The Australian


The inside story of euthanasia's demise*

by Michael Gordon - Political Editor
* This story, reproduced in full here, was NOT published online by "The Australian".
Main photo captioned:- "Opposites attract- Labor lobbyist Tony Burke, left, and Liberal MP Kevin Andrews put party politics aside to fight the Northern Territory's euthanasia law."

Politics creates strange bedfellows, not the least when elements of the Labor and Liberal parties were determined to defeat Australia's experiment with legalised euthanasia

He arrived without an appointment, but his introduction left an indelible impression on Kevin Andrews, the conservative liberal backbencher whose private member's Bill this week overturned the world's first euthanasia law.

"I'm Tony Burke," the visitor from Sydney declared, thrusting forward an outstretched hand. "I don't think you know who I am, but we should have a talk."

It wasn't his well-groomed appearance or even his youthfulness that commanded Andrews' attention, but the brand of chutzpah that comes from being tutored by a politician such as former Labor powerbroker Graham Richardson. That, and the prospect of help from the most unexpected quarters.

An hour later, on June 26th last year, one of politics' more unlikely unions was sealed: a self-described "Young Labor hack" had joined forces with one of the highest profile members of the Lyons Forum, the socially conservative grouping of Liberal MPs.

More significantly, Andrews had become part of a network which would embark on an exercise that, according to one of its members, became one of the most effective political campaigns in recent history.

Most remarkable of all, it did so with near anonymity. Why? Because having a profile so low as to be almost subterranean was an integral component of the strategy.

The inside story of the defeat of the Northern Territory's euthanasia law is a story of how Australian federal politicians grappled with the conscience issue of life and death with a maturity that is all too often well camouflaged.

But it is also the story of a network - all the principals are Catholics - its influential connections, its single-mindedness and the tactics it employed. Moreover it is a case study in the art of persuasion, with subtlety rather than intimidation and coercion, being the secret of its success.

The orchestration began modestly enough on July 20th, 1995, 11 months before Burke drove to Canberra that Wednesday afternoon and knocked on Andrews' door, when Burke was among 60 invited guests at a private forum of the NSW parliament.

On February 1 of 1995, the then Northern Territory Chief Minister, Marshall Perron, announced the plan to legalise active voluntary euthanasia in the Northern Territory, and in the months that followed NSW emerged as the state most likely to follow suit.

More than 75 invitations were despatched before the meeting and those who accepted included doctors, right-to-lifers, nurses, others concerned with palliative care, more than a dozen state MPs and a number of people who had written articles on the subject.

Among those in the latter category was Jim Dominguez, then Chairman of Swiss Bank's interest in Australia (now SWC Warburg), with friendships at high levels on both sides of politics, in business and in the Catholic Church.

The meeting was co-chaired by representatives of all three major parties. For Labor was John "Johnno" Johnson, the legendary fundraiser and kind of father confessor of the NSW Right of the ALP, a Catholic with extremely conservative views on social issues ranging from divorce and censorship to abortion and euthanasia.

Religion would play a subsidiary role in the campaign that followed, but it was the bedrock of Johnson's implacable opposition. After half a century in the ALP, euthanasia was his bete noire.

"I took a vow some years ago that if the question of euthanasia ever raised its head, I wouldn't be one of those who relied on somebody else to do something about it," Johnson told the Weekend Australian. "I would make sure everything was in place for the best campaign possible."

By the time the meeting was over, Euthanasia NO had been formed, a bucket had been passed around for donations and Burke, who had come along as a casual observer at Johnson's invitation, was installed as executive director. The clear consensus was that the group was about one thing only: stopping euthanasia in NSW. It was to have no profile, no newsletter, and no members. Only a result.

A former president of Young labor, Burke's qualifications for the job were impressive for his 25 years. He had worked for Richardson during his time as federal health minister, and for NSW Senator Mike Foreshaw after Richardson quit politics. He was also the secretary of Labor's federal electorate council in Leo McLeay's Sydney-based seat of Watson.

Burke's job was to be the number cruncher, the public speaker, the lobbyist, the networker and the grassroots campaigner. Johnson and Dominguez, both old enough to be his father, were his principle lieutenants.

A familiar figure selling raffle tickets and books at ALP conferences for decades, Johnson became chief fundraiser. Computer equipment came courtesy of a Sydney rabbi who was wooed at a reception, office space from a friend in business, a cheque for $35,000 from another he met in the street.

