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Richard's speech on dying with dignity, medicinal cannabis & political courage

Speeches in Parliament
Richard Di Natale 25 Jun 2014

Greens Senator and former doctor gave a speech to the Australian Senate about having the courage in politics to stick your neck out on issues that are controversial or taboo. Specifically the Senator spoke about medicinal cannabis and dying with dignity, two issues that he has personally tried to progress recently.

Senator DI NATALE (Victoria) (13:15): Recently, I have been reflecting on some of the valedictory speeches that we have heard in this place. It is not going to be long before I have to stand up and give mine. I do not want to look back on my time in this place and think that I should have tried harder, I should have shown a bit more political courage, I should have stuck my neck out a little bit or I should not have played it so safe. Before I got into parliament, I decided that I would try and tackle some tough issues and some of the issues that in fact drove me to come to this place. There is always a reason not to do stuff. When you find yourself in this chamber, there are always reasons not to do things. You might be worried about offending a particular group. You might be worried that your own constituency does not support your views on an issue. You can do it later. Maybe it is not core business; maybe this a fringe issue or an issue that distracts from the main game. There is always a reason not to do something. It is also easy to get caught up in this place, in the fishbowl that is Parliament House, and start to think that the views in here in fact reflect the views of the community. One thing I have learnt over my short time in this place is that they do not. They do not on so many issues. That is why I felt compelled to act over the past fortnight on two difficult but important social issues. They are two issues that have one thing in common. They have got a profound influence over the lives of people who are sick, who are suffering and who are dying. They also have this in common: they represent the individual stories of people who have shown tremendous courage and tremendous dignity in coming out and speaking about things that we often feel very uncomfortable about talking about. Those two issues are the issues of medicinal cannabis and dying with dignity. I was very moved to hear the story of the Haslam family. Lucy Haslam, a former nurse, and her husband—who is a policeman with a long history of drug law enforcement—live in Tamworth, New South Wales. Their son, Dan Haslam, is 24. He has terminal bowel cancer. He has had it for a number of years. His suffering has been compounded by horrific chronic nausea, weight loss and pain. He tried a number of drugs and he eventually resorted to medicinal cannabis. It had a significant effect on his nausea where other drugs failed. It helped to improve his appetite and weight loss. Lucy and her husband made the decision that the law would not stand in the way of them performing their duty as parents and relieving the suffering of their son. So they became criminals, by ensuring that their son had access to medicinal cannabis. More than that, they have made the decision to go public—a courageous decision—and to campaign for reform so that other families do not experience the same diabolical circumstances that mean that either you obey the law or you watch someone suffer needlessly. Why is it that they are in this pernicious situation where, instead of getting a script from a doctor to get access to medication that relieves them of their suffering, they have got to find a dealer and purchase a product of uncertain strength and purity? Why is it? It makes no sense. At face value, this is a medication like no other. Many of our most successful medications come from plants, such as digitalis, which provides relief for people with serious heart conditions. We grow poppies in this country so that we can provide hospitals and doctors surgeries with important pain-relieving medication. Yet when it comes to cannabis and the potential remedies that it offers, we have a blind spot. I hosted an event in parliament last week and Lucy was good enough to travel here and to speak to a number of parliamentarians. She spoke alongside Alex Wodak, a doctor. Through clinical practice, he has become an expert on the real medical potential of cannabis. The science is clear; the jury is in. It is a medication that has been demonstrated in a number of clinical trials to be of significant benefit for nausea, weight loss, stimulating appetite, muscle spasticity and some sources of pain. One of the most encouraging aspects of that event was that we saw members of parliament from right across the political divide attend and show an openness and a willingness to engage in the evidence. That is something that is far too often lacking in this place. Ultimately, they concluded one thing. That is that it is cruel to deny people access to this effective treatment. The second issue is even more sensitive. That is the issue of dying with dignity. It is an issue that essentially ensures that each and every one of us will have access to choice over the circumstances of our own deaths. It is a difficult issue. There is a taboo around discussing death in this country. But I have got news for people: death is contagious. We are all going to catch it. It is something that we are all going to face. The real question—and it is tough question—is how we die. As a doctor I wrestle with it, because you are balancing your responsibility