Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill 2017

Mr BURGESS (Hastings) (21:21:36) — I rise to speak on the euthanasia bill. The first thing I would like to do is thank my community for the advice that they have given me — for the consultations, for the letters, for the phone calls, for the emails and for sharing with me their deepest thoughts and fears and the things that they would like to see happen in our community and, probably more importantly, the things that they would like not to see happen in our community.

No‑one in this house is trying to do any harm. This has certainly been one of the most respectful debates that I have participated in, and I think it says a lot about the people who have participated in this debate. Nevertheless we land on different sides of the question, and there are reasons for that. I would like to go through some of those reasons — the reasons I will not be supporting this bill and the reasons why I will support the amendment proposed by the member for Monbulk.

Euthanasia paints a really attractive picture. It tells us that we are able to end our lives when we want to, on our terms, smoothly and with no pain and no trauma. That leads to very high levels of support for euthanasia in the community at first blush, when people are first asked. But when you spend time and talk to people to take them through the process — when you talk about the briefings you have had, the things you have observed and the experts you have spoken to — that quickly changes in a very large number of circumstances, though not all. Many people are certainly wedded to the thought that this is the way our community should go, and I respect that view, but there is no doubt that there are problems with the way this government has approached this particular topic that concern me greatly, concern many members of my community and have led me to not support this bill.

Euthanasia is just not the attractive picture that is painted. It is only a place that we should go to when we have tried all else, and can we say that? Can we say in Victoria that we have tried everything to reach a point where we can end the suffering of people in the late stages of their life without offering them the blunt solution of death? This particular piece of legislation, contrary to what was recommended to the government, goes for a prognosis of death of 12 months. I do not think I have spoken to anybody who thinks a doctor — and many of the people I have spoken to have been doctors — can accurately give a prognosis of death within 12 months. If it goes out to 12 months, it might be five years. If it goes out to five years, it might not happen for quite a long time. Nevertheless it is what the government has chosen to put in its bill.

What would have been a much better approach is if the government had decided to really boost palliative care. That is a legacy. That would be a legacy that an outgoing government, after years, could be proud of, but this government over three years has increased funding to palliative care by a meagre 16 per cent. That really is just not good enough. It is not good enough if you are going to come to this house and offer a solution of death to the suffering of people in the final stages of their lives. That is what this government has done.

So much more can be done and should be done. We should be focusing on creating the world’s best palliative care. And if we do reach that point, if we do spend the money and the time and focus on creating world’s best practice palliative care and we still cannot get rid of the suffering of that 2 per cent of people and the suffering still is unable to be relieved, then we can talk about what this next step is — but only when we have done that. We are a long way from that.

The opposition announced earlier this year that it would take the first big step towards that very worthwhile goal, and that is an increase of $140 million in palliative care. That is a record funding announcement for this type of care in Australia. It would be the largest investment of that kind that there has been in Australia. Current funding over the last financial year covered 16 777 people, and this would add another 8000 people to that list. On top of that, palliative care would be spread to a larger number of people in a larger number of areas.

Seventy per cent of people — and I have heard other members refer to this — want to die in their homes, and that is part of end‑of‑life care. And yet only a third or less get to achieve that. This funding announcement would help that happen. There would be a doubling of specialist palliative care for medical and nursing services, particularly in regional and rural areas; a 50 per cent increase in community palliative care and in‑home overnight respite; and enhanced linkages after hours for GPs and pharmacists. That is a great start. It is not the be‑all and end‑all. It is not the final solution that we are looking for, the world’s best practice, but it is a big step in the right direction, and it is a step that this government should have taken rather than resorting to euthanasia. That should be our last option. That should always be our last option.

The government talks about, and many of the contributions have been about, patient autonomy. That is an interesting thing to talk about when you do not give enough money to palliative care to be able to afford patient autonomy — to put patients in a position where they can have an autonomous decision‑making process. When they would access something like euthanasia is when they do not believe they have got any choice left at all and when they are at desperation level. After all, as a race we have a survival instinct. It is something that everyone talks about when they come close to something happening that frightens them. People think they are bulletproof until something happens and they are at risk, and then all of a sudden it kicks in that they would do just about anything to survive.

You can think about what happens when there is a fire, which has occurred in the past, such is in Europe when there was a fire in a picture theatre and people basically pulled themselves to pieces to get out of that room. That is the survival instinct. It is alive and well in everybody. When you have gone through enough suffering at the end of life, that survival instinct is hidden well and truly below the surface but it is still there, and that is the thing that we should be focusing on. It is something that is really important. It is a line that we should not cross.

