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PoliticsMay 19, 2019

Will MPs let voters make the call on euthanasia?

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If David Seymour’s assisted dying bill gets knocked out in Parliament, hopes of a referendum at the 2020 election die with it, writes Graham Adams.  

We will soon find out — probably in the next six weeks — which of our MPs believe in participatory democracy and which don’t.

The vote on the second reading of the End of Life Choice Bill had been predicted to take place on May 22 but that now looks unlikely. As David Seymour himself told me: “There are enough bills ahead of us to fill up the May 22 session. That puts us back to either June 19 or June 26, depending on the Budget.”

The result is awaited with bated breath by supporters and opponents, but a delay of a few weeks is insignificant after the tactics mounted by those keen to thwart the bill’s progress. Chief among these was the justice select committee’s extraordinary decision — apparently instigated by assisted dying’s arch-opponent Maggie Barry — to hear everyone who wanted to make an oral submission.

Predictably, the result of this filibuster was that most of the 1350 oral submitters didn’t offer insights that weren’t already in their written submissions but it did successfully keep the committee tied up for several months.

A huge majority of the submissions were against the bill, but the negative publicity emanating from the hearings hasn’t fazed those who were asked their opinion in a Horizon Research poll, published in early May.

It found 74% of New Zealanders believe that if you are mentally competent, and aged 18 or over with an end-stage terminal disease, you should be able to get medical assistance to end your life. Just 19% were opposed.

So after what is now several years of dedicated scaremongering by opponents — including Maggie Barry calling the End of Life Choice Bill a “licence to kill” and Bill English claiming that people will be put “on the euthanasia conveyor belt” — an overwhelming majority of voters still want the right to shave a few days or weeks off the end of their lives if they are terminally ill.

And, as David Seymour noted, these poll results “are consistent with over 20 years of public polls on assisted dying in New Zealand conducted time and time again by reputable polling companies”.

It is clear that most New Zealanders want some form of assisted dying to be legalised. Unfortunately, many supporters also believe they don’t have to pay too much attention to which way their MPs will vote at a second reading because they will be able to have their say in a referendum scheduled at the next election.

But that’s simply not true. At the moment, there is no referendum officially scheduled or guaranteed. In fact, if the End of Life Choice Bill is defeated in the House at its second or third readings, that’s the end of the process.

ACT leader David Seymour. Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images

As David Seymour told me when asked whether there was a fallback provision for a referendum even if his bill failed: “Sadly all three votes [in Parliament] are sudden death. If we don’t get a majority at second reading, it’s all over.” 

Winston Peters has made a referendum a condition of his party’s continued support for the passage of the bill and consequently Seymour has suggested amending it to include that requirement (as well as narrowing its eligibility criteria to apply only to the terminally ill to satisfy the Greens and other MPs who want narrower access).

NZ First MP Shane Jones made his party’s case for putting it to the people clearly and cogently on TVNZ’s Breakfast show in April. He said that he was brought up as an Anglican — even if he’s “not a very good one” — and implied that he personally found the topic of assisted dying uncomfortable as “a tapu sort of subject”. Nevertheless, he, and NZ First, believe that “temporary occupants in Parliament should hand it over to all New Zealanders who should decide”.

But this, of course, only comes into play if Seymour gets 61 votes to push his bill over the line at both its second and third readings.

At the End of Life Choice Bill’s first reading in December 2017, a big majority of MPs — 76-44 — voted to send it to the justice select committee. It was understood then that some MPs voted in favour simply to give the committee the chance to assess it, without making any commitment to further support it at later readings.

But, in April, the select committee recommended only technical changes and passed its responsibilities back to the Committee of the Whole House.

So it’s hard to see why any MP who thought it was a good idea for a select committee to review the bill at the first reading wouldn’t vote for it again at a second reading because it is the same bill being presented.

Seymour agrees with that logic but says: “However, some MPs will, of course, say, ‘Well, the changes didn’t happen at select committee so why should I hang out until the Committee of the Whole House?’”

