being a common end-of-life medical practice but ethically problematic (including that it may hasten death and may not alleviate intractable symptoms), not only is there no statutory requirement for its practice, but neither the Australian Medical Association nor Palliative Care Australia have official guidelines on its practice.

Thus, in railing against the staggering 68 standards of practice prescribed in Victoria’s VAD law — vastly more than any other in the world — as a “lack of rigour”, Michael makes no mention of three other major life-end choices that have no such standards, including her own discipline’s terminal sedation.

Doctor, heal thyself (and thine own systems).

Faux threat 3: “introducing into the healthcare curriculum the intentional ending of life as acceptable medical treatment”

Michael creates a misleading impression here. By referring to ‘curriculum’ you might think that all medical students would have to undergo training on how to end lives, or be ‘indoctrinated’ to accept VAD. That is not true.

To be able to prescribe lethal medication under Victoria’s legislation, the doctor must undergo additional training in relation to that procedure. Doctors will only receive the training if they self-nominate for it: it’s not compulsory.

If, by ‘curriculum’ Michael means only “VAD might be discussed” in medical school, then she would have to articulate why termination of pregnancy (to which the Catholic church objects) should not be discussed, either. Nor the transfusion of blood, since many Jehovah’s Witnesses object to the procedure.

Own failure in palliative care principles

Nowhere in her opinion piece does Michael acknowledge that the patient may deeply hold values and beliefs that validly favour VAD. Thus, Michael offends the first principle of palliative care which is to make the patient the centre of care and to honour as much as possible the patient’s values, beliefs, attitudes and wishes.

Indeed, in her conclusion, Michael states that palliative care “remains committed to the ongoing accompaniment of our patients. Not abandoning them” and which is “the only plausible method of compassion and care.”

This surely is the most egregious and arrogant self-interest of all: patients must subject themselves to being accompanied by palliative care staff and their ‘interventions’ whether they want more or not.

On the contrary, to fail to hear and respect a genuine, informed and persistent request for a peaceful hastened death from a dying patient for whom this accords most firmly with his deeply held values and beliefs, is to abandon the patient.

Conclusion

Michael is of course entitled to her personal stance, and I celebrate her right to hold her views: for herself.

However, her ‘requirement’ that all Victorians be denied access to an option that four out of five believe to be moral — and instead subject themselves to interventions administered by Michael and her colleagues — reveals an unattractive arrogance.

It’s a shame that Catholic bioethics doesn’t teach more about reflection, especially as to whether one’s own beliefs ought to dictate and limit the choices of others with equally firmly held, though different, values.

In the meantime, Victorians are pawns to the tyranny of the Vatican as to whether there is a local healthcare facility that will hear and examine their request for a peaceful, assisted death in the face of terminal illness.

In many places, there won’t be.


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Branka van der Linden on the "HOPE" website.

HOPE’s Director, Branka van der Linden, is at it again, foisting more misleading information about voluntary assisted dying (VAD) on unwilling members of Parliament. I expose the rot and provide some background on Mrs van der Linden.

Van der Linden’s latest email to all WA MPs states:

Subject: WA Report relies on troubling Belgian study

 
[MP Salutation] --

Did you know that a study showing that one person in Belgium is euthanised every three days without their explicit consent also found that:

  • in more than 77 per cent of cases, the decision was not discussed with the patient;
  • in more than half of cases, the patient had never expressed a desire for their life to be ended; and
  • in more than half of the cases, the reason given was because killing the patient was the wish of the family?

 
Did you know that the WA majority report cited this study as evidence of assisted suicide and euthanasia reducing the incidence of unlawful activity?

Warm regards,

Branka van der Linden
Director, HOPE

 
Van der Linden’s method is to create an impression of calumny against VAD law reform. She uses a nice PR formula of three bullet points per communication. With repetition. It’s a method I expressly warned the WA Parliament to watch out for in my submission to its inquiry. The growing list of emails is now starting to look like ‘harassment’.

So let’s look at van der Linden’s claims — again. She’s talking about non-voluntary euthanasia (NVE) — again.

In her email to MPs, she complains that the WA majority report on end-of-life choices cited the study as evidence of the NVE rate reducing when VAD is legalised.

Well, the WA majority report formed that correct conclusion because that’s precisely what the cited study reported: drops in the NVE rates in both the Netherlands and Belgium after their euthanasia Acts came into effect in 2002.

While concerns ought to be expressed about the deliberate hastening of death without an explicit request from the patient with a view to improving knowledge and practices, it’s not caused by VAD laws as van der Linden desperately tries to imply.

Here are highly relevant things the cited study’s authors had to say, but van der Linden astonishingly ignores:

“The use of life-ending drugs without explicit patient request are not confined to countries where physician-assisted death is legal.”; and

“[NVE’s] occurrence has not risen since the legalisation of euthanasia in Belgium. On the contrary, the rate dropped from 3.2% in 1998 to 1.8% in 2007. In the Netherlands, the rate dropped slightly after legalization, from 0.7% to 0.4%” [The Belgian rate was 1.7% in a more recent replication of the research.]; and

The NVE cases found in the study “in reality resembles more intensified pain alleviation with a ‘double effect’, and death in many cases was not hastened.”

But let’s not let the facts get in the way of a good story. Van der Linden’s recent emails about VAD to MPs reveal astonishing ignorance and a willingness to overlook critical evidence contrary to her position, contained in the very source she cites.

The superficiality of her cherry-picking is kind of embarrassing: she holds an arts/law degree from Australian National University, so you’d expect more intelligent engagement.

It begs the question: who is Branka van der Linden? The “HOPE” website reveals little if anything.
 

