The battle over how we depart this life

Dying with dignity is an elusive goal, made more so by our inability to put our laws in order.

Death happens to us all – but how will we get there? PHOTO Australasian Cemeteries and Crematoria Association

Death happens to us all – but how will we get there? PHOTO Australasian Cemeteries and Crematoria Association

We’re all going to die – you, me, everyone. For a few of us it will be quick and unexpected, but for most it will be a long, often uncomfortable process.

When in good health we don’t think about this much, which is as it should be because life is for living. Talking about it we resort to euphemisms like “passing”, as if the D-word will bring on an epidemic.

My first brush with death, a long time ago, was much like that. My mother told me and my twin sister that Grandad (her father) had “gone to sleep” and would not wake up because he had gone to heaven. A lot for six-year-olds to take in. We didn’t attend the funeral.

Heaven wasn’t in the picture when my own parents aged and died. Their focus was physical and practical: how to survive day-to-day with minimal discomfort. I’ve observed that in others in advanced years, for whom there can be no peace of mind without physical comfort.

I saw it also in Fade to Black, a fine documentary about the last months of Peter Short, who before he died from oesophageal cancer in December 2014 had been national CEO of Coles Express. Director Jeremy Ervine attended the film’s Tasmanian premiere in Hobart last week.

This is a confronting and deeply-personal look at something as old as humanity: voluntary assisted dying, or voluntary euthanasia. It was a fringe issue in my youth, but since the 1990s it has moved steadily closer to the centre of public debate, driven by baby-boomers like Peter Short.

There are a lot of us boomers, born during the 20-odd years when the world was pulling out of economic depression and war. We’ve spent most of our lives getting on with living. But as we get ever-nearer to the end, we can’t help but think about how it might happen.

Like most people I haven’t taken easily to the idea of assisted dying. I’m part of a community, and communities suffer loss with every death. Our first instinct is always to keep people alive.

But sometimes this instinct doesn’t work. For instance, few among us would think a person on life-support, with no chance of recovery and obviously suffering severe pain, should be kept alive.

Fade to Black revolves around Peter Short’s engaging, no-nonsense, often funny discussion of his difficult end-of-life journey and his wish to die with dignity. The story involved his wife Elizabeth (who was at the film screening) and his son Mitch, and drew on the expert advice of Melbourne physician Rodney Syme. But Short makes clear in the movie that the choice as to how he would die was entirely his own.

At a Senate inquiry in the year of his death, Short pointed out that we have rules for using roads and alcohol. “Is it rational to take a position of denying the terminally ill and suffering the choice at the end of their life, because we are concerned we cannot put effective rules around a dying process?”

The answer is no, it’s not rational. Voluntary assisted dying is not about creating new ways to kill, but finding a way to regularise and codify actions that physicians and their patients are already taking to end lives which chronic pain and discomfort have rendered unbearable.

In jurisdictions around the world this subject has given rise to passionate, sometimes anguished, debate. The most recent Australian experience was in Tasmania in May, when a bill put up by Labor’s Lara Giddings and the Greens’ Cassy O’Connor was defeated, 16 votes to 8.

The Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill was not to be taken lightly – a culmination of years of painstaking work by a dedicated group, Dying with Dignity Tasmania, consulting patients, medical professionals and other interested parties to improve on bills voted down in 2009 and 2013.

The vote was said to have been on the basis of individual conscience, but while the Labor vote was split four-three in favour of the bill, just one of 14 Liberals supported it. An outsider could be forgiven for thinking there was some party discipline at work here.

The language in those opposing speeches is instructive. Health minister Michael Ferguson characterised the legislation as a “death bill” To human services minister Jacquie Petrusma “assisted suicide” was “the ultimate form of elder abuse”.

Police minister Rene Hidding said the bill sought to have Tasmania “relax its murder laws to allow for the early taking of life by the medical profession”, skating over the present reality that in treating pain the medical profession already takes life, sometimes without a patient’s knowledge.

The Northern Territory passed the world’s first euthanasia legislation back in 1996, but the Howard government overturned it. Had Tasmania passed this bill, it would have been the first Australian state to have taken responsibility for assisted dying.

But this is one of those issues that will not go away. Nine months ago a bill just failed to pass the South Australian lower house. It’s back on the legislative agenda in Western Australia, and Victoria and NSW are scheduled to debate bills within weeks.

In 1990 no-one would have anticipated that Australia’s anti-gay laws would be gone within the decade. Voluntary assisted dying has already been legislated in many other jurisdictions, including Canada, several European countries and some US states. It’s time we joined them.