Although Dominguez was familiar with politicians and had friends, such as Sydney's Cardinal Edward Clancy, in prominent public positions, he was a reluctant public figure and agitator. But he became the campaign recruiting officer, enlisting an advertising agency and two of Australia's most prominent legal minds, Tom Hughes and David Jackson.

When Bob Carr became NSW Premier in March 1995, The Weekend Australian's national; affairs editor Mike Steketee urged Dominguez to write an article for the paper's opinion page. When he declined, Steketee, impressed by Dominguez' broad interest in and knowledge of politics, suggested he consider contributing in future on any issue on which he held a strong view.

It was not until May of 1995 that he took up the offer. The subject was the passage of the Northern Territory's Rights of the Terminally Ill Bill. As Dominguez explained: "I guess I had, as a Catholic, a general belief about the illicit nature of taking a life, except in specified circumstances, but it wasn't informed.

"So I did a crash course and phone half a dozen people I thought might be able to help me, read everything I could, and for a couple of days all I did was burn the midnight oil. The more I read the more a consistent picture began to emerge: that the main principles were not religious, but dealt with the quality of life."

The most persuasive case Dominguez found came from Luke Gormally, the director of the London-based Linacre Centre for Health Care Ethics, the man credited with convincing a 14-Member House of Lords committee to unanimously oppose euthanasia.

DOMINGUEZ'S first article in The Australian led to his invitation to the meeting at the NSW Parliament. It was published on May 26th 1995, alongside an article welcoming the Territory's legislation by Dr Helge Kuhse, of Monash University's Centre for Human Bioethics.

Relying on the House of Lords committee's report, Dominguez concentrated on the "slippery slope" argument that voluntary euthanasia would start the descent to non-voluntary and involuntary euthanasia.

The question of the "slippery slope" was later addressed by no fewer than 26 speakers in the euthanasia debate in the federal Parliament.

Dominguez later sponsored visits to Australia by author Colleen McCullough and Gormally, and personally lobbied the likes of the John Laws program and the late Andrew Olle to give both time on air.

Burke, meanwhile, conducted dozens of small community meetings across NSW - 32 meetings in 32 nights - pushing the case against euthanasia and urging those who were sympathetic to write to their MPs. A strong opponent of capital punishment, Burke had initially been on the other side of the euthanasia debate. He credits Brian Pollard, the retired anaesthetist who set up the first full-time palliative care service in a NSW hospital, with his conversion.

One of his few setbacks was when he arrived at a Broken Hill club to be told the booking of a room had been cancelled. "See!" the manager told him, pointing at the booking entry, "It says 'Euthanasia No.'"

Within weeks, Burke was armed with the results of research and strategic advice from Armon Hicks and Nick Strav, two directors from Gavin Anderson Kortlang, the consulting firm of Ian Kortlang, a former political adviser to Andrew Peacock and Nick Greiner. Their services were given freely. Dominguez had been the link.

The research gave a sharper edge to Burke's campaign, underscoring the common perception that euthanasia was about the turning off of machines. As a result, two word were used with increasing frequency: lethal injection.

By June of last year, it was clear that if the numbers had ever been there to support euthanasia in the NSW Parliament, they were no longer. Euthanasia No was about to wind up.

It was then, at the prompting of a federal Cabinet minister whose identity he will not reveal, that Andrews raised the Territory law in the Government joint party-room meeting, asking about a legal challenge to the law and whether federal legislation overturning it was an option.

John Howard then signalled that he was not averse to federal legislation, telling the meeting he was "personally strongly opposed" to euthanasia. Queensland Liberal Alex Somylay elbowed Andrews, saying: "You better get up,and say you're prepared to do it."

Without hesitation, Andrews did just that. Subject to any decision the Cabinet might take, he gave notice of his intention to introduce a private member's Bill.

Twenty four hors later, after Andrews had indications from more than two dozen Liberals that they were prepared to second his Bill, Burke arrived, saying he had been authorised by a cross-party meeting of NSW MPs to offer his services.

The clear lesson from the NSW experience, Burke told him, was the need for broad-based support across the Parliament. A Labor MP should second the Bill and Burke's local member, Leo McLeay, was the obvious choice.

Why? Because if Dominguez provided a direct line to Howard and Tim Fischer, Mcleay, a former telephone technician and Speaker of the House of Representatives, was as close as any politician to the Labor leader, Kim Beazley.