Who is Branka van der Linden?

Branka Van der Linden is the current Director of anti-VAD website “HOPE (Preventing euthanasia and assisted suicide)”. HOPE is an initiative of the Australian Family Association, a Catholic lobby group established by Australia’s most famous lay Catholic, B. A. Santamaria.

HOPE’s founding Director and van der Linden’s predecessor, was Mr Paul Russell, the former Senior Officer for Family and Life at the Catholic Archdiocese of Adelaide.

It turns out that Branka van der Linden (née Seselja) is a sister of Catholic ACT Senator Zed Seselja who voted against David Leyonhjelm's recent Restoring Territory Rights (to legislate on VAD) Bill. But there’s more. Far more.

Branka, who attended Catholic St Clair’s College primary school and Padua Catholic High School, both in the ACT, is a “senior lawyer” at the Truth Justice and Healing Council, which provides services to the Australian Catholic Bishop’s Conference and Catholic Religious Australia in relation to the Catholic Church’s response to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

She’s advisory legal counsel for the lay Catholic St Vincent de Paul Society Canberra/Goulburn Territory Council. (And good on her for supporting this philanthropic work.)

She and her husband Shawn represent (or at least represented) the Australian Catholic Marriage and Family Council, and were representatives of the Catholic Archdiocese of Canberra & Goulburn on the National Family Pilgrimage to the (Catholic) World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia in 2015.

Husband Shawn has been described by the church as a “loyal Catholic servant” for nine years of service as the director of CatholicLIFE at the Catholic Archdiocese of Canberra and Goulburn.

And as if this weren’t clear enough, a sample of Branka’s Facebook Likes is equally informative:

A sample of Branka van der Linden’s Facebook Likes

  • Archbishop Anthony Fisher (Catholic)
  • Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila (Catholic)
  • Archbishop Mark Coleridge (Catholic)
  • Bishop Robert Barron (Catholic)
  • Marist College Canberra Faith Formation (Catholic)
  • St Thomas the Apostle Kambah (Catholic)
  • Campion College (Catholic)
  • Teaching Catholic Kids
  • Ascension (Catholic Church)
  • CathFamily
  • St Therese of Lixieux (Catholic)
  • Dominican Sisters of Saint Cecilia in Australia (Catholic)
  • Fusion Youth Group (Catholic)
  • St Clare’s College (Catholic)
  • Marist Canberra Football Club (Catholic)
  • Light To The Nations (Catholic)
  • Catholic Voices USA
  • Centre for Faith Enrichment (Catholic)
  • World Meeting of Families 2015 (Catholic)
  • Quidenham Carmelite Monastery (Catholic)
  • Denver Catholic
  • Catholic Mission – Canberra & Goulburn
  • XT3 (Catholic youth association)
  • Missionaries of God’s Love Darwin (Catholic)
  • Marist College Canberra (Catholic)
  • Life, Marriage & Family Office (Catholic)
  • Infant Jesus Parish, Morley (Catholic)
  • MGL Priests and Brothers (Catholic)
  • Catholic Mission – Sydney, Broken Bay, Parramatta
  • Youth Mission Team Australia (Catholic)
  • Summer School of Evangelisation – Bathurst (Catholic)
  • Missionaries of God’s Live Sisters (Catholic)
  • Sisterhood National Catholic Women’s Movement
  • My Family My Faith (Catholic)
  • Catholic Talk
  • The Catholic Weekly
  • The Catholic Leader
  • Mercatornet (Catholic blog site)
  • BioEdge (Catholic blog site)

It’s clear that Branka van der Linden, like her predecessor Paul Russell, is very deeply invested in Catholic tradition. I will be the first to say I firmly believe that is entirely her right.

Yet how curious it is that while repeatedly advancing (secular) misinformation about VAD, Branka van der Linden doesn’t mention her profound religious convictions. It's surprisingly similar to the approach evidenced by Catholic Professor of Ethics, Margaret Somerville; and Catholic (then) Victorian MP Daniel Mulino; and Catholic Editor of The Australian, Paul Kelly (who warmly quotes Mulino); and Catholic director of the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition, Alex Schadenberg...

You get the idea: perhaps there's a pattern?

One possible source of pattern

What was it that the Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, Anthony Fisher, said at the 2011 Catholic Bioethics Conference in relation to opposing the legalisation of VAD?

"The most effective messengers may also vary: bishops, for instance, are not always the best public spokespeople for the Church on such matters."; and

"...the man or woman in the street ... may well be open to persuasion that permissive laws and practices cannot be effectively narrowed to such circumstances"; and

"We need to research and propose new messages also and carefully consider who should deliver them, where and how."

Nowhere in his address does Fisher propose actually testing whether his calamitous assumptions about VAD are true.

Gosh, another coincidence.

Epilogue

I want to be absolutely clear that I am not using a person’s religious conviction as a reason to dismiss their ideas. That’s called an ad hominem attack: an attack against the person rather than the substance of the argument (even assuming it has any substance to assess).

What I have done here and elsewhere, and I will continue to do, is to expose arguments that are false, misleading, illogical or otherwise unmeritorious on the basis of empirical evidence and reasoning.

It just turns out that organised misinformation against VAD law reform comes from deeply religious circles, and those religious circles often avoid mentioning their religiosity while spreading such nonsense under a ‘veneer of secularism’.

It’s in the public’s interest to understand where most organised misinformation against VAD comes from.


