The place where people have the choice to die with dignity
Fiona Patten led the charge for Victoria to become the first state in Australia to pass laws for physician assisted dying for terminally ill patients. The Leader of the Reason Party and Northern Metropolitan MP moved a motion in Parliament in 2015 that led to the establishment of an inquiry into end of life choices. Here, we share a chapter from her book, Sex, Drugs and the Electoral Roll, detailing the events in the lead-up to this ground-breaking piece of legislation.
In 2016, assisted dying had broad acceptance in the community. The committee that I had initiated had released its final report in June. It was now up to the government to respond. Getting the issue to this stage felt like nothing short of a miracle. The committee staff for the End of Life Choices Inquiry had drawn up an extensive schedule of public hearings and consultations starting with medical experts and academics. With five of the eight members of the committee also new politicians, I reasoned that this was also a great opportunity to learn more about each other, as well as the issues.
It had all started smoothly the year before in 2015. We were methodical working through the terms of reference, and while the majority of the 1000 submissions we received related to voluntary assisted dying, we looked at all of the issues equally. We spoke to a vast array of people: rabbis and priests; mothers and fathers; sons and daughters; doctors, nurses, volunteers and carers; and police, coroners, lawyers; and, even, other politicians.
In August 2015, the committee travelled to Shepparton and stayed overnight in a local motel. After dining with everyone at a restaurant in town, I went back to my room to read over my notes to prepare for the next day. I decided to have a small joint to help with that and lit up in the car park outside my room, walking off around the back of the motel to find a discreet place to smoke.
On my way, I stumbled upon my fellow committee member the ultra conservative Liberal Inga Peulich. She was standing outside her room with a couple of glasses of Baileys and a cigarette. There was no way past so I stood and talked to her for a couple of minutes. She offered me one of her Baileys. I said no thanks and offered her a toke of my joint. She passed, but mumbled something about ‘we’ve all had those moments at university’. We stayed chatting for a few minutes more and then I bid her goodnight. It was an odd but vaguely charming interlude. Here we were, the seasoned old reactionary warrior and the libertarian ingénue, getting to know each other via the social tonics of our generation. Was there the possibility that we could be friends after all?
Not likely. Soon it became clear that some members of the committee were more interested in the issues than others, and some were easier to get on with than others. These attitudes were on show for everyone to see in the public hearings. Some committee members sat there texting and paying no attention to the sometimes nervous or emotional witnesses as they told harrowing stories of loved ones dying in agony or in great distress. At other times, some members would ask inane questions of witnesses that showed they hadn’t even read the submission. Sometimes they were just downright rude.
The regional hearings in Traralgon that September had me feeling raw. My friend Candida Royalle, the feminist pornographer from New York, had just died the day before. She had been comfortable at home with her friends around her, and since it had been expected she probably had a ‘good death’. But, as always, it’s an emotional time for friends and family. The committee had been hearing from local doctors, nurses and palliative care providers, and a few locals who wanted to speak personally. Unbelievably, Inga started referring to people dying under medical care in hospital as having been ‘popped off ’.
It was offensive to the doctors in the room, and particularly distressing to a couple sitting there whose 21-year-old daughter died in terrible circumstances from a brain tumour only months earlier. I looked up and saw the horror and the pain on their faces. I came so close to calling Inga out, but instead I excused myself from the hearing and spent 30 minutes pulling myself together outside. How could she be so insensitive? Is it the role of politicians to offend people in hearings just because they don’t happen to align with their personal views? In my mind, it was a bridge too far, and the beginning of a bitter enmity between Inga and myself that continues to grow to this day.
Soon after this episode, Inga and some other members of the committee opposed to assisted dying simply stopped attending hearings if they knew that witnesses were supportive of it. When the committee went to Europe in Easter of 2016 to see how VAD laws worked in other countries, this attitude was largely responsible for three of the members not joining the trip. (Committee travel is not compulsory but it is encouraged and learning as much as you can about an inquiry is considered the responsible thing to do.)
It was an intense experience lasting eight days with visits to six cities in four countries. We met with the governing bodies, doctors, nurses, academics, politicians and even opponents of the VAD schemes. We saw that the laws in other jurisdictions were compassionate and they made conversations about death easier.
I took every opportunity I could to speak to locals about VAD. In Amsterdam, I asked the people working in bars and hotels what they thought. Generally, the young ones were unaware of the scheme, while older people would speak about those they knew who had accessed it.