to give somebody the choice that they seek in relieving their pain and suffering with your responsibility to try and prolong life. Ultimately, my responsibility as a medical practitioner is to respect people's wishes about their pain and their suffering and to ensure that they have the choice when that pain and suffering becomes so intolerable that no amount of medical help will relieve it. Given the choice that we have when it comes to dying, how many of you would choose to end your lives in a sterile hospital room, in unbearable pain, drugged into a semiconscious state, poked full of holes and tubes and lying there drowning in your own secretions and gasping for air when the alternative may be a peaceful death at home, with your family—a death where you are able to have a very deeply emotional good-bye, where you are able to say the things to your loved ones that you want to say; a death that is unhurried; a death that involves drifting off peacefully but being surrounded by the people you love and the memories that make you who you are. For people in Australia that choice is not an option. In fact, it is even worse: it is illegal. Yesterday, I hosted an event in this building where we heard from three people with a terminal illness, who had very, very powerful stories. We heard from Peter Short—a man who has recurrent oesophageal cancer, a man in his fifties, a successful businessman, who has decided that he wants to choose the circumstances in which he dies. We heard from Max Bromson, a man with metastatic bone cancer, who sometimes describes the pain that he is experiencing as 'unbearable' and 'off the scale'. We heard from Cath Ringwood, a lady with leukaemia and breast cancer, who made it very clear that her experience as a palliative care nurse ensured that she would never choose a slow, drowning death by pneumonia, which is one of the options that may befall her. One thing that all of these people had in common was that they were living their life to its fullest potential, right now. All of them want to ensure that they live the most fulfilling and the longest life possible. Simply knowing that they had the choice to control the circumstances in which they died made their current journey a less painful one. For them, simply having that choice was empowering. More importantly, these people have made it very clear that, in the final months that they have left, they want to spend their time ensuring that everybody is offered that choice. Again, on the face of it, one would assume this is the most basic of human rights—the control over our own deaths, the ability to seek medical assistance to exercise that control. This is a control that hurts nobody else. It is a decision that is a very personal one. It is classic Liberal philosophy: respect for the rights of the individual. As one person said yesterday: is our life the property of the state or does it belong to us? We all come to this place often with the best intentions. We come here with a good dose of political capital—and we have earned that political capital. It is a trust that is invested in each of us by our communities, and we build on it by showing integrity, by working with others and by being responsive to the people who have put us here. We show it and earn it by demonstrating leadership and by ensuring that we have the nation's best interests at heart, not our own. But that political capital is of no consequence if we are not going to ensure that we exercise what we can to get the change and the reform through this parliament that will impact so directly on the lives of the people whom I have heard from over recent weeks. There will always be barriers. This is a difficult issue to talk about. It is not the main game. It is a fringe issue. There is a very powerful religious lobby in the parliament. We have a toxic political environment. It is very hard to get past the political divide that separates us here, but it is incumbent on each and every one of us to do what the Australian people put us here to do, and that is to listen to them, to not dodge tough issues and to get these reforms through. I have to say that I have been encouraged by the huge support, again from across the political divide, on hearing about my campaign to introduce dying with dignity laws in the federal parliament. There has been a tremendous response to it. In fact, Alannah MacTiernan has indicated that she wants to co-support any legislation that ensures people have access to that choice. On the issue of medicinal cannabis, Sharman Stone and Melissa Parke, who co-convene the group which I am involved with to help bring Lucy Haslam to the parliament, have indicated that they want to work with us to get this reform through. They want to look beyond the partisan blinkers that so often blind us to the opportunities that we have here to do good things for people who are dying, who are sick and who are suffering. It is our responsibility to do that job. Ultimately, I am optimistic. I am optimistic because of the support we have already received and I am optimistic because, even though there are barriers, there is one thing with both of these issues that politicians cannot ignore, and that is that they have overwhelming public support. One thing that politicians in this place do is listen to community sentiment. When that voice becomes so overwhelming, so loud and so strong, politicians cannot ignore it. Those voices are growing. They are becoming louder. They now have access to this place and, ultimately, we owe a duty to listen to them.

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