Albanese government to move to grant territories right to set own voluntary assisted dying laws

The federal government will quickly move to give Australian territories the right to set their own voluntary assisted dying laws the new minister for territories, Kristy McBain says, with a bill to be presented to parliament within weeks.

After years of political debate over the issue of territory rights, Labor is preparing to give governments in the ACT and Northern Territory the power to shape their own legislation around assisted dying.

But McBain says the new Labor government has no immediate plans to expand the number of senators for the fast-growing ACT, which has just two representatives in the upper house.

The move will reverse a 25-year ban on the territories enacting such legislation. In 1997 the Howard government expressly banned the ACT and NT from passing bills to legalise euthanasia, overturning the NT’s landmark 1995 legislation on the matter.

A 2018 bid to overturn that federal law was narrowly defeated, but Labor – particularly former ACT chief minister and now finance minister Katy Gallagher – argued the territories should have the right to make their own laws.

McBain said Labor is seeking to bring on a bill within the first week of parliament’s resumption in July.

“There’ll be a private member’s or senator’s bill coming forward as soon as possible to deal with the issue," sy het gese.

“If it’s not in that first sitting week, I think it will follow shortly.”

Guardian Australia understands the exact process by which the law would be changed is still under consideration, but that Labor politicians may be granted a conscience vote on the issue.

Andrew Leigh, assistant minister for treasury and member for the ACT seat of Fenner, has previously said he’d like to introduce such a bill. Alicia Payne, Labor’s member for Canberra, previously called for the party to take a binding vote on the issue, not a conscience vote. Who will introduce the bill, and to which house, is still being negotiated.

Complicating the timing is the new independent ACT senator David Pocock, who has pledged to introduce his own territory rights bill in the parliament’s first weeks.

“There is support in this new parliament for correcting this long running inequality between the states and territories, we need to get on with doing it as quickly and collaboratively as possible. There are people facing these end of life choices, we shouldn’t make them wait any longer,” Pocock said.

“While the federal parliament can’t determine the legislation for the Territories, we can give them the freedom to debate and decide that for themselves.”

McBain was elected to the seat of Eden-Monaro at a byelection in July 2020 after serving eight years as a councillor and later mayor of Bega Valley Shire from 2012.

In a wide-ranging interview with Guardian Australia, McBain said she welcomed the prime minister’s commitment to include local government in the national cabinet meeting of state and federal leaders, and said that while it would only be for one meeting a year, that meeting would be entirely devoted to local government.

“They deserve a voice at national cabinet, and I’m pleased that in that first meeting, everyone agreed to one whole meeting being dedicated to the local government sector and having the president of ALGA (Australian Local Government Association) there," sy het gese.

Asked about criticism of the former Coalition government for doling out grants to grassroots organisations that arguably were in the purview of local government – like skate parks, fish ponds and sporting clubs – McBain said the federal government “has a role to play” in funding infrastructure.

“It is especially hard for regional, rural and remote councils to raise their own revenue, so the federal government should be assisting with community-building initiatives. It should be assisting with sporting infrastructure and cultural infrastructure," sy het gese.

“But we should also be allowing those communities to tell us what they need, rather than having specific tied grant funding. There is a fine balance between untied and tied grant funding and we need to work with the sector on that.”

McBain also said that recognition of local government in the Australia constitution, a reform that councils had long campaigned for, was a priority for Labor; but that referendums on Indigenous recognition in the first term, and an Australian republic in a potential second term, of an Albanese government are the main focuses.

“I think it will be a priority of this government to have local government enshrined in the constitution," sy het gese.

“But our priority for the first term is making sure we have Indigenous voice to parliament recognised in our constitution and that should be a standalone issue. We don’t want to muddy the waters on that very pertinent issue, so this [local government recognition] will have to take place down the track.”

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