In Zurich, I spoke to a museum tour guide who was also a minister in her local church. I explained why I was there and she told me she had just signed her parents up to Exit International, which is the assisted-dying program in Switzerland. In Switzerland, it’s not illegal to help someone commit suicide if there’s no financial gain in it. This followed a court case in the early 1900s where a business man had gone broke, losing everything. He asked a soldier if he could borrow his gun to kill himself and the court found that it was legal for the soldier to lend him a gun to perform his own suicide. Since that time suicide has never been a crime in Switzerland and indeed helping someone to suicide can under some circumstances be seen as inspired by honourable intention. Returning to Australia, I had the feeling that the stars were beginning to align.
Going into this inquiry, my views had been firm. I wanted laws around physician-assisted dying to be as broad as possible. But the more evidence I heard, the more my views narrowed. I had thought that death should be as personal as possible and that government should not play a role at all. But the trip overseas taught me that the best outcomes for patients come about when there is a tight regulatory role model with review and accountability built in.
But the trip overseas taught me that the best outcomes for patients come about when there is a tight regulatory role model with review and accountability built in.
The Coroner’s Prevention Unit had done extensive work on the issue to assist our inquiry. They found a disturbing trend in Victoria of older, terminally ill people suiciding once or twice a week—sometimes in the most violent ways. When they interviewed the families, the most common response was that they wished that their loved one hadn’t died alone.
The most publicised of these incidents was a tragic case of a terminally ill man trying to kill himself with a nail gun. His son had woken up to hear a compressor going in the garage. When he went to investigate, he found his father had tried to shoot himself in the heart with the gun, and when that hadn’t worked he had tried to shoot a nail into his temple. He died soon after, but his suffering had been greatly, and unnecessarily, compounded.
The story that has stayed with me most, however, was that of an elderly woman who had slashed her wrists. She did it over the toilet so as not to make a mess for the people in the nursing home when they found her. This lovely and considerate woman had been forced to die cramped over a toilet in a cold tiled bathroom because there was no legal and humane way for her to end the pain that had overtaken her at her end of life.
The committee’s report ended up with 49 recommendations, the final one being ‘that the Victorian government introduce a legal framework providing for assisted dying’. As a response to the committee’s End of Life Choices report, and following on from his very successful podcast series Better Off Dead, Andrew Denton roared into gear and quickly pulled together the campaign called Go Gentle.
I had first met Andrew at a weekend away at the home of the former Australian Democrat’s leader, Don Chipp, in the early 2000s. Andrew and his partner, Jennifer Byrne had also been invited and Don used to take much pleasure in getting each guest to speak off the cuff for five minutes on a particular subject that was hidden on a card under a plate on the table. Over the years, I had also lobbied Andrew about including my deeply satirical Sex Party ads on his Gruen Nation show on ABC TV at election times. Politely he had told me ‘if they are good enough, Fiona they’ll get on. If not, they won’t’. At least I knew where I stood with him.
As with many, Andrew’s interest in the voluntary assisted dying was initiated by his father’s difficult death some 19 years earlier. He was determined to ensure that the recommendations made in the committee’s report were adopted and that the laws were changed. He had some major-leaguers in with him as well, like the former Secretary of the Attorney General’s department Roger Wilkins AO and Dr John Collee, a retired GP who had gone on to write movie scripts like Happy Feet and Master and Commander. It was a campaign that he had funded by himself along with a small group of benefactors and he had also completed a similar tour under his own steam, making the wonderful podcast out of his many meetings and conversations. The public was listening to him, as were politicians.
The government had six months to respond, and in December 2016 they announced that they would support the inquiry’s recommendations and initiate a ministerial expert panel with the aim of introducing voluntary assisted dying legislation the following year. Previously, I had been told that the premier would have great difficulty talking about any of it because his father was gravely ill. Sadly, he died in April 2017 of that year after what had been described as a brave and painful battle with cancer. Many people believed that it had a major effect on Daniel Andrew’s outlook. It does for most people who sit with a dying relative or friend who is enduring pain and suffering.
Even though I knew the announcement was coming, I found it surreal to sit at the press conference listening to the premier, health minister and attorney-general. All the work we had done now meant that the wheels were starting to turn. The process that got the bill to the Parliament was meticulous. The expert panel was established and that brought everyone back to the table to go over the same ground that the inquiry had covered but in far more detail. The panel reported in July 2017 and the result was a detailed model for voluntary assisted dying legislation with broad regulations around it for Victoria. The campaigning to get the parliament to agree to the model could now begin in earnest.
