As reported earlier, following 10 hours of grueling and emotionally-charged debate, the latest euthanasia & assisted suicide bill in Tasmania was defeated 13 votes to 11 in the State’s Lower House on the evening of Thursday the 17th of October.
This bill had been foreshadowed for some time, (going back more than two years) had been the subject of a consultation (of sorts) in March this year and then suddenly introduced on the last day of the winter sitting, providing only two weeks effective notice of the debate.
This was strategically brilliant on the part of the proposers, Premier Lara Giddings and Nick McKim MP. Their support wing, the Tasmanian Dying with Dignity group, most likely had the bill, their talking points and media strategy planned well in advance of when the bill first introduced.
But their strategy tripped slightly at the first hurdle. A television advert featuring the president of the pro-euthanasia group was edited by the media watchdog because it mentioned ‘voluntary euthanasia’. This also happened to the Australian Sex Party and their pro-euthanasia adverts at the recent federal election. The effect of the intervention was that when the advert finally went to air in the week or so before the bill was tabled, there was no mention of euthanasia. It talked mostly about letting your MP know that you wanted choice. But choice for what? Sure, one could work out what was going on and what was intended, but the campaign fell flat according to MPs who said they saw no increase in email or mail traffic at all. Even a billboard did little if anything to generate activity.
The bill itself was far and away the largest we have seen on Australian shores, running to something like 52 pages. But its expansiveness did little to change the nature of this type of legislation – it was flawed; it could not protect people from abuse. Certainly some MPs may have been swayed by the weight of paper and the verbiage, but the bill remained a danger to vulnerable Tasmanians.
It seemed strange at first that the main campaign-type press announcement from Nick McKim was his claim that in palliative care wards across Tasmania, euthanasia was being practiced and that this put doctors at risk of the law. Well, yes; if it was happening, then the full force of the law should apply. But McKim seemed to be confusing deliberate killing with good medical care at the end-of-life – including confusing the delivery of pain medication in appropriate (even if increasing) dosage – with acts which have the intention of causing death. He had a legal opinion that supported his claims. As the group Doctors Opposed to Euthanasia pointed out, doctors are protected by law if their actions to mitigate pain are in keeping with sound, ethical medical practice and are not intended to cause death. McKim’s assertions were taken as a slight upon medical professionals in Tasmania and begged the question, if doctors are breaking the law now, what’s to say they won’t continue if this bill passes?
Regardless, McKim kept pushing this line, even into his speeches during debate and in spite of other testimony from palliative care experts against him. Talk about staying on message!
During this period a number of media and twitter comments from the Premier and from the President of Dying with Dignity set further confusion by the repeated suggestions that the bill was a last resort, that palliative care should come first. The bill said no such thing, moreover, the person need not actually be dying.
A research paper by two Tasmanian academics, Hannah Graham & Jeremy Pritchard, that roundly criticised the March 2013 discussion paper circulated by Giddings and McKim, must have come as something of a surprise. The paper also looked at Belgium, The Netherlands and Oregon and concluded that the claims that there were no concerns about the operation of the laws in those places was without foundation. Yet this was brushed aside as ‘scaremongering’ by the Premier.
You have to admire this strategy: stick to your plan regardless and keep repeating the claims ad nauseum.
The media in Tasmania seem to get the numbers pretty accurate on bills ahead of time. Quite early they predicted that the bill would fail and they identified the fact that every MP who was a member of the Liberal Party would vote against the proposal. Given that these type of bills are a conscience vote, it was seen as surprising that an entire party would vote the same way, which met with cries of foul play. No-one thought to criticise the Greens party who all supported the bill – but that’s politics.
On the morning that the debate commenced the Law Society of Tasmania delivered an eleven page criticism of the bill citing 19 distinct problems, going so far as to suggest that the bill was unworkable in its current form. The Law Society made it clear that they had no ethical or moral position on the bill at all and were simply observing the bill in an objective fashion.
This was met with indignation by Giddings and McKim. Sticking to their guns they expressed shock and surprise that the lawyers had not thought to come to them earlier with their concerns and stoically relied, as a counter, on the opinion of Professor Margaret Otlowski who, interestingly, was also thanked earlier by Giddings and McKim for her work on the preparation of the bill and is also an academic with pro-euthanasia credentials.
An additional and irrefutable submission was lodged with MPs by the rights based disability group, Lives Worth Living who challenged the references in the bill to disability and clearly identified how the bill was likely to discriminate against people living with disability.
The debate itself was long, grueling and emotionally charged. For the most part, it was conducted with respect and due deference. However, the normally, respectful chamber turned sour on two distinct occasions. Rene Hidding MP and Michael Ferguson MP are well known for their socially conservative dispositions and, along with a few others, seen as the leaders in the chamber on such matters. As each rose to speak they were constantly interrupted and aggressively verbally challenged by Giddings and McKim; so much so that at times it looked more like a political rally than a house of parliament debate. This strategy was to backfire on them as the debate drew to a close.
Another strong and vocal opponent of the bill Jacquie Petrusma MP spoke clearly and from vast experience about the risks that the phenomenon of elder abuse held for elderly Tasmanians if this bill were passed. Having no answer, I expect, she delivered her speech in relative quiet. However, Jacquie was to face a mean-spirited challenge of a different kind at the second debating session when, extremely ill, she was refused a voting pair by the Premier and had to stay in the chamber, in significant difficulty, for the entire debate – just to ensure that her vote was counted. Sure, this is a high-stakes debate and one expects little in the way of concession from either side, but a pairing would not have changed the eventual vote and the Premier knew that.
Late in the debate, after most MPs had spoken, the eventual outcome was still in some doubt. Graeme Sturges MP, who had voted against the last bill in 1998, changed his position this time around leaving the chamber on a knife edge. Brenton Best MP, the last remaining ‘unknown’ quantity then rose to speak.
Best opened with an empassioned broadside at the Premier and Mr McKim for their behaviour in the chamber (mentioned earlier). Whether or not this changed his mind on the bill, no-one knows, but he was clearly deeply offended. Best then gave one of the great speeches of the entire debate. Not so much because of his content or his delivery, but because of his obvious gentle nature and heartfelt concern for the vulnerable.
A number of MPs referred to the volume of mail they had received from constituents, both for and against. The local paper also noted the high volume. One MP disclosed that the ratio of mail against and pro was 80% against. This made a mockery of the claim in a poll released by Dying with Dignity only days earlier that there was 80% support in the Tasmanian community. As I’ve reported elsewhere, there is good reason to say that this level of support is notional at the least and ‘soft’ when it comes to the debate.
In the final analysis the vote was recorded at 13 against and 11 for the bill. However, it should be noted that the Speaker of the House, The Hon Michael Polley MP was himself on the floor of the chamber and not in the Speaker’s Chair when the vote was taken. Had he been in his chair the vote would have been tied at 12:12 and Polley would have negated the bill on his casting vote. 13:11 looks like a win by two votes, but it was really only one vote separating the winners and losers.
A win, yes, but too close for comfort. Hardly surprising that the Premier and McKim did their best Schwarzenegger impersonations: “It will be back!” The return of another bill can most likely not now happen until after the State Election in March next year. Whether they will back to see this happen is now in the hands of Tasmanian voters.
This article has been republished with permission from Paul Russell’s blog.