01:24, October 20 414 0 theguardian.com

2017-10-20 01:24:04
The debate of Victoria’s assisted dying bill was not democracy's finest hour

That was ridiculous. Victoria’s lower house parliamentarians may have given themselves a hearty clap at about 11.20am Friday, after sitting for 25 hours straight to pass what so many declared was one of the most significant – if not the most significant – pieces of legislation ever to come before the house.

But consideration of the voluntary assisted dying bill was hardly democracy at its finest.

This is an historic bill that would give terminally ill people in certain circumstances state sanction to end their lives and assistance to do so. Victoria would become the first state to allow assisted dying, an issue that raises the deepest questions about the rights of the individual to autonomy and the obligation of the broader community to protect the vulnerable.

Whether you agree with former prime minister Paul Keating’s opposition to assisted dying laws or not, he is being truthful when he says consideration of this bill is a “threshold moment for the country”.

So, what was it like in Victoria’s ornate chamber at 4, 5, 6am in the morning, after the government had rejected a proposal to adjourn the debate so that members and staff could get some sleep?

MPs yawned, rubbed their eyes and scrolled through their phones. It was obvious that few were listening to what by then had become an excruciating drone.

This was a government – and don’t be fooled by this being a conscience vote for members – determined to ram it through after three days sitting deep into the night. It would not countenance a single amendment – and there were more than 100 put up – even though at least a handful of them were worth considering.

This was despite attorney general Martin Pakula assuring the house after lunch on Thursday that “there’s no pre-determined view that we won’t accept any amendment moved by the member for Box Hill”. That proved to be untrue.

The member for Box Hill is Liberal MP Robert Clark, a former attorney-general and a fierce opponent of assisted dying, who drove the proposed amendments through the night.

He was indefatigable as he and others lost vote after vote. After the bill passed by a comfortable 47-37 margin, Clark’s staff were worried that he was so exhausted he was incapable of driving, so they arranged for him to be picked up.

Not that the opponents of this bill deserve many plaudits. There were some useful suggested amendments, including a requirement that more data be collected on who eventually uses the assisted dying scheme and why – it was curious why supporters rejected this, but they had decided to reject everything.

It was reasonable to ask how the scheme could be limited to Victorian residents as intended, when it doesn’t seem possible in practice.

Yet opponents – and overwhelmingly those proposing amendments were never going to vote for the bill – dragged out the debate for no purpose, repeating their points and raising bizarre objections.

Greens MP Ellen Sandell was spot on when she tweeted in the early hours of Friday morning: “Filibustering on assisted dying legislation by Libs and Nats overnight has been really disappointing. Some appalling behaviour.”

Ellen Sandell (@ellensandell)

Filibustering on assisted dying legislation by Libs and Nats overnight has been really disappointing. Some appalling behaviour. #springst

October 19, 2017

The suggestion that the word “poison” replace “voluntary assisted dying substance” throughout the bill was a moment of farce. “This is not a voluntary assisted dying substance,” said the inexhaustible MP Graham Watt. “It’s a poison that is designed to kill people, we should acknowledge the fact that that is what the government is doing here.” MPs demanded that POISON be stamped on the locked box where patients would keep the lethal medication.

At the very end, there was a surreal discussion about whether, if someone who had met the criteria to be prescribed lethal medication was murdered in his or her bed by a madman, their death could be recorded as caused by cancer?

At this point, the measured health minister, Jill Hennessy, was trying to keep her customary calm. She assured Victorians that “should someone break into someone’s house and murder them with a machete then homicide would be the cause of death.” She had earlier pondered that MPs had “hit the crossroads of existentialism in the course of this debate”.

The bill will now go to the legislative council, with debate expected to begin in a fortnight. Premier Daniel Andrews said on Friday that this was a “proud” moment, an example of the parliament at its very best.

He may be right regarding the thoughtful, often emotional speeches of parliamentarians on Tuesday and Wednesday. But by Friday morning, he was kidding himself.