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Victoria has shown what happens at the ballot box to candidates who oppose VAD

Many news outlets are reporting that Victoria's voluntary assisted dying (VAD) Act comes into effect mid-year, and how other Parliaments around the country are likely to implement similar reforms. Moves are afoot in Western Australia, Queensland, NSW and Tasmania, with other jurisdictions to follow. Marshall Perron, former Chief Minister of the Northern Territory and architect of the first VAD law in Australia, has penned a media release to highlight how VAD influenced the Victorian election. The result wasn't pretty for opponents of VAD law reform.

Media release - Marshall Perron

Parliamentarians traditionally shy away from supporting voluntary assisted dying (VAD), believing it is politically toxic to do so. Victoria, under the Andrews government, has changed all that by showing the opposite to be true.

After legislating VAD – Victoria is the first Australian state to do so – Andrews won a thumping victory at the 2018 Victoria State election.

Former NT Chief Minister Marshall Perron said there is a common perception that the political class has not been listening to its constituents. VAD is a classic example.

There were multiple reasons for Victoria’s election result, and VAD was clearly one of them. With unprecedented 80-85% public support, it should be no surprise that Victorian candidates who supported VAD polled more strongly.

In the previous parliament, almost all Liberal members voted against the VAD legislation. The party suffered an average 6.04% swing against it in the State election.

In addition, two of the staunchest Liberal opponents of the VAD bill lost their seats. In the lower house, Robert Clark was tossed out as the Member for Box Hill, a seat he’d comfortably held for a quarter century. In the upper house, Inga Peulich was rejected by voters in South Eastern Metropolitan, a Region she’d represented for three terms.

Dying With Dignity Victoria and Andrew Denton ran targeted campaigns focusing on four electorates – Burwood, Albert Park, Bentleigh and Prahran.  They used Robo calls, advertising, social media and face to face meetings to inform voters about where their candidates stood on VAD.

The Liberal candidates (one a sitting member) in these four electorates all opposed VAD. They suffered an average 10.1% drop in primary votes compared with the average drop in the Liberal vote overall of 6.04%.

The Liberal sitting member lost his seat. In the other three seats the sitting Labor and Greens members, who all supported VAD, were returned with significantly increased votes. The results for these four electorates were, compared to the 2014 election:

  • In Burwood, Liberal member Grahame Watt lost his seat with a 6.47% swing against. Labor candidate and VAD supporter Will Fowles was elected.
  • In Albert Park, Labor member and VAD supporter Martin Foley was returned with a massive 10.17% increase (two party preferred). The Liberal primary vote dropped 10.24%.
  • In Bentleigh, Labor member and VAD supporter Nick Staikos was returned with a massive 11.27% increase. The Liberal primary vote dropped 12.59%.
  • In Prahran, Greens member and VAD supporter Sam Hibbens was returned with a 7.0% increase. The Liberal vote dropped 10.29%.
     

Mr Perron, who introduced the world’s first successful VAD legislation in the Northern Territory in 1995 said candidates can increasingly expect to lose support when they ignore the wishes of the voters they seek to represent.

In a contest tighter than the Victorian election turned out to be, a handful of seats retained or lost on VAD could determine the outcome.

Marshall Perron


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Plenty of misinformation will be advanced to oppose Senator David Leyonhjelm's Restoring Territory Rights Bill.

In 1996 the Northern Territory Rights of the Terminally Ill Act (ROTI) came into effect. Just four people had used the Act when seven months later an Act of the Federal Parliament extinguished the NT law, by cancelling the Territories’ authority to enact it.

This week, the Senate [federal parliament] debates the Restoring Territory Rights (Assisted Suicide Legislation) Bill, sponsored by libertarian Senator David Leyonhjelm. If the Bill passes both houses, the Territories will again have the authority to legislate the matter of assisted dying.

Opponents of lawful assisted dying have been sharpening their knives to ensure that Senator Leyonhjelm’s Bill fails and that Territorians remain second-class citizens. In this post I expose one of the desperate and disgraceful pieces of misinformation opponents use to try and curry fear about law reform.

Opponent signals

There are signals from many quarters that assisted dying opponents are dragging out the tired old argument that indigenous Australians are too fearful of assisted dying to allow reinstatement of the Territories’ legislative authority.

The signals are clear, though so far mostly behind the scenes. Nevertheless, they predict a full onslaught of invalid “fear” claims in the parliamentary debate this week.

Populist beginning of the misinformation

Since the NT ROTI Act there have been ongoing claims that indigenous (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander) Australians are wholly and deeply fearful of assisted dying law. A chief flag-waver of this proposition is Jesuit Priest Father Frank Brennan. He’s not only argued this line repeatedly in public, but promoted it to at least one parliamentary inquiry.

Fr Brennan likes to frame this argument to suggest that it’s uniquely substantive and persuasive, while other highly relevant information is merely “suggestion”.

“There was a suggestion these fears were whipped up by the churches and other conservative groups.” — Fr Brank Brennan

The “indigenous fears” opinion has been widely disseminated by other Catholics, including now-disgraced Fr John Fleming in a paper on behalf of the Catholic Southern Cross Bioethics Institute, and by Mr Paul Russell, Director of “HOPE”, a ginger group established by the Catholic Australian Family Association.

Classic cherry-picking

I’ve called out Mr Russell and others before for cherry-picking information to suit their arguments. And here we are again. In this blog, Mr Russell correctly reports that indigenous NT parliamentarian Mr Wes Lanhupuy voted in favour of the ROTI Act, but dismisses his vote as the result of “pressure”.

