By: Ben Smith, Director, Family and Life Office
I was lucky enough to be selected for the audience for the Q&A Special episode on Dying and Euthanasia on 9 November. The last time I visited the ABC Studios in Ultimo was in 2003 when I was interviewed on Triple J about the issue of youth suicide and euthanasia. I had a personal connection to this issue as one of the members of my pro-life youth group had committed suicide a few years earlier and I was trying to honour his memory. During this interview I pointed out that the Australian community spent a lot of money on youth suicide prevention and that it was dangerous for our society to have Dr Phillip Nitschke promoting do-it-yourself death kits made from consumer off-the-shelf items. This angle seemed to resonate with the media as a few weeks later my pro-life youth group got prime time coverage of a protest we held outside of the pro-euthanasia Killing me Softly Conference in Sydney that was addressed by Dr Nitschke.
My recent trip to the ABC was due to the actions of another prominent public figure. During the preparation for the Show back stage we were told by an ABC official that the topic of Q&A had been chosen as a result of the interest that had arisen from a recent lecture given by comedian and media personality Andrew Denton. Denton provided the Di Gribble Argument on October 28 for the Wheeler Centre. In this address, Denton announced the findings of his 8 month investigation into the global state of play of euthanasia and how it could be relevant to Australia. Part of this journey occurred at the 2015 Hope International Symposium on the prevention of euthanasia in Adelaide in 22-23 May that we both attended. This Symposium made a deep impression on me as I heard the voices of a broad coalition of groups that were against the legalisation of euthanasia. At this meeting, Denton sat in the audience listening and taking some notes but he was incredibly poker faced and did not really try and interact with the conference participants. His recent Di Gribble address dismissed the concerns expressed in this conference especially by doctors, disability groups and grieving families and chose to favour the testimony of the medical profession in the Netherlands, Belgium and Oregon USA.
As I took my seat for the show in the back row I was a little bit nervous as this was the first time I participated in a live TV show. My question on the connection between youth suicide and euthanasia was rejected by the ABC so I thought that my role would be limited to a spectator. However a question asked by the person sitting next to me ensured that my face was broadcast to the nation.
In the warm up to the show, Denton admitted that he was nervous as he was usually running a show rather than being one of its guests. Perhaps another source of his nervousness was that his lack of qualifications and relatively short 8 month study into this complex issue would be pitted against people such as panellist Dr Ralph McConaghy who is a palliative care specialist that has treated 5000 people in the lead up to their death. However, despite his nerves, the show host Tony Jones gave Denton almost a free run by letting him top and tail the show. At times it was hard to understand who the actual host of the program was. It illustrated that when a former TV show host becomes a member of the Q&A panel then those who are meant to provide the A can end up controlling the Q. Furthermore it also highlighted a more recent trend associated with the ABC and other media outlets in that on some issues they move from being a broadcaster to an advocate for social and legal change.
Overall the show did involve some healthy discussion of the topic of dying that is not given much air time in our society. But the two palliative care doctors on the panel were not given much of a go by Denton who was quick to jump on their responses and shut down their ability to contribute their rich perspective in any depth. The final word was given to Denton who decided to lambast the medical profession and in an eerie 1970s moment, Denton used the phrase “It’s time” to call for a change in the way the Australian medical profession handles its treatment of the dying. I guess this is what we should expect when a comedian (Andrew Denton) becomes a euthanasia advocate and a euthanasia advocate (Dr Phillip Nitschke) becomes a comedian (at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in August).