October 18, 2017  |  Second reading

Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill 2017

MR HOWARD (Buninyong) (11:59:59) — I am pleased to add my comments in favour of the bill before the house. I welcome this bill, which does provide genuine choice for a small number of people who are dying and suffering intolerably, helping them with the timing and the manner of their inevitable and imminent death. I have to say that I have no direct experiences to influence my view in regard to this matter, but I have heard from many constituents about their negative experiences of watching a loved one die in extended pain when they have had to endure a prolonged period without quality of life.

I will just make comment about an email I received yesterday from a Dr Josephine Manis, and I expect many of us received the same email. She was concerned in listening to the debate that members were drawing on their own personal experiences and that was clouding them from being able to make an appropriate decision in regard to this debate. I have to say I challenge that kind of view because it is our personal experiences that perhaps bring us to the values that we have and that make us want to stand as representatives in this house. It is those values that link us back to the issues of people in our electorate, and it is very much the personal experiences and the values that we have developed from experiences that are central to making good democracy work. We might as well let computers run the state if it were simply a matter of analysing data or something. It is human values that drive democracy and good representation.

In saying that, I then want to go on and say that I have talked with many people in my electorate as well as following the issue overall over a period of time. I have met with people from the medical profession — people like Dr Mark Yates, a former president of the Australian Medical Association, who is a Ballarat resident — and I have spoken to other doctors, such as Dr Greg Mewett, who works at the Gandarra Palliative Care Unit at Ballarat Health Services, and they have different views.

Perhaps most significantly I have talked over a number of years to a group of people from Ballarat who are members of the Dying with Dignity group. They have come and seen me many times over the last four or five years. They are a lovely group of older people, and this legislation relates to them. As they have got older they have been looking at what will inevitably happen to them and they have said, ‘We want some dying with dignity legislation because, while we have had good lives, we want to see that we also have good deaths and that we do not live in pain or unnecessary agony or, more particularly, in a situation where we have lost that dignity and the values that we have lived by through our lives’. A man called Ken Clements was the leader of that group in Ballarat who came to see me, and I have to say that Ken does not need to worry about this legislation because he died earlier this year. While I am sad to think that a terrific man like Ken did leave us, I know he did leave us in the way that he would want, so this legislation will not apply to him.

In passing this legislation, if that is what happens through this Parliament, it is not that I expect it to be enacted in many situations, but it will give older people the satisfaction of knowing — if they happen to go down the route in their latter years of suffering from an incurable disease — that they will not be forced to linger on and suffer indignity in their death. The legislation provides them with the confidence that, should that happen, there is that possibility that they can use this legislation.

So many of us have talked about experiences that we have had, and I have been impressed. I do not want to go over the speeches by the Premier, the member for South-West Coast, the member for Bendigo West and many others who have shared some of their personal experiences. In many of those cases, where they witnessed people dying like my mother — who died five years ago — they went through a process where the system as it operates at the moment worked for them. There was the ability to use pain relief such as morphine in the latter period of the person’s life and perhaps in doing so speed up their death. The use of morphine is a form of assisted dying which we accept to be appropriate, and it worked for them. But we have heard of situations where it does not work.

This legislation is very sound. I have followed through the process. The upper house committee has looked at this issue. Members from all parties looked at this issue and they came back and said, ‘Yes, we support regulation with appropriate safeguards’. I have then followed through with the work of the ministerial advisory committee. Again, this is an eminent group of people who worked through all of these issues, looked at the safeguards and put them in place.

I think that the legislation is very sound. It is very limited in some ways and does not satisfy all of the issues that the Dying with Dignity group might be concerned about, and I will come to that in a moment. But I am concerned that some who have spoken against this bill have lost sight of what it is really about. It is about people in their final months of life, as they approach death, being given an opportunity to know that they will not linger on and that their families will not see them linger on in a way that they would not have wanted and in a way that they would not want themselves.

The possibility of elder abuse that people have raised I do not believe relates to this issue. In most cases we know that people fortunately do have loving families around them, especially in those last days, and they are supportive and they want to work together — and perhaps we do not speak enough about the issue of death to ensure that it works appropriately, but I do not believe elder abuse happens in those last months when people are clearly about to die — to ensure that it is the appropriate death for that person and that they are not forced to linger.

I also want to say in regard to people who have been talking about palliative care that in Ballarat we have a fantastic palliative care system, whether it is Gandarra, the Ballarat Health Services place where people are offered palliative care in a hospital setting, or whether it is Ballarat Hospice Care, which offers terrific care for people in their homes as well as to their families. They are fantastic, and I commend the fantastic work they do. I have visited people in both situations and know that they have been very comforted by their palliative care. But those people in palliative care know that there are times when people have lingered on beyond what they would have wanted themselves, when their pain relief issues cannot be addressed appropriately, and that is where this legislation kicks in.

The member for Bayswater made some other relevant points, as did others, that this legislation is clearly defined, that it has to be for people in their last months of life when we know they are suffering a terminal condition. Some of the Ballarat Dying with Dignity group I have talked about would have liked to have seen this perhaps extended further because we know of issues around people who die through dementia and that it is a very unfortunate way to see people go.

I remember my grandmother, who lived on 10 years longer than she would have liked, and she was not there in perhaps her last eight years of life. She was a physical body — decomposing almost, as it were — in her hospital. She had to wait. When she was still mentally sound she said she wished she could die, but her body would not let her. She lingered on for so many years when she was not there in her body but her body was there in the hospital. It was difficult for those of us who visited, but people did visit. It was painful for them, and it was not what she would have wanted. This legislation cannot deal with that. It is a very complicated issue, but it is one that we need to reflect upon as to what is the appropriate way to let people go in life rather than let them linger on and perhaps die of starvation or whatever it is that their body finally succumbs to. So I do support this legislation. I think it is to assure those who have made their intentions clear in their final months of life that they do not need to linger on unnecessarily if they are going to be in pain and in a situation that they would not want and that they do not want their family members to deal with either. It will not be used, as I said, in many cases, but it provides that surety. I support this bill.