A race against time as Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill faces long list of amendments in the NSW upper house

Independent MP Alex Greenwich says he is hopeful his Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill will be passed by the NSW upper house by midnight tonight and is pleading with MPs to not use stalling tactics.

More than 100 amendments will need to be dealt with as the Legislative Council holds a third reading of the bill, which was passed in the lower house in November last year by 52 votes to 32.

The upper house has until midnight to debate and vote on the proposed legislation.

“I hope members of the upper house respect the mandate the lower house has provided them with and respect the will of the people of NSW to pass this bill and I hope that time is not wasted,” Mr Greenwich said.

“Not only will that be disrespectful to the parliament but what it really does is prolong the unnecessarily cruel and painful deaths of some people with advanced terminal illness.”

A man looking glum stands in front of several microphones.
Independent MP Alex Greenwich pleads with upper house MPs not to deliberately block the bill. (AAP: Dan Himbrechts )

Mr Greenwich said he would be in the chamber to watch what he hoped would be a “robust and respectful debate”.

But he is fearful that opponents of the bill will purposely try to extend the debate so that the house runs out of time.

“It’s a bit late now to be lobbing in hundreds of amendments when the parliament has had this bill for the past 12 months,” he said.  

“I would ask you to focus on the people this reform is for rather than the politics of delay.”

Politicians from both major parties have been given a conscience vote on the bill.

NSW is the only state yet to pass legislation to allow Voluntary Assisted Dying (VAD).

“People with advanced and cruel terminal illness in NSW deserve the same end of life chance as in every other state,” Mr Greenwich said.

What happens today?

If the bill is passed in the upper house with amendments, it will return to the lower house on Thursday for a vote on those amendments.

If passed in the upper house without amendments, the bill would then be sent to the NSW Governor for their assent before being enacted 18 months later.  

In the event the bill is not passed by the upper house by midnight tonight, the debate could potentially continue on Thursday but that will not be decided until the end of the day. 

A survey carried out by the NSW Council on the Ageing found that 72 per cent of people over 50 in NSW were in favour of legalising voluntary assisted dying.

More than half of older people in NSW said they had considered VAD for themselves.

“I think the politicians need to listen to what older people and their supporters are saying,” said Joan Hughes, President of the NSW Council on the Ageing.

What are the amendments about?

One of the most contentious amendments, put forward by Labor MP Greg Donnelly, would allow religious-based aged care homes the power to prevent voluntary assisted from dying taking place on their premises.

In a statement issued last week, Anglicare, Catholic Health Australia and Hammond Care urged upper house MPs to respect the rights of staff and residents who did not want to facilitate assisted dying.

“The Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill 2021 claims to offer choice in end-of-life matters, yet it fails to protect the choice of residents in aged care facilities who do not want anything to do with assisted dying,” the statement said.

“Faith-based aged care homes offer a clear choice for those who want to be cared for in an environment that will never offer assisted dying.”

An older woman speaks at a news conference.
Beverly Baker from the Older Women’s Network said religious-based aged care providers should respect the wishes of residents. (ABC News. )

Beverly Baker from the Older Women’s Network said religious-based aged care facilities should respect the views of their residents.

“These organisations are in receipt of public money,” said Ms Baker.

“They have no right to impose private religious beliefs on people who are in those institutions not necessarily because they share those beliefs but have entered them for care.”    

How have we reached this point?

a group of eleven people with three of them holding boxes
Independent MP Alex Greenwich with the petition containing more than 100,000 signatures. (Supplied: Facebook Alex Greenwich )

The Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill 2021 was introduced into the lower house by Independent MP Alex Greenwich in October last year.

The bill was co-sponsored by 28 MPs from across the political spectrum, the highest number of co-sponsors for any bill in an Australian parliament. 

The introduction of the bill followed a petition bearing more than 100,000 signatures in support of such legislation.

It is not the first time a bill to legalise voluntary assisted dying has been introduced into the NSW parliament. 

The last attempt was in 2017, when a bill introduced by Nationals MP Trevor Khan was defeated by a single vote.

What has happened in other states?

Voluntary Assisted Dying laws have been passed in all other Australian states, excluding NSW, and in New Zealand.

Laws allowing VAD by people who meet the eligibility criteria are now in operation in Victoria and Western Australia.

Tasmania’s laws will come into effect in October this year

Voluntary assisted dying under certain conditions will be legal under Queensland’s law from January 1 next year.

South Australia will also enact VAD legislation in early 2023.

Lawyer Catherine Henry, a spokesperson for the Australian Lawyers Alliance, said being the last state to pass a law on VAD could turn out to be an advantage.   

“Some people will say why is NSW the last state to legislate?” she said.

“In terms of having the best safeguards going forward, that is possibly good in that we can see where it is working.  

“We can learn from the experience of the other states where it has already come in.” 

Ms Henry is an advocate for health care reform and said her views in support of Voluntary Assisted Dying had been shaped by her experience in nursing her mother who died from pancreatic cancer.

“I can’t imagine what it would have been like had she not had her pain managed properly,” she said.

“She had a good death. There are many that don’t.”

What does Voluntary Assisted Dying mean in NSW?

Two women stand under an umbrella holding posters saying "They died waiting".
Supporters of Voluntary Assisted Dying protest outside the NSW parliament in March.(AAP: Bianca De Marchi)

The NSW bill seeks to create a safe framework for people who are in the final stages of a terminal illness and who are experiencing suffering that can not be alleviated by palliative care to choose to end their lives with dignity.

To be eligible under the bill, the person must be 18 years or over and be an Australian citizen.

They must have been diagnosed with an advanced disease that is likely to cause death within six months, or a year in the case of a neurodegenerative disease or condition, and which is causing suffering that can not be relieved.

The person must be found to have capacity to make a decision in relation to VAD and must be acting voluntarily without pressure or duress. 

The person’s eligibility would then be assessed by two medical practitioners.

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