In this final Bulletin for 2021 I hope to pull together some of the events that have occurred this year and to draw some conclusions for you about what they might mean for the future of the Dying with Dignity movement in the ACT.
Earlier this year Minister Tara Cheyne wrote to the Attorney General advising her that the 1997 Euthanasia Laws Act may be in breach of the human rights of ACT citizens. The Attorney General wrote back to say that the current government has no plans to repeal the Euthanasia Laws Act.
In my last Bulletin I noted that with the passage of law reform to allow assisted dying in Queensland the only areas without legislation regulating assisted dying in Australia are NSW and the territories; both jurisdictions run by the most conservative governments in the country. Since then, the NSW Lower house has debated and agreed to law that would permit assisted dying. The vote was won by a large margin 52-32 but has been referred to the Upper House for an Inquiry and then will still have to be debated and voted on by the Upper house. This will take place in 2022.
Members may remember the AGM held some years ago at which Bec Cody MLA was supposed to address us about the End of Life Choices Report convened by her for the ACT Legislative Assembly. The report asserted that ACT citizens did not want assisted dying because the number of submissions from those opposed to law reform was greater than those who were in favour. Mike Boesen argued at the AGM that this was an invalid way to reach this conclusion and subsequently set about preparing a survey which he submitted to National Seniors and it was distributed to its members nationally and in the ACT. Please find part of Mike’s report below.
The ACT Policy Advisory Group (PAG) of National Seniors Australia’s ACT membership undertook a survey of its ACT members in late 2019 to determine their attitudes towards Voluntary Assisted Dying. The survey was designed by Dr Bill Donovan who is Chair of the ACT PAG and I acted as Technical Consultant. The survey determined that the large majority of ACT respondents were very supportive of having VAD provisions in the ACT and of a type that is much more inclusive than the restrictive Victorian and WA models.
In the light of the findings of the survey, in 2020 the ACT PAG developed a Policy for VAD that was endorsed by the ACT membership of National Seniors Australia. A copy of that Policy can be read and downloaded from here. That policy supports provisions for VAD that meet the needs of three types of people:
- (a) those who are in extremis– having a terminal illness and only a short time left to live; and
- (b) those who are not terminally ill or do not have a short time to live, but who have an intolerable serious condition; and
- (c) those of an advanced age who do not have a terminal illness or a serious condition, but whose quality of life is intolerable.
The Policy also proposes that the ACT Government undertakes a comprehensive broadscale survey amongst adults of all ages in the ACT to determine attitudes towards VAD.
The Report and the statement of the ACT National Seniors’ Policy was sent by the Chair of the PAG to the Chief Minister, the Leader of the Opposition Mr Coe, and to all Commonwealth politicians elected to represent the ACT. The Report was also sent to Ms Tara Cheyne. The accompanying letters requested that the recipients provide support to the ACT Government in any of its activities that are directed at achieving repeal of the Commonwealth legislation that currently prevents the ACT from implementing its own legislation for assisted dying. I have been informed that consideration of the Report and the Policy has had to be put into abeyance due to the over-riding needs of management of the Covid-19 situation and preparations for the ACT Assembly elections.
However, there has been a significant outcome at National Seniors Australia: in email dated 5 October 2020 that was sent to its national membership, the lead item was “ACT election update – what we’re campaigning for”. https://tinyurl.com/y4dbtq7e . On that page the following content is noteworthy: Seniors want better end-of-life care, including new hospices in Tuggeranong and Gungahlin and for parties to pressure the federal government to give the ACT government the power to rule on assisted dying.
Since that AGM, another DWDACT member, David Swanton, has also conducted a survey of members of Dying with Dignity groups internationally, nationally and in the ACT. David’s survey focused on the ethical issues that concern members of dying with dignity organizations. His survey was designed to broaden the questions that politicians should consider when they are drafting legislation to regulate assisted dying.
In a pluralist society like ours, regardless of how we consider the issue of giving assistance to die, it is reasonable to expect that, where possible, governments should attempt to make legislation that meets the variety of wishes of the community rather than making it fit into a one size fits all basket.
This year I have spent time changing the dates of meetings with Ministers Tara Cheyne and Shane Rattenbury as our lives were constantly impacted by Covid 19 restrictions. Finally in early November, David Swanton and I met Shane Rattenbury in person at the Assembly and had an on-line meeting with Tara Cheyne. I was able to clarify with both ministers that neither of them regarded as valid the End of Life Choices Report conclusion about ACT citizens apparent lack of interest in legislation to regulate assisted dying. Minister Cheyne explained that the only reason there were more submissions from those opposed was because they submitted many photocopied pro-forma letters that the committee was required to include in the report.
