A question of conscience
Victorian Parliament’s Upper House set to debate euthanasia motion next week
By Paul Russell
In December last, fulfilling an election commitment by the Greens Party, Colleen Hartland MLC tabled a motion seeking to refer the matter of euthanasia to the Victorian Law Reform Commission (VLRC) for an inquiry with a report date in December 2015.
This matter was due for debate in the chamber in mid-March but was, according to some reports, withdrawn ‘indefinitely’ at that time only to surface again for debate next Wednesday the 15th of April.
What caused the withdrawal and then renewal of the push for this motion is perhaps only known to Ms Hartland. However, with any political matter like this ‘the numbers’ are always a critical factor and we assume therefore that, in the interim, the numbers have changed to a degree acceptable to Hartland.
Let me speculate some on what these changes might have been. Certainly, as any good politician would do, Hartland may well have been able to convince a few of her colleagues to change their vote. But it is also possible that the Greens Party and the Labor Government have struck a deal of some sort or that Labor have confirmed that their upper house members will be required to vote to support the motion – or perhaps both!
While this is speculation the numbers suggest that, without a full complement of Labor votes, Hartland might struggle to get the motion through.
This, then, brings the focus back upon the role of the Victorian Law Reform Commission.
Their website states that, “The Commission's major responsibility is to research issues the Attorney-General refers to it, but it also has the power to recommend minor changes to the law without a reference.”
Making lawful an effective change to the laws on homicide is clearly not a ‘minor change’. Hartland’s motion seeks to activate a referral by the Victorian Attorney-General to the VLRC.
The VLRC’s own processes begin with a premise that the law needs to change: “1) A problem with the current law is identified.” But what proof currently exists that tells the Attorney-General and the VLRC that this is the opinion of the parliament – the ultimate law making body? There is none. In fact, this motion is the first time that the matter has been raised since the same motion by the same MP was defeated during the last parliament.
The VLRC is about the law. Certainly, it can and does seek the opinion of stakeholders in its deliberations; but it is no moral arbiter. Nor is it representative of the Victorian community in the way that parliamentarians are. Accountability is one of the key checks and balances in our system of government. The VLRC, while being funded by the government, is by its own admission, independent and, therefore, unaccountable to the Victorian public.
That is not to say that such a body does not have a legitimate role to play in advising government. But as the VLRC itself points out, it starts from a premise that the law needs to change rather than from any transparent sense of inquiry.
That is why the proper place to review euthanasia is and always should be a committee of the parliament itself. Unlike the VLRC, such a committee will be drawn from the elected members; MPs who will be charged to examine the matter in detail and who will contribute to a report to the parliament based on their findings. The parliament, in turn, would consider the report. The VLRC, in contrast, would most likely table draft legislation given its mandate.
It is, and should remain, a matter for the parliament.
And that is why, in the upcoming vote on the Hartland motion that may be resolved as early as next Wednesday (15th of April), at the very least, each and every member of the Victorian Upper House should be able to vote according to his or her conscience. That way one could at least arrive at a conclusion that the chamber, on balance, thought that the idea had some merit.
Make no mistake, voting on the Hartland motion is not simply procedural as some have falsely claimed. Even though members will be voting without any real chance to examine the issue themselves in any depth, they will still be voting to effectively charge the VLRC with the role of designing legislation. It is about euthanasia!
We welcome any genuine parliamentary inquiry. The last major inquiry of substance that did not relate to any particular bill occurred in Tasmania in 1998. That inquiry was unanimous in recommending that Tasmania not adopt any euthanasia legislation. Since that time, developments in places where euthanasia is legal have only served to reinforce those findings.