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Euthanasia bill passes second hurdle, but huge challenges remain

27 Jun 2019 3:16 PM | Philip Patston (Administrator)

by Henry Cooke | Source: Stuff

OPINION: David Seymour and other backers of assisted dying will be celebrating after his long-fought End of Life Choice Bill made it through its second reading on Wednesday night.

Seymour's bill passed by 70 votes to 50, a slimmer margin than it did at first reading in late 2017, but well above the 61 votes required.

The vote followed 20 emotive speeches from MPs, many of whom mentioned close ones they had seen die in painful ways.

David Seymour will be celebrating tonight but a huge fight remains.

KEVIN STENT/STUFF David Seymour will be celebrating tonight but a huge fight remains.

Labour and National MPs were allowed to vote according to conscience, while NZ First and Green MPs all voted in support as a bloc.

The victory will frustrate the strong lobby which has campaigned relentlessly against the bill over its marathon legislative process, a lobby with unlikely bedfellows such as former Prime Minister Bill English and Human Rights lawyer Deborah Manning.u

But the real fight is still to come. Before the bill can pass its third reading and become law, almost everyone involved agrees that it will need serious amending - including Seymour himself. And that's before we even get started on a possible referendum.

That is because the Justice select committee that considered the bill had two members so bitterly against it the committee didn't manage to make any major changes, despite taking 16 months and receiving 38,000 submissions. It was one of the biggest failures of a select committee in living memory, and the frustration of member Greg O'Connor was apparent as he thundered through his speech in support. 

So the various amendments Seymour needs to make for the bill to pass will not be implemented in the tidy private process of the select committee, but in the messy and extremely public committee of the whole house, which takes place before the third reading.

Firstly, the Green Party and several other MPs want the bill to be narrowed to only cover those with terminal illness likely to die within six months - in its current state it also covers those with a "grievous and irremediable medical condition," a clause that has particularly worried disability advocates.

This narrowing is likely to pass, but whether it ends up going far enough to keep enough people on board will be hard to tell: It's very hard for a party like the Greens to ignore outrage from the disability community.

Then there is NZ First, which has agreed to support the bill if a referendum is attached.

Seymour has agreed to support the referendum, but 61 votes for the amendment will be needed, and many MPs might not be keen on such a controversial issue being tacked on to the 2020 election. Those who are deeply against the bill might have the most reason, as most polling shows a referendum would likely see the bill become law.

It's quite unclear what would happen with NZ First's nine votes if the referendum is not inserted - MPs have differing ideas, and no NZ First MP made a speech on Wednesday night. If all nine voted against the bill it would almost definitely fail. But if the caucus decided to abstain, or allowed its MPs to vote their conscience, the bill could still have a strong shot.

The committee stage will also allow deeply opposed MPs many opportunities to frustrate the process, seeking to pass amendments that nullify the bill or make it so loose as to lose votes.

This is not the US Senate and the Speaker can stop too much mischief-making. But since the bill will only progress during fortnightly members' nights, it could still take a long while.

Conscience votes are rare in New Zealand, but are needed to deal with the extreme divisions within parties on some issues.

Their rarity and the strong emotions they can rouse mean they are embedded deeply into history. Short-term political gain can lead to long-term historical shame. The words of those who opposed Homosexual Law Reform followed them for decades. The debate that MPs will have over the following months will follow them too.

* Originally the vote was declared by the Speaker as a 70-51 result, but was later corrected to 70-50.


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