Suicide attempts are often said to be a desperate bid for attention. Consider the case of South Australia’s sole surviving state Democrat MP, Sandra Kanck.

Kanck yesterday used parliamentary privilege to tell people how to kill themselves using household materials in a speech advocating voluntary euthanasia.

As the speech was made under privilege, the information will be available in Hansard, in print and online. Kanck flagged the content of her speech and indicated that this was its aim — to circumvent federal laws designed to stop the dissemination of this type of material.

Her comments, however, have raised significant ethical issues. Reporting of suicide has long been regarded as a moral minefield.

A dedicated website, Mindframe, exists to provide practical advice and information on the appropriate reporting of suicide and mental illness. Its guidelines begin:

Suicide: issues to consider when reporting

Why should I run the story?
Consider whether the story needs to be run at all, and how many suicide stories you have run in the last month. A succession of stories can promote a dose response factor and normalise suicidal behaviour as an acceptable option.

Check the language you use does not glamorise or sensationalise suicide, or present suicide as a solution to problems — eg consider using “non-fatal” not “unsuccessful”, “increasing rates” rather than “suicide epidemic”. Use “died by suicide” or “experienced depression” rather than describing the person as a “suicide” or a “depressive”. Use the term “suicide” sparingly.

Don’t be explicit about method
Most members of the media follow a code — written or unwritten — that the method and location of suicide is not described, displayed or photographed. A step-by-step description can prompt some vulnerable people to act.

A SA Legislative Councillor Crikey raised the guidelines with this morning was concerned that Kanck’s speech went against the spirit of two of these.

Before the speech Health Minister and Legislative Councillor Gail Gago delivered a ministerial statement imploring Kanck not to proceed — but no MLC attempted to gag their colleague.

David Heath, the spokesperson for the Leader of the Government in the Council Paul Holloway, told Crikey that Labor did not move such a motion because the party does not have a majority in the House. However, governments move motions in upper houses they don’t control all the time. Is this shallow spin?

The opposition say they didn’t act to deny Kanck oxygen — and because such a move would then require a constant watch on the MLC, given the other opportunities she has to place the information on the Hansard record.

Parliamentarians value privilege for the power it brings for them to represent their constituents without fear or favour. That may have made Kanck’s colleagues reluctant to act.

One of SA’s smarter state pols expressed concerns to Crikey today that the Council may have been unable to act. An expert on standing orders and constitutional matters, however, said this morning that while a motion preventing the maverick Democrat from revealing suicide techniques would have been highly unusual, it should have succeeded.

Kanck’s jumped from the precipice, but her colleagues should have been able to stop her. Politically, though, they’re probably happy to see her fall.

Peter Fray

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