Dying with Dignity Tasmania is a community organisation addressing all end-of-life issues – planning, services and law reform – on the basis that people should be able to plan and make choices according to their own beliefs. For further information, email

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Government deception is trashing our future

Josh Frydenberg’s claim that our emissions are under control is a dangerous delusion.

Carbon dioxide data gathered at Cape Grim, Tasmania, since 1976 shows a steepening curve. [Bureau of Meteorology/CSIRO]

Carbon dioxide data gathered at Cape Grim, Tasmania, since 1976 shows a steepening curve. [Bureau of Meteorology/CSIRO]

He’s at it again. A month after spinning last year’s rising carbon emissions as being “on track”, Josh Frydenberg’s comment last week on even worse March quarter figures was that we have “a strong track record” in meeting our commitments.

National carbon emissions continue to cast a shadow over his record as environment minister. For months he delayed releasing damaging 2016 data, acting only after an FOI application was lodged by the Australian Conservation Foundation.

Now we know that in the September and December quarters last year, emissions were up by 0.4 per cent and 0.3 per cent respectively over the previous year. But that looks good against new data showing March quarter emissions up 1.6 per cent.

Our clear failure to put a dent in fossil fuel emissions is critically important news, but like his predecessor Greg Hunt, Frydenberg relies on land-use and waste data to assert that all is well.

This deception is hardly Frydenberg’s failure alone. In fact we can include ourselves in the pretence that our waste industry is under control, since we all participate in the economy that produces it.

The notion that waste management is helping to bring emissions down looks very dubious in light of what the ABC’s Four Corners revealed last week: a recycling industry whose “success” depends on illegal and interstate dumping on a massive scale.

While reasonably precise on fossil-fuel emissions, the national accounts on other sources are problematic. But it’s impossible to hide the global picture.

Tasmania’s Cape Grim Baseline Air Pollution Station is one of three reference points for the 30-odd atmospheric gas observing stations in the global network, and its analysis of some of the world’s cleanest air is a grim picture indeed.

The Cape Grim carbon dioxide reading, which is close to the planetary average, is now firmly stuck above 400 parts per million, about 45 per cent higher than the pre-industrial level. And the upward curve is getting steeper.

This is more than worrying – it’s potentially catastrophic. To understand why, you just have to scan the scientific literature over recent years.

Every issue of every climate-related journal contains multiple papers on escalating risks and impacts. A US study of probable outcomes of current mitigation measures, published late July in Nature Climate Change, gives the world a 5 per cent chance of keeping warming below 2C and a miniscule 1 per cent chance of staying below the optimum target of 1.5C.

A paper this month in the journal Science Advances predicts business-as-usual will expose a billion people in southern Asia to lethal ultra-hot and humid conditions. That is backed up by a European paper in Scientific Reports, which also finds that a 4C temperature rise would bring regular super heatwaves of 55C for most of the inhabited world.

These are not outlying investigations but mainstream, peer-reviewed science about temperature – just one of many outcomes of high greenhouse emissions. Add to that multiple studies on sea level rise, storm surge, river flooding, glacier depletion, drought, acidifying oceans… the list goes on.

There is no point putting up a pretence of optimism. The outlook is very bad indeed.

This has happened because of abject policy failure. Few governments have the stomach to discuss this failure openly, and ours is no exception. The government has repeatedly and systematically tried to hide the fact that its mitigation policies, such as they are, have been utterly ineffectual.

Others have failed before. The Greens failed early in 2010 when they voted down a carbon price scheme that had bipartisan support. Julia Gillard’s Labor failed because it did nothing about transport emissions. But today’s policy failure is orders of magnitude worse than those past missteps.

It has happened because a few coalition MPs think they know how our climate works better than the scientists who study it. It’s the same mindset that prevents the Turnbull government from enacting a coherent energy policy while blaming everyone else for high power prices.

This minority clings to old certainties which, if they ever existed, no longer hold. Over many years, that mindset has saddled us with regressive and expensive crime and immigration laws, and now threatens us with another policy failure on same-sex marriage.

Having engineered a public opinion survey whose only certain outcome will be to give a platform to bigotry, the “no” campaign now welcomes John Howard into its ranks. The same John Howard who a month ago declared himself “increasingly more of a sceptic” on climate change.

The battle lines are drawn, and Malcolm Turnbull is floundering in no-man’s land. Confronted with the unwavering Old School dogma of the coalition’s right flank, he has been made to look weak and silly – anything but the “strong leader” he claimed to be last week.

But Turnbull’s personal career pales into insignificance against where all this stupidity is taking our country, delivering fourth-rate social, economic and energy policies. Most important by a country mile, it has forced us to vacate entirely the all-encompassing policy space of climate.

