The Victorian Parliament this afternoon passed the Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill after a comprehensive, historic and passionate debate in both lower and upper houses. The legislation will now go through an 18-month implementation period before it comes into effect in June 2019. Victorians living with a terminal illness…
Mr DALIDAKIS (Minister for Trade and Investment) (11:18) — I came in at the wrong time of Mr Purcell’s contribution, because I have a feeling that he and I will cover off on many similar issues at the same time, albeit approaching it from a slightly different perspective. Can I start by recalling what I said in my inaugural speech in this place. I said that politics was:
… a means to an end and that end always has been and always must be good public policy.
I went on to say that the policy outcome must always be paramount to what we do. It must always be paramount to what I do. To that end, let me say at the outset — not a surprise, given that I put a media statement to this effect some weeks ago — that I will indeed be supporting the bill.
I believe without a doubt that we need to have a look at a range of issues in relation to the policy that we are attempting to legislate right now. But before I do, I think it is important — in the same vein as Mr Purcell — to raise issues about consultation, coordination and representation of our community. Indeed we had this debate back on 15 April 2015, which I believe was in response to Ms Hartland’s motion to refer it to the Law Reform Commission. I read my Hansard contribution to that debate yesterday, and I was a little bit surprised at what I had said — not surprised in terms of the content, but I have to say I had not gone back and looked at my Hansard contribution until yesterday. It would fit very nicely if I tendered that contribution now and said very little more. I think in fact that I managed to express myself and my views about representation of our community as well as the issues that we face as legislators on what is a most personal issue, a most difficult topic to grapple with — that is, the end of life.
When you consider that we are literally talking about life and death and that we are literally debating some legislation that will deal with ending people’s lives — by their own decision-making, let me point out, but nonetheless, it is not an issue that this Parliament should ever trifle with — I have to say, as I did back in the contribution I made on 15 April 2015, that the spirit of the debate has been one that we should be proud of when we consider the very difficult nature of the subject matter that we are discussing, debating and reviewing. This has probably brought out the very best of our Parliament. At a time when there are shenanigans in parliaments around the world, including our own up in Canberra federally, it is a shame that this does not give our community an opportunity to understand that they can be proud of the contribution that members make, irrespective of the content of their contribution, whether they are supporting or opposing the legislation that is before us.
The responsibility weighs very heavily on me. What is my role as a member of Parliament? Is my responsibility to my community, and how is it that I make representations of that community in this place? Southern Metropolitan Region is a vast tract of land south of the Yarra down to Sandringham; up through Hampton, Bentleigh, Oakleigh and Burwood; all the way up to North Balwyn; and then back under the Yarra. We are talking now close to half a million people. It is not physically possible for me to have tried, nor would I have tried, to speak with each and every person within that region.
There are members who have spoken in their contributions of the notion that they have spoken with community leaders and that they have received hundreds if not thousands of emails that have been organised by groups both for and against. But what does that mean given the weight of the fact that nearly half a million people are voters within our region? What fate should I put on this bill in relation to communications with maybe 2000 or 3000 people out of 500 000? This is something that each member will grapple with in their own way. They will make a determination in consideration of a whole range of matters and facts that they consider relevant in coming to an outcome. For me, unlike Mr Purcell, I have not decided that that must be part of my guiding principles in relation to the legislation before us.
I was not elected as a member of Parliament on a right of self-determination — although, again, in my inaugural speech I did note very clearly that I view myself as a social democrat, but that is more around jobs and economic prosperity and opportunities for our people so that they might be able to prosper and grow. But for me the right of self-determination is a guiding principle in relation to the way that I act, the way that I govern, the way that I legislate and indeed the way that I govern my ministerial portfolios. At times that opens me up to the allegation that I am focused far more on the macro of a policy than the micro of a policy. I do not shy away from that. But if we fundamentally believe that each and every person has a right of self-determination within our society, if we believe in democracy, then we have a fundamental belief that people can actually make decisions for themselves, as challenging as those decisions may be and as difficult as those policy issues may be to discuss.
What then leads me to those types of issues? Family, faith, love, life, suffering — we all experience those factors in our lives. They make us who we are. We cannot get away from them. I had a very lengthy email exchange that went backwards and forwards on multiple occasions with an orthodox rabbi in the community, obviously as a proud member of the Jewish community. One of the things I said in that email exchange that will be very challenging for people in this place, regardless of their faith, was, ‘Why is it that my faith should somehow have a greater weighting in the decisions that I make as a legislator in comparison to the rights of an individual who may not be of the same faith as me? Why should I allow my faith to dictate to me what is in the best interests of the community over and above the community itself?’. That is quite challenging. It was quite challenging for the rabbi that I had the discussion with, and it is quite challenging to try to remove yourself from your experiences and everything that has brought you to this point in life as a rationale for the decision-making that you come to.
