Politics of the unmentionables, part 1: Death

Birth, love, sex, death. Historically, these facts of life have been zones of hot-blooded political debate, but also of genuine bipartisanship. Part 1 of the ‘Politics of the unmentionables’. 

For the most part, the authors grew up in working-class households in the 1970s and 80s.

At that time in Australia, there were important social truths. Sex, drugs and rock ’n roll were on the rise in culture and everyday life.

Topics in the countervailing category – such as religion, conservatism and heteronormality – were on the wane.

And when you went to Grandma’s house, you didn’t talk about either category.

As close to talk about sex and death ever got at Grandma’s. Giphy.com

This year, we’ve been interviewing current and former politicians about the history of bipartisanship.

One of our interviewees issued a challenge. ‘Tell me one area, apart from national security, where there’s been bipartisanship in recent memory.’

We have indeed found some examples. Curiously, many of them fall into the unmentionable categories of birth and love and sex – and death.

The truism about ‘death and taxes’ was expressed as early as the eighteenth century.

Christopher Bullock wrote in The Cobbler of Preston (1716), ‘Tis impossible to be sure of anything but Death and Taxes’.

Daniel Defoe liked the phrase, and he adapted it for his The Political History of the Devil (1726): ‘Things as certain as death and taxes, can be more firmly believed.’

Later in the century, Benjamin Franklin wrote to Jean-Baptiste Leroy: ‘Our new Constitution is now established, and has an appearance that promises permanency; but in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.’ (The phrase also appears in ‘Gone with the Wind’, and in a song by Canadian singer-songwriter Ashton Simmonds, aka Daniel Caesar.)

These two certainties come together in the concept of a death tax or an inheritance tax, arguably one of the fairest forms of taxation.

Fair, yes, but also political cyanide.

There are no such taxes in Australia – all the states have abolished their versions of death duties – and none of the mainstream parties proposes to introduce one.

Even the progressive Greens are opposed to taxing death.

But during the recent federal election campaign, the Grim Reaper was resurrected from the 1987 AIDS advertisements, this time to front an on-line scare campaign about death taxes.

There are several ironies here, including that one of Australia’s most successful public education campaigns, one arguably responsible for saving thousands of lives, was used to convey ‘fake news’ about death.

Remember this? Sweet dreams, Gen Xers…

Yet even though death taxes are a long way from becoming law, in a very different sphere, laws about death have been a focus of several of our parliaments.

Late in 2017, for example, the New South Wales parliament considered and then rejected legislation that would have legalised voluntary assisted dying.

In that state, the leaders of both major parties voted against the bill, even though opinion polls showed strong community support for it.

Last week, new Victorian laws that legalise assisted dying for terminally ill people came into effect.

As a result, terminally ill patients now have the legal right to end their lives.

Passed in 2017, the Victorian laws were the subject of a hundred hours of parliamentary debate, including two all-night sittings that had few equivalents. (One precedent was the time when Premier Jeff Kennett sought to pass tough industrial laws, and Labor resorted to extreme filibustering.)

In Victoria, the parties allowed their members to vote according to their conscience.

In the lower house, the vote was 47 members to 37. A month later, the upper house vote was 22 to 18; only two votes decided the matter.

While the legislation was strongly opposed by social conservatives, the voting did not follow party lines.

The majorities were cross-party ones and, significantly, there was much reaching across the political divide to find common ground for a suitable compromise.

The objection provisions are an example. These provisions allow registered practitioners to refuse to participate in voluntary assisted dying, on the basis of conscientious objection.

(The Catholic Church has reaffirmed that its institutions will not offer assist dying services.)

Other compromises related to access to lethal drugs; how long people have lived in Victoria; and increased funding for palliative care.

On the eve of the 2018 Victorian state election, the leaders of the two biggest parties gave the new laws their explicit support.

When Premier Daniel Andrews and Opposition Leader Mathew Guy appeared together on radio during the election campaign, the ABC’s Jon Faine asked, ‘Will you revisit the voluntary assisted dying in any form, regulations, laws, procedures, whatsoever?’

Matthew Guy was direct and candid in his response. ‘No…I didn’t vote for them but I’m not going to revisit the Parliament’s previous vote.’

Premier Andrews welcomed this display of practical bipartisanship.

‘I want to thank Matthew for making it very clear that it is not his intention to revisit those matters. I think that is the Parliament working at its best. We had a conscience vote, we made a difficult decision, people had different views. There is no need to go back over that. And it’s pleasing that the two parties, the two major parties, are seen to have a consensus on that.’

In his role as director of Go Gentle, Andrew Denton said the Victorian euthanasia laws set the benchmark for how public policy on assisted dying should be implemented across Australia.

‘The question now,’ he said, ‘is not if but when other states will follow Victoria’s compassionate lead.’

(In November 2018, WA Health Minister Roger Cook announced the McGowan Government would introduce an assisted dying bill. It is due in parliament during 2019.)

Some forms of bipartisanship are temporary, the result of political pragmatism or a national emergency.

Bipartisanship is sometimes just a truce.

But other forms are more enduring, such as when bipartisanship rests on powerful values that are rare in politics: values such as trust, respect, pluralism, friendship, compassion and even love.

It is a defining feature of Australian democracy that, after hotly debating a new law or policy, people generally fall in behind the outcome.

Our same-sex marriage laws are one outstanding example of this, and euthanasia legislation is another.

Victoria’s laws on assisted dying show parliamentary democracy at its best. They are a model for other states, and for other areas of public policy.


Politics of the unmentionables, part 2: Drugs

Politics of the unmentionables, part 3: Sex

Politics of the unmentionables, part 4: Love

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