Let the Parliament (and the Assembly) decide

by Ebony Bennett

Canberra often leads Australia on policy reform, but now it’s time for the Parliament of Australia to stop getting in our way. Canberra often and unfairly cops the blame for the contentious decisions of elected representatives sent here by the rest of the country, but for the past 25 years it is the Parliament that has let down the people of Canberra and the Northern Territory. Now the Senate has the best opportunity in a quarter of a century to fix it.

The task could not be more straightforward to ask of democratically elected MPs and Senators: restore the democratic rights of Territory citizens. That’s it. For 25 years the Parliament of Australia has constrained the legislative authority of elected representatives of the ACT and the NT, constraints that do not exist anywhere else in Australia.

The Restoring Territory Rights Bill 2022, a private members’ bill introduced by Labor backbenchers Alicia Payne and Luke Gosling, is due to be introduced into the Senate on Monday, though it is not expected to go to a vote in this sitting period. The bill comfortably passed the lower house in August by a margin of 99 votes to 37. But the numbers still look tight in the Senate and let’s not forget that at every previous opportunity to restore Territorians the same rights at citizens who live in the states, the Australian Parliament has failed the people of Canberra and the Northern Territory. Hell, for years Canberra’s very own Liberal Senator Zed Seselja opposed restoring to his constituents the same rights as those who live in the states—though Canberrans solved that problem democratically at the last federal election by voting in Independent Senator David Pocock instead.

It has been a refreshing change to see the ACT’s upper house representatives Senator David Pocock and Minister Katy Gallagher working together to help shepherd this legislation through. Because regardless of one’s views on the Bill (or who gets the political credit) the vital point is that the Parliament will be afforded the chance to decide. Just as the Territory Assembly should be afforded the same democratic prerogative on the substantive issue at hand.

The Canberra Times, which is to be congratulated for its stellar ‘Our Right to Decide’ campaign to restore Territory rights, recently reported that former Coalition defence minister Linda Reynolds will support the Payne-Gosling bill, reversing the position she took on David Leyonhjelm’s earlier private member’s bill. A handful of Coalition Senators are expected to join her, but around five Labor Senators are expected to vote against restoring the same rights to Canberrans as people who live in the states. The numbers will be close and the last time this came to the Senate, the vote was narrowly lost 36 votes to 34. I urge the Senate not to let Canberrans and Territorians down again.

Let’s be clear, the bill is not actually about voluntary assisted dying. There are zero provisions in the bill that will revive the Northern Territory’s world-leading Rights of the

Terminally Act. In fact, the bill specifically rules that out. Senators are not being asked to introduce voluntary-assisted dying laws in the ACT or NT, they are merely being asked to leave any such decision to the democratically elected representatives of each territory. That should be a straightforward proposition for every democratically elected Senator, no matter their views on euthanasia.

The fact is, a majority of Australians have supported voluntary assisted dying since it was first introduced in the Northern Territory in 1996 and it is not hard to understand why. People do not want to suffer as they die.

I have written previously how watching my mum experience pain and severe discomfort as she died from breast cancer deeply affected my own personal views, but I supported the idea well before mum was ever diagnosed with cancer. Voluntary assisted dying is not an option everyone would choose—I’m not even sure it’s an option I would choose when it comes down to it, but I bloody well want the option.

Palliative care is wonderful, but it has limits and it can’t help everyone in every situation. Sometimes pain can’t be adequately managed. Disease ravages human bodies in uniquely awful ways we can’t anticipate or fix even with the best modern medicine. Nobody wants to die vomiting up their own faeces, as happened to Angelique Flowers in a story I will not forget as long as I live.

Everybody deserves the chance to die with dignity and now every state in Australia has legislated to make sure terminally ill people who want the option to die on their own terms can do so if they choose. It is ridiculous to make citizens of Canberra and the Northern Territory second class citizens in this matter. Past Australia Institute research shows a majority of Australians support both the issue and restoring the rights of the territories to legislate on it. It doesn’t matter which state you come from, what gender or age you are or what political party you vote for, this issue has the majority support of Australians. The only thing standing in the way is the Senate.

Canberrans have led the way on pill-testing, billboard bans, decriminalising cannabis, moving to 100% renewables, investment in public transport and equal love (though the Commonwealth intervened to strike down those laws too). It is a farce to suggest our elected representatives can’t be trusted to legislate sensibly on this one matter when every other state has already enacted dying with dignity laws. Senators from other states have no business constraining Canberra’s elected representatives or the rights of Territory citizens any longer.

Ebony Bennett is Deputy Director of leading public policy think tank the Australia Institute. Twitter: @ebony_bennett

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