Tasmanian Assisted Suicide bill defeated by huge margin

by Paul Russell:

Last Wednesday (24th May 2017) the Tasmanian Parliament debated the latest assisted suicide and euthanasia bill to come before an Australian Parliament.

The final vote saw the bill, euphemistically entitled the 'Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill 2016', defeated by a vote of two to one (16 votes to 8) in the Legislative Assembly.

In debate, Michael Ferguson MP criticised the euphemistic language of the bill, arguing that such a grave matter demands clarity:

"We all agree it is a matter of life and death and if we cannot strip away the euphemistic language and discuss the reality of the matter then it will not be an honest debate and the public interest would not be served.

"I ask those promoting this bill to be truly frank and honest in their descriptions, and for those listening to the debate today, if or when you hear those euphemisms, you need to remind yourself that the real words, however distasteful they are, are mercy killing and assisted suicide by a doctor."

The bill was based on an earlier bill debated in 2013. Moved now, as then, by Lara Giddings MP, it was essentially a modified version answering some of the criticisms raised in the earlier debate. Some, but not all! A number of MPs noted the impossibility of creating a regime that could answer all concerns and protect all citizens from risk. As Ferguson observed:

"The movers of this bill are involved now for a third time. They have told us each time, no doubt in genuine self-belief, that this bill is safe and robust. They said that each time. The movers told Tasmanians to 'trust us'. Recently, effectively, euphemistically they have said, 'We have fixed it now, it has been thoroughly consulted, carefully designed', even making references to Parliamentary Counsel, 'trust us this time' and so the cycle continues."

Indeed, a few MPs spoke in favour of the concept but against the bill precisely because of the deficiencies in the proposed model.

"There are upwards of 20 errors in this that make this bill hard to read and I am surprised that I am the first person here who has raised this today. This bill does not refer internally, consistently at all and it is hard work to follow through. That, to me, says this bill is not polished, not ready, not checked enough and that erodes confidence in this bill for me." Roger Jaensch MP

"It is a seriously flawed, inconsistent and ambiguous bill. It lacks adequate safeguards and is an expansionary version of the previously defeated 2013 bill. The first few words of the bill say it all: 'Be it enacted by His Excellency the Governor of Tasmania'. It is an obvious error and it all goes downhill from there." Guy Barnett MP (note: The Tasmanian Governor is a woman!)

Matthew Groom MP exposed a real problem for the bill and its mover. He quoted Giddings from a recent radio interview where she agreed that there is no perfect solution:

'There is no perfect model. We are developing a model, and it has been developed over some years now, that we believe is safe that will look after vulnerable people, but why is it just because there is a risk, a very small tiny risk, that a vulnerable person might be hurt through this process, that many many more people have to continue to die agonising deaths?'

Even in her candid admission, Giddings obfuscates. She talks about the possibility of a vulnerable person being 'hurt' - as though it might be about a grazed knee. This is a very cynical approach. No doubt driven by genuine passion for the issue, it nevertheless betrays a somewhat utilitarian approach. However, as Joan Rylah MP observed, governments are charged with legislating for the common good and not the greatest good for the greatest number:

"A prime responsibility of a parliament is to pass laws that are for the good of the common people. When considered from a social perspective the parliament creates laws to protect the vulnerable people in our society. I wish a parliament could end suffering for anyone, for everyone, by passing a law. That is a fantasy, an impossible and false hope, albeit a very compassionate aspiration, but a totally tragic building of false hope."

While the provision of a conscience vote for all MPs suggests a debate devoid of party politics and external influence, the debate did include some politicking. A number of MPs who voiced concerns about the form of the bill supported a motion by Jaensch to move the bill off to a committee of inquiry. Lara Giddings objected to this move from the very beginning:

"Whilst some members may be considering sending this bill to a parliamentary committee for further inquiry, I do not believe that is necessary. To send this bill off to a committee would be just another delaying mechanism, playing into the hands of those who will fight this reform tooth and nail no matter what model is put forward."

By any reading, it could not be said that those pushing for the committee vote were applying a cynical political move. However, such a move would certainly have delayed any subsequent debate until February 2018 at the earliest. With a state election due in March, there would have been a significant reluctance to debate this matter. No MP wants an election clouded by matters of social concern such as assisted suicide and, indeed, there may never have been enough time to debate the matter to a conclusion in any case.

Once members had begun to talk about their voting intention, it became clear that the bill would be defeated. A move to a committee would have kept the bill 'live' and ensured the continued public discussion.

When the motion for committee was debated, some who supported the bill (including Giddings) voted against while some who were against the bill - including the Premier - gave the motion their support. Had the supporters of the bill agreed to the motion, it is clear that it would have been successful and the crushing defeat would have been avoided.

While no one can question the commitment of Lara Giddings and others to this issue, it remains an unanswered question, why a committee was not seen as the 'least worst' option. THis is especially so, given the possibility that a defeat may have an adevrse effect on debates pending in other jurisdictions. Motivated, as they clearly are, by compassion, it leaves me to wonder at the strategy that, as a consequence, dashed the hope of all Tasmanian supporters.

In that vein, the absence of Andrew Denton and his campaign cohort from the debate was also noted by local campaigners.

The bill was in a similar form to that proposed for Victoria later this year. One hopes that this defeat will be noted by Victorian Premier, Daniel Andrews MP. Maybe it's time for second thoughts…