Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull cleared the way for his party to vote freely on whether the ACT and Northern Territory can make laws on voluntary assisted dying, in exchange for crossbench support to revive the Australian Building and Construction Commission.
Liberal Democrats Senator David Leyonhjelm moved on Wednesday to force debate on his bill to restore the rights of the ACT and Northern Territory parliaments to legislate on the issue, after the Commonwealth revoked them more than 20 years ago. The motion passed 36-27.
That means the Senate will now debate a bill to restore the rights of the Northern Territory and ACT to make laws on voluntary assisted dying.
That would not make assisted dying legal, but clear the way for the Northern Territory and ACT parliaments to debate and legislate on the matter.
Senator Leyonhjelm said he'd been given a "personal assurance" from Mr Turnbull that if the Senate agreed to debate the bill in August, he would allow his party a free vote.
If the bill passed the Senate, Liberal MPs could vote with their conscience in the lower house too, Senator Leyonhjelm said.
"I asked for this as a condition of my support for the Australian Building and Construction Commission legislation, which contained quite coercive elements. I described this at the time as one of the 'liberty offsets'," Senator Leyonhjelm told Fairfax Media.
That legislation helped to re-establish the construction watchdog, after a previous bid to revive the commission was defeated by one vote in 2014.
The Coalition also made deals with the Nick Xenophon team to get the bill over the line, including the reversal of a long-held policy to give Australian businesses an advantage in competing for taxpayer-funded projects.
The territories have been unable to make laws on euthanasia since 1997, after Liberal backbencher Kevin Andrews moved to overturn the Northern Territory's landmark legalisation of voluntary assisted dying in 1995.
That intervention has been the target of a concerted campaign from local and federal MPs, who say parliaments of the territories should have the same rights as those in the states to make laws for their own citizens.
ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr and NT Chief Minister Michael Gunner signed an agreement earlier in the year to jointly lobby for the restraints on law-making to be removed.
An ACT parliamentary inquiry is currently looking at the end of life choices available to people in Canberra, and how the Victorian scheme could apply in the territory.
Former Labor Senator Katy Gallagher and Greens leader Richard Di Natale had previously co-sponsored another bill to dismantle the old law.
Senator Di Natale said assisted dying was an issue of public health, human rights and social justice and he "welcomed" it being back on the agenda.
ACT Labor Senator David Smith, who replaced Ms Gallagher after the dual citizenship crisis, said he would look at Senator Leyonhjelm's bill over the next month and get feedback from colleagues.
He said on principle he did not support the restriction on voting rights for the territory parliaments, but wanted to consider the legislation on its merits and not pre-empt the results of the ACT inquiry.
Asked whether he supported voluntary assisted dying in general, he said it would depend on the detail of the scheme and what the ACT inquiry recommended.
ACT Senator Zed Seselja, and Northern Territory Senators Malarndirri McCarthy and Nigel Scullion have been contacted for comment.
Mr Barr said he was "buoyed" by the idea of a free vote and described the current situation as "ludicrous and untenable".
"The ACT government deserves the right to have a conversation with our community on voluntary assisted dying reforms," Mr Barr said.
with Michael Koziol
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