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DOUBLE disempowerment has been delivered by ACT Senator Zed Seselja and a series of his colleagues in their vote on denying the right of territories to make their own laws on assisted dying.
For some strange reason these senators believe that their personal morality overrides basic democratic principles.
Distraction and diversion have always been a favoured technique deployed in politics to swing a close vote. Moving away from territory rights to a debate on voluntary active euthanasia worked on this occasion with a last-minute change of heart by Nationals’ Steve Martin, Labor’s Alex Gallacher, Liberal Anne Ruston and crossbench senators Brian Burston and Peter Georgiou.
The defeat of the Leyonhjelm Bill to restore territory equity in political power with the states was carried by just two votes. Had Seselja been doing his job to represent the interests of the territory, in his capacity as ACT senator, the result would have been divided evenly. It was that close.
ACT residents have the right to be cross at Seselja who has once again allowed his own personal moral rectitude to override the democratic prerogative of the ACT.
Greens MLA Caroline Le Couteur slammed his stance “given the small margin, the senator has refused to allow our community to decide for ourselves. Instead, he felt his own views more important than those of the Canberra community”.
On both issues Senator Seselja was and remains well out of step with the rest of the community. ACT residents overwhelmingly support both the territory’s right to self-determination and the right of individuals to make their own choice to have assistance to end their lives where they have a terminal illness and are in great pain and suffering.
Doubly disempowered! First, once again losing our community’s right to self-determination. Second, losing the chance to have our personal right to self-determination if we have a terminal illness and are in great pain and suffering.
There was another option for Seselja, as pointed out by Ms Le Couteur, he could have absented himself from the votes and “urged his colleagues to simply allow Canberrans to have their own say”. His stance is in stark contrast to the very popular then-senator Gary Humphries, who defied John Howard by “crossing the floor” in order to protect the rights of Canberra citizens to make their own decision.
All is not lost. This is reminiscent of the same-sex marriage debate.
Chief Minister Andrew Barr reflected on the setbacks on that issue: “I recall many people telling me there was no way marriage laws would ever change and we kept chipping away at that and worked across the nation to garner sufficient support for that to happen. I think a similar approach can work here”.
We will not have to wait long for the next step. Canberra MP Andrew Leigh, supported by NT MP Luke Gosling, has already moved to introduce a similar Bill into the House of Representatives. This is an opportunity for the House of Representatives to really show up the Senate. It is possible that the Prime Minister may not grant leave for the debate. However, if it does not go through – this time or the next – the Barr approach of chipping away will eventually come to fruition. The vote in the Senate this time was much closer than in 1997 when the Andrews’ Bill removed the rights of the territories to self-determination on this issue.
Sadly, the Leader of the Opposition in the ACT supported the stance taken by Senator Seselja. Other Liberal MLAs were keen to respect Territory rights and the conscience vote saw Nicole Lawder, Jeremy Hanson, Mark Parton and Elizabeth Lee standing up for the rights of the territories to self-determination. Thus the first ever “remonstrance motion” passed the ACT Assembly, formally expressing the ACT’s displeasure with the Senate.
Some have been “chipping away” for a quarter of a century. With double disempowerment at stake, it is clear that the approach is working. It is just a matter of time.
Michael Moore is a former member of the ACT Legislative Assembly and an independent minister for health in the Carnell government. He has been a political columnist with “CityNews” since 2006.