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28 November 2014
by Neil Francis

A failure of moral leadership

Before Oregon's assisted dying law - the Death With Dignity Act - explained Dr Hugo Richardson, "we saw many patients who felt that they had reached the end of traditional treatment … and that there were no options." Dr Richardson is a Board-certified palliative care specialist at Oregon's largest hospital.

Prior to the law, "we saw many more violent suicides among terminally ill patients," he said, adding that since the Act came into effect (in 1997) "I have seen no violent suicides."

These were common themes that retiring MP and past Speaker Mr Ken Smith and I heard again and again during our visit to Oregon, where we investigated their assisted dying law to help frame effective and responsible reform in Victoria.

Such a law would be of tremendous comfort to dying Victorian man Mr Peter Short and many others like him. Mr Short has late-stage oesophageal cancer, with only weeks to live. He has described how having a choice would provide him with immense comfort, whether he enacts the choice or not.

But these messages have fallen on deaf political ears.

Premier Denis Napthine, in response to Mr Short's repeated requests to discuss the reform and make a referral to the Victorian Law Reform Commission, stated not only his personal opposition to the reform, but that his Government had no intention of acting.

In a recent public event the Attorney General Robert Clark confirmed that a State Coalition Government was opposed to action. His astounding reasoning was this: Greens MP Colleen Hartland had introduced a Bill into a previous Parliament and it had been defeated, so the matter had been dealt with.

Since when did the defeat of the first attempt at a Bill justify abandoning its principle completely and permanently?

But the actual reason for the demise of the Bill is largely unknown to Victorians. In sometimes lengthy speeches in Parliament, many politicians stated that they were not against the reform in principle, but were unhappy with one or other provision in the Bill.

Both sides of Parliament announced that their members would have a non-party vote. The Bill was ultimately defeated, but the travesty of process came when Greens MP Greg Barber immediately moved that the Bill be referred to committee for consultation and improvement so as to attempt to satisfy concerns.

The vote on Barber's motion was not on the Bill itself, but on a "procedural matter about the Bill." Both sides, Coalition or Labor, resumed party-line voting and Mr Barber's motion was resoundingly defeated, including by some of those who had voted in favour of the Bill itself.

What hypocrisy: for so many to say they merely had one concern or other, and then block the very process that could address their concerns.

Recently, opposition leader Daniel Andrews has also stated that he will not introduce a reform of this nature if elected. Instead, he announced a revision of the Medical Treatment Act to permit refusal of medical treatment for future conditions. At present, the Act permits refusal of treatment only for current conditions.

While a welcome reform, it is a small measure and is no substitute for assisted dying reform. Why do either side of politics assume that refusing medical treatment will suddenly eliminate intolerable suffering at the end of life? It doesn't. And for many dying Victorians, there is no treatment to refuse.

Whether they would use an assisted dying law or not, millions of Victorians are clear that they expect the respect of their State to make their own decisions at end of life.

Referral of the matter to the Law Reform Commission which would afford Victorians a voice in formal, open and robust discussion. Yet our 'leaders' actively refuse. If those resolutely opposed to assisted dying law reform were so very confident of their arguments against, they would welcome the referral so they could put their case.

Dr Napthine and Mr Andrews must explain to the electorate before polling day why it is that they expect their own personal opposition to this reform to trounce the consciences of millions of Victorians.

As Oregon legislator Senator Ginny Burdick explained to Mr Smith and me, "This is just a very, very positive addition to your health care options at the end of life. It is a compassionate measure that will help a lot of people, whether or not they actually use it."