Euthanasia Debate To Dominate Federal Parliament This Week

A bill to allow the ACT and NT to make laws on euthanasia.

Another chapter in Australia's fractured history on assisted suicide is set to be written this week, with discussion in federal parliament to be dominated by euthanasia.

A debate on assisted suicide is marked down as the main topic of discussion in the Senate from Tuesday, with cross-parliament support for a push to revisit 1997 laws that ban the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory from making their own laws on the controversial medical topic.

The so-called 'Andrews bill', named for former Liberal Kevin Andrews who introduced the bill, came after the NT famously legalised euthanasia in 1995.

Euthanasia laws have been toyed with nationwide in the intervening years, most prominently in 2017 when Victorian state parliament backed reforms to legalise the measure from 2019. States have the power to make their own laws on euthanasia, but the 'Andrews bill' blocked territories from exercising the same freedom.

David Leyonhjelm proposed the bill in parliament (AAP Image/Mick Tsikas)

Liberal Democrats senator David Leyonhjelm attracted support from a surprisingly diverse grouping of Labor, the Greens, One Nation and crossbench senators to have his Restoring Territory Rights (Assisted Suicide Legislation) Bill debated.

The Senate resolved to make Leyonhjelm's bill -- first proposed back in 2015, co-sponsored by then-Labor senator Katy Gallagher, and gathering dust since -- a priority order of business this week.

Both major parties are expected to allow a conscience vote on the issue when the time comes. So how did we get here?

What is Leyonhjelm's euthanasia bill?

Leyonhjelm, who supports euthanasia, proposed his bill to reduce what he called "Commonwealth interference" in the laws of the ACT and NT. The new bill would repeal the Euthanasia Laws Act 1997, the 'Andrews bill', which itself amended the Northern Territory (Self-Government) Act 1978 to withdraw the territory government's power to make euthanasia law.

(Getty Images)

This 1997 legislation came after the NT government passed its Rights of the Terminally Ill Act in June 1995, which gave Territorians the right to end their own life. A person needed to be 18 years old, and have their wishes supported by three doctors, including a psychiatrist to attest they were not ending their life due to depression or other mental conditions, and a specialist to attest they had a terminal condition.

The NT legislation was among the first of its type in the world, and set off fierce debate. Conservative Liberal MP Andrews introduced his bill in 1996, looking to overturn the right of the Territory to make such laws.

Why is it needed?

Leyonhjelm said his bill was about recognising rights of territories to make laws for their citizens. Currently, neither the ACT or NT have the ability to make laws on euthanasia -- a right that all other states do have.

"Because of [the Andrews bill] the Northern Territory and the ACT are prevented from doing it," Leyonhjelm said in July.

"My bill addresses two issues: territory rights, and the right to die. I am a firm believer in both."

Australian euthanasia advocate Dr Phillip Nitschke (AAP Image/Joe Castro)

He later told the ABC his bill was also about the wider issue around the division of powers between state and federal governments.

"There could well be people who will vote for it because they don't think the Federal Government should be telling the territories what they should do on this issue," he told the ABC.

A 2017 Essential poll of 1000 Australians found 73 percent supported euthanasia. Other recent polls on the issue have found similarly high levels of support for the measure.

How has euthanasia law developed in Australia?

The NT was the first Australian jurisdiction to introduce euthanasia laws. Since then, Victoria has passed its own laws, which come into effect in 2019.

VIC Special Minister of State Gavin Jennings, Premier Daniel Andrews and Health Minister Jill Hennessy after the Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill passed state parliament in November 2017 (AAP Image/David Crosling)

After a mammoth and landmark debate lasting 26 hours, Victoria legalised euthanasia in 2017. The laws allow for someone "diagnosed with a disease, illness or medical condition that is incurable, advanced, progressive and will cause death, and is expected to cause death within less than 12 months" to end their own life following a series of medical evaluations. A person will be supplied with a medical substance to end their own life themselves or, if they are physically incapable of actually doing so, a medical professional can assist.

State parliaments in Tasmania (2013), South Australia (2016) and NSW (2017) have all debated euthanasia legislation in recent years, with all proposals narrowly defeated.

But despite the lack of widespread political or legislative action on the issue, Australia actually has a rich history in euthanasia advocacy. The controversial Dr Philip Nitschke is one of the world's leading advocates for the measure, and is recognised as the first doctor in the world to deliver a lethal, voluntary dose to end a person's life.

104-year-old Australian scientist David Goodall at a press conference, a day before his assisted suicide in Switzerland (EPA/GEORGIOS KEFALAS)

Perth academic Dr David Goodall also recently made headlines for travelling to Switzerland to end his life, at age 104. He is thought to be the first person in the world to end his life legally on the basis of old age, rather than terminal illness.

The Greens party proposed a federal law outlining the right to die with dignity in 2017.

What's next?

Leyonhjelm's bill will be debated this week. A resolution passed in June means the bill will have precedence over all government business in the Senate, meaning there will be ample time for what is sure to be a long, emotive debate.

Both major parties are expected to allow their members a conscience vote on the issue, so expect a lively debate.

Even if the bill passes the Senate, it doesn't mean the territories will automatically get euthanasia legalised. It would first need to pass the House of Representatives, where we don't know if it will be allowed a conscience vote, and then the NT and ACT would have to have their own debates again over whether euthanasia would be legal there.

There's a long way to go but this is a big first step.