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Euthanasia: on which side of history do MPs want to be?

Opinion Piece

“The wind of change is blowing through this continent, and whether we like it or not, this growth of national consciousness is a political fact. We must all accept it as a fact, and our national policies must take account of it.”

Thus spoke British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan to the South African Parliament on February 3, 1960. But so deeply entrenched was Afrikaner opposition to majority rule that it took another 34 years until apartheid crumbled and universal elections were held.

There is another wind of change, encountering similarly entrenched opposition, but in this case it is world-wide. Many would say it is the last human rights battle; the right to die on one’s own terms. At the time of writing, about 20 countries and states have enacted legislation allowing terminally ill people to have a dignified and peaceful death, surrounded by loved ones.

Having tasted the fruit of such humanitarian legislation, only the Northern Territory of Australia has gone back, in 1997, after a Catholic cabal used federal law against them.

Evidently people like it when voluntary, dignified death is legally available. This, despite blood curdling warnings of “slippery slopes”, doctors “killing patients”, “threats to disabled” and other distortions argued by mainly religious opponents.

Mark Twain said that “history may not repeat itself, but it rhymes a lot”. It seems he was right; one only has to think of the Homosexual Law Reform Act of 1986. Here’s Norman Jones, then MP for Invercargill, addressing a crowd a year before the passing of the Act:

“Go back into the sewers where you come from. As far as I’m concerned you can stay in the gutter. Turn around and look at them, gaze upon them, you’re looking into Hades, don’t look too long, you might catch Aids.”

The Coalition of Concerned Citizens reportedly gathered 800,000 signatures for a petition, but the law still changed.

Had he lived, Jones would have been astonished at how easily homosexuality is now accepted as just one more example of human biological variation. One would think that politicians, with wetted fingers in the air, would have learned from history.

But it seems that some, especially those on the conservative Right, have not.

This proved fatal for some in the State of Victoria, Australia, where voluntary assisted dying is due to become law on June 19 this year. The architect of the first Voluntary Assisted Dying (VAD) law in Australia, Marshall Perron, former chief minister of the Northern Territory, analysed what happened at the ballot box to candidates who voted against VAD. The result should be a lesson for New Zealand MPs who haven’t yet decided how they will vote in the second reading of David Seymour’s End of Life Choice bill.

In Australia, parliamentarians had traditionally been afraid of supporting VAD, believing it was too risky to do so. The Victorian State election in 2018 showed that the opposite is true, with State Premier Daniel Andrews trouncing the opposition.

Mr Perron said that it was a common perception that politicians did not listen to their constituents; VAD has dramatically shown this to be true, at least in Victoria.

Among the many reasons for the election result, VAD has been identified as a reason for the landslide that returned Andrews’ government to office. With 80-85 percent public support for VAD, it should have come as no surprise that candidates supporting VAD polled significantly more strongly at the election.

In the previous parliament, almost all Liberal members had voted against the VAD legislation; in the state election the Liberal Party suffered an average 6.04 percent swing against it, with two of the most implacable Liberal opponents of the VAD bill losing their seats. In the lower house, Robert Clark lost his seat after a quarter century. In the upper house, after three terms, Inga Peulich lost her seat.

Dying With Dignity campaigners focused on four electorates in which the Liberal candidates all opposed VAD; they suffered an average 10.1 percent drop in primary votes compared with the average drop in the Liberal vote overall of 6.04 percent.

What’s more, the Liberal sitting member lost his seat and the sitting Labor and Green members, who all supported VAD, were returned with significantly increased votes.

New Zealand MPs would be well advised to learn from the Victorian experience, and to heed the words of Samuel Johnson: “Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”

I can think of at least two religious zealots who would vote against the Seymour bill even if 100 percent of their constituents wanted it, but there must be some undecided MPs who would rather be on the right side of history.

As Victor Hugo reportedly remarked: “There is one thing stronger than all the armies in the world, and that is an idea whose time has come.”

• Martin Hanson is a retired science teacher who lives in Nelson.

Martin Hanson.