ACT government’s euthanasia call ignores risk to Indigenous Canberrans

The ACT government has joined forces with the Northern Territory government to “threaten” the Federal Government, demanding that it overturn the Territories bill which was enacted in 1997 to prevent the territory governments from enacting euthanasia laws (referred to as the Andrews Bill).

If the Federal Government doesn’t overturn the laws by the end of the year, we are told, that Tara Cheyne, ACT Human Rights Minister, may have no other choice but to take the government’s cause to the United Nations. Both territory governments are arguing their respective citizens enjoy lesser democratic rights than their state counterparts because their governments cannot enact euthanasia laws. It is instructive however that neither government is pushing for their jurisdiction to become a state, which would deliver to the territories all the same democratic rights as the states under the Commonwealth Constitution.

One of the reasons that the Andrews Bill received support from a majority of the Commonwealth parliament at the time was the risk that the legislation posed to the indigenous population in the Northern Territory. Consultation with the indigenous population in the Northern Territory at the time revealed that the overwhelming majority of the indigenous population were opposed to euthanasia. It also uncovered that the existence of the legislation itself posed very real and grave risks to the health of Aboriginal people.

Indeed, a later 2008 inquiry into legislation seeking to overturn the Andrews bill heard from Aboriginal Resource and Development Services, which stated in a submission that when euthanasia was legal in the Northern Territory, many elderly walked out of hospitals in fear they would be killed, and were reluctant to seek health care services.  Consequently, even if they didn’t ‘choose’ euthanasia, its legalisation could have a negative impact on indigenous health.  This is troubling, particularly when there is already a significant gap between life expectancy for indigenous and non-indigenous Australians.

This very real issue has not been addressed by the ACT government. It is arguable that the plight of indigenous people living in Canberra is not much improved than that of Aboriginal people living in the Northern Territory in 1997. The distressing reality is that Indigenous people living in the ACT currently face significant disadvantage, as highlighted by former ACT Chief Minister Jon Stanhope:

"When one looks across the board at a whole range of social indicators in relation to the status of that particular community, there are some stark, indeed dramatic, and exceedingly worrying sets of statistics.

"The statistics regarding Indigenous disadvantage in Canberra are horrendous and we as a community need to face up to that, recognise it and address it."

In particular:

  • The rate of Aboriginal children in Canberra in out-of-home care is 14 times higher than the non-indigenous rate;
  • The crude imprisonment rate for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the ACT is 19.4 times higher than the non-indigenous rate;
  • Youth detention – Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in Canberra are locked up at 18 times the rate of non-indigenous children.

Coupled with the government’s enduring mismanagement of the public health system in Canberra, where hospital and elective surgery waiting times are the worst in the country, the question must be asked: is this really the appropriate issue for the government to be focusing on?

If it is so concerned about the human rights of its citizens, why is it not focusing instead on improving outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples living in Canberra? Why not take this issue to the United Nations?

And in any case, has the ACT government consulted with the indigenous population about this issue?

It’s time the ACT government got its own house in order before grandstanding about “human rights” and international action. Otherwise the cynic might think it’s a clever ploy to distract from its own failures and human rights breaches perpetrated at its own hands.