The inside story of euthanasia's
by Michael Gordon - Political Editor
- * This story, reproduced in full here,
was NOT published online by "The
- 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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
In the words of Andrews: "If he runs that as
successfully as he's run this, God help the