The road ahead in Victoria
2017 is a year of great promise for anyone who supports the choice of voluntary assisted dying. As we report later in the newsletter, there is action – at various stages – across virtually all Australian states. In Victoria the clock is now ticking on a conscience vote to be held in the state parliament in the second half of the year.
To date Victoria has been an object lesson in how to bring politicians and the public along in the process of legislative change. The milestones are:
- Midway through last year a cross party Victorian Upper House committee recommended that the government introduce voluntary assisted dying legislation.
- At the end of last year, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews agreed that the government would back the introduction of legislation. This was a critical move. It meant that the resources of government would be committed to supporting the bill in its passage through the house. Virtually all previous attempts in Australia have been private members’ bills, which means they do not get nearly the same level of support.
- Earlier this year the Victorian Health Minister, Jill Hennessy, introduced a further layer of consultation when she appointed an expert committee to advise on the technical aspects of the legislation. Significantly, the Minister appointed as chair Professor Brian Owler, a neurosurgeon and immediate past Federal president of the AMA. The AMA, of course, has maintained a policy of opposition to voluntary assisted dying even though an internal survey last year revealed its membership is close to evenly split on whether or not VAD should be legalized.
The Owler committee is seeking stakeholder comment on key areas of legislation such as eligibility and safeguards, with comments closing on April 10.
Significantly the Victorian Health Minister has made it clear that the legislation will have a narrow scope, similar to legislation which has operated successfully in the USA. She has positioned it this way:
‘The Andrews Labor Government believes that all Victorians are entitled to high quality end of life care, consistent with their preferences and values. This includes people having access to high quality palliative care, the right to consent and refuse medical treatments through advance care directives and, in limited circumstances, the option of voluntary assisted dying for those with a terminal illness who are dealing with unbearable suffering. ‘
At the same time there has been a landmark legal decision which endorses the approach of Dr Rodney Syme, well known to Australians for his advocacy of voluntary assisted dying under strict conditions. The Medical Board of Australia had accused Dr Syme of being a ‘danger’ to patients because he had supplied, or offered to supply, Nembutal to dying patients facing unbearable suffering. However, the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal found in favour of Dr Rodney Syme last December, noting that:
‘The holistic approach adopted by Dr Syme is entirely focused upon supporting the patient in life rather than pre-empting the patient’s death’ and that his actions were consistent with the AMA’s advice that ‘all patients have a right to receive relief from pain and suffering even when that may shorten their life’.
The Tribunal was critical of the Medical Board, saying that they ignored 'the fact that a rational and competent patient may reach a stage when they choose not to endure any further intolerable suffering or rely upon traditional palliative care’.
It went on to say that ‘the Board effectively dismisses or discounts:
- The right of any individual of sound mind to seek reassurance that they will be able to, if they wish, control the manner of their dying.
- The palliative effect on a patient, knowing that they are dying; and
- That the reassurance of the promise or actual possession of the drug does not, from the patients’ perspective, place them at any risk.’
Of equal importance is the tribunal’s finding that Dr Syme’s work was entirely consistent with good palliative care, and indeed that it was indistinguishable from it. Significantly, two palliative care experts advised the tribunal in its findings.
It now remains to be seen if the Victorian government’s careful legislative process and the power of the facts of Dr Syme’s case will convince a majority of the Victorian parliament to vote in favour of the legislation.
The case looks compelling. But we will need your help to make it happen. If you live in Victoria, the best thing you can do is contact your local state member to let them know – via email or in a meeting – that this issue really matters. Victorians – and indeed anyone in Australia - can also make a financial contribution, to help us with our campaign effort.
Change won’t happen without you. And now is the time.
New South Wales – According to Trevor Khan’s office, the NSW Parliamentary Working Group on Assisted Dying met in late January and decided on some final policy questions outstanding from the consultation and drafting process, and the Bill is currently with Parliamentary Counsel for a final draft. They aim to have a final public exposure Bill for release within a month, and they currently anticipate having the Bill introduced and debated in the upper house during the Spring session.
There was an article on the front page of the Sydney Morning Herald on 16 January announcing the release of the NSW VAD Bill and a two-page spread inside. See -
There have been other articles in various local and regional papers since the announcement with many local MPs stating their positions.
Other developments include that two Liberal opponents have stepped down – Premier Mike Baird and Health Minister, Jillian Skinner and one Labor supporter, Kathleen Smith so there are three bi-elections pending in NSW.
Tasmania - The new Tasmanian Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill 2016 that was introduced in Parliament on 17 November 2016 could be debated as early as next month after Parliament resumes in March.
The co-sponsors of the Bill, Lara Giddings, former Premier and now Labor MP for Franklin, and Cassy O’Connor, Leader of the Greens and MP for Denison say they tabled the Bill last November to give members time to digest its contents over the summer break so that it would be ready for debate and a conscious vote early this year.
Ms Giddings said much had changed since the past bill failed and there was now more momentum for change.
If passed the Tasmanian law would allow a last resort option for some very seriously ill, competent adults, who have worked with their doctors to all make voluntary and informed choices to end intolerable and unrelievable suffering through an assisted death.
