Select committee hearing and cross-party accord just what's needed in important social policy matters.
A regrettable feature of politics in New Zealand is the increasing lack of willingness to engage across party lines on important social policy matters.
Too often major parties steer clear of issues that might be perceived as "controversial", leaving any resolution and debate to the lottery of a private member's bill. Such an approach comes at a high cost.
First, it diminishes the relevance of Parliament in the public's eyes: one of Parliament's critical roles is to examine difficult issues that go to the heart of how we see ourselves as a community. The process and debate that ensues enables us to evolve and progress as a society; ensuring our laws do not lag behind the realities and expectations of the community we live in.
Second, these issues are not academic; they are real. While the issue is shelved because it is "controversial", real people who are affected by the Parliamentary paralysis suffer.
A stark case in point is the assisted dying litigation brought by Lecretia Seales. The substantial public interest and debate surrounding this case demonstrates that this is an issue people care deeply about (with polls indicating majority support for legislative change). This is no surprise given it raises questions about how we live, how we die and how we exercise autonomy in our lives.
Justice David Collins concluded on the evidence that palliative care, while having made great strides, cannot always address all suffering. He found that, under the status quo, terminally ill people were at risk of taking their life prematurely while they were still physically able. He concluded that "the consequences of the law against assisted dying as it currently stands are extremely distressing for Ms Seales and that she is suffering because that law does not accommodate her right to dignity and personal autonomy."
But he also concluded that any change on the issue is a matter for Parliament. These and other findings only highlight the urgent need for a wider debate, providing a strong evidential basis for doing so.
While Prime Minister John Key has said he personally supports assisted dying, and would support legislation in its favour, his view remains that it should be left for a private member's bill. In support of this position, Mr Key emphasises that it is a complex issue and legislation would be difficult. He has downplayed the usefulness of a select committee inquiry, noting that it will not necessarily result in legislation.
The fundamental flaw with this reasoning is that an inquiry process is precisely what is required for proper consideration of a cross-party issue such as this. A select committee can receive public submissions and evidence and appoint experts and advisers. It can draw on international developments and assess what has worked and what has not. Views from all sides can be fully considered and evidenced recommendations made.
Contrary to what Mr Key suggests, such an inquiry can be instrumental in preparing or developing the foundations for a draft bill. A select committee in Quebec has done just that, producing an impressive report with clear recommendations on the way forward from which legislation has now emerged and been enacted.
Waiting for a private member's bill is, by comparison, a poor substitute. There is a considerable risk that the issue will never be considered, and if it is, potentially not for many years. In addition, private member's bills are developed with limited resources and without the benefit of broader public engagement or the expertise of the parliamentary drafting office.
Finally, if and when tabled in Parliament (which is down to chance), private member's bills are often perceived as associated with the party of the member involved and accordingly less likely to proceed past the first reading.
A select committee can initiate an inquiry on its own behest or following a request from the House. The difficulty is that the relevant select committees comprise at least 50 per cent Government MPs. Without support from the National Party leadership, a select committee is highly unlikely to initiate an inquiry on this issue. John Key has a clear and obvious option that would enable the debate to be had in an open and well-resourced environment. Andrew Little and Metiria Turei support a cross-party approach and a select committee inquiry. All that is needed is for the Government to come on board. It is a first important step where those who are opposed, as well as those in favour, can contribute.
If the recommendations are that assisted dying is not right for New Zealand, then we at least know this is an evidenced and appropriate response.
Ms Seales has started an informed and rigorous debate. It presents a great opportunity for New Zealand to continue its tradition of being a progressive and evolving society. We need politicians who are unafraid to have these discussions, regardless of where they ultimately land. We are a lot poorer as a community if the debate itself is effectively shut down.
• Catherine Marks was a personal friend of Lecretia Seales and a consultant at Russell McVeagh, which represented her in the test case. This article is only intended to provide an opinion on the subject, and does not necessarily represent the views of all partners of Russell McVeagh.