Our community is built around the way our society functions, and that is part of it. If we cross lines like that, then we are going down a path that I do not think we want to go down and it is very difficult to anticipate what the reactions will be. It is somewhere we have not been before and not somewhere I think that this community wants to go.

In fact listening to the contribution of the member for Morwell certainly gave me pause for thought. He said, even without batting an eyelid, that if he had been able to access this legislation or this particular law, he would have been prepared, given his state of mind at the time, to do anything he had to to access it — he would have. We would not have had him here now. He would not be here. His wife would not have a husband. His children would not have a father. But this is one of the gaping holes in this legislation. It does nothing to protect people when they have mental illness.

They might be suffering from a fatal disease that they are going to die of at some point, but that might be, as I have already pointed out, five years down the track, and yet they could access this legislation on the basis of their depression. I know that there is no‑one in this room that would like that to happen, but it is certainly where some of the jurisdictions around the world have gone. An important point is that once you cross this line, what is the next line that we stop at? Where is the point we will not go past? Once we have licensed the state to take life, what is the next line? Where do we say, ‘No, that is too far’?

It is a slippery slope. Now, I have heard everybody pooh‑pooh the slippery slope argument, but it is the argument that has certainly been borne out around the world. In the small minority of countries that have done this it has been something that has happened, and it is real.

Speaker, I would like to seek an extension of time.

Leave granted.

Mr BURGESS — We are in a situation where this government is asking us to cross that line, and that is a profound and radical change for our community. Our duty in this house should always be to put in place a health system that helps people to have the very best of life and the very best of death. The coalition’s palliative care proposal does that. It needs to be tried. We need to make it happen. The government’s bill does not do that.

Assisted suicide, in the bill, promotes but cannot guarantee a peaceful and smooth death. That has been seen in the countries where this has been the case, where euthanasia has been implemented. There are countless stories of truly painful and delayed deaths, more painful than would have been the case had they not accessed it. In the Netherlands 7 per cent experienced unexpected side effects, including regaining consciousness, vomiting, gasping for air and having seizures. One death in Oregon lasted 104 hours. Think about the trauma involved in that, when a decision is being made to end someone’s life and you are in that room and it takes 104 hours for that person to pass away. Another experience was a man who undertook euthanasia and lived. He woke up three days later and lived for an extra 14 days and then died of his cancer.

Coercion is something that we want to look at, as well as children and the elderly. We know that the suicide rate among children is at record levels. It is at a 10‑year high, and we know that elder abuse is an enormous problem and is turning into one of the largest problems that we face. This bill really does nothing to stop that. In fact this bill stops there being any investigation of note after a death, after a person has passed away. It goes to great lengths to make sure in relation to the record of cause of death that if in fact you have gone through the steps to get the certificate and it is apparent that you have gone through and taken the substance — and we do not know what substance it is — then it is assumed that you have died from your disease, and that is what will be noted as being your cause of death.

I think any time we get into legal fictions like this, there is a reason we should step back and look at what we are doing. And we are in the land of legal fiction. There is no doubt about that. It was pointed out to me by the member for Burwood that if you had gone through this process, obtained the poison and then been bludgeoned to death, on your death certificate it would say you died of cancer, if that had been the disease. That is an unacceptable situation and one that we should be pushing back against. I urge anybody who is still thinking about this — and in fact those who have made up their mind to vote yes for this bill — to think again, because this bill is not good for this state. It is not good for this country. It is not something we should be introducing.

I will be voting for the reasoned amendment from the member for Monbulk. His reasoned amendment, among other things, highlights the inequality of access to best practice palliative care, uncertainties about what substance will be used, the fact that there is no stopping of doctor shopping, the possible development of assisted dying clinics, the lack of adequate protection against family violence and elder abuse, and prejudice against people with disabilities. I have been through that experience. There was a young Down syndrome girl in my electorate who was being discriminated against by the hospital that she was in. It would have been so easy for them to have used euthanasia for her. What they were doing was denying her a life‑saving operation. That is not a path we want to go down. It is important that our community continues to value life and continues to fight for it, because that is what makes our community strong. That is what makes us stick together. That is what makes us as people important to our community and important to each other.

Euthanasia becomes a self‑fulfilling prophecy. If we go down that track, then that is exactly where we are going to end up, and it is going to be a difficult task to come back. This is not something that we as a community should be playing with.