BILLS - Restoring Territory Rights (Assisted Suicide Legislation) Bill 2015 - Second Reading

 

I rise to speak on the private senators' bill, the Restoring Territory Rights (Assisted Suicide Legislation) Bill 2015. I will not be supporting the bill, because of the potential unintended consequences for the territories, for First Nations people and for our society as a whole. I understand that the Northern Territory government has called on senators to support this bill and to restore territories' rights to make euthanasia laws. The press advertisement argues:

With other states around Australia now passing laws on voluntary assisted dying, the fact that the Australian territories can't even consider their own legislation is unjust.

It reads as a call for the Territory to have the same rights and authorities as other jurisdictions within our Federation. The question of statehood for the Territory arises. We need to take a step back from the emotive question of euthanasia and look at the Territory's rights and issues. The Territory is not a state. If there is a call to change that, it should be dealt with as a separate issue. While we have no specific bill before us from the Northern Territory Legislative Assembly or from the ACT, I consider that the issue is indirectly about assisted suicide legislation.

The bill amends the Australian Capital Territory (Self-Government) Act 1988 and the Northern Territory (Self-Government) Act 1978 to remove the prohibition on legislating voluntary euthanasia, and it repeals the Euthanasia Laws Act 1997. The federal government will still be able to override the Northern Territory legislation even if this bill is passed. If it were not the case, the federal government would legislate to change the self-government act to allow that to happen or to grant statehood to the Northern Territory and the ACT. What we have is a private members' bill that was brought into the Senate without any knowledge of any safeguards or constraints which may need to be included in future assisted suicide legislation. It should not be done in such a way as to make changes to the territories' rights pivotal on the larger question of 'To be or not to be?' while avoiding the question in front of us: what is statehood for the Northern Territory and the ACT; what would be the benefit and what would be the implications for our Federation?

If the Northern Territory wants to have the argument about its ultimate authority over legislation that impacts on Territorians, that is an important conversation, and one this Senate should be addressing. We have seen what has happened when the Commonwealth parliament uses its power under section 122 of the Australian Constitution to enact its own legislation to override the Northern Territory act, and even to override the federal Racial Discrimination Act. But we should not be asked to frame a discussion on territory rights within such an emotive questions for human beings as the right to life or the right to death. In my view, this twists the discussion and creates unnecessary division within the parliament.

Each successive Northern Territory government has failed to recognise the rights of First Nations peoples within the Constitution. Any proposed legislation to change assisted suicide legislation must occur in consultation with First Nations health services and communities. It is the First Nations people who are at higher risk of being in a situation where assisted dying may take place.

At present the constitutional framework of Australia divides legislative responsibilities between the states and the Commonwealth. The states are therefore different to territories. The residents of territories are therefore subject to a different legislative process than the residents of states. Under the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, article 24.2 states:

Indigenous individuals have an equal right to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health. States shall take the necessary steps with a view to achieving progressively the full realization of this right.

We know that Australia's attempt to achieve the realisation of that right, through the Closing The Gap campaign, has been an abysmal failure. First Nations people do not enjoy the same quality of life in this country at every stage of their existence, as shown in the national figures. In the womb, a First Nations child is at higher risk of contracting life-threatening bloodborne diseases. Last year, six First Nations babies died of syphilis. Our children are more likely to be diagnosed with chronic health conditions such as type 2 diabetes. They are at greater risk of contracting meningococcal and rheumatic heart disease. As teenagers, they watch their friends, their cousins and their siblings prematurely end their own lives. These facts are true of the Northern Territory and nationally. In the Kimberley region, where I come from, the suicide rate is the highest in the world.

By what most Australians call middle age, many First Nations people are already living with kidney failure, without sufficient access to dialysis. The burden of disease and disability in First Nations communities is far higher than it is in the general population. First Nations people are more likely to live with a severe or profound disability. They also die younger. On a national basis, First Nations men can expect to live to an average age of 69, while non-First Nations men can expect to live to 80. First Nations women can expect to live to an average age of 73, while non-First Nations women can expect to live to 83.

All governments—state, territory and federal—have failed to enact the necessary action to close the gap. The government is currently undertaking a refresh process, with the Minister for Indigenous Affairs announcing at Garma earlier this month that some two dozen new targets would be added as part of the refresh process. That seems a drastic amount of new targets, and only emphasises how we've failed to address the health issues suffered by First Nations people to date. With so many of our people suffering complex health conditions at an early age, there is a desperate need for culturally appropriate palliative care services in regional and remote areas. A review recently commissioned by the Australian government confirmed that more needs to be done to ensure that First Nations people are receiving palliative care within their communities. Where First Nations people are already overrepresented at every stage of our health system, it is irresponsible to vote in favour of another avenue to death. Paving the way for euthanasia and assisted suicide leaves First Nations people even more vulnerable, when our focus should be on working collectively to create laws that help prolong life and restore their right to enjoy a healthy life.

During the debate on the Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill 2017 in Victoria, former Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating argued:

No matter what justifications are offered for the bill, it constitutes an unacceptable departure in our approach to human existence and the irrevocable sanctity that should govern our understanding of what it means to be human.

…   …   …

It is a mistake for legislators to act on the deeply held emotional concerns of many when that involves crossing a threshold that will affect the entire society in perpetuity.

In Yawuru we have three concepts that guide our experience of life. They shape our ways of knowing and understanding, and are the collective approach to our existence on this earth and, to that extent, any afterlife that may come. They are: mabu ngarrungu(nil), a strong community—the wellbeing of all is paramount; mabu buru, a strong place and a good country—human behaviour and needs must be balanced in their demands and needs of what creation provides; and mabu liyan, a healthy spirit and good feeling. Individual wellbeing and that of our society not only have to be balanced but be at peace with each other within the context of our existence and experience.

This concept of interconnectedness is one that transcends across many First Nations groups. It is grounded in our understanding that human resilience is based on our relationships with each other and our connectedness with the world around us. The quality of life for individuals and for our communities are intertwined, not limited to the wellbeing of an individual. We are fundamentally responsible for honouring our fellow human beings. We are called to carry responsibilities, to exercise duties and to honour those who are in need, who are ill, who are elderly, who are dependent and those of the next generation to value life with love, respect and responsibility. This is true of family members and unknown individuals. Moving away from such principles and values begins to reshape the value of human beings and our civil society, in my view.

We exist not as solitary individuals; we exist within a family, a community, our cultures and ethos, and in the kinship landscape. I'm a great admirer of those who have cared for loved ones and made personal sacrifices to do so. Not everyone is able to do this, I know, and I do not condemn them for the choices that they make. In the broad sense, we are part of a common humanity. If we give one person the right to make that decision—that is, to assist in committing suicide—we as a whole are affected. If we give one family that right, we as a whole are affected. If we give one state or territory that right, we as a country are affected. If we give one nation the right to determine life, our common humanity is affected. I cannot support this legislation.

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