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Territory rights’ time has come

In a few short weeks parliament will sit for the first time under a new government with a much more diverse parliament.

These changes bring renewed hope that we may finally be able to right a decades’ old injustice that has seen our community here in the ACT, and those in the NT, effectively given fewer rights than people living in the states. 

The message I heard from our community at the election could not have been clearer, our time as second-class citizens must come to an end - now.

Fundamentally, this is an issue of equality, and it’s urgent.

While the debate over Territory rights often morphs into one about voluntary assisted dying, the two are distinctly separate issues.

What the federal parliament has the capacity to do is restore the rights of the ACT and NT to debate and legislate on important matters - such as voluntary assisted dying - for themselves.

As former ACT Senator Gary Humphries noted, we are mature enough to have this debate for ourselves within our local jurisdictions. 

To put it another way, as I’m told the Prime Minister’s now Chief of Staff once quipped, we in the territories don’t need ‘assisted thinking’. 

That’s why I agree with the Member for Solomon Luke Gosling that repealing the Andrews’ Bill that took away our rights back in 1997 shouldn’t be a conscience vote, because the Commonwealth parliament isn’t voting on whether or not to legislate voluntary assisted dying. Members of Parliament and Senators will be voting on whether or not the ACT and the NT should have the same rights and freedoms as the states to debate and decide this.

If there’s to be a conscience vote, then that should be for the elected representatives of the ACT and NT legislative assemblies to have on the legislation that comes before them.

When NSW became the last state to legislate voluntary assisted dying, voting in support of Independent MP Alex Greenwich’s Bill days before the federal election earlier this year, it voted to do so with the highest level of support any bill has ever received.

It’s that sort of multi-partisan support I am hopeful we can achieve federally in that first sitting fortnight. I have had some early constructive conversations with Ministers McBain and Gallagher, as well as Assistant Minister Leigh and I welcome reports that the Members for Solomon and Canberra are taking forward what was a key issue in our campaign here in the ACT. It is also very encouraging to see the strong statements of support from Senators Birmingham and Bragg. Legislation to repeal the Andrews’ Bill has a long history in the Senate. I look forward to joining with them and voting to restore territory rights.

Over the past 25 years there have been eight separate, but unsuccessful attempts to overturn the Andrews Bill, with Senator Leyonhjelm’s Bill coming agonisingly close, falling short by only two votes.

I share Mr Gosling’s optimism that this time, we will succeed.

It is after all a proposal to restore our rights, which costs nothing and simply brings the ACT and NT back onto more equal footing with the states.

And we need it to succeed sooner rather than later. Many people in our community can’t afford to wait. They are living through immeasurable suffering in their final months, and simply want to be able to speak openly with a clinician about their end of life plan.

I stand in awe of the courage of locals like Samuel Whitsed who, diagnosed with a rare, terminal cancer before Christmas, has spoken out so passionately and publicly on why he and others like him deserve the right to have the same options available as their fellow Australians.

As Samuel told ACM, "I know what's in my future and there is going to come a point where I don't want to continue. I don't want to suffer, quality of life is really important to me. If I had a chance of getting better I would suffer through a lot but I don't.”

I will be doing everything in my power to ensure this new Bill succeeds and that we are delivered back the rights that were taken from us in 1997.

And, I will not leave anything to chance on this issue.

As I’ve said both publicly and privately, I want to work together and my priority is getting legislation into parliament as soon as possible.

If that can best be achieved by the Members for Canberra and Solomon introducing a Private Member’s bill into the House of Representatives in the first parliamentary sitting period, then that is terrific and I will work to support its passage in both houses of parliament.

But with the government already outlining an expansive legislative agenda, starting with the introduction of critical pieces of legislation such as providing for 10 days paid family and domestic violence leave as well as legislating Labor’s 43% by 2030 emissions reduction target, the Lower House has a heavy workload ahead of it.

With that in mind, as I said during the election campaign, I will have a private Senator’s bill to start debate in the Senate. The task before us is too important not to plan for every contingency.

At this election the community voted for a more collaborative style of politics. And that’s what I want to bring to the table on this and all the most pressing issues our community faces, dealing with them with the speed and thoughtfulness they deserve.

Senator David Pocock


First published in The Canberra Times on 6 July 2022

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