One thing I have pondered since this time is what would have happened if the marriage equality postal survey and the campaigns ‘for’ and ‘against’ same sex marriage had not been waged? Would the Australian Christian Lobby and other religious groups have spent more time and money trying to stop the assisted dying bill? They did pull together a B team led by the ACL’s affable Victorian director, Dan Flynn. His strategy was to bring in six or seven religious leaders from multicultural backgrounds to relate the ‘horror’ stories from their congregations and explain why assisted dying legislation should never be introduced. For the most part, it sounded like they didn’t trust their congregations not to try and knock off bothersome relatives.
The executive director of the ACL, Lyle Shelton, was obsessed with marriage equality. While we were dealing with legislation that would act as a model for the rest of the country to legalise assisted dying, Lyle was out raising millions of dollars to ‘fight’ against marriage equality. I am on the ACL mailing list and not once did I see a call to arms or even an update on assisted dying. They focused entirely on marriage. If this was a strategic decision, one has to wonder how they feel about it now? They still have millions in their war chest, but have lost both battles. Of course, Lyle Shelton has now put his hand up to enter politics as Federal Director of Communications for the Australian Conservatives so maybe he plans to use those funds to get himself elected at some point. And speculating on that, does the passing of the Victorian VAD laws give him yet another campaign platform?
In the end, the bill was comfortably passed in the lower house by 47 to 37 and proceeded to the upper house with no one quite sure of how it would end up. Each time I vote in Parliament, I must thoroughly research the issue to determine the direction of that vote. With the help of my office, I write my own speeches and get myself down into the chamber at the appropriate time. For Liberal, National, Greens or Labor MPs, this generally doesn’t happen because you are instructed by your whip how you will vote, and if you are going to speak on a bill you are even provided with speaking notes that have been researched by a party official.
In the end, the bill was comfortably passed in the lower house by 47 to 37 and proceeded to the upper house with no one quite sure of how it would end up.
Because this was a conscience vote, however, none of those things happened; MPs from all parties had to do it all on their own. It made a huge difference to what was recorded in the Hansard. Many MPs gave the best speeches of their careers. Almost all of them were heartfelt, and whether for or against all were generous on personal experience and opinions rather than along party lines. This was particularly the case in the lower house. Death is a very personal subject and the contributions reflected a lot of compassion and eloquence.
By the time the bill reached the Legislative Council in November 2017 politics was beginning to rear its ugly head and some Opposition members were saying privately that their pre-selection was being threatened if they voted in favour of the bill. I am not sure whether this caused the tone of the debate to decline or whether some had simply not read the bill, but concerns about children being euthanased and greedy relatives waiting to kill off older family members started to be heard.
Inga Peulich accused me of not paying any attention to the bill, as if she had somehow forgotten that I had initiated it. She suggested amending the bill to insert a clause that made Labor’s Gavin Jennings the first person to use the VAD program. She didn’t say it on record; she just hissed it across the floor so it didn’t make it into the Hansard. But we all heard her, and Gavin invited her to repeat it for the record or formally move her wishes as an amendment to the bill. Instead she spat the dummy, scooped up her large black handbag and raged out of the chamber.
Once all the speeches had finished (Daniel Young from the Shooters was the only member to not make a contribution), the process called Committee of the Whole began, which meant that it could be dissected line by line. This process allows anyone to ask the minister (Gavin Jennings) questions about the Bill and is designed to clarify the wording and the meaning of certain clauses. In this case, however, it was used as a filibuster by certain Liberals hoping to stall proceedings to the point that the bill would fall off the agenda. The same questions were asked in different ways by numerous people. There must have been a roster circulating among the bill’s opponents; there was definitely a book being circulated among the filibusterers with suggested inane and repetitious questions.
After nearly ten hours of debate on the first clause of the bill, the government moved that a vote be taken in order to move on to the second clause. This was howled down by the Opposition’s appointed spokespeople, Bernie Finn and Inga Peulich, who had now resumed her seat again. They both almost turned purple and accused the government of trampling their rights with jackboots and using Nazi tactics to cut through the bill.
By my reckoning, if we had kept debating at that pace, it would have taken three months of parliamentary sittings to get through the whole bill.