Assisted deaths can only happen when there is no reasonable chance of the person’s recovery, or any improvement in their medical condition or the relief of their suffering, as determined after a rigorous process. It also establishes a system which is doctor-safeguarded and safeguarded through an independent Registrar with significant powers and responsibilities to monitor and review all deaths and take action, including an annual report to Parliament.
A story in The Examiner in December showed the human face of the assisted dying bill. People like Joan Fitz-Nead (pictured) who suffers chronic and debilitating pain as her body crumbles around her due to spinal disintegration. See - http://www.examiner.com.au/story/4330215/human-face-of-euthanasia-bill/
Western Australia - Dr Alida Lancee and Dying with Dignity Western Australia continue to campaign for law reform by supporting the cross-party working group consisting of Robin Chapple from the Greens, Alannah MacTiernan from Labor and Liberal Tony Simpson.
Drafting of the Freedom of Choice At The End Of Life Bill began last year and if passed it would allow a competent adult, who is dying from a terminal illness, to request medical help to die quickly rather than slowly, when their suffering remains unbearable despite optimal palliative care. There would be strict safeguards in place to ensure the Bill will only apply to those for which it is intended.
It is their intention to make voluntary euthanasia law reform an election issue and they aim to get expressions of support or opposition from every MP before the March 11 State Election. The plan is to introduce the Freedom of Choice At The End Of Life Bill after the State Election, however, details of the bill will need to be finalized after the election and the wording is likely to be guided by developments in Victoria.
Dr Alida Lancee is running as an independent candidate in seat of Cottesloe (the Premier’s electorate) in order to highlight his opposition to voluntary euthanasia law reform.
A launch of the Freedom of Choice campaign was held on 5 February and it was a huge success. Over 250 people attended, dressed in orange, which is the campaign colour for the setting sun.
- Dr Rodney Syme,
- Emeritus Professor Max Kamien of General Practice at UWA,
- Clive Deverell, former Executive Director of Cancer Council WA and former President of Palliative Care WA
- Murray Hindle, President of DWDWA.
Videos of their speeches can be viewed at freedomofchoicewa.com
Media attended and the launch made the TV news (Channel 7 and Channel 9) and the front page of The Western Australian.
The three politicians and GGA spokesperson, Shayne Higson sent video messages indicating their support.
There is a CommunityRun petition in support of the Freedom of Choice At The End Of Life Bill.
Queensland - DWDQ met with Members of Parliament in the second half of 2016 in order to provide education and seek their position in relation to assisted dying legislation. To date, they have seen around a third of the MP’s. According to DWDQ’s President, Sharon Tregoning (pictured), recent meetings with LNP MPs indicate that the LNP would rather this issue be ‘kicked into the long grass’.
After waiting sometime for a response from the health committee to Speaker Peter Wellington’s call for a parliamentary inquiry to be held into end of life choices, they have now said that they cannot make a decision. This unexpected response has sparked an email campaign calling for the Committee to reconsider.
At the ALP state conference at the end of October, the following motion was approved.
“Labor will initiate community consultation towards implementation of legislation for dying with dignity”. The following clause was pre-existing. “That voluntary euthanasia, in addition to comprehensive palliative care options, should be legally available as an option for a person of sound mind suffering from a terminal illness that has diminished their quality of life to the extent that the person requests termination of their life. Labor supports a conscience vote on the question of voluntary euthanasia consistent with the 1996 decision of the national executive.”
No action is expected prior to the next election, due late in 2017 or early 2018.
The growing support for Pauline Hanson’s One Nation party may have an impact on the campaign for VAD in Queensland because One Nation has a policy supporting VAD. It is possible they will win 11 seats in the state election.
LNP MP, Steve Dickson has moved over to One Nation and is now their Queensland leader. He previously opposed VAD, however, he may now be forced to change that position.
Sharon Tregoning (DWDQ) will be meeting with the Deputy Opposition Leader and the Opposition Shadow Attorney General in the coming weeks.
South Australia – Since the close defeat of the Dying With Dignity Bill 2016 in the South Australian House of Assembly on 17 November last year, the South Australian Voluntary Euthanasia Society (SAVES) continue to campaign for law reform.
SAVES prepares regular one page newsletters which summarise current debates in the campaign to legalise voluntary euthanasia and they provide them to all SA members of parliament during every sitting week. These Newsletters can also be accessed by supporters in order to update their knowledge, as a basis for discussion with local MP’s, and in general community discussion. See - http://www.saves.asn.au/newsletters.php
ACT and NT – On Thursday 16 February, a number of Senators spoke in Federal Parliament during the Second Reading of the Restoring Territory Rights (Assisted Suicide Legislation) Bill 2015. As part of his speech Senator David Leyonhjelm said:
“My bill would not automatically make assisted suicide legal in the territories but it would overturn the Andrews bill and allow the parliaments of the territories to come to their own conclusions, just like people in other states. Those in favour of assisted suicide will support me. But I also seek the support of those who oppose assisted suicide but believe the territories should be free to debate and amend their own laws.”
A number of other Senators spoke before the debate was adjourned and all were in support of this bill.