Get all your news in one place.
100’s of premium titles.
One app.
Start reading
David Hardaker

On voluntary assisted dying, the Catholic Church rages as democracy takes over

In case you missed it late last week, the Catholic Church let out an existential scream that captured its loss of power in a changing world. 

The passing of voluntary assisted dying laws in NSW was the trigger for it to launch a tirade against the state’s political leaders, both of whom are Catholic and both of whom committed the ultimate sin of failing to do exactly what the church demanded. 

“Premier Dominic Perrottet and Opposition Leader Chris Minns equally face the most serious question of all: in a moment of mortal crisis and as a moral disaster loomed, were the men who style themselves the leaders of the state of sufficient calibre to meet the evil? Did they do enough? The almost certain answer is no,” The Catholic Weekly editorialised.

“Those left wondering whether the Catholic premier had taken leave of his senses watched in amazement as he said he was ‘proud’ that the NSW Parliament had presided over a respectful, tolerant and sensitive debate.

“The performance was bizarre and surreal, constituting one of the most humiliating examples of meek acceptance of evil ever seen.”

NSW became the last state in Australia to pass voluntary assisted dying laws. It meant the Sydney Catholic archdiocese under Archbishop Anthony Fisher was the last line of defence against the creeping “evil”.  Fisher is known around the traps as “Boy George”, a reflection of his close relationship with church titan George Pell. Pell’s consigliere, Danny Casey, is a potent figure in the affairs of NSW. 

The church’s rage, though, was emblematic of something more than the loss of legislation in one state. It seemed to capture its sense that it was impotent to resist the force of change via the democratic process.

The church has been sidelined in a final changing of the guard that has its parallel in the collapse of the Liberal political establishment. You can only frustrate the will of the people for so long. (Cue the final triumphant free dancing scene of Strictly Ballroom as the old rules are swept away.)   

Five years ago it was impossible to imagine that popular support for voluntary assisted dying might translate into legislative change. Now there are only two patches of land left in Australia where it remains forbidden by law. The ACT and the Northern Territory have not been allowed to pass voluntary assisted dying laws since the Howard government found federal powers to override the rights of territories, and passed legislation in 1997 that effectively disenfranchised residents of the territories.

In the last week of the election campaign, former prime minister Scott Morrison deflected questions on whether the federal government might move to change the laws in the light of the NSW legislation. “There are differences between territories and states, and that is under the constitution, and we are not proposing any changes to that,” he said, using the word-salad style he came to perfect. In fact, Morrison is opposed to voluntary assisted dying on religious grounds.   

So what now?

Independent Senate candidate for the ACT David Pocock has said changing the laws governing territories was a priority for him if, as seems likely, he wins. Pocock, who received some support from Simon Holmes à Court’s Climate 200 organisation, is poised to take Liberal Zed Seselja’s spot. Seselja is a capital-C Catholic who is cut from the same cloth as former PM Tony Abbott and who is opposed to territories having self-determination on voluntary assisted dying.

Last year Anthony Albanese supported a push to grant the ACT the right to legislate on voluntary assisted dying in a speech to ACT Labor in which he attacked the “roadblock” opposition of Seselja. Labor’s policy is to allow a conscience vote.

In the last term of Parliament, Sam McMahon, then a Northern Territory Country Liberal Party senator, flagged that she would introduce legislation, but the government gagged debate. McMahon excluded the ACT from the legislation because of Seselja’s opposition.

The Parliament of 2022 is vastly different to that which passed the 1997 laws stripping the territories of their rights. Albanese is one of only three survivors from the class of ’97, along with Queensland LNP member Warren Entsch and Senator Pauline Hanson, who was then in the lower house. 

Catholic conservative Kevin Andrews, who led the 1997 anti-voluntary assisted dying campaign within the Coalition, retired at the recent election. His partner on the ALP side in getting up the so-called Andrews bill was a young union organiser called Tony Burke, then working with the socially conservative shoppies union, the SDA. Burke had the job of working the ALP numbers. He entered federal Parliament in 2004 and is now a senior Albanese government minister for employment, industrial relations and the arts.

Much has changed in 25 years.

Prime Minister Albanese is a far cry from the arch religious traditionalist PM John Howard. Albanese often talks of the importance of the Catholic Church in his life, along with the South Sydney rugby league team and the ALP. As a “small-c” Catholic, Albanese is not nearly as close to the church as Dominic Perrottet. (Look what happened there.)

And who among the teals and Greens is on Fisher’s speed dial?

The Catholic Weekly also wrote this in its hot fury last week:

What chance did the advocates for the sanctity of life in NSW ever have when both ‘leaders’ — both Catholics — basically went missing in action in a crisis? The sick, the elderly, the vulnerable and — as we now know — an ever-growing category of many others must now pay the price for their mediocrity.

The pity for the church is that it can’t count on owning politicians any more. The will of the people seems to be getting in the way.

Do you agree the time has come for the ACT and the Northern Territory to be allowed to legislate for voluntary assisted dying? Let us know your thoughts by writing to Please include your full name to be considered for publicationWe reserve the right to edit for length and clarity.

Sign up to read this article
Read news from 100’s of titles, curated specifically for you.
Already a member? Sign in here
Related Stories
Top stories on inkl right now
One subscription that gives you access to news from hundreds of sites
Already a member? Sign in here
Our Picks
Fourteen days free
Download the app
One app. One membership.
100+ trusted global sources.