Political Chronicle: July-December 1996: Northern Territory
Northern Territory politics received national attention during the period under review because of the final introduction of the world's first euthanasia legislation and arguments over Aboriginal native title. Other important matters were the introduction of legislation controlling the use of firearms, the impact of the Commonwealth and Territory budgets, a by-election, a reorganisation of senior public service positions, allegations about misuse of information on the electoral roll and the proposed demolition of a significant historic building in Darwin.
On 1 July 1996 the Australian newspaper had as its front page headline, "Day 1: Euthanasia on Demand". From that date terminally ill patients in the Northern Territory could take advantage of the Rights of the Terminally Ill Act and request lethal injections. As a crowd of international media representatives converged on Darwin to record the first day of the historic law, Commonwealth politicians, Aboriginal groups and medical practitioners were preparing legal moves to remove the Act.
On 20 July the former Chief Minister and architect of the Act, Marshall Perron, attacked the Prime Minister, John Howard, over the latter's public opposition to the Act. He claimed that a Federal private member's bill, introduced by the Liberal backbencher Kevin Andrews, to remove the Northern Territory Parliament's ability to allow euthanasia had been given "an unprecedented inside run, obviously with the Prime Minister's complete blessing and concurrence".
Andrews himself arrived in Darwin on 5 August for talks with Aborigines, palliative care workers and Territory politicians. He said that he wanted "to find out what adverse effects the legislation has had on Territorians". "There is", he continued, "widespread objection to the legislation in the Aboriginal communities and I want to hear for myself what they have to say about it".
In a rather quixotic move, opponents of the voluntary euthanasia legislation ensured on 22 August that it would remain in place. Government members of the Legislative Assembly Shane Stone, Steve Hatton and Mick Palmer, who voted against the Rights of the Terminally Ill Bill when it was passed by Parliament in 1995, helped overturn a bill that would have removed it from the statute books. The private member's repeal bill, introduced by Neil Bell of the Labor Party, was defeated 14-11 after five hours of debate. Chief Minister Stone said he had reversed his initial vote because it was his duty to see that the government carried out Parliaments will.
In the Federal House of Representatives on 10 September the Territory's sole member, Nick Dondas of the Country Liberal Party (CLP), moved amendments to the Andrews' bill that he said would shift the focus on to the rights of the Territory. In doing so he expressed support for Stone's view that the Andrews' bill was an unprecedented and unwelcome intrusion into Northern Territory affairs.
The first use of the Rights of the Terminally Ill Act came on 22 September when a Darwin medical practitioner, Dr Philip Nitschke, administered a lethal injection to Darwin resident Bob Dent, who had been suffering from cancer for five years. Before his death, Dent wrote a letter calling for a reconsideration by federal politicians of the Andrews' bill. Church representatives around Australia supported the view of the Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, Cardinal Edward Clancy, that Dent's death was "a shameful day for Australia". Victoria's Premier, Jeff Kennett, however, described the death as "beautiful".
On 6 October the Chief Minister suggested that the Territory's two CLP federal parliamentarians, Dondas and Senator Grant Tambling, could be forced to quit the Coalition and sit on the crossbenches over the euthanasia issue. He also said that the prospect of federal legislation overturning the Territory's right to die law had galvanised the push for statehood by the year 2001. …