MOTION: Parliamentary Inquiry into Voluntary Euthanasia

Today Mark spoke in support of Labor's motion to establish a Joint Committee to inquire into practices used within the medical community to assist people experiencing a chronic and/or terminal illness to manage their end of life preferences, and what legislative reforms may be needed in SA for assisted dying (voluntary euthanasia). 


1. That, in the opinion of this Council, a Joint Committee be appointed to inquire into and report on—

(a) the practices currently being utilised within the medical community to assist a person to exercise their preferences for the way they manage their end of life when experiencing chronic and/or terminal illnesses, including the role of palliative care;

(b) the current legal framework, relevant reports and materials in other Australian states and territories and overseas jurisdictions, including the Victorian and Western Australian parliamentary inquiries into end-of-life choices, Victoria's Voluntary Assisted Dying Act 2017 and implementation of the associated reforms;

(c) what legislative changes may be required, including an examination of any federal laws that may impact such legislation; and

(d) any other related matter.

The Hon. M.C. PARNELL: I rise on behalf of the Greens to support this motion, and I congratulate the Hon. Kyam Maher for bringing it to us. As he pointed out, it is not the first time he has done so. Issues to do with voluntary euthanasia, dying with dignity and assisted suicide—however they are labelled—have been on the Notice Paper of this chamber and this Parliament, and also of Parliaments around Australia for the last 20 or 30 years.

It has always been my view that the law would eventually pass somewhere. The reason I have always had that confidence is because survey after survey and opinion poll after opinion poll have shown that for the vast majority of Australians, when asked, 'Do you support changes to the law to allow people who are suffering intolerably from incurable conditions to access medical assistance to end their lives?' the answer is yes. The numbers have been going up year on year, from figures of around 60 and 70 per cent decades ago, up to well over 80 per cent.

The majority does not confine itself to political views, it does not confine itself to religious views. The majority of people who describe themselves as Christian, who describe themselves as one of the different denominations—Catholic, Anglican, whatever—when asked whether they support this law reform, say yes. It has been a matter of great concern and distress to many people that the Parliaments of this country have not seen fit to enact what the citizens are asking them to do.

As the Hon. Kyam Maher said, we stand on the shoulders of those who went before us. I have tried twice, and I cannot remember what number bills they were—whether it was 11 and 12 or 13 and 14—but certainly many people came before me. As the Hon. Kyam Maher did when he introduced this motion, I, too, acknowledged the people who came before me.

I might just mention one example, and that is the Hon. Sandra Kanck, who represented the Australian Democrats in this place. She was a strong advocate for voluntary euthanasia. As a measure of desperation, she made a speech, not long after I had been elected, where she read onto the record a number of case studies and examples of what the Hon. Irene Pnevmatikos referred to: people—a lot of elderly people, but not just older people—who have taken their lives because there was nothing else they could do. She read onto the record in graphic detail some of the measures people resorted to.

It actually shocked me, not the stories she told—I was familiar with the stories—what shocked me was the parliamentary response. I recall that we had a massive debate in this place about whether we could strike the honourable member's words from the record. There were motions without notice flying around the chamber about whether we could strike it from the Hansard record. Then someone suggested that we could leave it on the record but take it off the online version so that it was only available on paper.

Then there were questions about whether the parliamentary librarian was sufficiently qualified to assess the mental state of someone who came into the parliamentary library to read the Hansard, which was only available exclusively in the library—it was not going to be published anywhere else. This chamber tied itself in absolute knots trying to work out what to do about the Hon. Sandra Kanck's speech.

So this is a matter that has occupied a lot of time in this chamber, and I think the point remains that we know what the citizens are asking us to do—they have been asking us for decades to do it. This motion is not a bill. The motion is, I think, preparatory to a bill, and I desperately hope that it results in a bill. Bills that have been introduced in this council have failed by the narrowest of margins.

I think we heard the Hon. Kyam Maher talking about the Speaker's casting vote in the House of Assembly. My recollection of the first bill I introduced is that that was a single vote as well, and it was a vote that changed at the last minute, something that took people by surprise. So we have got close many times in getting this necessary law reform, but it has not yet happened.

I think the honourable member's approach of having a Committee of Parliament to look at this in detail is absolutely the way to go. Of course, we could just keep introducing bill after bill, and one of them will eventually pass, but I think that the committee approach makes sense. The advantage of a Parliamentary Committee is that we can get people into the room and we can quiz them. We can get medical authorities; we can get people from the palliative care sector; we can get experts on human rights and civil liberties; and, most importantly, we can get people with overseas experience, and we can grill them about how these laws work, the types of eligibility criteria, the various checks and balances.

The reason I think it is important for us to be able to do this is that, in previous debates, the amount of misinformation that has been flowing would have made Donald Trump blush, in terms of fake news. All sorts of stories were trotted out that were clearly untrue, especially in relation to the experience in overseas jurisdictions. So a committee is a good way of getting all the evidence on the table.

One thing that did strike me in looking at the examples of countries that do have voluntary euthanasia laws was the number of people who were eligible to take advantage of the laws. They qualified and they actually obtained drugs that they could use to end their lives, and then the number of people who died 'naturally' without taking those drugs was actually very high. The explanation given was that, like probably all of us, people do want to live. If they have a choice and if they can live well then people want to live, they want to live as long as they can.

However, what these people had was a safety net. Whilst they had thought that the pain was intolerable, they had the drugs ready in case it got to that point where they could not live one more day, yet many of them, because of the will to live, actually survived without taking it but they were so grateful that those drugs were there for them if they chose to use them—and that is the point: it was their choice. I think that was an important lesson that came out of some of the European experience.

I am looking forward to this Committee being established and to hearing the evidence taken. I expect that the Committee will call for public submissions as well as for expert submissions. I expect that the committee will be overwhelmed with submissions by groups that we know are active in this space. Certainly, there are many people who will write submissions who are against it, and they will be overwhelmingly but not exclusively religiously based—that is the experience here previously and everywhere else. However, you will also have people who will take a contrary view religiously based. We had a group called Christians for Voluntary Euthanasia and they ran candidates for the Legislative Council, I think, two elections ago. Religion has no monopoly on this debate. There will be people who will invoke religion either for or against voluntary euthanasia.

I think it is a good process. I congratulate the Hon. Kyam Maher for bringing it on and I will also take this final opportunity to associate myself with the remarks of the Hon. Irene Pnevmatikos. I am very glad that she is now in the chamber because people in the past have said, 'Mark, bring another bill on,' and I say, 'Well, there's not much point bringing another bill on until the numbers and the membership of the Council changes. There is a large number of new members and we don't know what their position is,' so I am glad the Hon. Irene Pnevmatikos has put her position very clearly on the record.

I am hoping that when this Joint Select Committee finally reports that it comes up with a bill that guarantees what I think is a basic human right of people to die with dignity, that it includes the necessary safeguards and checks and that when it does eventually get put to a vote in parliament that it gets the overwhelming support of the members of both houses. With those words, the Greens support this motion.