Voluntary Assisted Dying

Mr PEARSON (Essendon) — I am delighted to join the debate, and at the outset I wish to place on the public record that I will be supporting the bill and I will be opposing the reasoned amendment moved by the member for Monbulk.

I have been in the chamber for most of the debate. It has been a really good debate. It has been incredibly respectful and it has been very thoughtful and considerate. The reality is that a debate like this elicits a wide range of views from a wide number of members, and the tenor of the debate has been outstanding. I want to acknowledge the very heartfelt contribution made by the member for Gippsland South. Clearly the member and I have diametrically opposed views on this bill, but I think the way in which he spoke, as a parent who has lost a child, was eloquent and beautiful. It was a magnificent tribute.

The member for Ferntree Gully made a number of statements in his contribution. On a few of the points I can inform the house that the bill will require two assessing doctors to discuss treatment options, including palliative care. Doctors are prohibited under the bill from suggesting voluntary assisted dying to people. The coroner is not prohibited from investigating any death, individually or systematically. The other point I would make in relation to an assisted death is that it is not a reportable death but information around those who choose the pathway of voluntary assisted dying will be reported back so it can be tracked.

It was Richard Crashaw who wrote in 1652 in the poem Temperance:

And when life’s sweet fable ends,

Soul and body part like friends;

No quarrels, murmurs, no delay;

A kiss, a sigh, and so away.

If only it were so simple. If that were the result on every occasion, we would not be here.

Assisted dying is not a recent phenomenon. Emperor Augustus, who succeeded Julius Caesar, was one of Rome’s great emperors, and as his health started to decline he arranged his succession. While visiting the town of Nola, the very town his father died in, near modern-day Naples, he died. Writing over a century later in The Lives of the Twelve Caesars, Suetonius stated that Augustus, died quickly and without suffering in the arms of his wife, Livia, and experienced the ‘euthanasia’ he had wished for. Livia had apparently given Augustus a poisoned fig, which caused his death.

I do not have religious faith, although I have respect for those who do. I would describe myself as an atheist and a humanist in that I believe in the rights and freedoms of the individual to live their life as they see fit within the laws of our state and nation. I acknowledge that others oppose the bill because of myriad reasons or experiences.

In preparing for today’s contribution I was drawn to a quote by Jean Jacques Rousseau, who was one of the great Enlightenment philosophers. He said that the freedom of mankind does not lie in the fact that we can do what we want but that we do not have to do that which we do not want. I think that is important, because the bill before the house is not about ensuring that people embark upon a pathway of voluntary assisted dying; it is about saying that you do not have to do that which you do not want to do, and I think that is a really important observation.

If I track my own course since the legislation was first proposed to be introduced into the Parliament, I would have said that I fully supported any such bill without question. One of the reasons for this was I watched my wife’s grandfather die of prostate cancer 20 years ago. Martin Kelly was a big and proud man. He was a man’s man — firm handshake, larger than life, loved his loud suits and his bling. He was a huge man. He lived life to the full. I remember watching the last three days of his life. He was dosed up on morphine as his family gathered around him waiting for him to die. I felt then and I feel to this day that this was not the death that he would have wanted.

But having said that, when the bill was proposed I felt it was important to meet with anyone who wanted to meet with me. I had a meeting in my office with a constituent who is a palliative care nurse. When I told her this story, she said to me, ‘Well, how many have you seen die?’. It was a really good question, and what could I answer other than to say that I am shaped by what I have seen and by the life that I have lived, as flawed and as narrow as that may be to some? But I cannot deny what I saw nor the impact that it had on me in making this decision.

Since the issue of the bill was first canvassed, I felt it was important to meet with a variety of people. I met with constituents. I met with health professionals. I met with palliative care professionals and local churches. It was an extraordinary amount of people I met with. I think there may have been a couple of meetings which I could not make because the timing was not lined up, but doors were open and I met with many people in the course of preparing for this debate. I ran an online survey, and I met with healthcare services that service my electorate. What I found by engaging with my community and talking with people was that the engagements were really thought provoking and gave me the opportunity to pause, ponder and reflect. Unlike what we may have seen in an email or a letter, the overwhelming majority of these engagements were thoughtful and they were measured and considered, regardless of whether people were passionately in favour or against the bill.

I remember speaking with Reverend Vanessa Bennett from St Thomas’s in Moonee Ponds, who has worked in palliative care. She indicated to me that she was concerned that people might seek to end their lives under this legislation at a time when they were quite angry with the world and life in general rather than reaching that point later as their illness progresses and they are more likely to be at peace with their fate. I felt that that was a good observation. I also remember having a really great discussion with an oncologist from a Catholic healthcare group. As he was walking out of my office, he stopped and looked at me with a twinkle in his eye and he said, ‘So how did we go?’. I made the point that he did make a great job of arguing his case.

One thing that became apparent to me throughout the course of these discussions and that I think we can all agree on is that we can do better when it comes to understanding about options under palliative care. One myth that has been busted in this process for me is that palliative care is only an option in the very final stages of life, which is clearly not the case. A well-funded palliative care service that engages with patients early on can make a profound difference to both the quality and the quantity of a person’s life.

Probably one of the most profound discussions that I had in examining this issue was with a husband and wife and their middle-aged daughter. The husband had been diagnosed with motor neurone disease and, while it was in the very early stages, his impending death was on his mind. The family came and saw me, asking that I support the bill because, in the words of the father, he wanted the opportunity to end his life when he could no longer go to the toilet and look after himself. As I looked into his eyes, I thought to myself: what gives me the right to deny him the right to end his own life if that is what he wants? For me, this bill is not about compelling anyone to end their lives if they do not want to. A patient with a terminal illness will not have to do that which they do not want, but rather they can if they wish.

In addition to this, I have consulted with people who mean the most to me in my life — my wife, my parents and my family. It has been the result of these discussions and reflections that I have determined that I shall be supporting the bill. I will be opposing the reasoned amendment put forward by the member for Monbulk, the reason being that I think today the debate has been lengthy and it has been extensive — in the community, in our electorates, in our offices and during the course of this week.

I think that the community would expect us, as legislators, to either vote for the bill or vote against the bill, and I think the community has come to expect that we will make a decision on this bill. I do not think that we are doing the community a service by deferring this bill for consideration at a later date. I think the time is now. We have consulted; we have done the work; the bill is extensive. I feel that it is an important bill with appropriate safeguards in place, and I think it is really important that the matter be dealt with one way or the other during the course of this sitting week. It is for those reasons that I will be supporting the bill but opposing the reasoned amendment by the member for Monbulk. I commend the bill to the house.