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Territory rights debate returns to Parliament

Labor is pushing for a debate on Sam McMahon's territory rights bill on Monday. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong
Labor is pushing for a debate on Sam McMahon's territory rights bill on Monday. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

The Morrison government has been told by one of its own to "get out of the way" and allow the ACT and Northern Territory to legislate on assisted dying.

NT Country Liberal senator Sam McMahon declared on Monday it was time for the Commonwealth to "pull back", as debate on her bill to restore her jurisdiction's right to make its own voluntary euthanasia laws finally started in the federal Parliament.

The future of the bill remains unclear with time running out until the next election.

It didn't progress to a final vote in the Senate, or to the point Labor senator Katy Gallagher could formally amend it to include the ACT.

But Monday's debate provided an opportunity for advocates and opponents to argue their position on the contentious issue, including Senator Gallagher and Senator Zed Seselja.

After the Labor frontbencher decried the "outdated and paternalistic" federal law which blocks the territories from making euthanasia laws, Senator Seselja again warned the ACT Labor-Greens government would push through the nation's most "extreme" assisted dying legislation if the ban was lifted.

The bill was only brought on for debate after Labor took the rare step of forfeiting a spot allocated to one of its bills to allow the Coalition senator's proposal to be considered.

Senator Gallagher said with an election looming and Senator McMahon's career in federal politics about to end, it made sense for the pair to work together to progress the bill.

The government's decision to accept Labor's request saved it from the possibility of seeing more Coalition senators cross the floor.

Liberal senator Zed Seselja believes the ACT Labor-Greens government would pass the nation's most extreme assisted dying laws if given the chance. Picture: Keegan Carroll

Liberal senator Zed Seselja believes the ACT Labor-Greens government would pass the nation's most extreme assisted dying laws if given the chance. Picture: Keegan Carroll

Senator McMahon's bill was controversially overlooked last week, with the government choosing to allow Pauline Hanson's proposed anti-vaccine mandate laws.

In a passionate speech on Monday morning, Senator McMahon said the Commonwealth should acknowledge that the 1997 laws which quashed the Northern Territory's world-first assisted dying laws - and which blocked the territories from making similar laws in the future - were a mistake.

All states will have legalised assisted dying if NSW passes legislation currently before it.

"It is time for the Commonwealth to pull back from this argument, and to say to the territories, 'we got it wrong 25 years ago, we thought you were mad, we thought you were nuts, we thought you lost the plot. But we were actually wrong. It turns out you were ahead of the game,'" she told the Senate.

Senator McMahon highlighted an apparent disconnect between how the federal government chose to leave the states and territories alone on most issues - including pandemic restrictions - yet continued to interfere on assisted dying laws.

As the nation has started to reopen, Mr Morrison has stepped up his argument that after almost two years of heavy state-sanctioned restrictions it was time for the government for the step back.

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"The Commonwealth is standing back in every other argument saying, well, it's up to the states," Senator McMahon said.

"It's up to the states, you know, to decide if they if they want to have biosecurity in place. It's up to the states to decide about quarantine.

"But in this area, the Commonwealth government is still saying; 'No, you can't, we're gonna stop you. We're gonna override your right to make fair, just and needed laws for your people. That is absolutely not right, that is not fair."

"It is time ... for the Commonwealth to get out of the way of the territories to let them make laws around this."

In a statement on Monday afternoon, Senator McMahon said the start of debate marked a "step closer for ensuring that territorians have the same rights as other Australians".

She said debate would resume when parliament returned next year.

Senator Gallagher, who engineered the plot to bring on debate on McMahon's bill on Monday morning, said in her speech that it was "fundamentally unfair" that Queanbeyan residents had more democratic rights than people in Canberra.

She said the ACT and Northern Territory had "mature" parliaments, which were trusted to legislate on all the same issues as states - aside from voluntary assisted dying.

"The parliament's been in place since 1989 in the ACT, and they've managed to look after the community very well," she said.

"For some reason we still have this paternalistic view that the territories can't be trusted when it comes to matters around euthanasia."

Senator Gallagher said she understood how sensitive and difficult the issue of assisted dying was, having cared for both of her parents before they died of cancer.

She revealed that she might not be able to support assisted dying laws when they ultimately came to the ACT Legislative Assembly. But she it was "absolutely unfair" that it wasn't even allowed to be debated.

Labor caucus had previously agreed to oppose Senator McMahon's bill, but the Opposition's position has shifted since she agreed to drop provisions related to workplace laws and land acquisitions.

The stripped back bill, with the inclusion of the ACT, would have the same effect as a straight repeal of the Andrews Bill.

Labor members would be able to vote with their conscience, but Senator Gallagher was hopeful that it would pass.

The ACT's two senators have for months traded barbs over the McMahon bill, with Senator Seselja strongly rejecting Senator Gallagher's accusation that he was to blame for the ACT's exclusion from the territory rights legislation.

During his speech on Monday, Senator Seselja suggested his long-time Labor adversary was more interested in using territory rights as a "political wedge" than genuinely trying to progress the cause.

He argued that allowing the ACT and Northern Territory to legislate on assisted dying would actually give them more rights than the states, as neither territory parliament had the oversight of an upper house.

That means assisted dying legislation could pass the ACT Legislative Assembly with the backing of just 13 members.

Senator Seselja again argued that the ACT Labor-Greens government couldn't be trusted to pass legislation with proper safeguards, repeating his assertion that it would preside over the the nation's most "extreme" euthanasia laws if it had the chance.

He described the government's management of the public health system as an "absolute disgrace", as he accused it of underinvesting in palliative care.

ACT Human Rights Minister Tara Cheyne accused Senator Seselja of scaremongering, as she reiterated that the government would consult with the community on potential assisted dying laws.

"It is hugely disappointing but not surprising that Zed has used his speech in today's debate to scaremonger about voluntary assisted dying," she told The Canberra Times.

"By speaking against the bill, Zed has wilfully ignored the wishes of Canberrans who he is supposed to represent".

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This story 'Get out of the way': Territory rights debate starts in the federal Parliament first appeared on The Canberra Times.

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