A bill to overturn a federal ban on the Northern Territory and Australian Capital Territory passing voluntary assisted dying laws will be introduced to parliament next week, setting up the first conscience vote of the new government.
The private member’s bill to restore territory rights was agreed to in the Labor caucus room on Monday ahead of federal parliament resuming on Tuesday.
It’s understood the bill will be formally introduced into the lower house on Monday by Luke Gosling, the MP for the NT electorate of Solomon. It will be seconded by Alicia Payne who is the Member for the ACT electorate of Canberra.
The legislation would reverse a 25-year ban on the territories enacting assisted dying laws which began in 1997 after the Howard government overturned the NT’s 1995 legislation.
It will be the third time Gosling has introduced a territory rights bill into parliament – with his previous attempts being unsuccessful. Labor will grant members a conscience vote on the issue.
Labor’s newest representative from the NT, Lingiari MP Marion Scrymgour, wants the government to undertake a “comprehensive and in-depth” education campaign on the issue. She’s voiced concerns over how Indigenous communities may respond to the change.
“The territory deserves the right to legislate on issues that affect it – just like the states do,” Scrymgour said.
The government does not have a firm timeline for when it would like to see the bill progress through the lower house. It’s understood the leader of the house, Tony Burke, wouldn’t support a gag motion to truncate debate on conscience votes.
Labor sources said they were confident the bill would pass the House of Representatives and the Senate – but many senators have said in recent weeks they are weighing how they would vote.
The last time the issue was voted on in the upper house in 2018 the bill was defeated 36-34 with most Coalition members voting no and most Labor members voting yes.
Liberal frontbenchers including Marise Payne and Simon Birmingham backed the territory rights push at the time, while Labor members including Deb O’Neill, Helen Polley, Patrick Dodson and Don Farrell voted “no”.
Coalition senators David Van and Andrew Bragg, the United Australia party’s Ralph Babet, Jacqui Lambie and Tammy Tyrrell of the Jacqui Lambie Network, and Pauline Hanson and Malcolm Roberts of One Nation – none of whom voted in 2018 – have backed the proposed change.
ACT independent David Pocock campaigned strongly on territory rights and said he would look to advance his own bill if Labor did not move quickly enough.
The Greens health spokesperson, Jordon Steele-John, has said his party would back “dying with dignity legislation that has strong, effective safeguards”.
Scrymgour, the first Indigenous woman to be a member of the NT Legislative Assembly, backed the push but said it needed to be accompanied by an education campaign.
“The federal parliament has a history, a dark history in places, of intervening in the Northern Territory and of imposing its will from Canberra. Those who live in the territory know that outside solutions and policies will never work – you need to understand the territory in order to create effective policies,” she said.
“On the issue of voluntary assisted dying, this is an issue for the Northern Territory Legislative Assembly. I strongly believe that the NTLA is capable and mature enough to have the debate.”
The passage of the territory rights legislation would not automatically legalise voluntary assisted dying in the territories. Those assemblies would still need to pass their own laws.
Scrymgour is concerned about the potential effect the change could have on NT communities.
“What I will be calling on is for a comprehensive and in-depth education campaign on this debate. Many people out bush have not been properly and appropriately informed about what voluntary assisted dying means, they don’t trust the system and they are scared of what this means,” she said.
“When I was working in the community health sector back in the 1990s I saw how this impacted Aboriginal people and their willingness to come into health clinics. We can’t allow this to happen if we have another debate on VAD.”