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Speech on Territory Rights Bill

On Tuesday 2 August 2022, I made a speech in Federal Parliament on the government's Restoring Territory Rights Bill 2022. You can read the full transcript below.

E WATSON-BROWN: The 1997 decision by John Howard's coalition government to prevent territory governments passing assisted dying laws was always cynical, undemocratic and inhuman. In order to shoot down a decision that they were ideologically opposed to, they robbed the territories of basic democratic rights and held back progress on voluntary assisted dying laws, causing needless suffering for so many families for the past 25 years. As with too many decisions made here, there was so little regard for the human cost, so little regard for the misery caused by those elected to serve the people. It's shameful.

I want to say that the Greens have a long track record of supporting territory rights. Over a decade ago, the Greens passed a territory rights bill, but it was reversed by the Abbott government. It's a basic question of equity. Currently, residents of the territories are being treated as second-class citizens. If citizens of the states are allowed to access voluntary assisted dying schemes, citizens of the territories should be allowed to do the same—and, I might add, this should also be the case for other constitutional laws passed by democratically elected bodies.

How is it that people in, say, the Northern Territory have less capacity to make decisions in their collective interests than people in Queensland or New South Wales? This proposal should not even be controversial. This cynical decision from the Howard years is not compatible with a basic respect for democracy. If people who live in states are allowed access to voluntary assisted dying schemes, the same rights need to be extended to the territories. Territory rights are fundamental Greens values, and it's a core Greens policy that individuals have the right to make self-governing choices. While this bill won't in itself reinstate the Northern Territory's voluntary assisted dying legislation from 1995, which was callously overridden by the Howard government in 1997, it will clear the obstacle for new legislation to be brought to that effect.

For years now, the Greens have been at the forefront in states and territories of the fight to deliver on assisted dying laws and give people in unbearable pain choices around their death. On being elected in 2017, my colleague in Queensland state parliament Michael Berkman worked very closely with the community to ensure that VAD was legislated last year in my home state. We've also seen the Greens work with groups like Dying with Dignity and other important community voices to help deliver VAD laws in Victoria, Tasmania, Western Australia and, this year, New South Wales. We do this work because we believe this is a fundamental right for people. Terminally ill people in pain have a right to choose to die with dignity.

I want to point out that having a right to voluntary assisted dying simply means giving people a choice. Voluntary assisted dying is just one of many options, and having it on the table can give peace of mind, even though only a tiny minority of patients will actually use it. It means that those in pain have options available to them if and when they need them. This gives reassurance that suffering is not inevitable as well as access to this option where needed. The Victorian parliamentary inquiry into end-of-life choices, in its final report in 2016, acknowledged:

… simply having the option to choose assisted dying has a palliative effect in and of itself by enabling people at the end of life to reclaim control of their situation.

Importantly, voluntary assisted dying also gives people the chance to say goodbye to family and friends. Finally, regulated VAD gives a clear framework for doctors and healthcare workers when dealing with terminal patients in immense pain who want to die.

Of course, appropriate safeguards should be in place. Inbuilt protections in the scheme mean VAD is only available to those who really need it and there are appropriate checks to ensure they are of sound mind. Appropriate safeguards and regulations in this area protect the vulnerable and protect healthcare workers from inappropriate requests.

Opponents of these laws will tell you that improved palliative care is the answer, but this is not the view of the medical profession. Doctors and patients have for many years now been advising us that palliative care alone is not sufficient. Regulated VAD with appropriate safeguards is overwhelmingly supported by medical professionals. Of course, palliative care should be expanded, but there will still be cases that are deeply distressing for families and patients, where the pain relief offered and the sheer indignity of the illness will not be meaningfully ameliorated by palliative care.

So there's no medical, moral or political argument for holding back VAD legislation. It's been introduced in most states across Australia now. It's high time the territories were given back the right to pass this kind of crucial legislation. We're in a situation now where, in the Northern Territory, a person in unbearable suffering must have this suffering prolonged against their express wishes, all because politicians in this place 25 years ago made a cynical political decision, and the Territory government has no recourse to change this situation. This bill finally gives Australia the chance to correct this wrong and give the people of the territories the ability to put and pass new legislation on crucial issues like voluntary assisted dying.

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