HISTORIC voluntary euthanasia laws will head to Victoria’s upper house next month after the state’s lower house MPs endured a marathon sitting to pass proposed legislation.
However, warnings from former Australian prime ministers have the potential to slow the political trajectory of the laws that would allow terminally ill patients with less than 12 months to live and who are suffering unbearable pain, to request lethal medication.
Former Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating weighed in at the last-minute to try and stop Victoria’s lower house from approving the laws, characterising the current euthanasia debate as “a threshold moment for the country”.
Former Liberal Prime Minister Tony Abbott described the legislation as a “turning point” in how society viewed doctors, patients and the terminally ill.
Premier Daniel Andrews praised lower house colleagues for achieving the extraordinary after endorsing the country’s first state-based euthanasia scheme in more than two decades.
After the vote Mr Keating branded the laws “deeply regressive” and an abrogation of “the core instinct to survive”.
The 73-year-old, who was Australia’s 24th prime minister, is Catholic, and his remarks still hold enormous sway in the Labor Party.
“If there are doctors prepared to bend the rules now, there will be doctors prepared to bend the rules under the new system. Beyond that, once termination of life is authorised, the threshold is crossed,” Mr Keating wrote in Melbourne’s The Age newspaper.
Mr Keating condemned the lack of access to palliative care in Australia, which he said was where the priority ought to be.
“The weakest link in the chain is palliative care,” he wrote.
Mr Keating said opposition to the euthanasia bill was not about religion.
“The concerns I express are shared by people of any religion or no religion. In public life it is the principles that matter,” he wrote.
“They define the norms and values of a society and in this case the principles concern our view of human life itself.
“It is a mistake for legislators to act on the deeply held emotional concerns of many when that involves crossing a threshold that will affect the entire society in perpetuity.”
Mr Keating’s intervention could signal a political shift in Labor support – not only in Victoria’s upper house, but also in the New South Wales parliament where euthanasia is due to be debated in coming months.
The issue is also on the political agenda in Queensland. Sixteen Queensland MPs, mostly Labor members, have publicly shown support for voluntary euthanasia, according to Dying with Dignity Queensland.
At a state conference in July, Queensland Labor backed the introduction of euthanasia legislation, despite warnings from a conservative union it would be an “albatross around the neck” of Labor at the next state election.
“If you do support this motion, you’re not only binding the government, but every time we try to get a positive story out there about jobs growth, about economic growth, about decent housing, we’re going to be hit over the head with this issue, not necessarily because it’s more or less important but because it’ll distract people from the good work the ALP is doing in the state,” Labor right faction member and SDA union assistant secretary Justin Power warned.
“It will be an albatross around the neck of the ALP.”
In his critique of voluntary euthanasia, Mr Keating said all the safeguards in the world could not change what he called the “core intention of the law”.
“What matters is that under Victorian law there will be people whose lives we honour and those we believe are better off dead,” he wrote in The Age.
Mr Keating warned that protections for the most vulnerable of all people, those in the end stages of life, were problematic.
“The advocates support a bill to authorise termination of life in the name of compassion, while at the same time claiming they can guarantee protection of the vulnerable, the depressed and the poor,” he wrote.