The Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill 2019 is currently before the upper house in Western Australia. The bill has been widely publicised and the debate was raging long before the legislation was introduced, and campaigners for both sides have been out in force since the parliament first established the Joint-Select Committee on End of Life Choices in 2017.
Throughout the parliamentary debates, we have heard numerous personal heartbreaking stories from members talking about their losses and those of their friends and constituents. While anyone who has lost a loved one can sympathise, we cannot let that affect our assessment of the Bill before the house. We as elected officials must be able to separate our views on voluntary assisted dying from the bill before us. In sum, you can agree with VAD without necessarily approving of this bill.
Emotion must not dictate the debate, and it seems to me that emotion has been the driving force behind it. Scrutiny of the provisions has taken a back seat to personal feelings, and some are dogmatically insisting the bill pass without any critical assessment. People are insisting we vote yes on a bill they haven’t read (along with most of the parliament, it seems).
West Australians should be highly suspicious of this proposed legislation and should read it for themselves before they campaign for or against it.
In November 2018, after the tabling of the report of the Select Committee on End of Life Choices, the state government announced it would introduce assisted dying legislation. Following this announcement, in December a ministerial expert panel was established to consult with the public and make recommendations for the development of a VAD bill.
On the first of February, the panel published a report which stated they would publish a discussion paper by March. The paper was published and in April the panel published an update saying they had been consulting for “almost a month”, meaning the first paper was most likely drafted with little to no consultation. The VAD model proposed in that paper was merely repeating the contents of the Select Committee report.
The consultation process concluded in May, with the Expert Panel reporting on May 24 after only consulting for two months. Eleven days later, on June 4, the panel submitted their final 140-page report to the Minister, with the 6ill being submitted to the house on August 7, two months and two weeks later. The fact that the expert panel took 11 days to write the report should raise some eyebrows since it took the select committee a year, who consulted for far longer, and whose model is vastly different to that proposed by the panel.
In comparison, Victoria’s expert panel consulted for 12 months. WA’s only managed two. Less than two weeks after concluding the consultation process they had completed a final report, with a process entirely different to that outlined in their March discussion paper. To say the whole process was extremely rushed is an understatement – in a briefing, the expert panel even confirmed they were rushed through the process. I commend them for their efforts, but I have little confidence in the bill before the house.
This bill also comes on the back of the 2017 Inquiry into Elder Abuse which confirmed this scourge is rife in the state, but little discussion of the topic is provided in either the select committee or expert panel report.
This bill also comes on the back of the ill-fated Human Reproductive Technology and Surrogacy Legislation Amendment Bill 2018 famously filibustered and written about by Liberal Legislative Councillor Nick Goiran – a Bill which turned out to be inconsistent with Commonwealth law that the government knowingly tried doggedly to push through, withholding the legal advice which pointed out the bill’s inconsistency with a number of federal anti-discrimination measures.
Now, much like then, the government is insisting that no one ask questions and delay the Bill. Victoria touted their safeguards as the safest model; the WA government has been curiously quiet on their confidence in the safety of this Bill.
Even the most ardent of supporters should raise an eyebrow about this clearly rushed legislation.
Dogma and emotion over substance has dominated the discussion over this bill, with Labor even turning on their own for their concerns over the insufficient safeguards. In September Labor Member for Armadale Tony Buti put forward an amendment to the VAD bill noting his concern regarding the bill permitting doctors to bring up VAD with their patients, noting that particularly vulnerable people, such as his own adult daughter, are more easily prone to influence from outsiders and may, feeling the need to please or follow instructions, seek VAD. This minor amendment was voted down in a coalition of Labor and Nationals votes. The Victorian model specifically precludes doctors from raising VAD with their patients and is noted as an important safeguard in that model – which the WA model is based on.
If one is to compare the WA VAD model to the Victorian, it becomes quite clear that WA has a much more lax and vague approach, which will undoubtedly lead to confusion among practitioners and leave the door wide open to abuse.
For example, the open-ended requirements a person must meet for assisted dying means that unintended, or completely treatable illness, such as diabetes (which was asked in a briefing to the committee) would qualify a person for assisted dying. The undefined terms of “disease, illness or medical condition” are broad enough to include almost anything which may cause death. If “medical condition” included accident, any serious car crash victim could hypothetically qualify for VAD and refuse treatment to fit within the “reasonably foreseeable” window, even if they would completely recover in time.
Similarly, the “approved training” required under the WA will most likely follow the Victorian example. The Victorian training is largely confined to merely working in accordance to the Act. The Victorian government provides additional “training” in short videos which merely states that doctors should already be capable of identifying coercion.
Much like Victoria, WA does little to stop “doctor shopping” – which sees patients go to multiple doctors until one gives them what they want.
Preventing coercion and doctor shopping are two safeguards entirely lacking in both Victoria and WA, and definitely the hardest thing to police, and easiest to abuse. A real-life example would be the 2010 case of Justins v Regina. In this case, a wife and her friend assisted the wife’s husband in committing suicide. However, the husband had Alzheimer’s disease, the wife took him to a different doctor to her usual GP who certified the man was of sound mind (having no knowledge of the man’s Alzheimer’s) and the man was then taken to a solicitor and had his will changed to change his wife’s share of his $2 million estate from 50 per cent to 98 per cent with the remaining going to their two daughters.
While this is only a handful of examples of where the bill fails to answer a vital question, the complete lack of debate on the issues is alarming – instead, debate is largely limited to sob stories. Tragic as they may be, we should not pass any law solely on feelings. Bills should be challenged for their weaknesses and improved. The government threatening overnight stays in Parliament, demanding no one ask questions, and even voting against their own MPs shows that debate has gone out the window on this Bill.
Whether you support VAD or not, the complete lack of scrutiny of this law should be concerning to the public.
Hon Charles Smith MLC is an independent representative for the Eastern Metropolitan District of the Western Australian Legislative Council.
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