Posturing in Victoria: needing to get noticed in the killing debate
by Paul Russell
Points for frankness go to the Victorian Greens this week with party Health Spokeswoman, Colleen Hartland throwing her party's support behind a 'limited', 'minimalist' legislative model for euthanasia. It's apparently not really what they want, but 'they will not scupper euthanasia reform in pursuit of policy purity' according to the report in The Australian.
The Premier, Daniel Andrews, is expected to respond in early December to Recommendation 49 of the Legal and Social Issues Committee Report into End-of-Life choices that called for an assisted suicide regime with the option of euthanasia for those unable to kill themselves.
This announcement by the Victorian Greens seems timed to create further pressure upon The Premier to go along with a reform process. Hartland told The Australian that 'the party would support legislation that limited euthanasia to terminally ill patients who were suffering.' The party's stated policy echoes that precise design, so who are they kidding that this is some olive branch offer? It seems more about making sure that the Greens are seen by their constituency as a 'mover and shaker' on this issue rather than simply a willing passenger.
But it is essentially the same call for a unity ticket on euthanasia rallied for by Labor Health Minister, Jill Hennessy in September when she appealed to all players to, 'Go softly or the law will fail'. Hennessy called on the Greens and the Sex Party to be 'sensible and open-minded', 'imploring the minor parties not to scupper the reform on the pretence of policy purity.' Sound familiar?
Hennessy added: “To not do so would be an act of revisionism designed to make an important first step fail; it is not about you.” First step? Will there be more steps later?
Of course there will. Again Hartland explains:
“What we are aiming to do is create a bill that is acceptable to the community and the parliament,” she said. “You never get everything you want in legislation, and I’ve been on this issue for 10 years now and I think, with these bills, they have to be very clear, they have to be very precise and people have to know what the safeguards (are).
“We can’t put something forward that doesn’t answer those questions that so many people put forward about the slippery slope; that if we do this, it means that anybody with a disability will be subject to this. No, that’s not what this is about.”
Here we go again; naming the disability community so as to 'tick-that-box' and attempt to disarm disability objections. The reference to the slippery slope is similar; if they say the potential for incremental extension has been dealt with by a 'minimalist' approach then it must be so.
But it doesn't work like that and never will. There are always risks; there will always be evidence of discrimination, there will always be some sort of creepage and people will be put at risk. The recent first report of the operation of their new law in Quebec should be a cautionary testament to that reality.
What is 'acceptable to the community and the parliament' are two distinct and different matters. The community is largely ignorant of the processes and the qualifying clauses and what each euthanasia bill actually allows. They think it's about the hard cases and only the hard cases; because that's all they ever hear about. Mr Denton's promotion of the now-shelved bill sponsored by Steph Key MP in the SA Parliament was all about harnessing people's disposition towards euthanasia - never mind the details.
The parliament is a different proposition entirely. MPs charged with a solemn and grave task and appraised of the full contents of any bill hopefully make decisions based on the common good. Killing people or helping them to suicide does not fit that description.
Strange, though, that Ms Hartland should on the one hand accept the premise that the parliament should 'go softly' at the same time as complaining to The Australian that the Health Minister ignored requests to meet to 'discuss potential changes'.
So, what did the Parliamentary Inquiry actually recommend? Assisted suicide for one and euthanasia for people with a disability that renders them unable to take the lethal dose themselves; all under the following criteria:
"At the end of life (final weeks or months of life). Suffering from a serious and incurable condition which is causing enduring and unbearable suffering that cannot be relieved in a manner the patient deems tolerable."
That's pretty broad and doesn't mention 'terminal illness'. 'Final weeks or months' could really mean anything. As for the 'suffering component, as usual, this is entirely subjective and provides no real guidance at all.
So, exactly what is the starting point? Is the government intent on scrapping the recommendations; choosing instead to start from a different point? Have the Greens run ahead of the pack a little and played their cards too early?
Such are the difficulties in legislating for exceptions to the time-honoured and universal protections of the criminal code. Creating a system that relies on defying the natural protections against people killing each other or helping them to kill themselves necessarily creates a system of logic all of its own. Based on a false premise, its conclusions will always be suspect. Once the Koolaid has been drunk, the traditions and moral prohibitions of the past become meaningless.
As Paul Kelly observed recently (also in The Australian):
"If you sanction killing for end-of-life pain relief, how can you deny this right to people in pain who aren't dying? If you give this right to adults, how can you deny this right to children? If you give this right to people in physical pain, how can you deny this right to people with mental illness? If you give this right to people with mental illness, how can you deny this right to people who are exhausted with life?"
Ms Hartland also said that her party is developing its own bill, based upon the Victorian Committee recommendations as a 'contingency plan'.
The Victorian Government is expected to announce its decision before the party rises for the Summer recess in early December.