It’s time for a progressive spring – but don’t expect one with Chris Minns

Despite being the state's opposition leader, NSW Labor leader Chris Minns, pictured, has fallen into line with NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet on the Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill 2021. Photo: Chris Minns MP/Facebook.

The NSW Labor leader’s decision to vote against voluntary assisted dying shows him to be out of touch, lacking leadership and deeply disappointing to progressive voters, opines Gary Nunn.

This week, relatively new NSW Labor leader Chris Minns was handed a golden opportunity to do what progressives have longed for someone – anyone – from the NSW Opposition to do for a very long time: lead. Cut through. Stand for something. 

He has squandered it completely.

Chris Minns is voting against independent MP Alex Greenwich’s Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill, introduced into parliament on Thursday.

Upon first reading his voting intention, I had to re-read it to ensure I wasn’t actually reading the political suicide note of a newly minted leader. It’s a mind-blowing error of judgement. 

Now, the first thing to say is: this is a conscience vote. Some might fairly contest that it’s unfair to pile on to Minns when he’s merely doing what such highly charged and emotional bills require of our elected representatives: to vote according to their own personal conscience. 

You vote for the party, not the leader. Their single vote doesn’t dictate party policy. 

Right-wing media outlet Sky News Australia shares video of Chris Minns outlining his position on voluntary assisted dying. Video: Sky News Australia/YouTube.

There are several big problems with this argument. To say Minns is doing the wrong thing at the worst possible time is an understatement.

First, Minns – like new Premier Dominic Perrottet – is a Catholic. Not a quiet one, either: he states it openly in various media interviews. 

Neither man is voting for Greenwich’s bill.

Minns chose not to go hard on Perrottet when, in a recently widely circulated social media post celebrating Trump’s election, he disturbingly states that “if you question man-made climate change, you are not a sceptic” – and “if you want a plebiscite on same-sex marriage, you are not a homophobe”, amongst other position statements clearly related to his right wing conservative Christianity. 

As progressives held their breath, Minns chose to take what some might describe as the high road, awaiting Perrottet’s actions in office rather than a Facebook post he made five years ago. 

But there was a sneaking, concerning suspicion from some it may’ve been that he doesn’t disprove of Catholic values in politics. That, perhaps, there was a disappointing streak of conservatism in Minns, coming, as he does, from NSW Labor’s right faction.

Voting for this bill would’ve ended that worry, rather than exacerbated it.

A devout Roman Catholic and traditional ‘family man’, Chris Minns – pictured with said family – is a member of NSW Labor’s right wing faction. Photo: Chris Minns MP/Facebook.

Why does this matter? This was an opportunity to differentiate NSW Labor as the natural home of progressive voters, which is what many voters expect it to be. 

Labor should be the place where church is separate from state in policymaking and where the right wing conservatism of ‘Christian values’ in politics is counteracted by socially progressive, modern policy.

The new leader’s first major vote alienates those very supporters who should be his base. There’s a fear he’s making a strategic play for Western Sydney electorates, which voted ‘no’ in higher numbers on the marriage equality plebiscite. 

For his part, Minns says his position against voluntary assisted dying doesn’t stem from his Catholicism. “It’s not from an edict,” he told The Sydney Morning Herald.

He claims he’s concerned vulnerable people coming towards the end of life “might feel they were being a burden to loved ones and agree to assisted dying because it was available for them”.

But this argument doesn’t stack up, suggesting he’s not across the detail of the bill, and throwing into question his judgement.

Member for Sydney Alex Greenwich (pictured) introduced the Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill 2021 on Thursday. Photo: Alex Greenwich/Facebook.

As Shayne Higson from Dying with Dignity NSW tells The Sentinel: “It’s not a case of agreeing to access voluntary assisted dying; only the person can request it and only if they’re dying from a terminal illness with less than six months to live and experiencing intolerable suffering. If their only reason for requesting it was because they feel they’re a burden to others, they wouldn’t qualify.” 

By voting no, and promoting in the media misguided and ill-informed reasons for doing so, Minns isn’t just out of step with the progressive heartland of Labor voters. 

He’s out of step with the people who desperately need it.

People like Annie, who had terminal Motor Neurone Disease and pleaded for this law in NSW in 2017. With her husband, she set up a 116k-strong petition at Change.org, when I was their Director of Communications.

Hers was the most emotional and persuasive story I ever came across – and I came across hundreds at the campaign platform. 

“I can’t speak, am left gasping for breath, and have lost control of my hands,” she wrote on her petition.

“It won’t be long before I’ll end up in a wheelchair. I’ll be trapped inside my body with my same intellect, but unable to communicate, unable to feed myself, clean myself or even move. Within the next 12 months I face the prospect of suffering a horrible death and this is the thing I fear more than anything else.”

The truth is, we let Annie down. The 2017 Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill failed by just one vote in the NSW Parliament. 

Then NSW Labor leader, Luke Foley, voted no along with then Premier Mike Baird, who has been out in the media this week saying we shouldn’t pass this bill because he’s a Christian, runs a Christian charity and because his mother, whilst dying in agony, was kind to his sister.

As affecting as these personal stories are, it’s the terminally ill in unbearable pain we should be listening to, not the Christians around them subscribing to outdated, two thousand year old stifling conservative doctrine that only God can give/take life.

It’s the experts and evidence we should be listening to – the pain medicine physicians crying out for this on behalf of their suffering patients.

Chris Minns’ position on voluntary assisted dying has seen him become a ‘poster boy’ for organisations such as HOPE – Preventing Euthanasia & Assisted Suicide. Photo: Hope – Preventing Euthanasia & Assisted Suicide/Facebook.

Back in 2017, there was deep disappointment amongst NSW progressive voters that there was no difference on this major issue between the two major party leaders. Foley failed to show leadership, driving pro-euthanasia voters to other parties like the Greens. 

It was one of a long list of disappointments for NSW progressive voters, some of whom now vote Labor at federal level, but Greens or independent at state level.

Minns had such a rare chance to do this differently. Not taking that chance is an eye-watering failure of leadership and political strategy that could see him haemorrhage voters at the next election. It shows him to be utterly out of touch. 

He’s out of step with his own Kogarah constituents who he’s elected to represent: 70 per cent of them agree terminally ill people should be able to end their lives with medical assistance according to 2019 ABC’s Vote Compass. Just 16 per cent disagreed.

He’s out of step with the state he wants to lead: 76 per cent of NSW residents support voluntary assisted dying. Only 11 per cent disagree. 

He’s out of step with Australia – NSW will be the last state in the country to legislate for voluntary assisted dying.

He’s out of step with his NSW state parliament colleagues – Greenwich announced his bill is cosponsored by 28 MPs across both houses of parliament and across the government, opposition and crossbench: more than any other bill, in any other parliament, in Australia’s history.

At a time NSW Labor should be newly emboldened with vigour, its leader looks inefficient at standing firm against the conservative forces that seek to seduce him along their route.

The modern, progressive people of NSW, and the terminally ill in unimaginable pain, deserve better. 

Gary Nunn is the editor-at-large of the Sydney Sentinel. Twitter: @GaryNunn1.