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David Seymour's euthanasia win will have opponents scrambling

Opinion

Last night, David Seymour’s End of Life Choice Bill took a step closer to becoming law. Photo/Getty.

The healthy majority for the End of Life Choice Bill coming so soon after Victoria’s law passed will ring alarm bells for opponents on both sides of the Tasman.

Last week, a quarter of Australia’s population became eligible for an assisted death if they are terminally ill after the implementation of Victoria’s Voluntary Assisted Dying Act. And last night, on this side of the Tasman, David Seymour’s End of Life Choice Bill took a step closer to becoming law.

The bill passed its second reading with a clear margin — 70-50. It was a slimmer majority than at the first reading in December 2017 — which passed 76-44 — but it is an extraordinary result given the extensive campaign mounted against it over the past 18 months.

The loose coalition of religious and quasi-religious groups which spearheaded the offensive to kill the bill has good reason to be worried about the outcome. There is a real prospect of a domino effect across Australia and New Zealand.

Opponents fear that now Victoria’s act is in operation and many of the practical details of how it will be implemented have been worked out, advocates and voters across Australia and New Zealand will be emboldened and push even more strongly for changes in their jurisdictions.

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Assisted dying campaigner Dr Philip Nitschke described the knock-on effect of Victoria’s law change in Australia: “It will put a lot of pressure on the other state Parliaments to pass legislation. You can’t have people in NSW pressing their noses against the glass saying, ‘How come Victorians have got this choice and we don’t?’.”

The effect will reverberate across the Tasman too as the debate continues in New Zealand in the lead-up to the third reading. Many New Zealanders will also think: “If Victorians have this choice, why not us?”

Opponents often try to illustrate the dangers of assisted dying by using examples from faraway countries like Belgium and The Netherlands with very different cultures to our own, but Victoria is very close to home. And more than 80,000 New Zealand-born expats live there. Those who have Australian citizenship or permanent residency, and who have lived in the state for a year, are now eligible for an assisted death if they are terminally ill.

Opponents — particularly the Catholic church — can’t afford to allow another defeat in New Zealand or Australia, and Seymour’s bill passing its second reading means their alarm bells will be jangling very loudly.

That rising level of alarm was evident in Maggie Barry’s advance warning a few days ago that she intends to introduce around 120 amendments when the bill is debated in the Committee of the Whole House. She had obviously counted heads and knew it would easily pass at its second reading — even though she asserted: “What I can say with certainty is that the gap is extremely narrow.”

Her proposed avalanche of amendments is widely viewed as an attempt to filibuster as much as she can — perhaps in the hope that the bill won’t get through Parliament in time for it to be put to a binding referendum at next year’s election.

David Seymour told NOTED he recognises that as a possible “danger” but he doesn’t believe it will be a viable strategy in practice: “Opponents will find it much more difficult than they think to keep it going that long.”

However, even if Barry’s tactics don’t succeed in warding off a referendum next year, or killing it at the third reading, she will be hoping to make the bill so restrictive that it will be very difficult for the dying to access its provisions — which is a criticism that has already been made of Victoria’s legislation, which has 68 safeguards.

Now that advocates are wise to that tactic, however, they are less likely to settle for the same in New Zealand, or in the Australian states where activists are pushing hard for a law change.

Western Australia isn’t far behind New Zealand. A government bill is scheduled to be introduced in August after a cross-party parliamentary inquiry strongly recommended in 2018 that one be introduced — and the eligibility criteria and conditions the MPs proposed in their report look very much like those of the bill Seymour placed in Parliament’s biscuit tin in 2015.

A bill similar to Western Australia’s will be tabled in New South Wales, probably by year’s end. Tasmania’s Parliament will also vote on the issue in 2019 with the legislation having support in principle from both Houses.

Queensland and South Australia are both running inquiries into end-of-life choices and there is a renewed push to allow the territories of ACT and NT to determine their own assisted dying laws (after that right was removed from the Northern Territory in 1997 to quash its pioneering law three years earlier).

While public support in New Zealand has run for years at more than 70 per cent, in Australia support in polls has recently come close to 90 per cent, according to an ABC Vote Compass poll of 450,479 respondents taken before the federal elections in May — which makes opposition by Australian MPs look completely out of touch with their electors. 

In the wake of Seymour’s parliamentary success, New Zealanders can expect to see a lot more of the kind of tactics opponents used in the long run-up to Wednesday’s vote — including slick video campaigns, newspaper ads and plain old-fashioned scaremongering — but at an even higher pitch.

Opponents are going to be in a bind, however. Much of their opposition to Seymour’s bill over the two years since it was plucked from the ballot in June 2017 has centred around the clauses allowing eligibility to those with a “grievous and irremediable medical condition” who suffer from “an advanced state of irreversible decline in capability”.

The Catholic church claimed last year that these clauses could include those with chronic conditions such as arthritis, asthma and gluten intolerance as well as the disabled. It was an outrageous and completely erroneous interpretation of the bill but such scare tactics were deployed so relentlessly that last December Seymour proposed — albeit reluctantly — that the “grievous and irremediable” clause be removed. 

He recommended restricting eligibility to the terminally ill with six months or less to live (or 12 months for those with a neuro-degenerative disease) as well as adding the express rider that disability or mental illness alone would not qualify anyone for an assisted death.

Seymour’s unexpected move to restrict the terms of eligibility put arch-opponent Maggie Barry into an obvious flap. It was immediately clear to her that in one fell swoop the Act MP had dramatically shifted the goal-posts and the wind could easily turn sharply against her and other prominent opponents — including Disability Rights Commissioner Paula Tesoriero, who has argued that the disabled are at risk of being forced into an assisted death.

Consequently, Barry was quick to point out that the bill was no longer Seymour’s property, and any changes he might suggest are only recommendations. It is true that he is technically now only a passenger watching his own bill’s progress but, unfortunately for Barry, as its sponsor he has a lot of moral authority over how it is framed.

The other obvious bind that opponents will find themselves in now the bill has passed its second reading is Seymour’s proposed amendment for a referendum at the next election before it becomes law — a condition that NZ First has placed on its continued support.

Any MP who doesn’t vote for that amendment risks looking very undemocratic, to say the least, given that a substantial and consistent majority of New Zealanders have wanted a law change to allow some form of assisted dying for more than 20 years.

Politicians might well find that the public are increasingly intolerant of MPs who won’t agree to a referendum — especially once its scope is restricted to only the terminally ill, and disability and mental illness are explicitly ruled out as grounds for eligibility, as seems likely.

If opponents’ major objections are answered — in particular by removing the “grievous and irremediable” clause — why would they go on thwarting what the public have so clearly demanded for a very long time?

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