What Mr Russell disgracefully omits from his plug is that Mr Lanhupuy was directly involved in the consultation of indigenous communities, and said this in his parliamentary speech:

“The church has been a major voice. … I heard in the community that some of the churches were telling people that they should not support the bill basically because of their religious beliefs. No information whatsoever was given as a reason for that. No information was given whereby people could determine their own beliefs. That was disappointing.” — NT indigenous parliamentarian Mr Wes Lanhupuy (Hansard)

Disgraceful religious prejudice

But there’s more. At the time the federal parliament was debating its Bill to overturn the ROTI Act in 1997, the Senate Legal and Constitutional Legislation Committee conducted a formal investigation and published a Senate report, Consideration of legislation referred to the Committee: Euthanasia Laws Bill 1996. Its 204 pages make interesting reading.

For example, Mr Creed Lovegrove, a former senior Northern Territory public servant leading the Native Affairs Office, reported to the Senate Committee:

“I express my concern, not at the right of certain ideologists to have their say, but at the misrepresentations some were making to people over whom they have an emotional hold. Where this group happens to be Aboriginal, I believe some of the frightening lies they were told about the subject were a psychological and emotional exploitation of them, as blatant as any that has ever occurred in the Territory.” — p 44

…and reported to him by a group of senior and influential Aboriginals:

“They reckon the government is going to round up all the real sick people and those with V.D. and things like that and finish them off.” — p 45

…and on page 44 of the report, the Northern Territory government noted that at least one Aboriginal community wanted to hear the full story about euthanasia, not just the Church story.

Fake news — avoiding healthcare

There were also widespread claims that indigenous Northern Territorians were avoiding presenting to medical centres for healthcare for fear of being euthanased. However, the Senate report noted (p 52) that the claim was controversial, and that the Northern Territory government had provided statistics to show no significant decrease in presentations for treatment.

In a classic opponent manoeuvre when the data yet again didn’t fit the story, it was then claimed (p 52) that future data could show a decrease in presentations.

Morally bankrupt argument

But that’s a morally bankrupt argument. You don’t deny Jack the right to drive a car because Jill has an ill-informed phobia that Jack’s right is likely to contribute to her own death. Rather, the ethical approach is to provide Jack with his right and to provide Jill with education.

And that’s precisely what the NT government did. In today’s money, it stumped up $500k for education programs, and those programs were beginning to take effect. In testimony to the Committee, Reverend Dr Djiniyini Gondarra (opposed to the legislation) conceded that the education efforts had been somewhat effective in overcoming fears about the ROTI Act (p 52).

Ironic reverse discrimination

Perhaps one of the most ironic aspects of church-led fear of the ROTI Act was the Act’s “reverse discrimination” itself. The Act required, if the doctor and patient did not share the same first language, that a qualified and authorised translator be engaged before the patient might qualify for an assisted death.

Given the rarity of qualified and authorised translators, especially in remote communities, indigenous Northern Territorians would have had significantly less access to use the law than their white, city-based fellow citizens.

Putting it into perspective

Setting aside the dreadfully misinformed fear of assisted dying law and its stoking by churches, the question arises as to the prevalence of indigenous residents in the Territories: both Northern Territory and Australian Capital Territory. I’ve retrieved Australian Bureau of Statistics data from the 2016 census to answer that question (Figure 1).

 

indigenousterritorians.gifFigure 1: Australian Territory indigenous populations
Source: Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2016 census

Indigenous peoples represent a quarter of the population in the NT (25.5%), and a tiny minority (1.6%) in the ACT. Across the two Territories, that’s 10.3% of the population. Even if all the indigenous citizens opposed assisted dying law reform (which is clearly not the case), their impact on overall attitude would be minor.

By way of comparison, most national polls find around 12% of Australians opposed to assisted dying law reform. And, as I’ve factually demonstrated, almost all of that is faith-based. Such ‘fears’ are not a valid reason to prohibit others from pursuing a choice they deeply feel is moral and justified.

Playing the race card

Indeed, if opponents were intent on justifying the denial of a parliament to legislate for assisted dying on the basis of supposed indigenous attitude — playing the race card — then they must also by corollary campaign for the denial of State parliaments to legislate. That's because there are nearly four times as many indigenous Australians in NSW (216,170) and three times as many in Queensland (186,483) as there are in the Northern Territory (58,246) [2016 census data].

To argue one and not the other is to flip-flop.

Contact your Senators now

Church-whipped fear about assisted dying law amongst indigenous Australians is appalling and to be condemned, as is spreading false claims about a supposed reduction in presentations for medical care.

Senators will be inundated with false claims as they contemplate the Leyonhjelm Bill — including that indigenous Territorians are terrified of assisted dying law. (Lyeonhjelm’s Bill doesn’t legalise assisted dying: it only restores Territory parliament rights to consider the reform.)

It’s critical that Senators also hear from supporters of Territory rights — that Territorians not be treated as second-class citizens compared to State-based citizens.

To that end YOU can do something right now! Use the Go Gentle Australia submission page to send a message of support to your State or Territory Senators now. Go Gentle make it so easy, by showing you who your Senators are by merely entering your address.

Don’t delay! Here’s the link again.

 

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Disclaimer: I do not claim, suggest, imply or impute that any individuals named in this article were personally or individually responsible for, or were involved in, any misinformation being provided to indigenous Australians about assisted dying law.


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Which doctors 'play God' most with patient end of life decisions might surprise you

In two supplementary submissions to the Parliament of Western Australia, I report empirical evidence about the standards of end-of-life medical decision making in jurisdictions with and without voluntary assisted dying (VAD) laws. The evidence clearly contradicts the assumption of assisted dying opponents that legalised VAD will lead to worse end-of-life decision making by physicians. In fact, the evidence clearly shows which physicians are 'playing God' with their patients, and it's not the Dutch.

