With Question Time this week dominated by the Opposition quoting former Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd back to Prime Minister Gillard and invoking Weekend At Bernie’s (how very… 80s), the OurSay People’s Question project continues to produce far higher quality questions than those available at 2pm every day.

Euthanasia is a key issue among the questions, with Ella Ridd’s question landing in the top 5 with over 300 votes:

“Why does not the Australian Parliament take over the issue of end-of-life decision-making, which affects every single citizen as well as the medical and nursing professions? Over 80 per cent of Australians believe that terminally ill people who request aid in dying should be granted it. Just the knowledge that an early release is possible would comfort most of us. Don’t leave it to State governments to keep bumbling on and quoting inaccurate information. Institute an inquiry and establish how voluntary euthanasia works safely in Oregon, Washington, the Netherlands and other mature and civilised states.”

Lawrie Money was more succinct:

“Why can’t I choose the the way I wish to die when my health is in such a state I no longer wish to live.”

Voluntary euthanasia and assisted suicide are state issues, and are illegal throughout Australia. The passage by a conservative NT government of right to die legislation in 1995 was overturned in Federal Parliament by a private member’s bill by Catholic reactionary Kevin Andrews. In August 2011, a bill initiated by the Greens to remove the power of the Governor-General to override territory legislation was passed, meaning future territory laws could not be overridden except by Commonwealth legislation.

Euthanasia is also the subject of the most draconian legal and corporate restrictions on free speech in Australia.

The Howard Government in 2005 launched a serious assault on free speech via the Criminal Code Amendment (Suicide Related Material Offences) Act , which made it a criminal offence to “counsel or incite committing or attempting to commit suicide” online or off, despite the availability of a wide variety of high-quality euthanasia sites. Dr Philip Nitschke’s book The Peaceful Pill Handbook has also been “Refused Classification” in Australia.

The restrictions on free speech were driven by a moral panic over “suicide sites”. In fact, rates of suicide in Australia, the US and the UK have all fallen dramatically in the last 20 years, suggesting that the advent of the internet is associated with reductions in suicide, not increases.

FreeTV, the body representing the commercial television cartel, went even further and banned two advertisements made by Exit International. FreeTV, which is invariably quick to cite “free speech” against people who want to ban advertisements such as those for junk food, had already approved the ad but then changed its mind after Exit International had spent tens of thousands of dollars making the ads.

On this issue major party politicians are grossly out of step with voters. In September 2010, Essential Research found 69% of voters supported doctors being able to assist patients to commit suicide if they request it. Only 14% opposed it — primarily younger people. This was consistent with a Newspoll result from 2009, which showed 85% of Australians supported voluntary euthanasia. In March last year, a survey commissioned by Alzheimers Australia found 42% of Australians would take the option of euthanasia if they had just weeks to live.

In fact it’s hard to think of an issue on which elected officials are more out of step with community sentiment. It may be time politicians stopped ignoring the strength of community feeling.

Nominations and voting for the most popular People’s Questions close on March 4.

*Crikey and OurSay are giving you the opportunity to get your question asked in the House of Representatives. Each week Crikey will feature a new reader question, and will look into the where/how and why of the issue and the politics behind it. A mystery member of parliament has agreed to take part in this OurSay initiative and take the People’s Question to Question Time in March. Start hitting OurSay with questions here: @OurSayAust,  @OurSayPeoplesQ (#PeoplesQ #auspol) or on Facebook. Or go to thepeoplesquestion.oursay.org for more information.

Peter Fray

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