The worst day of my life was federal budget day in 2004.
I was preparing to go into the lockup when I got the call that would forever split my life into "before" and "after". My mum had been diagnosed with terminal cancer about six months before, and despite knowing she had a terminal diagnosis and watching her get sicker and sicker, it was not until I got the call from Dad that she had passed away that I realised I had been in complete denial - in fact, I was so shocked that when I got the news my nose started bleeding.
Towards the end, the breast cancer had spread to Mum's lungs, eyes and bones, meaning she had trouble breathing, trouble seeing and she was in a lot of pain. I'm not sure Mum would have chosen voluntary assisted dying, even if she had the option - she hated missing out on anything - but watching my vibrant mum's health and quality of life deteriorate over months certainly cemented my views on the issue, on the options I would want and the decision I would make for myself if faced with a similar situation.
Working on the issue many years later, when Greens leader Bob Brown brought a private member's bill before Parliament, another death I can never forget is that of Angelique Flowers. In the hours before her death from colon cancer, her brother Damien held a bowl under his sister's chin as she vomited up her own faeces. In a video she recorded pleading for voluntary assisted dying laws to be enacted, Angelique spoke of being robbed of both her living and her dying. Because when she wanted to use her remaining good days to spend meaningful time with her loved ones, she was instead forced to isolate from them to hide from them that she was researching ways to peacefully end her own life on her own terms.
Palliative care is wonderful. It helped my mum, Angelique and countless others in their final months, weeks and hours, and it deserves more funding and support. But palliative care is not enough for everyone. Equally, voluntary assisted dying is not an option everyone would choose, but sometimes even knowing the option is there is enough to give people control of their death and bring comfort to them in their darkest hours.
Whether or not you would choose or support voluntary assisted dying is obviously an intensely personal decision - but lucky for everyone in Canberra we don't have to think about it, because ACT Liberal senator Zed Seselja knows better.
It's a brave politician indeed who makes the argument that the people who elected him should have fewer rights than citizens in other jurisdictions. Yet, that is the argument Seselja made on these pages just a few days ago.
Northern Territory Country Liberal senator Sam McMahon has drafted a private member's bill to repeal Kevin Andrews' bill that stripped the Northern Territory and Australian Capital Territory of the right to legislate for voluntary assisted dying. But the bill would only restore that right to the Northern Territory. Senator McMahon told The Canberra Times that she chose to exclude the ACT after Senator Seselja's office indicated that he wouldn't support it.
"Those arguing for the ACT to be able to legislate on assisted suicide are arguing for the unchecked power of 13 people to legislate on the taking of a life," Seselja said. This argument is disingenuous at best. The Legislative Assembly has checks and balances - they are called elections. The people who vote to elect Zed Seselja to the Senate are the same people who vote in ACT elections. To argue that the will of Canberrans should be respected in the Senate but cannot be trusted in the Assembly is absurdity.
No one agrees with every piece of legislation passed in the Legislative Assembly any more than they agree with every piece of legislation passed by the Commonwealth; the point is, both are democratically elected and Canberrans deserve the same rights as citizens as everyone else.
Senator Seselja said he does not personally trust Labor and the Greens to legislate for voluntary assisted dying. But if anything, it is the word of Senator Seselja that Canberrans have reasons to distrust. Time and again, Senator Seselja puts his own personal views above those of his community.
Back during the time of the marriage equality debate he assured a constituent that "If the people vote yes [in the postal survey], I will vote yes." But he didn't.
Despite the ACT leading the nation in voting for marriage equality, with 74 per cent supporting the law change, Senator Seselja knew better. He abstained from the vote. It is odd that a Liberal senator, from the party that believes in minimising government interference in our daily lives, would seek to inhibit Canberrans from making their own decisions on matters as personal as whom they marry and the dignity of their death.
If Senator McMahon's bill passes the Parliament, Canberrans would have fewer rights than citizens in every other state and territory. The state parliaments of Victoria, South Australia, Tasmania and Western Australia have all passed voluntary assisted dying laws in the past few years. The Queensland Parliament is about to introduce similar laws, and independent MP Alex Greenwich will introduce similar legislation into the NSW Parliament which is widely expected to pass. It could be that our friends and neighbours in Queanbeyan will be able to choose a death with dignity, while the ACT Legislative Assembly, 15 minutes down the road, is prevented from even having a debate about affording its own people such dignity.
I'm 39 now, the same age as Mum when she died. I have certainly been reflecting on both the questionable and fabulous life decisions I've made that have shaped my life since then. It's well past time the Federal Parliament restored the rights of Canberrans to make life-changing decisions for themselves.
- Ebony Bennett is deputy director at the Australia Institute and a regular columnist. Twitter: @ebony_bennett
- The Australia Institute is hosting a tripartite Politics in the Pub on The Battle for Territory Rights, in collaboration with The Canberra Times at 6pm next Wednesday, July 28, 2021. The event is free, but registration is essential: nb.tai.org.au/politics_in_the_pub_territory_rights