Noel Pearson: The choice to die was not one that society ever sanctioned

"The choice to die was not one that society ever sanctioned"


Noel Pearson is a director of Cape York Partnership and co-chairman of Good to Great Schools Australia.

18 September 2021

Well before Thursday’s [16 September 2021] 61-30 vote of the Queensland parliament on the voluntary assisted dying law, opposition to this latest victory of progressivism over conservatism was a lost cause. 

A crusade first launched in 1995 by a conservative, Marshall Perron, when he was chief minister of the Northern Territory needs only the NSW domino to fall, and for the commonwealth to eventually relinquish its veto over its terri­tories, for an Australian innovation – voluntary euthanasia – to be complete.

Australian parliaments have led the world down a new path for humankind, something unprecedented in all of human prehistory and history: that suicide is now a choice of the individual sanctioned by society.

In a 12th-hour commentary in this newspaper [The Australian] Frank Brennan identified three aspects of the Queensland law that go dangerously beyond equivalent Victorian laws. Brennan referred to voluntary euthanasia, assisted suicide or assisted dying – whatever you want to market it as – as “this new field of social experimentation”. But this is no experimentation; we are irreversibly entering a new portal in human history.

One of the oldest and most fundamental questions humans have ever answered in the negative is: does your individual freedom include the freedom to choose death? Before these new laws societies across the globe, through history, regardless of religion and culture, said no.

Conservatives opposed to assisted dying have suffered yet another defeat for conservatism. One of my reasons for expressing views on this subject, though I formed the view it was a lost cause, is to ask again the question about whether conservatives are competent and credible enough to uphold conservatism where it most counts.

Defending inherited wealth and privilege is of course a concern of conservatives, but such self-serving materialism and gratuitous disrespect of diversity and tolerance that characterises the disposition of too many conservatives mean that the long march of progressivism is relentless and unstoppable. Is the furious defence of franking credits all that conservatism is capable of? When assisted dying and the loss of religious freedom are in play?

What does it avail our society if we gain the world and lose our souls? That question was first asked a long time ago.

Conservatives are shown once again unable to uphold conservatism on social questions. They are incapable of explaining the importance and relevance of their philosophy to the rest of the society. Which is why progressives are winning the argument at every turn. Why should society listen to the conservatives when too much of what they can discern is intolerance and bigotry? This is the cost of waging cultural war as a pastime. There is a world of difference between conservatism as a philosophy and as a standpoint in cultural war.

The spectacle in the Queensland parliament this week is enough to despair about democratic discourse. This is when Oliver Cromwell’s famous exhortation to the Rump Parliament is so apt: “It is high time for me to put an end to your sitting in this place … Ye have no more religion than my horse … Is there (any) amongst you that has the least care for the good of the Commonwealth? … Take away that shining bauble there, and lock up the doors. In the name of God, go!” If only.

These parliamentarians think the question of assisted dying is first a matter of emotion. So Hansard records days of emotional speechifying, with MPs delivering tearful performances like actors winning baubles at the Academy Awards, the whole spectacle ending with cathartic applause.

The advocates for assisted dying and MPs engaged in this orgiastic emotion seem to think they are the sole witnesses to, and vicarious victims of, the suffering of loved ones.

But there is hardly a family unaffected by such suffering. Not in Queensland and not in all Australia. Who gave these people the emotional monopoly on the subject of suffering facing death?

Opponents of assisted dying and the many who have misgivings about laws such as this are not unaffected by pain and suffering themselves and on the part of their loved ones.

Every family has parents and family members who die suddenly in brief episodes of pain, who die peacefully, and others for whom death comes only after long illness and suffering. None of us is immune from this and it has always been like this.

Then there are those who die in great trauma as a result of accident, murder or war, and none of these deaths are dignified. Lack of suffering and dignity in dying is never guaranteed for anyone.

My point is simply that as a public policy matter assisted dying is not a question of emotion. There is something deeper involved than the kind of performative compassion and progressivism we saw in the parliament this week.

My second point is that neither is assisted dying a matter of personal choice. Not for the individuals who hope to avail themselves of this law and not for the politicians who vote for it.

No politician with any sense of their democratic responsibility should ever have considered their stance on assisted dying as a matter of personal choice.

I would go so far as to say it is not even a matter of conscience. Or religion. It is a matter of fundamental philosophy. About the history and nature of human society and the meaning of human life and death. And the question facing the parliament was whether it was now time to abandon a principle that was more ancient and more common than perhaps any other: that the choice to die was not one that society ever sanctioned.

The opponents of assisted dying focused their campaign on palliative care and its inadequate funding. I understand this argument and why these advocates focused on it – but, even though there is truth in this, it isn’t the core.

The core is the enormity of the shift our society is making with sanctioning the choice of death as yet another freedom of the individual, whereas in the past this was always a question for society.

The problem with progressivism is that everything that is superficially compassionate and emotionally correct is taken to be automatically good, and contrary and alternative positions are taken to be automatically bad. And the pillars keep falling.

Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said “Queenslanders have spoken loud and clear and we’ve listened” and the VAD law represented “a coming of age” for the state: “I do not think that 10 years ago Queensland was ready for these laws.”

She may well be correct about where the people of Queensland sit in relation to this law, but it doesn’t mean the people are right on this. The public needed to be led properly. They needed to understand the meaning of the profound changes at stake. Treasurer Cameron Dick said this week that he feared the laws would change how our society viewed the sanctity of life, and he would vote for the VAD law “with a troubled conscience”. Conformity with progressive expectations is more powerful than long-held convictions.

Patrick Dodson told the Senate in 2018: “Where First Nations people are already overrepresented at every stage of our health system, it is irresponsible to vote in favour of another avenue to death. Paving the way for euthanasia and assisted suicide leaves First Nations people even more vulnerable, when our focus should be on working collectively to create laws that help prolong life and restore their right to enjoy a healthy life.”

It has become a habit of Australian conservatives to emulate the rhetoric of the US deploring unelected judges and valorising parliamentary supremacy. The disparagement of the judiciary and the absolutism accorded to politicians is increasingly presented as an imperative for our country.

And yet what conservative would not prefer that some of these questions were the product of the time-honoured methodology of the common law rather than the precipitous legislative foolishness of politicians?

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  • Richard Egan
    published this page in My Opposition 2021-09-20 11:53:34 +1000
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