When I appeared as an expert witness before the Parliament of Western Australia's Joint Select Committee on end of life choices, the Hon. Nick Goiran, a staunch Christian opponent of VAD, asked me for evidence of bringing end of life decision making out of the 'dark shadows' and into the light in jurisdictions in which VAD is lawful.

Existing evidence

Of course, there's the clear evidence from both the Netherlands and Belgium that the rate of non-voluntary euthanasia (NVE) has dropped significantly and stayed lower after their Euthanasia Acts each came into effect in 2002. There's also the clear evidence that the rate of nurse administration of possible life-ending drugs has dropped significantly in Belgium with a VAD law, over a similar time period in which it had increased significantly in New Zealand, where there is no VAD law. These forms of evidence were already documented in the comprehensive submission (PDF 5.4Mb) I'd made to the Committee.

Training and decision making has improved (Supplementary 1)

Mr Goiran opined that any improvements in palliative care were not relevant to his question. In my first supplementary submission to the Committe (PDF 0.6Mb) to further inform it of the empirical evidence, I disagree. As I point out, VAD decisions are not made in a vacuum: they are made after other interventions have been considered and declined, or tried and failed to provide sufficient relief. Palliative care options are central to these considerations. Therefore, whether palliative care improves or deteriorates after VAD laws are introduced is crucial.

Adding to the body of knowledge about the quality of palliative care, in this first supplementary submission I report that Dutch and Belgian physicians attended palliative care professional training at vastly higher rates than most other countries in the several years after VAD was legislated.

I also report the research evidence showing increases in desirable end of life decision rates, and decreases in undesirable decision rates in both the Netherlands and Belgium.

Where decision making is best and worst (Supplementary 2)

In my second supplementary submission (PDF 0.2Mb), I report data from two careful scientific studies into end of life decision making by doctors across multiple countries, including the Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland, Italy and Australia.

The results are striking: for clearly inappropriate decisions such as withholding chemotherapy or administering terminal sedation without consulting their mentally competent patient, the Netherlands was clearly the best performer with the lowest rates of these kinds of decisions amongst physicians. And who was the overall worst? Italy.

Yes, that jurisdiction that harbours the head office of the world's most actively VAD-opposing organisation, the Catholic church, and where 82% of physicians are Catholic, were by far the most likely overall to make medical end of life decisions about their mentally-competent patients without consulting either the patient or her family. Italian physicians were, respectively, more than five times, three times, and twice as likely as those from the Netherlands, Beligum or Switzerland, to make unilateral end of life decisions without consulting either the patient or her family.

So much for high moral standards under a more religiously-driven and VAD-opposing regime.

I also illustrate from another study how VAD decision making in the Flemish north of Belgium, where the rate of VAD deaths is higher, is significantly higher in quality than in the Walloon south.

Conclusion

The peer-reviewed research data currently available consistently and directly demonstrate improvements in end of life care education and decision making in jurisdictions with VAD compared with those that don't. In contradiction to VAD opponents' assumptions, it's Italian physicians — who largely oppose VAD — who tend to 'play God' most with their patients.

The evidence comprehensively supports the view that legalisation of VAD brings a wide range of end of life decision making out of the shadows and into the light, where critical and open appraisal results in significant improvements.


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A DyingForChoice.com editorial appears in the Jan/Feb 2018 edition of LivingNow

A DyingForChoice.com editorial in the Jan/Feb 2018 issue of lifestyle magazine, LivingNow, explains why assisted dying law reform in Australia has taken so long, and why it will accelerate from here.

Download the editorial (PDF 3.5Mb)

Visit LivingNow


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SBS reports the commencement of the inquiry into religious freedom

In the context of religious institutions seeking to ban doctors and patients from engaging in the lawful conduct of assisted dying, and in regard to similar discrimination regarding marriage equality, I've made a submission to Philip Ruddock's "Relgious Freedom" inquiry, in which I call on the Panel to attend properly to robust ethical process, through ten specific recommendations.

Download the submission PDF.

Conclusions of the submission

The Panel’s Terms of Reference and its conduct published to date indicate that this inquiry’s procedural base and process are far too narrow. A Parliamentary Committee inquiry followed by a public vote on religious freedoms would be the appropriate manner for the Federal Government to demonstrate consistency of equity in its deliberations on important social policy. Failure to do so would only confirm Government bias.

The Panel’s moves to publish submissions is to be commended, and all institutional and most personal submissions should be published. However, the Panel’s approach to entertaining and encouraging private appearances without recording or transcript is to be condemned as a serious transgression of proper and transparent public consultation. Failure to publish appearance transcripts would amplify perceptions of Government and Panel bias.

The Government’s Terms of Reference additionally convey implicit bias by requesting the Panel consider whether “freedom of religion” is “adequate”, overlooking the real and present condition of its excessiveness in some contexts. Repeated forms of bias will undermine public confidence in the Panel’s consultation, its report, and the Government.

The Panel must also expressly and carefully define “freedom of religion” given the lack of clarity from the Government, especially noting that the Terms of Reference include by explicit deduction the equal right to freedom from religion.

If the Panel recommends in favour of any special legal exemptions in regard to “freedom of religion”, it obliged to publish express, coherent and reasoned principles for (a) allowing exceptions for some religious beliefs but not others, and (b) allowing exceptions for beliefs held in ‘good conscience’ by the religious, but not the non-religious. To retain credibility, the Panel must refrain from arbitrary arguments such as axiomatic and normative claims.

The Panel must also expressly recognise that religious conscience is not a special class or standard of conscience and that arguing for protection of religious but not non-religious conscience is an unjustifiable form of special pleading. Multiple sources of evidence show that the religious are, on average, no more (and sometimes less) moral, and rather less rational, than the non-religious.

