Much has changed in the 24 years since the Federal Parliament voted to prevent Canberrans from deciding for themselves whether they support voluntary euthanasia.
Australia has had six prime ministers, hosted an Olympic Games, participated in four wars, and endured a global financial crisis and a global pandemic. What has also changed is the assumption that the world is marching inexorably towards democracy.
Indeed, it has now become de rigueur to note that democracy is in crisis in Australia and around the world. Earlier this month, The Economist published its annual Democracy Index – the measure of whether and to what extent each country in the world respects civil liberties, electoral processes, and other key features of the democratic process.
The grim news is that the average score across all countries is the lowest recorded since the index began in 2006. Only half of the world’s population live in a democracy of any kind, and fewer than one in 10 live in full democracies like Australia.
Australia’s democratic score of 8.96 out of 10 puts us in the top 10 democracies worldwide, but behind New Zealand and Nordic countries like Norway, Sweden and Finland. Worryingly, it is Australia’s lowest score ever, part of a downward trend since 2010-12. Our worst performance this year was in the area of political participation, which includes voter turnout, representation of minorities, the share of women in parliament, party membership, willingness to attend peaceful protests and efforts by governments to increase political participation.
Voters can sniff out tokenism in a flash. People will only participate in politics if they feel as though their voices – and their votes – really matter. But for the last two decades, Canberrans have been blocked from deciding for themselves whether they support or oppose euthanasia. That decision was made for them, by an MP from Victoria and the Federal Parliament.
The federal act banning the territories legislating for euthanasia was introduced as a private member’s bill by Liberal MP Kevin Andrews in 1996, just seven years after the ACT achieved self-government.
Canberra residents being denied basic democratic rights, in the very city that binds Australia’s whole democracy, sends a terrible message to all of Australia.
At the heart of the issue is not whether or not voluntary assisted dying should be legal, but who should make that decision. The ACT is a democracy, with a proportionately elected Legislative Assembly which closely represents the vote share each candidate and party receives. It is responsible for managing its own budget of $5.9 billion annually, sits as an equal partner in the new national cabinet set up during the COVID-19 crisis, and in almost all cases has the same powers and responsibilities as a state.
The ban on legislating for voluntary assisted dying is an oddity not based on any consistent principle, and it insults the intelligence of the ACT electorate – which is made up of some of the most politically engaged and passionate people in Australia.
Treating the territory as less equipped to make its own decisions than a state diminishes confidence in democracy and the political process. The ACT already battle the prejudice that it is governed by a glorified local council, despite having close to the full powers of a state legislature. Kevin Andrews’ home state of Victoria voted in 2018 to legalise euthanasia – with appropriate safeguards – as did Western Australia last year. Tasmania, Queensland, and South Australia may join them later this year.
With terminally ill Australians living in states now given the right to choose the manner and time of their own death, the removal of the territories’ right to legislate the same sticks out like a sore thumb. Canberrans may very well oppose euthanasia, and they are entitled to do so, but they should be the ones to decide, not the Federal Parliament.
Even before Kevin Andrews lost his preselection for the seat of Menzies, there was reason to hope that things may change. The ACT’s new Opposition Leader, Elizabeth Lee, has distinguished herself with her strong support for the necessary changes at the federal level. Last month, she argued that “all parties in the ACT should be united when it comes to territory rights, even if we have different party or personal views regarding voluntary assisted dying”.
In this regard, she is on a unity ticket with Gary Humphries, the last Liberal leader to serve as chief minister of the ACT. Chief Minister Andrew Barr has skin in the game as well, having confronted the Labor Party’s national conference over the issue in 2018. The Greens are strong supporters of repealing the Andrews bill too.
The good news is that despite the bill passing all those years ago, the Federal Parliament has in more recent times been convinced to increase the autonomy and power of the ACT. In 2011, Greens leader Bob Brown negotiated with Prime Minister Julia Gillard to pass legislation allowing the ACT to set the size of the Legislative Assembly for itself.
Until then, only the Commonwealth could increase or decrease the size of the Assembly – which helps to explain why it had remained at 17 members since self-government in 1989. Soon after, the Legislative Assembly legislated the first – but hopefully not the last – increase in its size.
The successful growth of the Legislative Assembly to 25 members for the 2016 election is a useful reminder that as populations grow, the number of parliamentarians we elect should grow as well. The ACT’s population grew by about 160,000 people between the start of self-government in 1989 and 2020, which puts the increase in territory parliamentarians of eight into perspective.
Hopefully the ACT considers a further increase to 35 MLAs, perhaps in the form of five electorates of seven MLAs each, as the territory’s population continues to grow. At least the choice is available to ACT politicians – meanwhile they cannot even consider letting terminally ill people die in a manner of their choosing.
It was once assumed that the march of democracy was inevitable, but as recent global events and trends indicate, democratic norms cannot be taken for granted. Canberra residents being denied basic democratic rights, in the very city that binds Australia’s whole democracy, sends a terrible message to all of Australia.
If Australia wants democracy to thrive around the world then it needs to show that it can thrive here in Australia. The introduction of a federal corruption watchdog, driving up voter turnout at the next election and, of course, letting the ACT decide for itself if it wants voluntary euthanasia all provide the federal government the opportunity to show not just Australia, but the world, that it is serious about invigorating democracy.
Ben Oquist is executive director of progressive think tank The Australia Institute @BenOquist