15 April 2016
by Michael Koziol

'Absurd': Bob Hawke blasts lack of political will to legalise euthanasia

Former prime minister Bob Hawke says he has an 'arrangement' with wife Blanche d'Alpuget should he lose his presence of mind.

The illegality of euthanasia in Australia is "absurd" and politicians are too cowardly to fix it, former prime minister Bob Hawke says, while also revealing an "arrangement" with wife Blanche d'Alpuget should he lose his mind.

With a federal election campaign possibly weeks away, the vexed issue of assisted suicide has been lobbed back into the national consciousness courtesy of a podcast by broadcaster Andrew Denton and the strong support of Labor's longest-serving prime minister.

"It's just an unarguable case," Mr Hawke told ABC Radio National on Thursday. He said there were no ethical grounds for forcing people in terrible pain to "suffer and suffer and suffer" on quasi-religious moral grounds.

"I can see no logical or moral basis for such an absurd position."

The 86-year-old acknowledged he had newfound passion for the issue but said he had always been in favour of euthanasia, which is legal in several European countries. Assisted dying, in which a physician can facilitate the means of death for use by a terminally ill patient at a time of their own choosing, is legal in some US states.

Both forms are illegal in Australia, although for a brief period in the 1990s the Northern Territory legalised euthanasia. The Commonwealth then overrode that legislation, but there is currently a bill before the Senate that would restore those powers to the territories.

But Mr Hawke was cynical about the political will to legalise euthanasia in Australia, particularly when it came to MPs in marginal seats.

"Politicians, by and large, are not the bravest of creatures," he told Denton's podcast, Better Off Dead.

"Their first concern is saving their seat and they don't want to do anything that's going to lose them votes."

Mr Hawke also reflected on his personal circumstances, saying he had an "understanding" with his wife Blanche d'Alpuget that "something" would be done if he ever lost his presence of mind.

"Something I could not stand would be to lose my marbles. If that were in fact to happen, then something is done about it," he said.

"I don't expect it to be a pillow pressed exuberantly over my nose, but I'm sure that she could organise something with a family doctor."

Something I could not stand would be to lose my marbles. If that were in fact to happen, then something is done about it.

Polls consistently show the overwhelming majority of Australians support euthanasia, with the figure running at 75 to 85 per cent. But similar to the issue of same-sex marriage, a sizeable chunk of voters - many motivated by religion - are vehemently opposed.

"The fact that you've got a significant number who don't like it is enough for a lot of politicians to say, 'I don't want to get involved,' " Mr Hawke said.

Labor MPs are granted a conscience vote on euthanasia, and in the past so have those in the Coalition.

Also speaking on Radio National on Thursday, politicians from both sides supported a closer look at the issue.

Cabinet Secretary Arthur Sinodinos said it was "certainly worth exploring further", while shadow treasurer Chris Bowen said "the time has come".

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten's office would not say whether Labor would take a specific policy on euthanasia or assisted suicide to the election.

Any proposed model for legal euthanasia would only apply to terminally ill patients who are deemed to be of sound enough mind to make an informed decision.

In most cases it would be a matter for older Australians, though Mr Hawke noted that it need not be limited to the elderly.

"A 15-year-old can be in a position where he's got very limited life expectancy and the only certainty is excruciating pain," he said. "The principle is generally valid, I believe."

Mr Hawke acknowledged there were genuine concerns about the possibility of family members expediting the death of a relative to get their hands on an inheritance.

But he also disagreed with the contention of some euthanasia sceptics that say Australian legislators would be unable or unlikely to design a framework that is safe and workable.

"I don't think there's any ground for that apprehension," he said.