Additionally, the Panel must recommend the abolition of the legal recognition of ‘institutional conscience’, a fabricated pseudo-conscience that allows remote persons (such as a religious head office) with no direct and proper right to insert itself into local, private relationships (such as the therapeutic relationship between a doctor and her patient), to dictate prejudices and discrimination, and to arbitrarily deny citizens access to lawful conduct or opportunities in which they wish to participate. A reasonable exception to this is to allow exemptions only within religious facilities whose only purpose is worship — expressly excluding those that deliver non-religious services (such as health care, education or emergency housing) to the general public, or which derive any income from the public purse.

I commend these ethical procedural considerations to the Panel and the Government.

Recommendations of the submission

  1. That the Panel recommend a further and more detailed inquiry be conducted by a relevant Parliamentary Committee.
  2. That the Panel recommend an equitable voter poll, similar to the one for Marriage Equality, be conducted so that Australians may voice their views directly on any proposed changes to religious freedoms.
  1. That the Panel publish all institutional written submissions, and all private submissions except those that may give rise to risk of legal prosecution of their authors.
  2. That the Panel record and publish transcripts of all witness appearances.
  1. That the Panel expressly resolves that its Terms of Reference include amongst ‘human rights’ the right to freedom from religion, not merely of religion.
  2. That the Panel expressly consider and report on specific situations where lawful rights to religious freedom may currently be excessive and to recommend any necessary changes to legislation to address the imbalance.
  1. That the Panel defines precisely, in respect of this inquiry, what “freedom of religion” is, and, in light of “other human rights” that the definition includes by equity “freedom from religion.”
  1. That the Panel, if it supports any lawful exemptions from the general applicability of laws on the basis of religion, establishes and articulates coherent, robust and defensible principles for such exemptions, and not rely merely on axiomatic or currently normative religious claims about some beliefs but not others.
  1. That the Panel expressly acknowledge that religious conscience is not a special class or standard of conscience.
  2. That the Panel specifically reject the fabricated notion of ‘institutional conscience’ and deny special exemptions from general laws based on it, except potentially in the specific context of worship-only religious practice, that is, where general services (such as civil marriages, health care or education) are not being provided to the public nor financed in any part by public funds.

 

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With a handful of exceptions, the Coalition has demonstrated itself to be 'unrepresentative swill' on assisted dying law reform.

It was with tongue in cheek that I recently quoted former Prime Minister Paul Keating to wonder if politicians voting on assisted dying Bills were ‘unrepresentative swill.’ The now-obvious answer to this question has become more than just humorous, with the publication yesterday of the Hansard record of Victoria’s Legislative Assembly vote on the Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill 2017.

How ironic it was that the very day after I quoted Keating’s slight against his then-hostile Senate, Keating himself, a conservative Catholic, would come out against voluntary assisted dying (VAD) reform.

Hansard record makes compelling reading

But, more importantly, the Hansard record of votes on the Victorian Bill in the lower house make for compelling reading.

Figure 1 shows Victorian voter support for VAD (from ANU Australian Election Study 2016 data) by political preference, and MP votes in support of the Victorian Bill (lower house, 2017).

Chart: Victorian electorate support and MP vote support for VAD (lower house, 2017)Figure 1: Victorian electorate support and MP vote support for VAD (lower house, 2017)
Sources: AES 2016; Hansard

It’s quite obvious that Greens MPs (100% v 91%) , Labor MPs (86% v 84%) and minor/independent MPs (67% v 76%) approximately represented the proportion of voter support. (It’s unsurprising that all Greens MPs vote in favour of VAD Bills: it’s Greens policy; while it’s a ‘conscience’ matter for other parties.)

The yawning Coalition chasm

But the yawning chasm of Coalition MPs not representing their own voters (14% v 73%) is even more stark. That’s a gap of nearly sixty percentage points. Surely that would be enough to raise the eyebrow of any conservative voter?

Aside from a handful of Coalition MPs who voted in support of the VAD Bill, it’s clear that there’s generally no real ‘conscience’ vote across the Coalition benches.

The corridors have been buzzing with stories of threats to Coalition promotions and preselections, and threats to preference deals for the state election next year, though of course there’s nothing public and on the record. Just the serene statement that “our members have a conscience vote.” The discrepancy amongst Australian Coalition ranks has been formally uncovered before in university research.

It’s a national story

However, it’s not like this is confined to Victoria. Here’s the same chart (Figure 2) for all state VAD bills across Australia since 2000 which have had a division on the vote — so we know who voted which way.

Chart: Australian electorate support and state MP vote support for VAD (all state Bills since 2000)Figure 2: Australian electorate support and state MP vote support for VAD (all state Bills since 2000)
Sources: AES 2106; Hansards

Again, the largest and most striking gap between voter desire for reform and MPs opposing their voters’ wishes is amongst the Coalition ranks, at a full sixty percentage points short of proper representation.

It’s a similar picture to that published by university researchers in 2008, who found just 17% Coalition voting support in favour of VAD in the federal parliament, too.

As I’ve explained before, the Party leader’s public statements can be ‘persuasive,’ and Mr Matthew Guy, leader of the Victorian Parliamentary Coalition, has made his entrenched opposition to this reform loud and clear.

Inform your own voting

As debate in Victoria’s upper house commences tomorrow, we’ll be watching who’s in favour and who’s against. And we’ll report the voting record to help inform how you cast your own vote at Victoria’s state election in November next year.

In the meantime, here’s the full record of the Victorian Legislative Assembly votes.

