The Australian Capital Territory, where the nation’s capital Canberra is located, is a self-governing jurisdiction with about 460,000 people. It is considering “voluntary assisted dying” legislation which could be amongst the most liberal of its kind in the world.
ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr described the move as a “historic day” after a “long journey”. “It’s the result of years of advocacy for equal rights,” he said.
The Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill 2023 was tabled in the ACT parliament on Tuesday, a year after the Federal government passed a law reversing a veto on VAD which had been imposed in 1997. The ACT and the Northern Territory are the last jurisdictions in Australia to legislate for VAD. Victoria legalised it in 2017 and one by one the other states have followed.
In drafting the bill, the Labor-Greens government “improved” what it calls “the Australian model”. Inconvenient safeguards have been tweaked to make the process of applying for assisted suicide as easy as possible.
The key points of the legislation are:
- Patients must be suffering “intolerably” and their condition must be “advanced, progressive and expected to cause death”. The suffering can be physical or mental. However, what is “intolerable” is defined by the patient. The persistent and intolerable suffering can also be anticipation and fear of intolerable suffering.
- The “Australian model” sets a life expectancy timeline of six to 12 months to be eligible for an assisted death. But in the ACT there will be no life expectancy limit. This has been deemed arbitrary and discriminatory.
- At the moment, VAD is restricted to people over 18, but the ACT government has said that it will consider VAD for 14-year-olds and for people with dementia.
- All the other states have a residency requirement. In the ACT, VAD will be open to all residents and to “those who can establish they have a substantial connection to the ACT”. Presumably this is aimed at people in New South Wales town surrounding the ACT. However, as Canberra is the national capital, many Australians have a “connection”.
- Health practitioners are not required to participate in VAD, but if asked, they must refer to one who does.
- “At least two health practitioners must independently attest that an individual has decision-making capacity.” However, in a remarkable departure from the “Australian model”, one of these can be a nurse practitioner.
- The first state to legalise VAD, Victoria, does not permit doctors to initiate conversations about it with patients. Other states do. The ACT bill allows not only doctors but nurses, social workers, and counsellors to raise the topic.
- Some healthcare institutions might object to VAD in their premises. The bill protects a patient’s right to VAD. But the ACT government has already disposed of that problem by compulsory acquiring the Catholic-run Calvary Hospital and a small Catholic-run palliative care hospice earlier in the year.
An opponent of euthanasia and a former Labor Party candidate, Dr Brendan Long, described the bill as a “very dangerous piece of legislation”. “I’ve had the opportunity to campaign against the legislation across the country and this is the worst bill that has been put forward. It contains the weakest safeguards and it’s going to create the greatest risk to the most vulnerable people in the territory,” he told the Canberra Times.
“I have serious doubts about whether the territory is a big enough jurisdiction to run its own regulatory framework for something as complex as this.”
The Bill will be sent to a committee to permit public feedback. Assuming that it passes, there will be an 18-month implementation period. ACT residents (and people with a significant connection to Canberra) could have access to VAD by the end of 2025.