Assisted dying - are our political masters "unrepresentative swill"?

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The Victorian parliament is debating the Government's Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill

Former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating once famously branded the Senate “unrepresentative swill” for obstructing his legislative agenda. Today, the question of how representative our political masters are remains moot.

Major community support for VAD

Take voluntary assisted dying (VAD) for example. Poll after poll demonstrates that the overwhelming majority of Australians want this additional choice for people in extremis at the end of life. The impeccable Australian Election Survey (AES) conducted by Australian National University scholars last year confirmed that 77% of Australians want VAD reform, with 13% undecided and just 10% opposed.

Strong support (43%) is ten times greater than strong opposition (4%), and support is high across the political spectrum: amongst minor/independent (69%), Coalition (77%), Labor (80%) and Greens (87%) voters. Public support has been in the majority for more than four decades.

Political support missing in action

But since the Northern Territory Rights of the Terminally Ill Act in 1996, none of the many VAD Bills before various state parliaments has passed. And the Northern Territory’s Act was torn down by the federal parliament just eight months after coming into effect.

A 2008 university study of federal MP voting opportunities found 100% of Greens, 55% of Labor, and a paltry 17% of Coalition MPs voting in favour of VAD.

New analysis

Now, a new analysis of the ten state VAD Bills since 2000 where final divisions were called, offers further insights. It found 100% of Greens MP voting opportunities were in favour, along with 51% of Labor, 29% of minor party and independent, and a similarly paltry 17% of Coalition MPs. Excluding South Australia, whose parliament has debated the greatest number of VAD Bills, the Coalition support rate was just 9%.

Overall, while state Labor MP votes fell 29% short of Labor voter attitudes, Coalition MP votes fell an astonishing 60% short of Coalition voter attitudes. At the state level, Coalition MPs had the most voting opportunities — nearly half (48%). No wonder passing VAD Bills is challenging.

It begs the question, how is it that our legislative representatives fail to reflect clear public majority views on matters of conscience for so long?

Hidden reasons behind MP opposition

Obviously, lobbying on both sides of the conversation in part informs MPs’ views, but there are several more persuasive factors.

For a start, there’s a “truism” held by many MPs that their vote in favour of a VAD Bill would lose them more votes at a general election than would a vote against the Bill. However, the opposite has been demonstrated in multiple studies.

Further, I’ve shown before that opposition to VAD is largely religious.  A university study has also found that those who are more religious and who are politically engaged tend to hold very conservative views. So while there are religious MPs on both sides of politics, Coalition MPs are naturally more inclined to hold much more conservative views.

But that doesn’t fully explain the massive 60% representation gap on the Coalition side, either.

In good conscience?

A key factor lies in the seemingly reassuring principle of the “conscience vote.” The major parties have announced that their members are accorded a conscience vote (also known as a “free vote”) on the VAD Bill. That simply means that there’s no official published party policy on the matter and party members may vote freely on the basis of their own conscience.

There are two significant issues with this state of affairs.

The first is that the member may refer exclusively to their own conscience. But what if the MP’s conscience is at odds with the electorate’s? For my home state of Victoria, the 2016 AES study found 79% of the community in favour of VAD. There are 88 members of the Victorian parliament lower house, and just 40 members in the upper house. Therefore, it’s possible for as few as just 20 Victorian MPs to vote “no” in order to extinguish the will of 3.2 million Victorians (79% of 4.05 million Victorian voters).

If that weren’t enough, the second issue is that the right to ‘conscience’ is granted only in respect of the Bill itself, not on procedural matters about the Bill. It can make a huge difference.

How the parry works

Here’s what happened in 2008 when Victorian Greens MP Colleen Hartland’s VAD Bill was before the Legislative Council. MPs were afforded a conscience vote, and many of them had said they were supportive of VAD in general, but couldn’t support Hartland’s Bill in its current form. (That’s also a common ruse of MPs who in reality oppose the reform in principle but wish to appear ‘open minded’.)

When the final vote on Hartland’s Bill was lost, then Greens MP Greg Barber immediately moved a motion to refer the Bill to a parliamentary committee so that it could be improved to MPs’ satisfaction. Neither Labor nor Coalition parties afforded their members a conscience vote on this procedural matter, instead directing MPs to vote against such motions. The referral, which may have resulted in Victorians having wider end-of-life choices years ago, was cynically buried.

Most voters remain unaware of the shenanigans played in the corridors of power to achieve such results.

Australia’s special political conservatism

They’re not the only shenanigans, though. Another university study comparing federal MP conscience voting patterns in the UK, New Zealand and Australia found Australia to be different, accounting for why the UK and NZ have legalised marriage equality, while Australia hasn’t.

Firstly, the centre-left in Australia has a larger proportion of Catholic members than in the UK and NZ, accounting for some of the shortfall in Labor representation of progressive views.

Secondly, those amongst Coalition ranks, but with more liberal social consciences, had been lashed by Coalition party whips to vote against progressive reform. So while there was a public display of fairness and neutrality, the reality was quite different.

Borne out in state parliaments

These findings are replicated in Australian state parliament votes too, with Coalition MPs rarely if ever voting in favour of progressive social reform. Coalition MP votes on VAD including and since Hartland’s legislative attempt in 2008 are telling: in Victoria 2008 10:5 against, in Tasmania 2009 6:0 against; in Western Australia 2010 19:1 against; in NSW 2013 10:0 against; in South Australia 2016 14:7 against and in Tasmania 2017 13:1 against.

Rather than reflect 77% Coalition voter support for VAD, Coalition MP voting patterns reflect the highly negative stance of party leaders, whipped through the parliamentary party membership. For example, then WA Premier Mr Colin Barnett made it clear he thought assisted dying was “government-sanctioned killing”. Tasmanian coalition leader Mr Will Hodgman said that “protection for [vulnerable] people cannot be guaranteed.” Then-NSW Premier Mr Barry O’Farrell declared himself “strongly opposed”.

Back to Victoria’s Bill under debate

The situation in Victoria is looking somewhat more positive, with Premier Mr Daniel Andrews and many in his Cabinet publicly supporting reform. A lengthy, detailed, professional and well-resourced process has informed the crafting of the Bill.

However, opposition leader and would-be Premier Mr Matthew Guy has stated his resolute opposition to it and that he intends to vote “no”. That would mean he is quite comfortable for his own personal view to extinguish the contrary views also held in good conscience by 34,626 of the 43,831 voters in his own electorate of Bulleen, and 3.20 million of Victoria’s 4.05 million voters. (Electorate numbers as at 10 October 2017.)

An obvious solution

There’s an obvious solution for MPs whose own consciences disallow them from reflecting the overwhelming majority conscience of the electorate.

They could consider abstaining — simply absenting themselves from the chamber during the division. That would keep their own consciences intact while allowing the electorate’s conscience to be reflected.

I’m a constituent of Mr Guy’s. Over a period of months I made six robust attempts to meet with him to discuss these matters, especially the covert whip arrangements and the consideration of abstention. I can be persuasive in obtaining appointments, but my best efforts proved wholly unfruitful.

As I said to Mr Guy’s private assistant after the last failed attempt, voters could be forgiven for believing he’s more interested in meeting allegedly shady characters in fancy Brighton restaurants, than meeting with his own constituents.

Victorians are watching the parliamentary VAD debate. We’re taking notes that will inform our votes at the state election late next year.

Indications are at present there’s a good chance that Victorian MPs won’t be “unrepresentative swill”.


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