Of course that leads us to the policy itself. What is the policy trying to achieve? Does the policy actually achieve that? Does the legislation achieve what we are trying to arrive at? How is it trying to do that? What safeguards are built into the legislation to give us confidence that that right of self-determination is not a right that will be abused or a right that will be leveraged by people within whatever prism they operate in, whether it be one out of love, one out of self-interest, one out of mischief-making or one out of murderous intent?
So I believe very clearly that there are the safeguards in this bill that provide security for us to know that the implementation of the legislation that is before this place should give us confidence that people will be held to account should their actions prove otherwise. This is important for us to reflect on. No piece of legislation that comes before this place is ever perfect. The amount of legislation that we amend is proof positive of that. The fact that we have laws for murder show that humankind is not perfect either, but that does not have us locking everybody up on a curfew and allowing each person out for 1 minute a day to ensure that acts of aggression or violence do not occur.
So as a result we need to actually reflect upon, again, the basics of what we are trying to achieve as a society. From my perspective if people get it wrong, they are held to account. Under this scenario there could be tragic consequences if people do try to coerce people to take up the opportunity under the voluntary assisting dying legislation before us, but that is no different from what can actually occur if this legislation is not passed by this Parliament.
People can be coerced to commit suicide right now. Those people do not need to be in insufferable pain or do not need to have a terminal illness. However, people do need to know that there are laws that will punish them should they transgress. This legislation is no different. So of course it is important to ask, if you come from a very policy-pure perspective in terms of that right of self-determination, what is it that has helped me to get to the position where I am confidently supportive of the legislation before us? There are indeed conversations that we have. We cannot lock ourselves away and be blind to the nature of the discourse, and I am going to recount two such conversations.
I must say that I have sought permission on one occasion and not on the other. On one occasion the conversation I had was with a man who is a very dear friend and also a relative of my family, an in-law on my wife’s side of the family. He is a man that will be very well known within the Jewish community, a man by the name of Efraim Finch. Efraim before he retired was the head of the Melbourne Chevra Kadisha, which was the orthodox funeral burial home in Melbourne. He is a man who would have seen more deaths in society than anyone in this place could ever speak to, a man who has provided pastoral care to people in their dying moments in hospitals and who has comforted loved ones in their hours of need. I spoke to him recently and I asked Efraim what would he do if he was in my place. As a member of the Orthodox Jewish community, his response — and I asked permission to recount this conversation — was, ‘Philip, I would pass the legislation and I would support it’. So we must not move away from what this legislation is designed to do. It is designed to help people in the dying moments of their life who are in insufferable pain that cannot be cured by palliative care or modern medicine. This policy is designed to give people the choice and the chance and the right of self-determination above all else.
I have heard people in this chamber say, ‘If somebody is 17½, or six days away from their 18th birthday, why can’t they access this legislation?’. We have arbitrary rules across society and 18 years of age has been the point at which we as a community have bestowed adulthood upon people in the community — the right to vote, the right to purchase a drink legally in a licensed venue, the right to drive a motor vehicle. People that are 18 have the right. So yes, you could argue that somebody that presents with the same issues at 17 years and 361 days deserves the same rights as somebody that is 18, but we as a community have drawn a line in the sand. That line in the sand is 18 and we should not try and play around with that.
My conversation with Efraim was such that I realised the pain that people can be in, the pain that people experience is what this legislation is attempting to be able to alleviate for people in their own decision-making. I found that conversation with Efraim very elucidating for me personally.
The other person that I spoke to about this was my mum, and I did not seek support from mum to be able to recount this conversation. But let me tell you, mum is not happy with me. Mum is also not happy with the government. Mum wants this legislation to go further. She does not think that allowing the legislation to be stopped at the point at which we do, the safeguards which we have put in, is sufficient. Mum wants to be able to make a medical power of attorney to say that should she be in a position to meet the following set of criteria, she would like the outcome to be not dissimilar to being provided with the injection of the medical cocktail that we have discussed.
