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God Squad rules: The politics of euthanasia

John Key says his government will never put forward an assisted dying bill, even if the select committee recommends legislative change, and no matter how much public support there is for it. So much for democracy, you might think. 

Amidst the angst and uproar that has followed Donald Trump’s win on November 8 – widely interpreted as the lights going out for civilisation – most commentators have ignored important progressive developments in ballots conducted alongside the general election. 

Marijuana for recreational use was legalised in California, Massachusetts, Maine and Nevada. But for anyone interested in the assisted dying debate, the big news came from Colorado. Despite massive, well-funded opposition by the Catholic Church, voters heavily swung behind Proposition 106 to legalise what was termed “prescription assisted suicide” for the terminally ill with six months or less to live.

The vote made Colorado the fifth US state to approve assisted dying, with at least seven more states – including New Jersey and New York – due to vote on a similar measure in the next few months or year.

In Colorado, 65 per cent were in favour, which is the same majority found in a Research NZ poll just last month. But unlike the democratic option afforded Coloradan voters, John Key says his government won’t be taking any initiative for reform. 

A day before the US election, Key admitted that even if the Health select committee currently hearing submissions strongly recommends changing the law on assisted dying, and no matter how much the public is in favour, his government will not put forward legislation. This despite the fact Key says he is himself in favour of assisted dying for the terminally ill.

The only way for an assisted dying bill to get onto Parliament’s schedule while National governs is via a member’s bill, Key says, knowing full well that National stuffs the ballot box with trivia such as Nuk Korako’s airport luggage bill to reduce the chances of meaningful measures, of any kind, being drawn. And that a bill may languish in the ballot box for years or never be picked at all.

The best Key could offer was that the select committee deliberations would help “inform” the debate should a member’s bill be selected.

As usual, of course, there is someone to blame for his paralysis, but for once it isn’t Helen Clark or a previous Labour government.

He admitted it is the God Squad in his own caucus. Key told reporters that although more than half his party supports voluntary euthanasia, it would be opposed by those who are “very strongly religiously orientated”. 

It’s an astonishing position to admit to. Given that the polls show undimmed support for assisted dying and that the nation is going to the expense of a select committee hearing – including touring MPs around the country to hear 1800 public submissions – it’s gob-smacking that Key is effectively admitting the whole process has been a sham. No matter what the committee recommends, a religious minority in Parliament will ensure that no change is forthcoming from the government.

Who knew that we have a “theocracy in our democracy” (as campaigner Andrew Denton described covert religious opposition to assisted dying in Australia)? To the best of my knowledge, New Zealanders have never voted explicitly religious parties into a powerful position with any widespread enthusiasm – and are even less likely to now that Colin (“I kept my trousers on”) Craig’s shenanigans have been exposed in open court this year and Graham Capill was detained in 2005 at Her Majesty’s pleasure for multiple sexual offences against girls under 12 years old.

But it appears we have our own small band of theocratic rulers in the House, who can frustrate the will of the people without ever openly declaring their hand.

And not just the will of the people. Act MP David Seymour, who has a member’s bill for assisted dying in the ballot, reckons a “pretty decent majority in the House” would support his bill if it is drawn. “And [Key] knows that two-thirds to three-quarters of New Zealand are in favour of a law change.”

It is an extraordinary situation where democracy is being hijacked by a small band of religious puppet-masters who obviously rule us but won’t step out of the shadows and show us their faces and explain how and why they are able to exert such pressure.

Who are they? News reports following Key’s statements nominated Bill English and Gerry Brownlee, both devout Catholics, as the principal opponents of change. And Maggie Barry is also vocal in her opposition.

But none of the God Squad has been willing to discuss so far how they manage to hold the Prime Minister and the nation to ransom over a life-and-death matter.

All you can conclude is that Key must be very, very frightened of getting offside with his religious MPs. It’s impossible not to wonder exactly what they hold over him.

Listen to recent audio from RNZ on the topic of euthanasia: