Health Minister - bells the cat: 'Go softly or law will fail'

by Paul Russell:

The Australian newspaper is clearly going downmarket these days. There was a time when, regardless of the issue, one might expect to see some attempt at balance and research. Not so now if recent puff pieces on euthanasia are anything to go by.

The latest article, though accepting pro-euthanasia statements uncritically, at least opens a window on some of the politics in the euthanasia debate.

Victorian Health Minister, Jill Hennessy, who recently came out in support of euthanasia laws for Victoria, has called for a 'Go softly' approach to law reform, lest in seeking too much, the legislation suffers and fails.

'Go softly' is reminiscent of Andrew Denton's campaign name, 'Go Gentle'. Both, as Professor Margaret Somerville noted recently, are more like a sales slogan for toilet paper than a campaign to legalise doctors killing people.

"Politicians need to ask themselves: is it about being pure or is it about saying 'let's get the best result we can'?" she told The Australian. What precisely a 'best result we can (get)' looks like is not stated.

Regardless, her intent is clear. Everyone knows that politics is the art of the possible and compromise is often the order of the day. Let's just make a start.

But, in saying so, Hennessy bells the cat - baby steps. She knows and we should all know that the first and hardest hurdle with euthanasia and assisted suicide is to get something on the statute books - anything on the statute books. Why? Because coming back later to continue to prosecute the whole, expanded agenda by amending the legislation is much easier than continuing to go for broke in the first instance and always losing.

She points the finger directly at the Greens Party and the Sex Party in the Upper House. She says that they should be, 'sensible and open-minded' imploring them not to scupper reform on the pretence of policy purity. 'Policy purity' is about an ideological position - what you really want. On this subject the whole pro-euthanasia movement is all over the place. Only those that oppose reform have a coherent and consistent approach. It is not scare or fear mongering to observe that not all euthanasia supporters will be satisfied with any 'baby-step' initial reform just as it is quite reasonable to observe, from history, that further reform will follow as the day follows the night.

It has always been thus with euthanasia. Canadian, Belgian-born academic, Trudo Lemmens notes that consideration was given in Belgium to the inclusion of euthanasia for children in the initial legislation in 2002. Lemmens relates that, 'children were explicitly excluded from the ambit of the original law because "it was deemed so controversial that including it may have threatened approval of the Euthanasia Bill."' He follows by noting that even the amendment to allow euthanasia for children that passed in 2014 was considered so controversial that it was amended at the last minute to also require parental approval so that its passage into law could be secured.

The inclusion of children was also discussed when the Canadian law was debated. Controversial as always, it was left out with the promise that the government would revisit that and other issues after the law had been operational for three years.

Even the oft-touted Oregon legislation was slated for expansion a few years ago (from 6 months to live to 12 months to live) only to have that initiative scuppered by the pro-assisted suicide lobby because it may have put initiatives in other states at risk at the time.

Hennessy's comments are probably in response to what I would liken to a shark feeding frenzy. There's 'blood-in-the-water' and those that have been advocating for this macabre agenda for a long time sense that the current wave of sentiment and support is building. They're probably getting a bit of a rush of blood to the head. Who knows what they've been devising - could they go straight to the 'anything goes' Belgian model? Who knows?

Hennessy is playing the pragmatist. So what can be said then, of Steph Key MP's latest push in South Australia with a bill similar to Belgium? Ms Key seems to be taking the another approach: go for broke and then try and settle for a bit less. No 'Policy purity' here.

As the South Australian debate draws towards the second reading vote over the coming month, I'd bet my last dollar that Ms Key and her supporters will be talking to MPs about exactly what they would allow her to get away with and tabling amendments to suit. It's a variation on the 'good cop, bad cop' scenario.

We should treat both approaches with a lashing of cynicism. On the one hand we have a 'let's take what we can get away with' approach while the other is about getting a foot in the door. In the meantime, media stories of desperately ill people circulate without even so much as a thought about whether these folk would ultimately qualify. Cannon fodder in a high stakes game where only the result matters, whatever that might be.