In the coming weeks, Independent politician Mike Gaffney will introduce a bill to the Tasmanian parliament to legalise voluntary assisted dying (VAD).

We’re pleased to have him join us today for a Q&A to discuss the road ahead for his historic bill and the religion-based political opposition that he is facing.

NSL:

Mike, thanks for joining us for a Q&A. Tasmanians have embraced the consultation period that you have held for your proposed voluntary assisted dying (VAD) bill. From your viewpoint, what has been the response like from the community? How much support do you think there is out there for legalising VAD?

MG:

I’ve been very pleased with the positive response that my proposed VAD legislation has received from not only the Tasmanian community but also the media – editors, reporters and radio announcers – and the many people who have taken the time to contact me or who have come up to me in the streets and said, “Well done, Mike. We all deserve the right to choose. Thank you for your efforts.”

Whilst that message is heartening, it also reminds me of how important this legislation is in alleviating intolerable suffering. And that, in itself, is a huge responsibility.

NSL:

Labor has indicated it will support the bill when it enters parliament. How does that affect how you move forward with the bill?

MG:

The timeline for this bill’s passage has not been impacted by Labor’s announcement. And, whilst I’m really pleased with that position, I have stated previously that this legislation is bigger than any political party.

Indeed, having a conscience vote only means that there is no party policy. I still believe that each parliamentarian needs to represent their community viewpoint, which may differ to their personal viewpoint. All community surveys and feedback reinforce that over 80 per cent of respondents support the right to choose VAD.

NSL:

Religious lobbyists such as the Australian Christian Lobby are stepping up their opposition now, claiming that the bill would be based on “hopelessness and fear”. What’s your response to their approach on this issue?

MG:

I appreciate that there will be differing opinions and that certain groups will permeate words such as ‘hopelessness’ and ‘fear’ into this discussion. I am somewhat saddened by the emotive and inaccurate language used by the ACL when speaking of the bill. That language is, clearly, designed to shock or initiate guilt.

For those who wish to choose VAD, the bill provides an opportunity for them to do so. It makes the practice neither compulsory nor encouraged. It is simply about individual choice. The bill seeks to provide assurance to those who have received a diagnosis which flags imminent, unrelenting suffering, so that they can initiate steps to manage their pain or illness in anticipation of the condition becoming intolerable.

NSL:

In a somewhat typical fashion, such groups are using the ‘slippery slope’ argument, claiming that safeguards will be relaxed once the law comes into effect. Is this a concern that you have been hearing from the community more broadly? Do you know whether this has been a problem in other places where VAD has been legalised?

MG:

In the documentary ‘Fatal Fraud’, Andrew Denton, with the help of leading experts, explains how emotional manipulation, fear, framing and omission are deployed to sow fear, uncertainty and doubt in the minds of legislators and the public. It is easier and infinitely shocking and sensational to assert the existence of a slippery slope than to actually prove that it exists.

NSL:

Support for VAD around Australia is very high, with polls often showing around 80-90 per cent of people are in favour. Have you been disappointed to see progress on the issue stall in some states, such as Queensland? Why do you think there is so much resistance from parties in implementing this kind of policy when it has such a high rate of popular support?

MG:

I’m in regular contact with a number of Queenslanders who have been involved in the VAD cause and I know they are exceptionally disappointed with this delay. This disappointment is evidenced for not only residents wishing to have an opportunity to at least opt for the VAD substance but also individuals who have been very heavily involved in the crafting of the legislation.

One of the challenges of VAD legislation is that it becomes all-consuming. Whilst it is supported by many, it also draws the ire of quite vocal opponents. Political parties usually wish to distance themselves from their opponents. Being an independent with one full-time staff member, I really don’t care what others think. I’m doing this because it’s the right thing to do for Tasmania.

NSL:

You have been involved in politics, at various levels, for a long time. When and how did VAD become an important issue to you?

MG:

Actually, the first year I was elected to parliament – 2009 – was when Nick McKim’s ‘dying with dignity’ bill was tabled in the House of Assembly. Along with two other MLCs (members of the Legislative Council) and four MHAs (members of the House of Assembly), I was a member of the joint standing committee to scrutinise the bill and return a report to parliament.

Whilst I was personally in favour of the right to choose at that time, the 20-page bill was, unfortunately, deficient in areas. It, therefore, could not be recommended. And I agreed with that assessment. That was the start of the journey for me. The current 130-plus page bill is robust and thorough. It has been drafted by the Chief Parliamentary Counsel.

The proponents of the bill were considering re-introduce the bill downstairs in 2019. I was asked in mid-2019 if I would carry the bill in the upper house if it was passed in the House of Assembly. With changes in the House of Assembly, and given that the bill had previously been defeated three times in the lower house, strategically it made more sense for the bill to be tabled in the upper house. I agreed but made it quite clear that it would be a newly drafted bill reflecting my beliefs, knowledge and viewpoint.

NSL:

What does ‘secularism’ mean to you? Has it been part of your political philosophy in any way?

MG:

I have always believed that the decision-making of the state and the possible influence of the church should always remain separate. I believe the right to choose any religion, or not, is a freedom that we should all enjoy. No one religion should dominate. And, no doubt, there will also be differences of opinion within each faith. Whilst I attend the annual parliamentary prayer breakfast on behalf of the faith-based constituents in my electorate, the church plays no part in my political or personal philosophy.

NSL:

What are your thoughts about the influence of religious groups in policy-making in Australia, especially on social issues such as voluntary assisted dying?

MG:

All groups and individuals have a right to voice their opinion on any issue. However, no religious group should feel as though they should be able to influence policy making in Australia. Accessing VAD is voluntary and is an individual’s choice to alleviate their intolerable suffering if they are indeed eligible. I actually find it difficult to understand and appreciate how any humane, compassionate and loving individual could actually not support this legislation. VAD is not mandatory. You have your choice; surely, I can have mine.

NSL:

In five years time, if VAD is in effect in Tasmania, what sort of a place would Tasmania be?

MG:

Tasmania will be a place where there is still the same amount of deaths but just a lot less suffering. I believe that, collectively, Tasmanians are caring, community-minded and supportive. They would want all people to have a peaceful death surrounded by family and friends.

NSL:

As an Independent member of parliament, what would it mean for you to achieve seeing VAD legalised?

MG:

It would mean I have done my job. I recognise that it’s a huge task and that it’s so important for current and future Tasmanians to have the right to choose. I’m pleased that I’ve undertaken this significant task for the people and for the state I love.

At the National Secular Lobby, we're pleased to have joined forces with a number of pro-secular community organisations in the #DontDivideUs campaign against the proposed Religious Discrimination Bill. Add your voice to the campaign.