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Why did these MPs change their vote on voluntary euthanasia?

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UPDATED: The architect of the voluntary euthanasia bill that was killed off by a single vote in state parliament early this morning says he doesn’t know whether he will pursue controversial right-to-die legislation again.

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A shattered and sleep-deprived Liberal MP Duncan McFetridge wasn’t resiling from the personal “pain” of losing a vote in which he was so heavily invested, and by such a close margin, after the 4am tied third reading division was decided by the deliberative vote of parliamentary Speaker Michael Atkinson – a fundamental opponent of euthanasia.

McFetridge reflected: “It couldn’t get any worse than missing out by one vote.”

“That, to me, is very hard to take – but I’ll move on,” he told InDaily.

But whether that involves reintroducing legislation in this parliament, he said: “I’m going to have to think about that.”

“I’ll talk to supporters about where we go from here… obviously this is something I’ve taken a fair bit of pain over, but it’s an issue that isn’t going to go away.”

Atkinson has been painted as the deciding factor in the debate, a point perhaps exacerbated by his series of tweets after the final division, but he pointed out today that “I’ve been in parliament for 27 years… it was not exactly an impulsive vote on my part”.

If his vote had been cast from the floor, rather than the speaker’s chair, the bill would have been defeated without the need for a deliberative vote.

Nonetheless, Atkinson railed against the late-night debate, for which he publicly blamed his own party leader, Premier Jay Weatherill, and Opposition Leader Steven Marshall.

Asked whether the marathon session cruelled the bill, he told InDaily it was “hard to say, but it is legislative worst practice” to debate “something so sensitive, so emotive, so detailed” under those circumstances.

He also hit out at McFetridge, who he called “a mover of the bill who was not even familiar with the most basic provisions of it”.

“I can’t begin to say how bad the legislative process was,” he said.

He rejected any assertion that Labor’s Right faction had led a coordinated push against the bill, pointing out that four of its members – Chris Picton, Stephen Mullighan, Lee Odenwalder and Annabel Digance – had voted in favour of voluntary euthanasia.

Instead, he blasted “media bias” manifesting itself in “sectarianism”, arguing those who voted against the bill displayed “a degree of tolerance not reciprocated by our opponents”.

“Those of us who stood up to the media bias on this… were kicking against a ten-goal breeze,” he said.

“We convinced people to change their minds – people who are not affiliated with the SDA [the shopworkers union that forms the hub of the Labor right] – we’ve managed to win against a ten-goal breeze and all they’ve got is bitterness they lost the vote, by some miracle… and I’m still rubbing my eyes in disbelief.”

He wasn’t the only one rubbing his eyes after the lengthy sitting, with MPs fronting up after little or no sleep this morning.

But the dawn was darkest for McFetridge, whose despair was exacerbated after the second reading vote passed easily hours earlier, 27 votes to 19.

McFetridge said he was led to believe the majority of MPs would retain their support for the bill to become law.

He rejected Atkinson’s assertions that the late-night sitting was ill-advised, insisting anti-euthanasia forces would have mobilised more strongly if the bill was given more time to progress.

“My concern was there was some serious heavy lifting going on by opponents [of the bill] – people were being seriously pressured,” he said.

Describing the process as “politics in the raw”, McFetridge recalled the adage that in politics you “learn how to count and only believe those who say no to you”.

Nonetheless, he lamented, “occasionally you get delusional that people are actually being honest with you”.

“I’m not a vindictive person; I’ve be around long enough to take this on the chin,” he said.

“But there were three [MPs] in particular that I’ve spoken to that peeled away [from supporting the law]… I’ll be asking them today; it’s between me and them and they’re going to have to face me.”

Four MPs – three Liberal and one Labor – changed their vote between the second and third reading division. InDaily spoke with each of them today.

 

Labor Deputy Leader John Rau

From my point of view, the Bill was a significant improvement on the previous [Steph Key] bill, but I wasn’t comfortable with it.

I formed the view the amendments [moved by Labor MP Chris Picton] improved the thing to the point it wasn’t inappropriate for us to allow debate, but I didn’t give an indication that I’d vote for the third reading. [I said] I would be prepared to have it go through to second reading and have it go to committee.

