Comment

Time to dispatch an undemocratic law

It has been some 20 years since the Euthanasia Laws Act 1997 passed federal  Parliament and removed the rights of territory citizens, and their parliaments, from being able to debate or pass laws relating to euthanasia.

The "Andrews Law", as it became known, was a legislative sledgehammer which overrode the Northern Territory Parliament's Rights of the Terminally Ill Act 1995, which had provided the legislative authority for voluntary euthanasia in certain circumstances.

Fast forward to today and it's clear that the ACT and Northern Territory parliaments both function as mature parliaments which have been governing effectively for 30 and 40 years respectively. There are some 630,000 people who live in the ACT and the Northern Territory and their governments are responsible for running hospitals, schools, child protection, jails and multi-million dollar economies and yet, despite all of these responsibilities, both jurisdictions are specifically barred from debating or legislating for the rights of the terminally ill. 

That is wrong in my view, and it is time that the "Andrews" legislation is repealed and two Private Senators Bills introduced and partially debated in the Senate this week seek to do just that.

The Restoring Territory Rights (Dying with Dignity) Bill and the Restoring Territory Rights (Assisted Suicide) Bill are straightforward and simple repeal bills. These bills do not seek to introduce euthanasia nor do they require the territories to consider euthanasia legislation.

If either bill is passed, the result would simply, but importantly, be the repeal of an undemocratic and outdated law and the restoration of the rights of the ACT and NT parliaments to legislate, on behalf of their citizens, if they choose to.

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Back in 1996 at the time of debate of the Andrews Bill the federal Parliament's scrutiny committee, whose role it is to provide a report to advise members and senators prior to debate, highlighted significant issues with the approach of the bill.

The report pointed out that the Commonwealth Parliament, having given the Legislative Assembly of each territory the power "to make laws for the peace, order and good government" of each territory would, through the Andrews Bill, then remove in an ad hoc way the valid exercise of that legislative power.

The report also drew attention to the fact that the bill created a situation where some Australians' right to self-determination through their own democratically elected parliaments are treated in a way different from others solely on the grounds of where they choose to live.

Unfortunately for the territories, the issues highlighted by the scrutiny committee did not persuade federal politicians back in 1997, passing the lower house very quickly with the backing of both the prime minister and the leader of the opposition before passing the Senate with a closer vote of 38 in favour and 33 against. The closeness of the vote in the upper house some 20  years ago provides hope that any new debate on this issue stands a good chance of passing the Senate.  With Labor and Coalition members and senators exercising a free-vote on these bills predicting an outcome is difficult but it also opens up the opportunity to enlist supporters across the political divide in pursuit of territory rights.

And whilst these bills are technically about territory rights I do accept that the issue of euthanasia and territory rights are, for the time being, inextricably linked. I am a supporter of euthanasia in certain circumstances. My own views have been informed from personal experience after watching both of my parents die way too young from cancer and from listening to patients as they generously shared their experience of a terminal illness with me whilst I was minister for health. I do hope, however,  that the more divided debate of how we provide people with the right to die with dignity does not overtake the more straightforward matter of whether or not the territories should be allowed to govern for themselves.

The argument in support of the Restoring Territory Rights Bills is about ensuring that the democratic rights of territory citizens are equal to those who choose to live in a state and it's about treating the elected members of the ACT and Northern Territory legislative assemblies with the respect that they deserve, free from federal interference.

   Katy Gallagher is Labor senator for the Australian Capital Territory and a former ACT chief minister.

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