Marking the territories - why it IS about euthanasia

  It interests me to note that some Senators are clearly focusing on the 'Restoring Territory Rights' part and less on 'voluntary euthanasia' as though what was being debated was the correction of some egregious wrong visited upon the territories that, incidentally, just happened to be about euthanasia.A number of Senators have now spoken to Bob Brown's 

Restoring Territory Rights (Voluntary Euthanasia Legislation) Bill â€” some for, some against as we might expect.

It interests me to note that some Senators are clearly focusing on the 'Restoring Territory Rights' part and less on 'voluntary euthanasia' as though what was being debated was the correction of some egregious wrong visited upon the territories that, incidentally, just happened to be about euthanasia.

This invites the question: what does the term 'rights' mean in respect to the Australian Territories?

Each of the six Australian states (the former six British Colonies) have their own constitutions from which they derive their powers to govern.  The Federal Parliament (The Commonwealth) derives its power from the Federal Constitution that originated through the consent of the six states at the founding of our nation.  The particular powers that the Commonwealth holds to make laws and to govern were ceded to them by the states; the states retaining all other powers (and some shared with the Commonwealth by agreement over time).

The Australian territories, by contrast, do not have the powers to convene their own government nor to pass laws.  The Northern Territory, the Australian Capital Territory and Norfolk Island are self-governing territories because the Commonwealth passed laws to create these provisions.  These territories only have rights to self-government through Commonwealth legislation, not the Federal Constitution.  Their powers are regulated by the Commonwealth and the Commonwealth can alter them as it sees fit.

A good analogy might be to consider local councils.Their powers are created and limited by Acts of their particular state parliaments.  There have been cases in recent times where the state government has seen fit to intervene in the running of particular councils (sackings, administration, development proposals etc.) through the powers given to a Minister of the Crown who holds the local government portfolio.

In 1996, the Federal Parliament debated and passed the Euthanasia Laws Act (known more commonly as 'The Andrew's Bill') which thereby removed the ability of the self-governing territories to pass or sustain any law relating to the practice of euthanasia or assisted suicide.  Note: this effected all three self-governing territories; not just the Northern Territory.  This is a very important consideration.  What it should be read to mean is that the Commonwealth at that time considered that no self-governing territory should have such power; that such a power did not contribute to 'the peace, order and good government' of the territories and its removal did not adversely affect good government.

The debate at that time was predominantly focused on euthanasia (as it should be now) not only because of the NT's euthanasia law, but also because of the nature of euthanasia itself.  If a euthanasia law is 'bad law' and a higher parliament has the right to reject that law (and the ability of that and other territories to make such 'bad law' in the future) then it has an obligation to act, much in the same way as the Senate, for example, might reject a bill that had passed the House of Representatives.  It would be a derogation of duty to act otherwise.

In summary then, the correct understanding of 'rights' in this context, I would argue, is the right of the Commonwealth to do as it decided to do in 1996.  Those who, hand on heart, feel so aggrieved by the so-called loss of rights need to do one or both of the following:

  1. Encourage the Northern and any other territory to petition for the right to claim statehood and, therein, all the rights and powers of a state within the Commonwealth.  and/or
  2. Argue in the current debate that euthanasia laws are, in fact, a public good and that they contribute to the betterment of society (thereby nullifying the Commonwealth's original objection).

Let's get this thing right: the Brown Bill is about euthanasia.  The title of the bill declares as much and the debate should be substantively about euthanasia and whether or not euthanasia law and practice contribute to the common good.  A vote for the Brown Bill is essentially, therefore a vote in support of euthanasia as a public good.

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