Fiona Patten declares herself gratified to have played a significant role in Victoria’s path towards becoming the first Australian state to allow euthanasia, even though the proposed legislation falls far short of her original permissive ambitions.
She believes that should Victoria support the legislation tabled this week, all the other states and territories will follow soon enough, and as they do, their laws will be increasingly progressive, leaving Victoria with the nation’s most conservative euthanasia legislation.
“The thing is, you have to start somewhere,” she says.
In her three years in parliament, Patten has clearly learned something about the art of the possible, which is to say, compromise.
This might come as a surprise to those who had grown accustomed to the idea that the leader of an organisation called The Sex Party was obviously out for a bit of a lark.
If that were ever the case, it is no longer.
“It’s a terribly sensible name, of course,” she says, laughing. “But it offers a lot more flexibility than The Sex Party. Vote Reason is a more user-friendly invitation to a lot of people than Vote Sex.
“And it’s a lot easier for a lot of donors to write Reason on a cheque than to write Sex.”
The registration of her party’s new name will occur about the end of November, just a few weeks after the Victorian Parliament is expected to vote on the Bill that would allow Victorians suffering an advanced and incurable illness to seek a medically assisted death from 2019.
Patten said that on the day she was elected to Victoria’s Legislative Council in the state election of November, 2014, she had promised the first legislative change she would pursue would be the legalisation of euthanasia.
It was repeat of a promise she had made just days before the election to Peter Short, a leading pro-euthanasia campaigner. Short, who suffered oesophageal cancer, died, aged 57, a month after the election.
Patten was preparing to introduce pro-euthanasia legislation in the Upper House when, on May 7, 2015, the Andrews Government moved to establish an inquiry into end of life choices to be overseen by the Legislative Council’s Legal and Social Issues Committee.
Ms Patten’s efforts to have the parliament to decide, combined with a push by The Greens MP Colleen Hartland to refer voluntary euthanasia to the Law Reform Commission, were seen as forcing the government’s hand sooner than it wanted.
Patten became a member of the eight-person inquiry.
She soon discovered her initial libertarian stance – which essentially held that if a person wanted to die, then government should not stand in their way – was not practical.
The inquiry’s task was broad – to study not just euthanasia, but all “end of life issues”, from palliative care to the “advice directives” available to those holding power of attorney over the dying.
The committee sought evidence from both those in support and those opposed to euthanasia; it heard wrenching stories from families who had watched too much suffering, from those left numb by suicide, and from those who believed palliative care was the most human response.
The committee travelled to the Netherlands, Switzerland, Canada and the US to study those nations’ approaches.
Patten had set out believing that euthanasia should be available to those afflicted by dementia. But she also grew to understand that to ensure assisted dying was completely voluntary, with no chance of coercion, dementia had to be excluded.
“I just couldn’t see a way around it,” she says.
“In the early days, you’re not as cognisant of compromise, of the need for it.
“If you compromise, you get things up. If you don’t, you’re left there standing with your ideals.”
In the end, the committee’s majority report offered 49 recommendations on how to introduce, administer and limit assisted dying to those already dying and suffering.
Only two of the eight committee members, Daniel Mulino and Inga Peulich, submitted dissenting reports.
The Andrews government accepted 44 of the recommendations and appointed an expert panel to design what it called “a safe and compassionate voluntary assisted dying framework for Victoria”.
It is this panel’s design that forms the basis of the legislation that now appears likely to make Victoria the first state in Australia to allow voluntary euthanasia.
And Fiona Patten, once a libertarian radical, on her own journey from the eye-catching Sex Party to the comforting Reason, has learned along the way to be content with what Premier Daniel Andrews declared this week to be the most conservative approach to assisted dying in the world.