Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill

Below is the transcript of James Purcell's speech on the Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill:

Mr  PURCELL  (Western Victoria) — It gives me great pleasure to be able to contribute to the Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill 2017, and it has been an absolute pleasure to listen to the civilised debate that we have had in these chambers. Listening to the debate yesterday and being in the chair for a number of hours last night, it was quite obvious to me that the contribution I will make will not have the same impact that many others have lived through. Many of the contributions by members who have sat with loved ones, the contributions by members who have lived with this over the years, are overwhelming.

I must admit I had a set speech that my office helped me put together, but I will not be using that today because I do not think I could do it justice and I do not think I could do justice to the suffering that people have actually lived through. I would like to thank my staff for not only putting the speech together but for listening to the fors and againsts over particularly the last week. When this was coming up we asked our community to contact us, and they did. I had to put on extra staff in my office, which I know other members did as well. I had staff with a telephone in both hands. It got to a stage where our answering service got clogged up and we could not actually receive any more calls. We literally had hundreds and thousands of calls to my office. My staff spent a lot of time out of hours working through the position of people for and against. They listened to their stories and were certainly moved by them; it was a situation that really moved them. At the end of the day we sat down and had a discussion about what they believed I should vote, and I will come to that a little bit later — where that finished up.

The reason I have not used my set speech is because all of us can very selectively pick the bits of quotes from doctors and nurses or we can pick the articles in the press that favour our particular position. That is so easy to do. It is also very easy to pick a number of supporters and a number of opponents, and I have heard in here that it is 80 per cent in favour or 83 per cent against. I can assure you that in my community it is not that decisive; I can tell you it is very close. I believe that it is probably 60 to 40 in favour. I can tell you that from a lot of research that I have personally done, and I think that is the only way any of us can do it. I do not think that anyone who relies on anyone's research will come up with a figure that they can rely on, and Mr O'Sullivan touched on that. A lot of it is to do with the question you ask, and for that reason it is not the way to go to actually just use those figures.

I have not personally had an experience of a loved one dying. My parents are still alive — into their 90s, very healthy — but this is the first time that I have ever sat down with my parents and discussed dying. We usually talk about sporting events and what is going on in the world, but it was actually very moving to sit down with them and discuss dying. I can tell you that in regard to this bill my father has a mixed opinion and my mother supports it. In my family we did the same thing, and we would not have done that if this bill had not been put in front of this house. So for that I am certainly thankful the bill has come forward.

What I thought I would do is basically tell you how I made the decision. As I said, like most of us, we spoke with doctors and nurses; we spoke with our communities. But for me it was a combination of all of those. My community understands that this is the biggest decision that we will make in this house. A lot of the other decisions we make may cause death, but this one will be a life-and-death issue. This is the biggest decision we will make. My community understands that. My community were very, very outspoken — for or against. It is an issue where I did not find anyone who was sitting on the fence.

I left a message with my local GP, who has been my GP for so long — I do not know how many years. Once I had a severe stomach-ache, and he got out of bed at 4 o'clock in the morning to come and see if I was okay, so he is a guy I trust. He rang me back, and I had the longest conversation with my GP that I have ever had. He is a person that, as I said, I trust immensely. His position, after explaining all the fors and againsts, was marginally supportive. I met with and discussed this issue with 10 or a dozen of my local GPs, and they had a mixed position, but usually it was quite decisive. Most of them did not sit on the fence; they were decisive one way or the other. I discussed it with my community. Like everyone else I had a million emails, and we read as many of them as we possibly could.

Then I discussed it with a lot of nurses, particularly aged-care nurses and palliative care nurses. The nurses in particular, of the community, are supportive of this bill. Doctors tend to come in and provide the medicines and give the analysis. Nurses spend days and days and weeks with the people who are dying. I did not find one of the nurses in my area who did not support this bill. The community are mixed; the doctors are mixed. The nurses support the bill.

This is not a religious bill, even though a lot of religion is taken into it. I am a Catholic and proud of it, and I have raised my family as Catholics. I am certainly not the best Catholic, but I am certainly not the worst either. My children are also of the same religion.

The question when this started was, 'Am I qualified to vote on this bill?', and I am not. Seriously, I am not. I am a qualified accountant, and if this were something to do with the budget, I would feel very, very comfortable. When I stood at the election I never raised the issue of voluntary assisted dying. I never got elected and I never got one vote or lost one in regard to voluntary assisted dying. That is the reason I had to go back and ask my community. I think anyone who has not done that has failed, because this issue is not one that anyone can claim they got elected on. So I went back and asked them.

Have I heard compelling arguments on both sides? I certainly have. I think we all have. We have heard the reasons why people are going to vote. We have heard the substantial facts and figures that are going to help members make a decision, but at the end of the day it is something that we all are going to vote on and have to vote on. So for me this is a summary of how I made the decision. I believe I have consulted as widely as I could. I have asked as many members of my community as I could. I have discussed it with numerous doctors. I have had up to 10 ministers of the faith in my office at a time. I have discussed it with my family, my friends and also anyone else that was willing to have a discussion with me.

At the end of the day, as I said, I sat down with my staff who have been through all this — listened for hours and put in a huge amount of effort — and we discussed what they thought. They have had a balance of for and against, and unanimously my staff believe that I should support this bill. The nurses who are with the patients day in, day out believe I should support this bill. I will be supporting the bill, but there are some reservations.

The reservations that continually came up to me — and I have heard the arguments why these should not be changed — are from doctors and nurses telling me that the pain and suffering is in the last weeks, not in the last months or year. I will be looking for an amendment to change the 12-month period back to six months, because I believe that is reasonable. Not only is it the pain and suffering, but medicine and the quality of our medicine do change very quickly. There are cures being found daily that will assist in the cure of some of those currently incurable diseases.

It was also quite regularly put to me that there is the possibility of coercion in this bill. That quite simply does happen. I have heard numerous stories about the bedside manner of some families — certainly hopefully not all — that could coerce dying patients. I would like to have a role for a GP who has been treating the patient. It is not to be one of the two doctors, but a role to basically say that they believe that there is no coercion in there and that they do believe that the person is of sound mind, or along those lines. I do not think they are unreasonable amendments, and I will be certainly pursuing those.

In summary, I would prefer not to be in a position to be voting on this — seriously, in a heartbeat I would give it to somebody else to make that decision — but we do not get elected to make a choice on what we do vote on. I have been asked whether I would abstain, and I said I will not because I have never walked away from making a decision in my life, and I will not for this one. I will be voting. I will be voting for the bill, and I will be voting for some amendments to the bill.