Black Backroom Deals Must Not Stifle Right To Die With Dignity: Philip Nitschke



Culture is crucial to Indigenous Australia, but it doesn’t give a handful of black leaders the right to scuttle laws to assist everyone the right to die with dignity, writes Dr Philip Nitschke.

Sitting in my Amsterdam office on a rainy Autumn day, the world of black politics seems a lifetime away. And it is a long time since I left my home in South Australia and travelled to the Northern Territory to be the ‘white scribe’ for the legendary Aboriginal leader and activist Vincent Lingiari.

Back then, in the early 1970s, I was Vincent’s necessary link to white government. I lived the racism that underpinned every attempt by the Gurindji to get their land back. There was no such thing as the ‘race card’ to play back then.

Aboriginal Australians were battling just to stay alive. In some ways nothing has changed. Except that with the euthanasia debate currently taking place in the West Australian parliament, the tables have turned. Now it’s black Australia’s turn – or rather the turn of several black leaders – to thwart others’ attempts to ensure dignity and control at the end of life.

Both Pat Dodson (Labor) and Ken Wyatt (Liberal) have opposed the legislation, and WA MP Josie Farrer, did not vote for the bill, despite her initial support.

The problem is, their concerns have little, if any, basis. This is history repeating, and now under the guise of avoiding more genocide.

It is almost a quarter of a century since the sole Aboriginal member of the Northern Territory Parliament, Wes Lanhupuy, cast the deciding vote in passing what was the world’s first euthanasia legislation, the NT Rights of the Terminally Ill (ROTI) Act.

Despite much agonising and ‘sleepless nights’, Wes voted in his belief that “a person should have the right to be able to determine what they want if they are of sane mind.”

Lanhupuy acknowledged that the ROTI Act was a law that would have little relevance to his people. But why, he rationalised, should that mean that he should prevent others from seeking to put an end to their deeply personal and often tragic individual suffering. His people would be no poorer just because the white person had choice.

Little did Wes Lanhupuy know that his speech would be the final public words of support from Aboriginal Australia for a very long time. – (This infers Wes speaks for Aboriginal Australia – he doesn’t, anymore than one individual speaks for white Australia).

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Both in the months before and after the enactment of the ROTI Act, opponents of all persuasions swung into force.

The Australian Medical Association developed a convenient black face, calling the legislation ‘racist’ and ‘culturally insensitive’. The Church did their usual (and in this case highly effective) scare-mongering in the media, among their parishioners, in political circles and, on this occasion, amidst Aboriginal Australia.

The Uniting church minister Reverend Dr Djiniyini Gondarra from East Arhem was an active voice against choice then, just as former Catholic priest and current Labor Senator for West Australia, Pat Dodson is now.

Twenty-four years ago in Darwin, euthanasia had no natural political home. The political machinations were complex. The right-wing politics of Marshall Perron and his Country Liberal Party seemed more anchored in a discourse of radical autonomy than the pro-life agenda pushed by his colleagues today.

Even more surprising was the preparedness of the political left to respond to the dog-whistling of the Church, in allowing genocidal concepts (and reality) of the poison water hole to be used to scare black communities into resistance. This betrayal by the left has been grist to the mill of religious opponents ever since. To this end, Dodson must be called out for compounding the problem understanding around end of life rights, instead of leading on it. His arguments are not new, nor is his evidence.

Dr Anne Poelina, Aboriginal activist from Broome, is right when she wrote recently that, “concerns raised by opponents of euthanasia which cast Aboriginal people as vulnerable and at risk from the proposed legislation were furphies used as wedge politics”.

Just as happened 23 years ago in the NT where opponents of the Rights of the Terminally Ill Act cast black Australia as vulnerable people needing protection to meet their own political ends, so history is now repeating itself in the West.

That white Australia has almost never made laws with black welfare at heart does not mean we shouldn’t try. But that inclusion must not be dictated by the Church in the black back room.


Philip Nitschke is a former medical doctor and wanna be comedian.