Andrews flags plan for historic change

Richard Willingham & Rania Spooner

Terminally ill Victorians could soon be able to legally end their lives, with Premier Daniel An­drews backing historic legislation to be introduced to Parliament next year.

If passed, the legislation could be the first in Australia to legalise euthanasia since the Northern Territory’s laws were quashed by the federal government two years after passing in 1997.

The Victorian laws would be im­mune from Commonwealth inter­vention.

The Victorian government will introduce a bill in the second half of 2017, with MPs from all sides of politics granted a conscience vote on the matter.

The bill will be drafted with the input of an expert panel over the next six months.

If the laws pass both houses of Parliament and come into effect, which is not a certainty, assisted dying would be available only to Victorian residents.

The earliest the laws could come into effect is 2019, with the commit­tee recommending an 18-month delay after they are passed.

Mr Andrews changed his mind to support assisted dying, as long as it has stringent oversight, after his father died earlier this year.

“My opposition to these laws for me was wrong,” Mr Andrews said.

“There is no reason for this to be anything other than a civil, serious, perhaps at times an intense debate, but it should be a respectful one.”

Opposition Leader Matthew Guy feared laws for assisted dying were a “political distraction” at a time when there was a “law and order crisis”.

The Andrews government said it would allow adults with decision-making capacity who are at the end of their lives and suffering from a terminal illness to be helped to die.

The laws are likely to require two doctors to sign off on any plan that would involve the prescription of a lethal tablet.

Those who are physically unable to take a tablet would be assisted by a doctor.

It will be consistent with the as­sisted dying regulations recom­mended in June by a cross-party committee following the inquiry into end-of-life choices.

A ministerial advisory panel made up of clinical, legal, con­sumer, health administrator and palliative care experts will help draft the laws. Crown counsel Melinda Richards, SC, will also ad­vise.

The challenge for the external panel is to work out who qualifies, what support and tools clinicians needed, how drugs are prescribed, and how doctors would qualify for practising assisted death.

Health Minister Jill Hennessy and Attorney-General Martin Pakula will oversee the bill’s pre­paration.

“It is time for us to put forward a proposition that gives people a choice about how they die when they face unbearable and unspeak­able suffering,” Ms Hennessy said.

The laws’ fate is likely to rest on the multi-party upper house, with many MPs expecting the proposal to pass the lower house.

The announcement comes after the government’s formal response to the end-of-life choices recom­mendations was tabled on Thurs­day [8 December] morning, which had not backed the scheme outright, instead say­ing more work still needed to be done.

Across the Parliament, MPs have indicated support for some type of scheme, with many saying they would support a law that had strict rules about who qualified for assistance in ending their lives, and assurance that there was strict oversight of the laws, to ensure that the vulnerable were not pres­sured into making such a final choice.

The formal response stated the plans outlined for assisted dying laws needed more work.

“Consistent with the introduc­tion of any new medical interven­tion or procedure, rigorous review of the assisted dying framework should be undertaken, including safety and quality considerations and the impact on wider health care delivery, including resource implication for palliative and end of life care,” it read.

The government has backed most of the report’s 46 recom­mendations, including calls to bol­ster palliative care services across the state and enable more Victori­ans to die at home.

Some of these were addressed by the state’s ambitious end-of-life framework, released in July, with a $7.2 million commitment to expand specialist palliative care services, and support GPs to assist people at home.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull told radio station 3AW he did not support voluntary euthanasia.

The plan to take the legislation to Parliament next year came as a disappointment for Professor Peter Hudson, director at the Centre for Palliative Care at St Vincent’s Health, who has been outspoken against rushing into vol­untary euthanasia laws.

“The government appears to be predetermining any further exam­ination of the impact of euthanasia, which is a serious disappoint­ment,” he said.

For social historian and volun­tary euthanasia advocate Deb Campbell, the proposed frame­work doesn’t go far enough. She believes the proposed framework would “merely replace one set of gatekeepers with another, requir­ing people to get “permission to die from the medical profession”.