The main purpose of meeting with the ministers was to discuss the findings of David’s survey and to take the discussion of issues around dying with dignity beyond the questions of whether it is a minority or majority issue and an issue of pain and suffering at the end of life. We succeeded in achieving that goal. Both ministers listened carefully to what we said and David provided copies of his survey for them both to read at their leisure.
In her response to me after the meeting, Minister Cheyne noted;
It was very useful to hear David draw out some of the key points from his survey, particularly given the strong feedback from voluntary assisted dying advocates that they would like more accessible schemes than what is currently legislated for around Australia. I’m conscious that the National Seniors Australia survey reflects this desire too.
David Swanton and I met with Professor Bob Douglas earlier this year who suggested that a citizens’ assembly may be a way to go to promote community discussion on legislative reform on assisted dying. In light of his suggestion I proposed to the ministers that in the ACT we could introduce the matter for wider community discussion by following up the Older Person’s Assembly the ACT government held in 2011 with a citizens’ assembly on the topic of ‘a good death’. It seems a logical way to go since the topic will primarily, but not exclusively, be of interest to older people. This would attract media attention and enable everyone to describe what they thought a good death would be like. A citizens’ assembly like this would promote careful listening to others rather than an adversarial debate in which one opinion has to override all other opinions.
In relation to this proposal the Minister noted;
When the time comes that the ACT’s rights are restored to legislate on voluntary assisted dying, then this would be a matter of comprehensive and deliberative public debate. While a citizens assembly certainly has merit, until the territories’ rights are restored, it feels pre-emptive to take this step at this stage.
In preparing for the meetings with the ministers I read the End of Life Choices Report again and I noticed that the first recommendation concerned the matter of Advance Care Directives. The report recommended that the ACT Government promote Advance Care Directives in the ACT community and that the ACT raise the issue of their promotion with the other states and territories. I have not been aware of that occurring over the last few years since the report was published.
In our discussions with the ministers my awareness of the vital importance of Advance Care Directives was renewed, especially for people who may suffer from dementia which is a real possibility for fifty percent of people over the age of eighty. But they are also vital in the situation where we are not able to speak up for ourselves in the last days of our lives due to any form of illness. In this circumstance, relatives and doctors need to know what our wishes are.
Advance Care Directives are a mechanism for ensuring that everyone knows what we want at this time. They may save the normal experience our relatives may expect to have of sorrow and grief at losing us from turning into an abnormal one of trauma. I am therefore planning to propose at the next DWDACT committee meeting that we have a speaker from the Respecting Patients’ Choices organization at our next AGM. Our membership is different from the membership we had some years ago when we had representatives from RPC speak to us so I think it’s time to alert members once again to the importance of this simple mechanism that has the potential to save a lot of uncertainty and distress.
Given that Covid 19 restrictions are now being reduced I expect to hold a committee meeting in late January. Before the latest restrictions were imposed, the committee was preparing to circulate a paper petition proposing the repeal of the Euthanasia Laws Act. This may not be necessary if a Federal Labor-Green coalition government were to be formed next year. Anthony Albanese voted against the Euthanasia Laws Act in 1997 so I expect that he would act quickly to repeal the law if he were the leader of the new government. If this were to happen I believe we have already clearly indicated to the current Assembly the type of legislation and regulation we would like to see in place, and given our elected representatives some strategies for preparing the community for change.
If we continue to have the coalition government we currently have, or some version of it, a petition with many signatures would be helpful in letting the Federal Government know that we want the Euthanasia Laws Act repealed. Members can help by circulating such a petition if the circumstances lead us to take this action. It is hard to imagine, no matter how reluctant they are to admit it, that the Coalition government does not already feel considerable pressure to repeal the Euthanasia Laws Act given the legislative changes that have occurred in states around the country.
I find it ironic and sad that proposals to change the law criminalizing those who would assist people to die began here in the ACT in the early nineties with Michael Moore. The Rights of the Terminally Ill Act was passed in the Northern Territory in 1995, the first such legislation in the world but we will be the last citizens in Australia to have our right to die with dignity recognized in legislation. For 24 years the Federal Government has imposed its constitutionally based legislative will on territorians. That it has the legal right to do this is a matter of concern for all of us and should continue to concern us even if a Federal Government eventually repeals the Euthanasia Laws Act.
DWDACT wishes you well at all times and has eternal hope for a good death for us all.
14, December 2021