As the Victorian government makes the case for assisted dying legislation, a strategic campaign from social conservatives and religious groups hopes to torpedo the proposed amendments. By John Power.

The assisted dying campaign in Victoria

Across Victoria this week, residents opened their letterboxes to find a chilling warning printed in black and white.

“Remember the life you save may be your own,” each leaflet read, urging householders to contact their local MP to protest plans to “legalise government-sanctioned suicide by doctors for the sick and infirm”.

The kicker: “YOU CAN STOP THIS!”

Distributed through the postal service by Right To Life Australia, the flyers are timed to land the week before the Victorian parliament returns to debate the introduction of Australia’s first voluntary euthanasia laws since the federal government overturned the Northern Territory’s short-lived assisted dying legislation in 1997.

“We’ve never run a campaign as strong as this before,” Margaret Tighe, the pro-life lobby group’s president, told The Saturday Paper, explaining that the flyers were sent to 260,000 homes.

“There’s too much killing going on in this state,” added the veteran anti-abortion campaigner. “We don’t want to see more of it happening.”

The state Labor government’s proposed model comes after two years of extensive consultation and deliberation, first through a parliamentary inquiry into end-of-life choices and then an examination of legislative options by an expert advisory panel. Proponents have billed the framework as the most conservative in the world, with its 68 safeguards and restrictions, including a three-step request process, availability only to those expected to live for 12 months or less, and criminal penalties for encouraging a patient to ask to die.

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews, who has earned a reputation as the country’s most progressive state leader with legislative wins on same-sex adoption and medical cannabis, has forcefully made the case for reform, invoking his own father’s prolonged and painful death from cancer last year.

“This is about dignity, choice and giving Victorians the support and care they deserve in their final moments,” Andrews said late last month, after accepting the expert panel’s recommendations.

But a loosely connected coalition of social conservatives and religious groups has been pouring their energy into a strategically focused campaign to upset expectations. If apparently outgunned, they are not lacking in energy – or a coherent plan.

With every political party bar the Greens committing to a conscience vote, Tighe believes the bill can be derailed by relentlessly lobbying MPs in a limited number of vulnerable electorates, particularly through face-to-face meetings. Already, supporters have snagged four such meetings with Labor MP Danny Pearson alone, according to the group. There is also a focus on old-fashioned letter writing. “They don’t read them all,” says Tighe of emails.

While large, Right To Life’s leaflet drop focused on just nine marginal seats, including the premier’s own electorate of Mulgrave, in Melbourne’s south-eastern suburbs. Labor, which has a majority of just two MPs in the state’s lower house, holds six of the nine – Macedon, Ivanhoe, Cranbourne, Mordialloc, Bentleigh and Carrum – by margins of less than 4 per cent. At the next state election in 2018, a seat such as Bentleigh could very possibly switch hands on just a few hundred votes.

Tighe’s is a tried and tested tactic, and potentially effective, too. While disputed, her organisation claimed credit for Labor’s one-seat loss in the 2010 Victorian state election after targeting MPs who had voted to liberalise the state’s abortion law two years earlier.

“We targeted nine marginal seats and seven of them lost their seats, and we maintain that was how John Brumby lost government,” said Tighe, a self-described “old dog for a hard road” when it comes to lobbying.

In November, Right To Life celebrated the South Australian parliament’s decision to shoot down the state’s 15th attempt to legalise voluntary euthanasia since 1995. Lacking so much as an office in the state, the group took out newspaper ads and rallied local supporters to call and write to their local MPs. The bill failed to pass by a single vote, an outcome Right To Life believes it helped bring about.

“We just hammered and hammered,” said Tighe, “and that’s it, it was lost.”

Separately, but with some overlap, religious communities, which hold particular sway in several tight Labor seats in the so-called “Bible Belt” of Melbourne’s south-east, are mobilising, too.

The Reverend Ian Smith, executive officer of the Victorian Council of Churches, told The Saturday Paper that individual church leaders were encouraging their congregations to make their voices heard on the issue.

“It wouldn’t be too far a stretch to suggest that the next state election may swing on the carriage or the non-carriage of it,” said Smith, whose organisation has opposed the government’s plans despite a reputation for adopting progressive stances. “It is definitely a real flashpoint in lots of different ways.”

Claiming a membership of 12,000 in Victoria, the Australian Christian Lobby (ACL), arguably the country’s most influential religious pressure group, is also working hard to sway MPs.

Dan Flynn, the ACL’s director for Victoria, insists the government could be in for a significant backlash, particularly in electorates with large Indian and other immigrant populations that lean conservative.

“When you pick a fight with ethnic communities and faith-based communities over a social policy issue like this, it’s likely to have electoral ramifications and all MPs are open to this,” Flynn said.

Meanwhile, conservative elements within the Victorian Liberals are using the issue to push back against the moderate leanings of the party in arguably the most left-leaning state. This month, the party will hold a forum on euthanasia featuring speakers on both sides of the debate. Organised by conservative figures including Stephanie Bastiaan, a pro-life advocate who unsuccessfully challenged sitting Liberal MP Gary Blackwood for preselection earlier this year, the event is being seen as an opportunity for grassroots conservatives to remind the party that they still exist.

“The Liberal Party needs to take into consideration its members’ views on all issues, not just the ones that are convenient to it,” said one disaffected conservative party member who didn’t wish to be named, lambasting the party as controlled by “professional bureaucrats and politicians”.

What’s unclear is exactly how votes are stacking up in the Victorian parliament, and how many MPs an anti-euthanasia insurgency would need to spook to sink the legislation. While most MPs have yet to announce a stance, Labor’s ranks include at least a handful of committed opponents of assisted dying, including Deputy Premier James Merlino, as well as a larger number of undecideds. Among Coalition members, Liberal leader Matthew Guy and Nationals leader Peter Walsh are both opposed, while a handful of Liberal MPs have come out in favour. Most others have remained coy about their intentions.

Within the government, there’s an acknowledgement of uncertainty about the outcome of the eventual vote in parliament, expected some time before the end of the year.

“I think we just need to wait and see,” said Labor’s Harriet Shing, an upper house member for the Eastern Victoria Region, describing it as hard to call because of the “intensely personal nature of the way each elected member needs to arrive at their position”.

Mary-Anne Thomas, the Labor member for Macedon, said most of her colleagues appeared not to have a firm position on assisted dying and could be persuaded either way.

“People are engaging with the issue and I think that’s a good and healthy thing,” said Thomas, who is leaning towards voting for the legislation.

Even with the government and opinion polls on their side, assisted dying advocates aren’t taking victory for granted.

“I wouldn’t want to proffer a prediction on how the vote might go, other than to say I do think it probably will be quite tight,” said Lesley Vick, president of Dying With Dignity Victoria.

“The opponents of assisted dying laws are very voluble, and they would send a lot of letters and emails and so on to members of parliament. But I think it’s also important for members of parliament to remember that opinion polling makes it very clear that an overwhelming majority of Victorians want this law reform to take place.”

Still, for politicians, the message on anti-euthanasia flyers can be read two ways: “Remember the life you save may be your own.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 5, 2017 as "Unwritten endings".

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John Power is a Melbourne-based journalist.

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