'Death with Dignity' Bill defeated in SA Parliament

by Paul Russell:

The latest in a long line of euthanasia bills was debated in the South Australian Parliament today.

As I sat at my desk last night to listen to the euthanasia debate in the South Australian Parliament I began to write the words of an email to supporters that I expected to be sending sometime during the night advising them that, for the first time since 1995, we had lost debate on a euthanasia bill in an Australian legislature.

The Death with Dignity Bill 2016 was the second bill debated this year. It came closely on the heels of an abandoned recent attempt in the same parliament to enact a 'Belgium style' bill. That bill was deemed to be a bridge too far for the parliament and the substitute new bill was seen by many to be more moderate - a 'good-cop-bad-cop' scenario. That kind of thinking clearly influenced a number of members of parliament.

For the first time in the history of the Lower House of the Parliament, the bill passed the first hurdle (second reading) by a margin of 27 votes to 19 in the early evening. As late as 12 hours before the debate, the numbers were thought to be slightly in favour of the NO vote. Such has been the volatile nature of these debates over the last six weeks that change and uncertainty has become the norm.

A small number of MPs who supported the second reading vote spoke of concerns with the bill but were willing to see the debate continue. This reflects the culture drift where less people seem to hold moral or ethical objections that would provide them with a sense of certainty about such matters. Instead, we see an increasing number who see no problems with patient killing or helping people to suicide in philosophical terms, swayed singularly by such matters as safeguards only.

The debate moved on to the committee stage where clauses are debated and questions can be asked of the mover of the bill. Running late into the night, in fact - all night, those opposed to the bill and others exposed many of the shortcomings of the bill in a forensic manner.

The mover, Dr Duncan McFetridge, seemed unable at times to answer questions about his own bill. This is perhaps unsurprising considering that the bill was introduced in an unseemly hurry and was drafted by a third party on McFetridge's behalf.

When pressed on the question of doctor shopping, for example, it took considerable time for McFetridge to acknowledge that a person could, indeed, shop around for the answer that they want.

The bill provided for assisted suicide as a preference with euthanasia for people who, for whatever reason, cannot take the lethal drug themselves. Once the death is approved, there are no further checks or safeguards including that further consent (in the case of euthanasia in particular) is not required. No authorised person need be present at an assisted suicide, placing people in their homes at particular risk.

That a small number of MPs held reservations gave some hope that the situation at the second reading might be redeemable. That would require four MPs to reverse their vote. A tall order in a chamber of 47 persons.

The final vote was taken at 4:02 am. The house divided 23 votes to 23. The bill was defeated on the casting vote of the Speaker.

There is no precedent for what took place in the early hours of this morning. History made at the second reading and then made over in the defeat of the bill at the last hurdle!

We have been fortunate in South Australia to be served over many years now by a cluster of MPs who epitomise fortitude, tenacity and moral and ethical clarity. The result in the wee hours of the morning is a testament to their efforts. I know I'll probably miss some names, but Tom Kenyon, Michael Atkinson (speaker), Sam Duluk, Jennifer Rankine and Stephan Knoll come easily to mind. It is something of a metaphor for this experience, but if I were ever in a hostage situation I would want Tom Kenyon as the negotiator and Michael Atkinson as the chief prosecutor!

What makes their efforts and this result all the more remarkable is the intensity of the campaign in support of the bill, spearheaded by celebrity Andrew Denton and supported by a willing media.  The coverage and Denton's ubiquitous presence made it seem at times, to the public at least, that there was no opposition; that Denton could 'march on Rome' without resistance. This 'tsunami' of support included the Premier and the Opposition Leader actively supporting the effort both in the chamber and in the media.

They say that the problem with common sense is that it is not that common. Legislating for killing people has a sobering effect on legislators - well at least it did last night where the common good was re-affirmed - even if only by the slimmest of margins.

Now I think I'll rewrite that letter to supporters…

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