Hypocrisy trumps rights in territories’ struggle

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“It is not just absurd but wrong that the residents of Australian territories do not have the same democratic right as those of states to decide whether euthanasia should be legally available,” writes JON STANHOPE.

IT was pleasing to see the Legislative Assembly achieve consensus on the question of the right of the ACT to legislate on euthanasia.

Jon Stanhope.

My personal views on euthanasia are equivocal. For a number of years, I was president of the ACT Palliative Care Society and my wife Robyn was a palliative care specialist nurse for just on 15 years.

My close involvement with palliative care has undoubtedly influenced my thinking. Not just because of the insights it provided into the impact that palliative care can have on one’s quality of life, but also as a window into the depravity that some (admittedly and mercifully only a few) people are capable of, including people ostensibly “caring for” an incapacitated or terminally ill family member. 

As cynical as it may seem, I believe that where euthanasia is legalised there will be instances of people agreeing to euthanasia because of overt pressure from a carer or as a result of being made to feel, often by a family member, in heart-breaking and unconscionable ways, that they are a burden and it would be better for their family if they were dead.

It was the famed English jurist Blackstone who coined the maxim that it is better that 10 guilty men go free than that one innocent man be imprisoned or suffer. My view on euthanasia might be summarised as: It is better that one person who wishes to live not die than that 10 people who wish to die should live. 

Regardless of my views, which I acknowledge are in the minority, it is not just absurd but wrong that in Australia the residents of territories do not have the same democratic right as the residents of states to decide whether euthanasia should be legally available.

Therefore, I support the strong stance taken by Ms Tara Cheyne, ACT Minister for Human Rights, and applaud her willingness to work with the NT government to seek to have this anti-democratic limitation on the rights of territory residents overturned. 

Ms Cheyne has indicated she is prepared to go as far as lodging a formal complaint with the UN about the denial of human rights, which the ban on Australian territories legislating on euthanasia represents. I encourage her, if the ban is not overturned, to carry through with that threat.

However, it is important that we remember the ban on legislating on euthanasia also extends to the other three inhabited Australian territories, namely Norfolk Island, Christmas Island and the Cocos (Keeling) Islands, and I would urge the ACT and NT governments to work, in solidarity, with the residents of those territories to ensure they also have the right to legislate on euthanasia.

In fact, to include those territories in an appeal to the UN would undoubtedly strengthen the position of the ACT and the NT because not only do the residents of those three Territories not have the right to vote on euthanasia, they don’t have any state-type legislative rights at all. For example, they don’t even get to have a say on whether or not to have daylight saving.

The fact that Norfolk Island did have the same democratic rights as the ACT and the NT until five years ago, when Labor, the Liberals and the Greens joined forces in the federal parliament to repeal the Norfolk Island Self Government Act and to annul its parliament will probably necessitate some fancy footwork by whoever it is that the ACT and the NT employ to represent them before the UN. 

A gratuitous suggestion which has just occurred to me and which Ms Cheyne might wish to consider, noting the current undeclared war between China and the rest of the world, is that it will almost certainly assist any potential ACT appeal to the UN if we inform the UN that the people of Hong Kong have greater democratic rights than Australian citizens living on Norfolk Island and in the Indian Ocean territories. 

In this regard it may also help, but even if it doesn’t it would be a real hoot, if she was to invite the Chinese ambassador to Australia to visit Norfolk Island as well as Christmas and the Cocos Islands in order to inspect their democratic institutions for the purpose of comparing them with those of Hong Kong.

Coincidentally, I am writing this on Anzac Day. 

Did you know that more men from Norfolk Island, as a proportion of the resident population, enlisted and fought in both World Wars than any other Australian state or territory? Not only that but proportionately, more men from Norfolk Island, who fought in World War I, were killed in action, or injured than from any other Australian state or territory. From a total island population of less than 700, a staggering 82 men (representing two thirds of the adult male population) and two women enlisted in World War I. This was in fact a higher rate of enlistment per capita than that of any country in the British Empire. Seventeen of the Norfolk Island men served at Gallipoli, five of whom went ashore on April 25, 1915, of whom two, John Buffett and Edmund Quintal were wounded. A total of 13 Norfolk Islanders were killed in action during the war.

On Anzac Day we stop to remember, reflect on and honour the sacrifice, most particularly the death of more than 100,000 Australians, in defence of our freedom, our values and democracy. 

It is ironic, is it not, that the people of Norfolk Island, who made a greater relative contribution and have paid a higher price in protecting those values, freedoms and democracy than anywhere else in Australia, are more than 100 years after the end of World War I, denied by the Australian government, the most basic democratic right, the right to have a say and be involved, through elected representatives, in the day-to-day governance of their community.

Our capacity for hypocrisy apparently has no limits.

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Jon Stanhope
Jon Stanhope was Chief Minister from 2001 to 2011 and represented Ginninderra for the Labor Party from 1998. He is the only Chief Minister to have governed with a majority in the Assembly.

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