It’s obviously going to be complicated and time-consuming as MPs do the detailed work in refining the bill that the select committee would normally be expected to have done and some antagonists are using that prospect as a reason to kill the bill as early as possible.

DefendNZ has suggested its followers contact MPs to warn them there will be lengthy debates over amendments and to “expect the conversations to get longer and much more intense… Should the bill pass its second reading, the Committee of the Whole House stage will likely be extremely lengthy, as dozens of MPs try to fix the bill.”

It’s hard to read this any other way than asking MPs: “Why not guarantee yourself an easier life by simply voting it down at the second reading?”

However, it would be outrageous if the 15 months of work that select committee MPs have put into the bill so far — including hearing oral submissions from 1350 individuals and organisations at 42 public hearings in 14 cities and towns across the country — was simply ignored for expediency’s sake.

If anything is on a conveyor belt, it should be this bill’s progress to a referendum, given the overwhelming public support for it.

Opponents, however, are very keen to prevent the bill going to a referendum despite crowing for months that 90.2 per cent of the 38,707 submissions to the Justice select committee were opposed.

But they don’t seem to really believe their own claim because if 90% of the population were, indeed, opposed, you’d imagine they would be very happy for the question to be swamped by a tsunami of hostility at the ballot box and thus settle the matter for a long time

They’d be happy for MPs to pass the End of Life Choice Bill through its next readings, completely secure in the knowledge the public would then dismiss it out of hand.

The quasi-religious Care Alliance was quick to produce press releases asserting the submissions showed almost the entire country was against David Seymour’s bill, but they wouldn’t respond to my repeated question of whether their organisation supported an actual referendum.

The alliance’s secretary, Dr Peter Thirkell, was more forthcoming a year ago when I put that question to him — presumably because at that point a referendum was a more remote possibility. He said then that he believed “an issue as complex and fraught as euthanasia and assisted suicide does not lend itself well to a single-question referendum”.

At the same time, Catholic lobby group Right to Life made its contempt for voters even more obvious in a press release. “The issue of euthanasia is simply too complex to be put to a public vote… Right to Life does not think this is a matter that should be decided by individuals within the community.”

It added: “We also are concerned that should the result of the referendum support euthanasia, this will impose pressure on the conscience of those members of Parliament who are opposed to it, and who want to protect the community.”

In April this year, Renee Joubert, from Euthanasia-Free NZ, replied to my question on Facebook with a similar rationale. “The problem with a referendum is that the euthanasia issue is very complex and nuanced, as demonstrated by the submissions on the bill. There are multiple options for each eligibility criterion and proposed safeguard. There are wider implications and unintended consequences to consider. The issue doesn’t really lend itself to a yes/no question.”

It’s impossible not to conclude that opponents of David Seymour’s bill believe New Zealanders must have become much less intellectually capable since 1992, when a non-binding referendum was held to decide whether First Past the Post should be replaced by a more proportional voting system. Voters had to say, first, whether they wanted to replace FPP and, then, which of four alternative systems should be adopted — Preferential Voting; Mixed Member Proportional; Supplementary Member; or Single Transferable Vote.

An official information campaign conducted before the referendum meant that voters had plenty of information to help make a decision and, unsurprisingly, they handled these complex choices without fuss.

No one could plausibly argue in 2019 that voters haven’t had the chance to thoroughly acquaint themselves with the details and concepts involved in legalising assisted dying. The debate has been raging in public for years, and particularly since 2015 when Lecretia Seales — terminally ill with brain cancer — took a case to the High Court asking that her doctor should not be prosecuted under the Crimes Act in assisting her die with her consent.

If MPs genuinely care about democracy in action, they’ll vote for Seymour’s bill to ensure the nation’s voters have the right to decide for themselves in a referendum.

I guess we’ll find out soon enough who among our representatives believes in direct democracy and who doesn’t.

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