Everyone was prepared for an all-nighter. Some had sofas moved into their offices and some even had camp beds brought in. Kilos of unhealthy snacks were everywhere, although when the house sits all night the restaurant and library must also stay open, and the kitchen staff worked hard to provide healthy alternatives. At around midnight, $200 worth of potato cakes and hot chips arrived at the government whip’s office courtesy of the Minister for Health. The house filled with cooking oil and vinegar and people from all sides descended on the food like seagulls!
Everyone was prepared for an all-nighter. Some had sofas moved into their offices and some even had camp beds brought in.
Just before dawn, a short break was called. It was a surreal experience to stand on the steps of parliament in the same stillness and silence as the morning after an all-night trip. As the first rays of the sun came up over the Treasury Building, the only movement up and down Bourke and Spring Streets was from zombie politicians sucking in the air and getting their legs going again.
After sitting all night, the government’s plan was to keep going after a short breakfast break. But that wasn’t to be when Daniel Mulino, one of the government’s dissenters on the bill, had an episode of some sort and an ambulance was called. He was okay, but it put a stop to proceedings until the following Tuesday.
The break allowed me to go to Sexpo and to do some campaigning for our candidate in the Northcote by-election, Laura Chipp. Laura was the daughter of the late Don Chipp, the founder of the Australian Democrats and one of our most honest and libertarian federal politicians we’ve ever had. He had been a great friend and mentor for many years and had encouraged Robbie and me in everything we did. I think he would have been very happy that we had started the Sex Party, although I’m not sure he would have approved of the name. One thing I do recall him saying was that the name of a party was important.
Robbie had known Don since 1977 when, as a taxi driver, he had picked him up off the Senate taxi rank only hours after Don had announced to the nation that he was leaving the Liberal Party. Robbie had driven him around for three hours while he did all his media engagements and then arranged to teach him Transcendental Meditation. Don later claimed it had saved his life and stopped him from having a future heart attack. He and Robbie remained friends for the rest of his life.
Back into the debate the following Tuesday, Bernie Finn led the circus by reading a long article into the Hansard about serial killers executing disabled children. It was not only totally irrelevant to VAD, but the author he cited was well known for her theories on how aliens hypnotise abductees, especially deaf people. The opponents of the bill were getting desperate.
Tempers frayed, and again Hitler and fascists were the go-to insults. As the leader of the debate, Gavin Jennings was extraordinary. He maintained his cool throughout the entire process, even though he had been on his feet for over 48 hours without sleep. He answered every question and batted away the insults with humour and good will. Bernie Finn became petulant and insisted that every clause in the bill be voted on. Every time a vote was called, the bells rang for three minutes. Had we divided on every clause, the bells would have rung for nearly six and a half hours. As it was they rang for at least five!
Almost as sleep-deprived as us were the stalwart lobbyists who sat in the public gallery through much of the debate: Andrew Denton, his campaign manager Paul Price and Nia Sims, a 43-year-old women with a rare auto-immune condition called scleroderma which would almost certainly see her use the new laws at some stage if they were enacted. They had already sat through the debate and the committee process in the Legislative Assembly. Dan Flynn from the ACL and Margaret Tighe, the formidable anti-abortion campaigner from the Right to Life Association, were there intermittently, and I was pleased to see that she was present for the final vote in the Assembly.
Eventually the opposing forces ran out of steam and on Wednesday afternoon, a week after the bill had been introduced into the upper house, it finally passed. The chamber erupted in the same way the House of Representatives did when the marriage-equality laws passed. Although still stunned and sleepless, we all rallied for a few celebratory drinks at Strangers. Eventually everyone disappeared home, but I couldn’t sleep and didn’t really want the amazing emotions I was feeling to end. The lack of sleep added a certain ‘sheen’ to the final proceedings and everything became soft around the edges. It was like the end of an ecstasy all-nighter from the late 80s. I was incredibly happy and it still brings pleasure thinking about that day.
I rang Andrew Denton and he was feeling the same, so we met for a quiet and somewhat dreamy meal, going over the campaign and what we would do next. We both agreed that the Victorian laws, being the first in the country, would probably end up becoming the most conservative, as other states moved past some of the red tape to pass their own end-of-life choices legislation.
Sex, Drugs and the Electoral Roll: My unlikely journey from sex worker to Member of Parliament
Author: Fiona Patten
Publisher: Allen & Unwin