Law & Politics

Rodney’s final stand on voluntary assisted dying

Even in his final months of life, Dr Rodney Syme was doing all he could to help make voluntary assisted dying accessible for all Australians.

In August, when the Australian Senate’s Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee was inquiring into the Ensuring Northern Territory Rights Bill 2021, the veteran advocate made yet another submission (see below).

The private member’s bill, sponsored by Senator Sam McMahon from the Northern Territory, sought to remove limits on the Northern Territory Legislative Assembly’s powers to make laws, including in relation to voluntary assisted dying. It also sought to repeal the Euthanasia Laws Act 1997.

The committee had warned that it may not accept submissions that discussed only the issue of VAD, as the bill’s provisions had spoken more broadly to the territory’s right to legislate without federally imposed limitations.

In his submission, Rodney walked a fine line, trying not to focus solely on VAD but pointing also to the history of restrictions on the Northern Territory.

But he did take firm aim at the Euthanasia Laws Act 1997, drawing attention to the way it has discriminated against citizens of the Northern Territory.

“It is now more clear than ever that the citizens of NT are being discriminated against by the Euthanasia Laws Act 1997…” he wrote.

Rodney also noted that significant VAD reform had been made in Australia since the passing of the 1997 laws. Earlier in the year, he told the Rationalist Society of Australia (RSA) that such progress had given him a “sense of vindication for years of struggle”.

The Senate committee’s report, released in October, twice referenced Rodney’s submission. The private member’s bill remains before the Senate.

Rodney’s death late last month will not stop the momentum he helped to ignite right across Australia, for all people to have access to the humane end-of-life option.

If anything, the memory of his compassion for the terminally ill and his determination to achieve law reform should give us all the inspiration we need to continue the fight for the right to access VAD at end-of-life.

Next Wednesday, the RSA will be hosting a webinar in tribute to Rodney Syme. Guest speakers Dr Nick Carr, a Victorian GP, and Penny Hackett, president of Dying with Dignity New South Wales, will reflect on the significant VAD reforms achieved in Australia and discuss the work ahead. To attend, register here.

This is Rodney’s submission to the Senate’s Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee:

Committee Secretary
Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee

I wish to make the following submission to your committee in relation to Senator McMahon’s Bill.

The Northern Territory Parliament was established in 1978 by Commonwealth law but with certain restrictions compared to those of the Australian States as established by Federation in 1901. The NT did not exist at that time.

The NT parliament passed the Rights of the Terminally Ill Act in 1996, but the right of the NT to proceed under this legislation was overturned by the passage by the Federal parliament in March 1997 of the Euthanasia Laws Act.

Such an action cannot be taken by the Federal Parliament in relation to any State – as such, this Federal legislation disenfranchises citizens of Australia residing in the NT (also by implication citizens of the ACT and Norfolk island).

This legislation does not apply only to law regarding euthanasia (now described as pertaining to voluntary assisted dying) but to other social issues.

The population of NT in 2020 was ~ 246,500 (ACT was ~ 431,215). At this same time the population of Tasmania was ~ 541,070, yet Tasmania has full legislative rights and privileged rights to elect Senators. (vis a vis population).

Since the ROTI Act was passed in 1996, there has been considerable debate regarding voluntary assisted dying in Australia, culminating in VAD laws being passed in Victoria (2017), West Australia (2019) and Tasmania and South Australia (2021). Parliamentary debate on this matter is scheduled in Queensland in September 2021, and a Bill has been tabled in NSW.

It is now more clear than ever that the citizens of NT are being discriminated against by the Euthanasia Laws Act 1997 and in a more general sense by its broad influence on NT parliamentary freedom in relation to property, employment and other social issues.

I commend Senator McMahon’s Bill to the Committee.

Yours faithfully,
Dr Rodney Syme, FRCS

Photo by Humanists Victoria (2017)


About Si Gladman

Si Gladman is Executive Director of the Rationalist Society of Australia (2024-). He is Editor of Rationale. Previously, he was Campaigns & Communications Coordinator for the Rationalist Society of Australia (2021-2024). He tweets at @si_gladman

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