Even so, McLeay had some reservations. His is a more liberal view of Catholicism than Johnson's and he was uncomfortable about any association with the Liberal's Lyons Forum.

Andrews, a practicing Catholic, a father of five and a lawyer in bioethics, was determined from the outset that the Lyons forum be kept out of the campaign. He maintains now that it was discussed fleetingly at just one of the group's meetings.

The relationship with McLeay was finalised after Andrews agreed to remove any retrospectivity from his Bill (the aim had been to deter anyone from taking advantage of the Territory law before the Andrews Bill went through Parliament). There was also a firm understanding that Andrews would not talk to Labor people.

Burke's initial aim was to generate mail - and lots of it - from doctors and experts in palliative care to those MPs he considered possible supporters of the Bill.

Although at one point it was floated that Howard should move the Bill and Beazley second it, the idea was never seriously considered. Although both strongly supported the Andrews Bill, both believed their best contribution was to keep well in the background.

Evidence of this came when Howard rang Beazley at one point to assure him that the government was not going to force the pace with the Bill to divert attention from contentious decisions in the August budget.

In Sydney, meanwhile, Dominguez regularly convened private meetings the review the campaign, seeking input form those he considered had something to contribute. One such person was Paul Kelly, then Editor-in-Chief of The Australian, who had taken a firm editorial position from the outset of the debate on the Territory law.

As Kelly expresses it: "The Australian's editorial position at the time the debate started was clear - opposition to euthanasia on the grounds of practicality and principle.

"I didn't lobby anybody. But I was happy to be involved when asked, in talks with Jim and others about the issue."

Burke didn't lobby politicians, either. Not directly. But he encouraged the likes of former Pentridge Prison chaplain Father John Brosnan to write to them. He made his only publicised entry to the debate on October 16th last year, when he was invited to open a day-long debate on euthanasia in the NSW Parliament by debating the issue with medical academic and euthanasia supporter Peter Baume.

"I am not a professor; I am not even a doctor," Burke began. "I guess I am in the same position as most of you. I, too, have seen people I love die, some quickly, some slowly, some peacefully and some in circumstances that you could not wish on anyone."

Andrews's Bill passed in the Lower House on December 9, almost three months after Bob Dent died in Darwin, becoming the first patient to use the Territory law. Janet Mills became the second when she died on January 6.

The second, and perhaps the most important, phase of Burke's campaign focused on the Senate Committee that was assigned the task of examining Andrews's Bill.

HERE, the strategy had three elements: One, to encourage anyone who opposed euthanasia to make a submission, and to understand that a submission need only be a letter. Two, to ensure that any group with credibility on the issue, from Aboriginal land councils, disability groups and palliative care organisations,, made their views known. Three, to brief all those who were against the Territory law on the questions they were likely to be asked and the position of each of the senators who would be asking them.

Euthanasia NO also appeared before the committee, but Burke was not asked if it had played any role in generating a record of more than 12,000 submissions, 93 per cent of them either supporting the Andrews Bill or opposing euthanasia.

Finally, there was the build-up to last Monday night's vote in the Senate, where the aim was to secure a majority of a possible 76 votes. The starting point was just under 30.

In keeping with the strategy in the House of Representatives, there was no direct lobbying of senators. Rather, a loose cross-party group of supporters met regularly to pool information and discuss which outside supporters might be best placed to influence particular senators.

They met for the last time on Monday and, working on the basis that confirmation was needed from two independent sources for each vote, were satisfied that the numbers were there. Just. Even so, members of this group assumed the role of party "whips" assigning themselves responsibility to ensure that all their supporters were in the chamber.

Still, there were surprises. Government Senate leader Robert Hill ultimately sided with those opposed to Andrews. So did Labor's Kay Denman, who started from a position of supporting euthanasia and finally returned to it, after a good deal of soul searching.

Victorian Liberal Kay Patterson, who decided very late in the debate to support the Andrews Bill, did so with trepidation. "I always thought I'd regret it the day after, but I didn't," she said.

When the vote concluded after 1am, there were only 57 spectators in the public gallery. Andrews was sitting next to Burke. When the 38-33 result was announced the response was a restrained handshake from Burke and a hug from his wife, Margaret, who was cradling their three-week-old baby.

In the words of Andrews: "If he runs that as successfully as he's run this, God help the monarchists!"

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