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Who do we think we are?

By Ted Watt - posted Friday, 22 November 2013

Sitting in the public gallery of the Legislative Council in Perth in 2010, I saw the Hon Helen Bullock (Labor) stand up, and heard her say:

'The Voluntary Euthanasia Bill raises the question of whether our election to parliament gives us the right to sanction the killing of other human beings in circumstances other than self-defence or the defence of the nation. This is not a difficult question. The answer is simple. No. We do not have such a right. We do not have the right to sanction the killing of our fellow human beings. For that reason alone I oppose the bill'.

Then she sat down. That was all she said, all she needed to say. Other members opposing the euthanasia bill made useful (and far longer) speeches explaining how the bill failed, as such bills seem invariably to fail, in its stated objectives of providing 'strict safeguards', 'transparency',etc. Ms Bullock restricted herself to the single central objection – that their election to parliament conferred on her and her colleagues no right whatever to licence some people to kill other people, and therefore, no right to pass the bill in front of them.


Aside from restrictions laid down in written constitutions, are there some things that members of parliament (of any parliament, anywhere) have no right to do? It is perhaps understandable that this question, which hardly ever arises in Australian parliamentary debates, should have been raised by Ms Bullock, who may well be the only member of any Australian parliament who has the advantage of having grown up under despotic government in China. There can hardly have been a better place than China from which to observe and experience abuses of political power, and to reflect on Augustine's question: Remota itaque iustitia quid sunt regna nisi magna latrocinia?, which may be loosely translated: "So if there's no justice, but only a question of raw power, what's the difference (apart from size) between a government and a criminal gang?"

Can we hope that the question will be raised in the new federal parliament? There could be several opportunities. At some stage there will probably be a debate on the new government's announced intention to cut spending on overseas aid, and on which aid programs are to be cut. When that happens, someone is bound to mention the payments, revealed in answers to questions from Senator Boswell, made by the previous government to abortion provider Marie Stopes International for 'family planning' in – Mongolia! Defenders of this policy may be asked to explain, not only how our national interest can possibly be affected by the Mongolian birthrate, but also how Australian politicians can have any right to use Australian taxes to pay overseas abortionists to kill pre-born Mongolian children. Who do we think we are?

Of course, Australian politicians have been using the taxes of Australians to pay abortionists to kill pre-born children in Australia for far longer. The federal parliament does not determine the legal status of abortion – that's a matter for the states – but it is by Canberra that the abortionists are paid. Medicare item numbers 16525 and 35643 were slipped in during the Whitlam years when nobody was watching, and have remained in place, under governments of both complexions, ever since. Will any member of federal parliament ask the same kind of question about the public funding of abortion as Ms Bullock asked about the WA euthanasia bill: How does our being elected to parliament give us any right to provide payment from public funds to the killers of other human beings, utterly outside any context of defence, at any stage in their lives? Who do we think we are?

Then there is the federal legislation permitting lethal experimentation to be performed on embryonic humans, left over in frozen storage as surplus to the requirements of the IVF industry. At the time, promoters of research on human embryos held out the most fantastic (and, as it turned out, completely unfounded) promises of cures just around the corner – who can forget Bob Carr's parading of a paralysed American movie star, or Professor Trounson's parading of a paralysed American lab rat? But the necessary legislation was passed, in federal parliament and in every state except Western Australia, reflecting not only widespread gullibility and sentimentality among Australian legislators, but also their unreflectiveness, in failing to ask themselves: Even if human embryo research were to achieve these unlikely triumphs, how does our election to parliament give us the right to secure those benefits at the cost of thousands of young human lives, whose destruction we are presuming to vote for? Who do we think we are?

Is the new parliament any more likely than previous parliaments to see questions of rightful limits on the authority of our elected representatives raised in debate? Who knows! There may be a few hopeful signs. There seems, at last, to be some interest in balancing the books, which may make it easier to cut expenditure which is useless or worse (sometimes, much worse). Related to that, the government is trying to present itself, not entirely without justification, as a government of grown-ups; and an interest in ethical boundaries, particularly in public office, is a grown-up interest. In the event of any debate on ethical boundaries, the PM would be equipped by temperament and education to take a significant part, and the same could be said of some of his colleagues (as it could not confidently be said, I think, of either of his most recent predecessors in office). Some of the non-grown-ups on the government benches (e.g., Dr Mal Washer – no grown-up he, despite his years) have gone, and others will be gone by June next year. And the Labor Party, despite the best efforts of organized adolescents in Emily's List, has not succeeded in getting rid of all the grown-ups from the Opposition benches. Senator Helen Polley, with her interest in providing safe havens for abandoned newborns, is undoubtedly a grown-up, and she is not the only one on her side in the senate.

If a 'Who do we think we are?' debate does take place at any time in the new parliamentary term, there will be members on both sides who understand what is at issue, and who are capable, as Ms Bullock was in the WA parliament in 2010, of saying something thoughtful and informed and to the point – the central point. It could be very refreshing, if it ever happens.

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About the Author

Dr Ted Watt is a former Professor of Political Science at the University of Western Australia.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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