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Janet on dying with dignity (Harry's story)

Speeches in Parliament
Janet Rice 14 Aug 2018

I want to share with the Senate the story of my dear friend Harry. Harry Gardner passed away on 18 February this year, aged 91. He'd had prostate cancer for the last 13 years, and his health had been in decline over those 13 years. He'd done everything he could over those 13 years to keep himself healthy, and in fact people often thought that Harry was a bit odd for his focus on his health—baking his own bread and turning vegetarian in his later years.

Harry was a humanist; he was a scientist; he was a musician. He made the decision in his last years that, as somebody who had been focused on trying to make the world a better place, the last campaign that he would be involved in would be for voluntary assisted dying. I remembering him ringing me up and saying: 'Right, Janet, what can we do to make this a reality, both federally and in the Victorian parliament?' He lobbied Victorian MPs across the spectrum. He played a very important role in the passage of the legislation that passed through the Victorian parliament in November last year, just by being himself—by presenting himself as an older person who knew that he was going to die and who wanted to have the choice to be able to die in the manner of his choosing and not to have to die with the suffering and pain of a death that he would have preferred to have had brought forward so that it could be peaceful and a good death.

Harry died in February, after the legislation was passed, but he died with the satisfaction of knowing that he had played an important role in seeing it passed. I saw Harry only a few days before he died, and my most delightful memory of him, having known him for all of my life, essentially, was to do with playing my violin. When I arrived at the hospital that he was in, he was sleeping, and his son, Henry, was there. Henry and I have played violin numerous times over the years and played with Harry, obviously, many times. So I got my violin out, and Henry and I proceeded to play a beautiful folk piece, 'Ashokan Farewell'. Harry woke while we were playing, and he just had this beautiful look on his face as he heard us playing 'Ashokan Farewell'. He was quite lucid, and in fact Henry, and Henry's sisters, Jenny and Gayle, told me that, in that time that we had with him, he was the most lucid that he'd been for the last week.

It was such a privilege to be there for part of the last days of Harry's life. As I said, he died. He was too early to be able to benefit from the voluntary assisted dying legislation in Victoria, and, fortunately or not, he was not able to make use of it. I think he probably wouldn't have made use of it, because he ended up dying reasonably quickly, without too much pain and suffering.

He was determined. The reason he put so much effort into campaigning was that he wanted to have the choice. It was appropriate for him to have the choice. All Australians should be able to choose to go gently, to have a good death and to not have prolonged suffering. This legislation today is about all Australians having the choice. In particular it is about the people who live in the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory having the same rights as the rest of us and at least being able to have the debate. 

In Victoria we had very extensive debate that covered all of the issues that are being discussed in the debate we are having today. There were all the concerns that people have about voluntary assisted dying—the issue of it being a slippery slope, the issue of elder abuse, the issue of coercion, the issue of people not being in sound mind and in particular how voluntary assisted dying and palliative care operate side by side. After that debate Victoria passed the legislation. Of the jurisdictions that now have voluntary assisted dying, Victoria has some of the most stringent legislation in the world. There are so many checks and balances in place to address all of the issues that people are rightly concerned about. The Victorian legislation doesn't come into play until the middle of next year. I want to see all Australians able to benefit from that experience and debate and to be able to have the same debate themselves. It is not right that the people of the ACT and the Northern Territory don't even have the opportunity to debate this legislation like we were able to in Victoria.

I am proud to be a Green and part of a party that has led the way for more than 10 years on the issue of voluntary assisted dying. In Victoria our Greens MPs played a critical role in the passage of that legislation. I give a big shout out to former state MP Colleen Hartland and in particular Samantha Dunn, the current state MP. I want to thank them for the massive work they did on leading the debate and being part of the debate in Victoria. Here in our federal parliament we had Bob Brown's private member's bill back in 1997 and we had Richard Di Natale's bill on restoring territory rights, which is the basis for this bill that has now been proposed by Senator Leyonhjelm. Senator Leyonhjelm's bill that we are debating today is essentially a rewritten Greens bill. To ensure that we get the outcomes for the community that we know they deserve, the Greens will be supporting it. The Greens will continue to further efforts in every state and territory. We know the level of support for voluntary assisted dying right across the Australian community. You can be assured that we will be working across party lines to make sure that all Australians have access to compassionate end-of-life laws.

I want to finish with my thoughts and love going out to Harry's family—his son, Henry, and his daughters, Gayle and Jenny—and all of his friends and going out to all people who through this debate are thinking about their loved ones, the death of their loved ones and their loved ones who are currently suffering. I hope the passage of this legislation is another step forward so that all Australians are going to have the choice to die a peaceful and good death.

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