Would I support a future bill? I wouldn’t rule anything out completely; I’m not saying there’s nothing I’d support… but my concerns were basically about palliative care, and in the end I’m not convinced that that’s been properly explored, and I’m not convinced that there’s a substantial group – or even a small group – of people who are not able to be adequately comforted by palliative care.

A lot of thought needs to go into this… and some thought had gone into it – I accept that – but I, in the end, wasn’t comfortable that enough thought had gone into it.

We were still arguing into whether the person should be looked after by a psychologist, a psychiatrist, a mental health nurse or whatever… there’s these balls in the air, there were drafting issues I wasn’t entirely comfortable about, things like ‘What’s a terminal illness? Does that capture things like chronic illness, like diabetes?

I just didn’t think we should be attempting to resolve all of that in a parliamentary committee of that sort.

 

Liberal MP Dan van Holst Pellekaan:

I do lean away from the topic, but I approached it with an open mind and gave the proponents every opportunity to put forward the best bill they possibly could.

In that spirit I voted for it at second reading, so that they had that opportunity: I didn’t want to be a blocker, but I didn’t want to be a shepherd.

I made it very clear I’d do it for that reason… I participated in every minute of the debate, and engaged with it.

The two key issues that meant I couldn’t support it were, one, that the bill requires two doctors’ opinions for a patient to be entitled access to voluntary euthanasia, but the patient would be entitled to go to as many doctors as he or she wanted to find the two that would support the decision. I was uncomfortable with that.

Two, the doctor giving the second qualification could do it an unlimited number of times for an unlimited number of patients.

Could I support another bill? I’ll wrestle with it again. I wrestled with it last time; I wrestled with it this time… I’ll wrestle with it next time.

 

Liberal MP Steven Griffiths:

I always said I’d support a second reading but oppose the bill on the third.

I’m a details person, and I’ve gone through [the debate] word by word… what I heard didn’t make me change my mind.

The community’s expectation was that the debate occurred and I’m supportive of that principle. I wanted to give the proponents of that legislation the chance to put the reasons for it, and for the opponents to put their reasons too.

I, and a lot of others, have a lot of questions in a lot of different areas… I didn’t get answers that gave me a lot of comfort that what was proposed was what South Australians need.

 

Liberal MP Troy Bell:

I always committed to getting it to committee stage… so we could have a debate.

My concern was around once this was introduced, how do we prevent the bill broadening into an area that isn’t consistent with my beliefs; that was probably the thing that concerned me and I couldn’t get too many assurances on that.

There were things shifting throughout the night and the possible reason for that was just [people trying to] get this bill through, ram it through and start making adjustments after that.

Could I support a bill in the future? Yes, as long as I had assurances that it wouldn’t be broadened… what’s to say as soon as the state opened the door, how do you stop smart lawyers or legislators broadening it to a point where it is now in some countries, where it can be applied for people under 18, or for illnesses that are not terminal, or that the timeframe goes from six months to 12 months to 2 years and beyond that?

That’s the part I’ve really grappled with: if we start this how do we keep it tight?

But I must admit, this was the most difficult decision I’ve faced [in parliament].

Weatherill today said he was “deeply disappointed with the result of the vote”, which he said was taken for “people who wanted a voice in the legislative process, and a woman who can’t speak any more”, referring to Kylie Monaghan, who died of cancer last month shortly after becoming the public face of Go Gentle Australia’s ‘Be The Bill’ campaign.

“This is an issue that involved people expressing their individual conscience,” said Weatherill, who emphasised the debate was conducted “honestly, intelligently and sensitively”.

Asked about Atkinson’s comments, he said: “I don’t want to get into a backwards and forwards debate about the tactics used.”

“From my perspective, the steps I’ve tried to take have been to try and give this bill the best chance of success.”

He said not just he and Marshall, but “the whole of the parliament” supported debate continuing after the second reading vote.

“If we didn’t continue the debate last night, it was unlikely we would have concluded it today,” he said.

Marshall, who supported the legislation, said that “75 per cent of South Australians are in favour of euthanasia”.

“It’s disappointing that we couldn’t find an adequate format for the bill that would provide the safeguards to ensure that parliament reflected the will of the people,” he told InDaily.

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