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Territory Rights Bill

Speech given in the Senate on 5 September 2022.

I rise today to speak in support of the Restoring Territory Rights Bill 2022. I want to start by acknowledging the member for Canberra, Alicia Payne, and the member for Solomon, Luke Gosling, who co-sponsored this bill and successfully moved it through the House. This isn't the parliament's first attempt to pass a bill of this nature. I'd also like to acknowledge the previous efforts by the member for Fenner and Assistant Minister for Competition, Charities and Treasury, Dr Andrew Leigh, as well as Senator Gallagher; the member for Bean, David Smith; and the many other territory representatives who have pushed this issue over the years. I'd like to thank the many Canberrans—including Nicole Robertson, Kate and the two Sams, Samuel Whitsed and Sam Delaney—who've shared their stories with me, who've spoken out with so much dignity and courage about why it's so important to them that our rights are restored. I'd like to thank the many people who've given their time, raising awareness, making the argument: Andrew Denton and Go Gentle Australia; Dying with Dignity ACT and New South Wales; Judy Dent; Marshall Perron; and the many others across the country.

I've spent some time with Samuel Whitsed, a 39-year-old contemplating end-of-life choices. No 39-year-old should have to contemplate the end of their life, but Sam is. No father should be fundraising for his son's funeral, but Sam's dad is. As Sam has said to me, he knows speaking up may not allow him to get the kind of end-of-life choices people living in every one of Australia's states do, but his hope is that, by telling his own story, one day those in the ACT will. That's what courage looks like.

In 1997 Kevin Andrews's private member's bill, the Euthanasia Laws Bill, came into effect, immediately making the people of the ACT and the Northern Territory second-class citizens to their family, friends and neighbours living in the states. Much has changed in Australia since 1997. In those intervening decades, the states have all had discussions about voluntary assisted dying and how to craft laws that both honour the wishes of dying people to have that choice and provide options for a death with dignity, while ensuring they have rigorous safeguards in place for the most vulnerable in our communities. We have seen these discussions happen in every state across the country. We watched in 2017 as Victoria led a compassionate discussion on voluntary assisted dying, inviting clinicians, terminally ill people, disability groups, palliative care professionals and faith groups to contribute to the debate. We watched the debate in New South Wales just this year, in which parties across the spectrum came together to discuss, debate and interrogate whether a voluntary assisted dying scheme was appropriate for their state. Queensland has also had this opportunity. So have Tasmania, Western Australia and South Australia.

In the quarter of a century since the Andrews bill, every single state has legislated voluntary assisted dying, yet the Andrews bill still stands in the way of the territories being able, through the work of our elected representatives in our parliaments, to debate and consider voluntary assisted dying for ourselves. The people of the ACT and Northern Territory overwhelmingly want to have this same debate for ourselves. The overwhelming majority of Australians living in states believe their fellow Australians living in the territories should be able to have these debates and make our own decisions on whether to legislate and on what that legislation should look like. Yet, as we all know, we can't, which begs the question: why? Why is it that by virtue of where we live in this country, we cannot participate in these same debates on decisions? Why are we denied the democratic rights enjoyed by the states? Why are we considered less capable of having this discussion?

It makes no sense to me; nor did it make sense to the framers of the Australian Capital Territory (Self-Government) Act 34 years ago. They understood that the people of the ACT are no different from other Australians and should be given the political franchise to consider laws for themselves as each state does. In his second reading speech, then Minister for the Arts and Territories, the Hon. Clyde Holding, said of the people of the ACT:

 unlike every otherperson in this country, where a fair go is the creed by which we live, they cannot elect a member of their own community to their own government. They have no say in the decisions which affect their everday lives. What an extraordinary admission in a country so committed to democratic ideals, and why? Are these people somehow different from other Australians? Are they second class citizens in some way? … Can they not be trusted with their own destiny? The answer to all these questions is very simple. The only difference between these people and the rest of Australia is that they live in the Australian Capital Territory.

Nothing separates us from the rest of Australia other than a jagged line on the map and fewer representatives in this chamber. The ACT and Northern Territory governments are expected to run their own treasuries and manage their own finances. They must run their own health and child protection systems, they collect revenue, they provide public transport, they build public infrastructure, and they face public scrutiny for their decisions and actions. They are represented on the National Cabinet and played their part in keeping their people safe through the uncertain years of the pandemic. Simply, the ACT and Northern Territory governments and legislative assemblies are expected every day to make complex, life-changing choices on behalf of their citizens. They are no less capable of having a discussion on voluntary assisted dying than every other state.

I have listened respectfully and read the arguments to the contrary. In his first reading speech, the architect of the Euthanasia Laws Act stated that his bill simply reflected the national approach to voluntary assisted dying. He stated that his bill was designed to bring the Northern Territory in line with every other state and territory. Twenty-five years on, it is now the ACT and the Northern Territory that are forced to be out of step with the rest of the country. We know that, nationally, over three-quarters of people support the ACT and NT in having these decisions for themselves. I have heard it said that the territories are incapable of having these discussions as their parliaments do not have an upper house, but nor does the Queensland parliament. And why is it that it is only on this topic that this issue is raised? It's clear to me that the concern lies in the subject matter itself. The issue of territory rights was tied to voluntary assisted dying 25 years ago in the Andrews bill.

I recognise that people have deeply held convictions on voluntary assisted dying. I don't discount the personal, ethical or faith based perspectives brought to this chamber by senators nor their right to view legislation through that lens. However, as legislators, it is our responsibility to unpick complexity and to set our own beliefs in the context of how we promote the equal treatment of all Australians before the law. As former ACT Chief Minister and senator for the ACT, Gary Humphries, said, 'The ACT is mature enough to have this debate for ourselves.'

This is not the chamber to debate voluntary assisted dying, and no-one here is asked to do so. Senators are only being asked to allow the territories to have the debate for themselves. Just as every state has done, people will be able to contribute their perspectives and concerns on whether a scheme is established and what it looks like through their representatives in the legislative assemblies. I have confirmed with both the Chief Minister of the Northern Territory and the ACT Minister for Human Rights that draft legislation on this matter does not yet exist. Both territories will engage in a rigorous consultation process in the formulation of any bill, which will also be the subject of debate in the legislative assemblies.

There are divergent views on this matter. These views need to be heard and considered. But that should be done in the legislative assemblies. Let me be clear: here in this place, each one of us is being asked to decide whether we believe that the people who live in the ACT, as well as those who live in the Northern Territory, deserve fewer democratic rights than their families, friends and neighbours who live in the states. Senators are being asked to consider whether the people of the ACT and Northern Territory should keep being considered second-class citizens in this Federation. Apart from my three territory colleagues in this chamber, your constituents already have the right to engage in this conversation, and have done so. Please, give us that same right.

Since coming to this place, I have had many conversations with colleagues across the chamber seeking your support, and I will continue to do so. To those of you who are yet to make up your mind on this important issue, my door is open. I will welcome and seek an opportunity to speak with you. People living in the territories are not asking for anything more than what everyone else in this country already has. It is my sincere hope that this bill will pass.