This is very challenging for me. I spoke in my contribution to the house in April 2015 of my grandmother. What I did not say in that contribution was that twice when my parents were overseas and my aunt was living overseas permanently my grandmother broke her hip. I think one was at the age of 91 and the second time was at the age of 93 and she lived until the age of 96. Both times I had to tell the doctor as the next of kin, having had directions from my mum and aunt during phone calls overseas, that should something happen on the operating table, ‘Do not resuscitate’. It is a very heavy judgement to be provided to a grandson when there are living relatives between the grandson and the grandparent.
To put this into perspective for those that do not know my family history, my grandmother was a tough old bird. In 1935, eight days after she was married to my grandfather, the Nazis took my grandfather and put him in Dachau concentration camp. For three and half years — she had never worked a day in her life before — she worked every day to save money and be able to look after herself. In 1938 she had enough money to be able to seek passage for her two brothers and my grandmother’s parents, and she got my grandfather out of the camp when the Nazis said, ‘We will allow the Jews to leave without any of their worldly possessions as then they are no longer our problem’. She sought passage for them and took them to Shanghai, where my mother and my aunt were born. My grandfather was not able to work in the early years in Shanghai, such was the recovery from being in concentration camps. She looked after that family and she made that family come out to Australia when they got visas, refugee visas in fact, and she forged a new life for my family here in Australia.
So to give a do-not-resuscitate direction to the doctors at the time was extraordinarily challenging for me. But it was not my call; it was my mother’s and my aunt’s call. They had the right to make that determination.
Whether or not I will ever make use of this legislation should I be in this position is absolutely irrelevant to me as a legislator, because it is not about me; it is about providing the right to somebody else without my telling them what they can and cannot do as an adult in our community. If someone meets the criteria — if they are of sound mind, if they have met with two doctors, if they have written a request to access this opportunity — it is not my position to tell them that they cannot do that. We need to make sure that when they undertake that process they undertake it without fear of coercion and without concern that there is any possibility of impropriety. However, as I said earlier, we cannot guard against that forever and a day, which is why there are penalties associated with that should that occur. Some people will argue that is enough reason to vote against the legislation, because a life lost under those circumstances is a life too many. That will be the perspective of some. But, as I said, we do not lock up everybody to make sure that they do not commit crimes just because they might. At some point we need to measure the weight of the rights of the individual against the weight of the rights of the community as a whole.
This is probably one of the most challenging pieces of legislation I will come across in my parliamentary career, however long that lasts. My view upon weighing this up from the time that I made a contribution on voluntary euthanasia, on 15 April 2015, until today has not fundamentally changed. I am satisfied with the way that the Minister for Health, Jill Hennessy, and Professor Brian Owler and his team have built in protections for adults to be able to access this on their own decision-making.
At this point I want to thank a number of people for their contributions thus far. I want to very specifically thank Jill Hennessy. This is a very challenging piece of legislation, and I think that Jill has acquitted herself very well as a minister of the Crown, as a human being and as somebody who has grappled with this policy themselves. Acting President Patten, I do not wish to reflect on the Chair, but I also want to thank you. You have championed people having the opportunity for self-determination for some time. We have seen a spirit around the chamber of people from different political parties, backgrounds and walks of life coming together to support this right of self-determination.
I extend that thanks to you, Ms Hartland, and note that this has been a very longstanding policy for you and back in 2008 you were unsuccessful. You have announced your retirement at the next election, and would it not be nice for you to leave this place knowing that a policy pursuit that you have committed your professional political career to has come to fruition?
I mentioned Professor Brian Owler moments ago, and I want to thank him. Professor Owler provided his time for a one-on-one meeting with me a month or two ago when I put to him a range of concerns that I had, difficulties that I was facing. He answered each and every question and was very generous with his time. I want to thank him for the professionalism that he has shown at each and every stage and the dedication that he has provided amidst what would also no doubt be challenging issues for him as a medical practitioner and also as a father and a member of this community.
I would also like to thank Ms Wooldridge for the work that she has done in this place.
I say to everybody that maybe, just maybe, a controversial piece of legislation should not have to be what brings us together to bring out the very best of this Parliament irrespective of what our views are, what the politics show or what our decisions will be. With that, I commend this bill to the house.[fbvideo link="https://business.facebook.com/PhilipDalidakisMP/videos/1653787381344628/" width="750" height="" onlyvideo="1"]
Read more on this issue here: philipdalidakis.com.au/pdw/position-on-voluntary-assisted-dying-legislation/
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