Senator Bob Brown doesn’t waste any time. Before the new Parliament even gets to the doors, he’s signalled that he intends to introduce a private members’ bill aimed squarely at one of the most divisive issues in Australian social politics – euthanasia.
In 1996 the Northern Territory passed legislation decriminalising voluntary euthanasia – that is, a situation in which someone takes their own life in order to avoid protracted terminal suffering. Nine months later, the Howard government introduced and passed a bill to override those laws, exploiting the fact that, under Australia’s peculiar system, none of its Territories enjoy the same level of autonomy as the states. Although both the NT and the Australian Capital Territory have Self-Government legislation, in reality a Federal government can change or deny the provisions of those Acts.
Brown considers this an unconscionable interference, and wants to take steps to ensure that the NT can make its own laws in respect of end-of-life issues. Prime Minister Julia Gillard signalled that she would allow a conscience vote on the matter.
Conscience votes are serious stuff. For most bills, the party cabinets decide how their members as a whole will vote, and members must be bound by that – the infamous ‘party line’. (The notable exception was the Australian Democrats – all sitting members participated in deliberations to determine how they would vote.) Should someone vote against the declared stance, they are said to ‘cross the floor’; literally, they leave their seat and move to the other side of the chamber during vote counting. If a conscience vote is declared, however, no direction is given, freeing members to vote according to their individual beliefs. The exception to this is if a party has already declared a position on the issue at hand – for example, ALP members are not free to vote their consciences on abortion-related legislation, due to the party’s declared support for reproductive choice.
Historically, conscience votes tend to concern highly controversial issues such as abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment, embryonic stem cell research, cloning, same-sex relationships, family law, war crimes, and certain areas of parliamentary procedure. Debate often gets tangled up with issues of religion and bio-ethics. Unlike most legislation, the outcome of a conscience vote is almost impossible to predict.
This is a huge risk for Gillard. Critics are already spinning her announcement as ‘proof’ that the Labor minority government is ‘held hostage’ by the Greens. If Brown’s bill passes, those voices may well be joined by those who believe euthanasia is morally and legally wrong.
Brown’s bill, in itself, does not call for legislation of euthanasia. It’s targeted at federal legislation. Should the bill pass, the NT would be free to re-introduce the issue in its own Parliament – but it would not be compelled to do so.
There’s a wider issue at work here, though. More generally, Brown is zeroing in on the federal government’s power to run roughshod over the territories’ right to self-government. In doing so, he puts the Labor government in an uncomfortable position. Issues of same-sex civil unions have already caused a good of deal of wrangling between the Australian Capital Territory and the federal government, with territory legislation repeatedly overturned or blocked, and the Legislative Assembly subjected to what can only be described as federal intimidation. The so-called ‘Northern Territory Intervention’, in which territory laws relating to indigenous peoples were overwritten by federal legislation, is another point of contention.
There are plenty of complex legal issues at work here. Technically, the federal government does have the right to these kinds of actions, although the justifications used often skate right up to the edge of legal trickery. Additionally, there are moral considerations. Should the federal government be able to repeal a law passed by a territory government simply because it doesn’t like it? Doesn’t this simply disenfranchise the citizens of that territory, a majority of whom voted for their direct representatives?
And in the case of the Northern Territory, are there really any good reasons for it to remain a second-class citizen? Why not grant states’ rights? The ACT is in a different situation – after all, it was specifically created to be a national capital, beholden to no particular state – but no such justification exists for the Northern Territory.
The issue of territory sovereignty, linked to the fraught question of legal voluntary euthanasia via this proposed bill, creates a potential minefield for Parliamentarians. Allowing a conscience vote puts increased pressure on members. There are two distinct areas of concern here, and there’s no guarantee that a member who supports territory rights would also be in favour of voluntary euthanasia. Or vice-versa.
Perhaps this is why Tony Abbott and his Education Minister, Christopher Pyne, are doing the media rounds right now attacking Brown’s bill. They’re not criticising the idea of euthanasia – in fact, one could say they are carefully not doing so. Instead, their strategy aims to paint Brown as politically naive, and out of touch with the ‘real’ concerns of Australian people. Abbott made several references over the last two days to ‘bread and butter’ economic issues, which he says are far more important than repealing the ban on the NT’s legislation. This is a curious tactic to employ, given how emotionally charged the whole question of euthanasia becomes at the drop of a hat. It’s as though the Coalition want to keep this as far from their Shadow Cabinet as possible.
Kevin Andrews, the original sponsor of the bill overturning the NT’s laws, appears to be designated as the person who’ll fight this bill on its merits. People ‘don’t want’ euthanasia legislation, he claims. ‘Every attempt’ to introduce it at state level has failed. Of course, here he’s being disingenuous. Strictly speaking, he’s not saying anything that isn’t true – he’s just not mentioning that a territory did pass the legislation and was prevented from implementing it.
What no one in the Coalition wants to do, it appears, is tackle the question of territory rights. By attempting to restrict the issue entirely to euthanasia, and further undermine its importance by implying that is frivolous, the Coalition seems to be hoping that they can avoid the thornier question. If they can’t, they’re damned either way. They’ll be forced to either defend or repudiate the Howard government’s interference. If they defend it, they look like autocrats – and they’re dragged into the general euthanasia question. If they repudiate it, the euthanasia question again becomes relevant, and in addition they leave themselves open to attack on every instance of intervention.
Brown’s certainly right in saying that territory rights are at stake here. In choosing the test case of the euthanasia laws, however, the Greens may have undermined themselves. If either issue dominates, it’s very possible that the bill will fail – not on its merits, but simply because the two issues have eroded rather than bolstered support for each other.