Children and grandchildren aside, I’m still young enough to want a good future. We are being robbed of that option, and we should all be mad as hell.

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Support for science is support for civilisation

We need to stand up for civil society. A good place to begin is our meagre public science budget.

“Give me your tired, your poor...” PHOTO

“Give me your tired, your poor…” PHOTO

What is civilisation? What does it mean to be civilised? That thought came to mind after watching video of yet another heated exchange in Washington last week.

In the White House video, Donald Trump adviser Stephen Miller defended Trump’s notion that all prospective immigrants must understand English, disputing a reporter’s claim that it was against the spirit of lines inscribed at the base of the Statue of Liberty.

I’m sure you’ve heard them: “Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, / The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. / Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, / I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

The words are the ending to a sonnet about the statue written in 1883 by a Jewish New Yorker, Emma Lazarus, to help raise money to install it. I know them well because an immigrant named Irving Berlin set them to music, and as a child I often heard them in our home, on a vinyl record.

Americans have taken the Lazarus words to heart, so that they’re now part of national folklore. Miller sought to diminish their connection to the monument, which wasn’t surprising. Their message is the direct opposite of what his boss has been saying about immigration.

To me, the lines may be a bit dewy-eyed but the sentiment is irreproachable. It expresses a nation’s readiness to give shelter and succour to strangers, a declaration that fear of outsiders will not be allowed to override universal values of hospitality and kindness.

This attitude is at the heart of civilised life: a reaching out to others, expressed as good immigration policy, or neighbourliness, or working to build a community or alliance or enterprise.

Secrets are the currency of the corporate competition that fuels Trump. Civilisation is the opposite. It means being open, outgoing and curious about the world around us. So too does one of the pillars of civilisation, science for the public good.

Science and civilisation feed off each other. Just as science has brought us longer, richer, more informed lives, so the concentrated wealth and energy of numerous large, connected communities make big science possible, such as study of the universe and the Earth system.

And that has created a rift in this once-cosy relationship. The economy is a hungry beast which has enjoyed a huge injection of calories since World War II. But the science that has fed it now says it must go on a low-calorie diet, and the beast doesn’t like it.

We have heard ugly murmurings about climate scientists sucking up precious national resources to keep them in pocket while the resources of our land and seas are “wasted”, left unexploited.

This is pure, self-serving rubbish. As a proportion of the global economy, resources going into climate research are miniscule, not even a pimple on the beast’s bottom.

Within the confines of our own federal budget, research funding as a proportion of GDP has barely moved from the historic lows of 2015-16, and where there is any boost the main beneficiary has been medical science. Less than 1 per cent of Australian public scientists study climate (see page 8 of the AAS review).

514AASReviewLast week our most respected scientific institution, the Australian Academy of Science, released a review of national climate research. It found that while our 419 climate scientists do well in some fields, notably extreme weather events, they are under-resourced in others, such as modelling.

Australia is one of the developed countries most exposed to damage from a heating world. At the same time, as a leading Southern Hemisphere economy we are uniquely placed to lead research into our southern half of the world, the engine room of the global climate.

But the review reveals us with a shortfall of around 30 research positions and falling behind other countries. Given this, it sounds like pure folly not to continue funding Hobart’s Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems Cooperative Research Centre, due to close in 2019.

If we don’t maintain a high modelling capability, key parts of our unique regional climate are more likely to be poorly-represented in global climate models. For a country like ours, on our own in the Southern Hemisphere with unique climate challenges, that is definitely not a nice prospect.

Led by a great Australian scientist, oceanographer Trevor McDougall, the Academy review team is a roll-call of living legends of Australian climate research: Julie Arblaster, Helen Cleugh, David Griggs, Rod Keenan, Neville Nicholls and Graeme Pearman.

The 18-month review involved deep consultation with climate scientists and all relevant agencies and research bodies. Environment minister Josh Frydenberg said that he valued that effort, but suggested that what we have is enough. He’ll have to do better than that.

The review is thoroughly expert, objective, measured and exhaustive, and trying to improve on it, or reshaping its findings to suit a political agenda, would be a waste of time. We need the government to accept what it’s being told and start filling the gaps.

Being civilised means valuing public science, like the arts, for its contribution to humanity. Like the arts, it keeps being treated like a flower in a buttonhole, something to be taken up or discarded at will, when it’s actually what helps hold up the trousers. Without its support, we’re all undone.

A footnote: the Statue of Liberty was given by France to a United States still recovering from civil war – a message of hope from the Old World to the New. Today, Lazarus’s words and the mighty torch-bearer who inspired them carry a power that knows no national borders.

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