Full voting record – Victorian Legislative Assembly 2017 VAD Bill

Ayes

47

  

Noes

37

Allan, Jacinta

Labor

 

Angus, Neil

Liberal

Andrews, Daniel

Labor

 

Battin, Brad

Liberal

Britnell, Roma

Liberal

 

Blackwood, Gary

Liberal

Bull, Josh

Labor

 

Blandthorn, Lizzie

Labor

Carroll, Ben

Labor

 

Bull, Tim

Nationals

Couzens, Chris

Labor

 

Burgess, Neale

Liberal

D'Ambrosio, Lily

Labor

 

Carbines, Anthony

Labor

Dimopoulos, Steve

Labor

 

Clark, Robert

Liberal

Donnellan, Luke

Labor

 

Crisp, Peter

Nationals

Edbrooke, Paul

Labor

 

Dixon, Martin

Liberal

Edwards, Maree

Labor

 

Fyffe, Christine

Liberal

Eren, John

Labor

 

Gidley, Michael

Liberal

Foley, Foley

Labor

 

Guy, Matthew

Liberal

Garrett, Jane

Labor

 

Hodgett, David

Liberal

Graley, Judith

Labor

 

Kairouz, Marlene

Labor

Green, Danielle

Labor

 

Katos, Andrew

Liberal

Halfpenny, Bronwyn

Labor

 

McCurdy, Tim

Nationals

Hennessy, Jill

Labor

 

McLeish, Cindy

Liberal

Hibbins, Sam

Greens

 

Merlino, James

Labor

Howard, Geoff

Labor

 

Northe, Russell

Ind.

Hutchins, Natalie

Labor

 

O'Brien, Danny

Nationals

Kealy, Emma

Nationals

 

O'Brien, Michael

Liberal

Kilkenny, Sonya

Labor

 

Pesutto, John

Liberal

Knight, Sharon

Labor

 

Richardson, Tim

Labor

Languiller, Telmo

Labor

 

Riordan, Richard

Liberal

Lim, Hong

Labor

 

Ryall, Dee

Liberal

McGuire, Frank

Labor

 

Ryan, Steph

Nationals

Morris, David

Liberal

 

Smith, Ryan

LIberal

Nardella, Don

Ind.

 

Smith, Tim

Liberal

Neville, Lisa

Labor

 

Southwick, David

Liberal

Noonan, Wade

Labor

 

Suleyman, Natalie

Labor

Pakula, Martin

Labor

 

Thompson, Murray

Liberal

Pallas, Tim

Labor

 

Tilley, Bill

Liberal

Paynter, Brian

Liberal

 

Wakeling, Nick

Liberal

Pearson, Danny

Labor

 

Walsh, Peter

Nationals

Perera, Jude

Labor

 

Watt, Graham

Liberal

Sandell, Ellen

Greens

 

Wells, Kim

Liberal

Scott, Robin

Labor

     

Sheed, Suzanna

Ind.

     

Spence, Ros

Labor

     

Staikos, Nick

Labor

     

Staley, Louise

Liberal

     

Thomas, Mary-Anne

Labor

     

Thomson, Marsha

Labor

     

Ward, Vicki

Labor

     

Williams, Gabrielle

Labor

     

Wynne, Richard

Labor

     

 

 

 

 

 

 TOTAL AYES

 

 

 TOTAL NOES

 

Labor

38

 

Labor

6

Greens

2

 

Greens

0

Liberal

4

 

Liberal

24

National

1

 

National

6

Other

2

 

Other

1

TOTAL

47

 

TOTAL

37

         

Abstained

2

     

Asher, Louise

Liberal

     

Victoria, Heidi

Liberal

     
         

Did not vote

1

     

Brooks, Colin

(Speaker, Labor)

 

Note: The vote represents 87 of 88 seats. The seat of Northcote was vacant owing to the untimely death of its representative, Fiona Richardson, from cancer.


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The Victorian parliament is debating the Government's Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill

Former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating once famously branded the Senate “unrepresentative swill” for obstructing his legislative agenda. Today, the question of how representative our political masters are remains moot.

Major community support for VAD

Take voluntary assisted dying (VAD) for example. Poll after poll demonstrates that the overwhelming majority of Australians want this additional choice for people in extremis at the end of life. The impeccable Australian Election Survey (AES) conducted by Australian National University scholars last year confirmed that 77% of Australians want VAD reform, with 13% undecided and just 10% opposed.

Strong support (43%) is ten times greater than strong opposition (4%), and support is high across the political spectrum: amongst minor/independent (69%), Coalition (77%), Labor (80%) and Greens (87%) voters. Public support has been in the majority for more than four decades.

Political support missing in action

But since the Northern Territory Rights of the Terminally Ill Act in 1996, none of the many VAD Bills before various state parliaments has passed. And the Northern Territory’s Act was torn down by the federal parliament just eight months after coming into effect.

A 2008 university study of federal MP voting opportunities found 100% of Greens, 55% of Labor, and a paltry 17% of Coalition MPs voting in favour of VAD.

New analysis

Now, a new analysis of the ten state VAD Bills since 2000 where final divisions were called, offers further insights. It found 100% of Greens MP voting opportunities were in favour, along with 51% of Labor, 29% of minor party and independent, and a similarly paltry 17% of Coalition MPs. Excluding South Australia, whose parliament has debated the greatest number of VAD Bills, the Coalition support rate was just 9%.

Overall, while state Labor MP votes fell 29% short of Labor voter attitudes, Coalition MP votes fell an astonishing 60% short of Coalition voter attitudes. At the state level, Coalition MPs had the most voting opportunities — nearly half (48%). No wonder passing VAD Bills is challenging.

