The Restoring Territory Rights Bill 2022 that was only introduced into Parliament last Monday has been passed by the House of Representatives. It will now go before the Senate, where a tougher battle is expected.
It is to be hoped that senators will recognise that the time is long overdue for the Commonwealth Parliament to restore the power for the territories to enact their own laws on voluntary assisted dying.
When self-government was granted to the Northern Territory in 1978 and to the ACT in 1988, both territory legislative assemblies were granted comprehensive legislative powers comparable in quality and extent to those of the states. These powers included the power to make laws on voluntary assisted dying. Clearly, the intention was that every Australian citizen, whether resident in a state or a territory, should have the same right to self-determination.
In 1997, the Andrews bill, with the blessing of the Howard government, trampled that principle underfoot by removing any power for either territory to make such laws in the future. The only reason for doing so, in my view, was to impose the conservative views of Mr Andrews, opposed to voluntary assisted dying, on the residents of the territories. This unwarranted intrusion on the territories' powers of self-government should never have been allowed to happen.
The Gosling/Payne bill seeks to redress this long-standing injustice by having the territories' legislative power restored. Of course, the strongest argument for so doing is that, since 1997, every state has enacted laws allowing access to voluntary assisted dying for the terminally ill under strictly controlled conditions. More importantly, after exhaustive debate, every state rejected the conservative opposition to voluntary assisted dying, such as that advanced by Mr Andrews.
In these dramatically changed circumstances, it is surely time to recognise that voluntary assisted dying laws, in carefully defined circumstances, are now part of the fabric of Australian law and that they have the support of the vast majority of the Australian people. Those members of parliament who are personally opposed to voluntary assisted dying are fully entitled to their beliefs but, in the current circumstances, what right do they have to continue to impose their beliefs on the residents of the territories, and to deny them the same right of self-determination on this important issue as is enjoyed by every other Australian citizen?
Apart from the small number of members of parliament who represent the territories, every other member resides in a state where its residents have access to voluntary assisted dying. Each of those members has had the opportunity to contribute to the debate in their home state about the merits or otherwise of enacting such a law. How can they, in good conscience, deny a similar right to residents of the territories?
Underlying this debate is the oft-repeated assertion that because territories are not states, the residents of the territories have fewer rights than their counterparts in the states.
It is, of course, true that the territories are not states. However, that difference in constitutional status is no excuse for the Commonwealth Parliament treating Australian citizens, who just happen to reside in the territories, any differently from those who live in the states - particularly when it comes to the basic human right of self-determination.
In my view, the appropriate and, indeed, the only forum in which the question as to whether or not voluntary assisted dying laws should be enacted for the territories is the Legislative Assembly of each territory, whose members are answerable to their territory constituents.
The Commonwealth Parliament divested itself of that responsibility some 44 years ago for the NT and 32 years ago for the ACT. Now that the states have led the way with sensibly crafted laws, there is, in my view, no reason why the Commonwealth Parliament should persist in preventing the residents of the territories from deciding this issue for themselves. That is what self-government means.
The Andrews bill should be consigned to the dustbin of history.
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