NZ Herald 11 July 2015
As is the case more often than not, Peter Dunne’s unusual habit of offering the public the benefit of his wisdom on political matters without large dollops of accompanying spin and rhetoric had him right on the button this week.
A Wellington MP of more than three decades’ standing, he has long positioned himself where he thinks the centre of the political spectrum is located, even though most observers would place him far closer to National’s hegemonic grip on the centre-right.
Still, it’s a vantage point that enables Dunne to flail all and sundry both to the left and right of him.
But occasionally he likes to use that positioning as some kind of justification to claim a role as some kind of neutral referee of political proceedings.
It may have been his formative days as student politician completing a master’s degree in political science that persuaded him he could be both partisan participant and objective observer of politics.
More is the pity the latter role seemed to go into rather sudden hibernation during and after an investigation into the unauthorised leaking of a highly sensitive report on the performance and working conditions in the Government Communications Security Bureau to a senior journalist in the parliamentary press gallery – which resulted in the Prime Minister dumping the leader of what remains of his United Future Party from his job as a minister outside the Cabinet, if only briefly.
Whatever, the far more impartial Dunne was to the fore this week offering some guidance on the latest hot topic, or a very much reheated topic, which will command a fair chunk of the attention of him and his fellow parliamentarians for the next year or so – namely the so-called “end-of-life” debate.
Dunne devoted his weekly blog Dunne Speaks to the highly vexed matter of “death with dignity” or “doctor-assisted suicide” – or whatever euphemism you prefer to use in place of the instantly blood-chilling “voluntary euthanasia”.
The two words combined may sound awfully Orwellian. But they are a reminder it is not going to be a lot of fun watching the plug being pulled on Granny no matter how much she might be pleading for that to happen.
Neither is the upcoming debate on any potential law change going to be a barrel of laughs. It is to be hoped the debate is as polite and erudite as Dunne’s early contribution.
While he believes that “doctors should not be able to kill terminally ill patients”, the increasing complexity of end-of-life care is seeing medicinal advances prolonging life to the point where some patients are no longer living a natural life. These increasing complexities are starting to seriously undermine the “absolutist” stances of those who hold sway at the two extremes of the arguments surrounding voluntary euthanasia.
With such a highly charged, emotionally draining matter being plonked very firmly back on the political agenda – largely as the result of Lecretia Seales’ very public plight and failed fight in the High Court for the right to die – Dunne is suggesting that some kind of eminent persons group, perhaps even a royal commission, should be established to conduct a wide-ranging inquiry with – and this is crucial – the Government being obliged to implement the key recommendations.
National has so far only offered a pale imitation in the form of a select committee inquiry, the recommendations of which it can ignore or shelve.
Even if Parliament’s health committee comes up with a draft bill, the only way it can be introduced into the House without relying on the unlikely prospect of securing a slot on Parliament’s order paper – via winning the Lotto-like ballot of private members’ bills – is either by leave or as Government legislation.
John Key has made it pretty plain he won’t countenance the latter, while it takes only one MP to refuse to grant leave to block a bill from making it on to the table in the House.
Further complicating things is that the chairman of the health committee, former Catholic seminarian Simon O’Connor, is an ardent and active opponent of voluntary euthanasia. While he will have to be bias-free during the inquiry’s proceedings – and most MPs are confident he will be – it is difficult to see him putting his name to a report which gives the green light to the practice, regardless of how many safeguards are written into the legislation.
That raises the prospect of the committee producing both a majority report and a minority report – something that would weaken any mandate for change that might flow from public pressure contained in submissions to the committee.
That pressure – if there is any beyond the confines of the respective pro and anti lobby groups – needs to be harnessed if the ban on assisted deaths is to be axed.
The other glaring absence is the failure – and this where Dunne switches from routine politician to political scientist – of an MP to come forward and be the face of change.
That is not surprising. Shepherding a private member’s bill through Parliament on conscience votes requires a huge degree of commitment, energy and perseverance even to get a simple measure through.
With gay marriage, there was at least happiness at the end of the rainbow. With voluntary euthanasia, there is no upside for the MP promoting “reform”.
Taking on such a role – as Louisa Wall did with same-sex marriage and Fran Wilde did with the Homosexual Law Reform Bill – is not necessarily career-enhancing, especially if the bill being promoted is either seen as causing collateral damage to the MP’s party or is shutting out other measures and policies which the party wants voters to focus on.
The possibilities for what can be a pretty thankless and exhausting task include the Greens’ Kevin Hague and Labour’s Palmerston North MP, Iain Lees-Galloway, who picked up Maryan Street’s Death With Dignity Bill after she was chucked out of Parliament at the last election.
Even if a bill managed to make it onto the floor of the House, there is of course no guarantee it would get the numbers to make it into law.
The large ratio of National MPs to Labour’s means this Parliament is more conservative in composition. What seems odd is that Parliament has long been out of kilter with public opinion on this particular conscience issue. Opinion polls have consistently shown between 60 and 70 per cent of the public back voluntary euthanasia. But two private member’s bills brought before Parliament during the past two decades failed to make it even to the select committee stage.
The reason is that MPs worry about the 30 to 40 per cent who are opposed. The problem, as others have noted, is that there is absolutely no middle ground with this issue. You either back it or you don’t. Terminally ill patients can’t be half-dead or half-alive. There is no Halfway House of Compromise which offers MPs the safety of avoiding what is ultimately a life-or-death decision.