It begs the question, how is it that our legislative representatives fail to reflect clear public majority views on matters of conscience for so long?

Hidden reasons behind MP opposition

Obviously, lobbying on both sides of the conversation in part informs MPs’ views, but there are several more persuasive factors.

For a start, there’s a “truism” held by many MPs that their vote in favour of a VAD Bill would lose them more votes at a general election than would a vote against the Bill. However, the opposite has been demonstrated in multiple studies.

Further, I’ve shown before that opposition to VAD is largely religious.  A university study has also found that those who are more religious and who are politically engaged tend to hold very conservative views. So while there are religious MPs on both sides of politics, Coalition MPs are naturally more inclined to hold much more conservative views.

But that doesn’t fully explain the massive 60% representation gap on the Coalition side, either.

In good conscience?

A key factor lies in the seemingly reassuring principle of the “conscience vote.” The major parties have announced that their members are accorded a conscience vote (also known as a “free vote”) on the VAD Bill. That simply means that there’s no official published party policy on the matter and party members may vote freely on the basis of their own conscience.

There are two significant issues with this state of affairs.

The first is that the member may refer exclusively to their own conscience. But what if the MP’s conscience is at odds with the electorate’s? For my home state of Victoria, the 2016 AES study found 79% of the community in favour of VAD. There are 88 members of the Victorian parliament lower house, and just 40 members in the upper house. Therefore, it’s possible for as few as just 20 Victorian MPs to vote “no” in order to extinguish the will of 3.2 million Victorians (79% of 4.05 million Victorian voters).

If that weren’t enough, the second issue is that the right to ‘conscience’ is granted only in respect of the Bill itself, not on procedural matters about the Bill. It can make a huge difference.

How the parry works

Here’s what happened in 2008 when Victorian Greens MP Colleen Hartland’s VAD Bill was before the Legislative Council. MPs were afforded a conscience vote, and many of them had said they were supportive of VAD in general, but couldn’t support Hartland’s Bill in its current form. (That’s also a common ruse of MPs who in reality oppose the reform in principle but wish to appear ‘open minded’.)

When the final vote on Hartland’s Bill was lost, then Greens MP Greg Barber immediately moved a motion to refer the Bill to a parliamentary committee so that it could be improved to MPs’ satisfaction. Neither Labor nor Coalition parties afforded their members a conscience vote on this procedural matter, instead directing MPs to vote against such motions. The referral, which may have resulted in Victorians having wider end-of-life choices years ago, was cynically buried.

Most voters remain unaware of the shenanigans played in the corridors of power to achieve such results.

Australia’s special political conservatism

They’re not the only shenanigans, though. Another university study comparing federal MP conscience voting patterns in the UK, New Zealand and Australia found Australia to be different, accounting for why the UK and NZ have legalised marriage equality, while Australia hasn’t.

Firstly, the centre-left in Australia has a larger proportion of Catholic members than in the UK and NZ, accounting for some of the shortfall in Labor representation of progressive views.

Secondly, those amongst Coalition ranks, but with more liberal social consciences, had been lashed by Coalition party whips to vote against progressive reform. So while there was a public display of fairness and neutrality, the reality was quite different.

Borne out in state parliaments

These findings are replicated in Australian state parliament votes too, with Coalition MPs rarely if ever voting in favour of progressive social reform. Coalition MP votes on VAD including and since Hartland’s legislative attempt in 2008 are telling: in Victoria 2008 10:5 against, in Tasmania 2009 6:0 against; in Western Australia 2010 19:1 against; in NSW 2013 10:0 against; in South Australia 2016 14:7 against and in Tasmania 2017 13:1 against.

Rather than reflect 77% Coalition voter support for VAD, Coalition MP voting patterns reflect the highly negative stance of party leaders, whipped through the parliamentary party membership. For example, then WA Premier Mr Colin Barnett made it clear he thought assisted dying was “government-sanctioned killing”. Tasmanian coalition leader Mr Will Hodgman said that “protection for [vulnerable] people cannot be guaranteed.” Then-NSW Premier Mr Barry O’Farrell declared himself “strongly opposed”.

Back to Victoria’s Bill under debate

The situation in Victoria is looking somewhat more positive, with Premier Mr Daniel Andrews and many in his Cabinet publicly supporting reform. A lengthy, detailed, professional and well-resourced process has informed the crafting of the Bill.

However, opposition leader and would-be Premier Mr Matthew Guy has stated his resolute opposition to it and that he intends to vote “no”. That would mean he is quite comfortable for his own personal view to extinguish the contrary views also held in good conscience by 34,626 of the 43,831 voters in his own electorate of Bulleen, and 3.20 million of Victoria’s 4.05 million voters. (Electorate numbers as at 10 October 2017.)

An obvious solution

There’s an obvious solution for MPs whose own consciences disallow them from reflecting the overwhelming majority conscience of the electorate.

They could consider abstaining — simply absenting themselves from the chamber during the division. That would keep their own consciences intact while allowing the electorate’s conscience to be reflected.

I’m a constituent of Mr Guy’s. Over a period of months I made six robust attempts to meet with him to discuss these matters, especially the covert whip arrangements and the consideration of abstention. I can be persuasive in obtaining appointments, but my best efforts proved wholly unfruitful.

As I said to Mr Guy’s private assistant after the last failed attempt, voters could be forgiven for believing he’s more interested in meeting allegedly shady characters in fancy Brighton restaurants, than meeting with his own constituents.

Victorians are watching the parliamentary VAD debate. We’re taking notes that will inform our votes at the state election late next year.

Indications are at present there’s a good chance that Victorian MPs won’t be “unrepresentative swill”.


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