Q&A with Rodney Syme: ‘A sense of vindication for years of struggle’

Si Gladman / 05 June 2021

Bearing witness to so much progress in the voluntary assisted dying (VAD) policy space in recent years has delivered “a sense of vindication” for veteran advocate Rodney Syme and many like him.

For more than 30 years, the Melbourne-based urologist has campaigned to give terminally ill patients the right to die with dignity.

Recently, he joined the Rationalist Society’s Si Gladman for a Q&A on the status of VAD in Australia. Rodney is a Patron of the RSA.

Si Gladman (SG):

For you, and other long-time advocates of VAD, what has it been like to see so much progress in the last few years?

Rodney Syme (RS):

Great social change always involves long hard battles – think abolition of slavery, suffragettes and women’s right to vote, equality for the LGBTI community. But making strong and persistent argument in order to change public opinion and diminishing political fear are the keys to success.

Once Victoria broke the ice with a compromise VAD law, further change with improvement in each new Act of parliament in other states has rapidly followed.

The Queensland Law Reform Commission draft bill has now reached a state of near excellence. The question of prognosis remains the major issue.

For me, there is a sense of vindication for years of struggle, and pleasure that individual autonomy has been validated.


With most of the country expected to have legalised VAD within the space of a few years, how would you describe the real impact of this reform on the lives of everyday Australians?


Across the whole community, Australians can now go towards the end of their lives with a sense of control and the comfort that that brings, even if only a small number of people end up using the legislation. Ultimately, I hope this will have an impact on the practice of palliative care.


Where will Australia stand in the eyes of the world on this issue?


It will stimulate change in other countries, and raise Australia’s standing – and don’t we need it!


The final hurdle to making VAD accessible to all Australians will be the removal of the federal restriction on the Northern Territory and Australian Capital Territory. How long can that situation stand?


It is highly likely that South Australia, which has delivered a private member’s bill in the upper house, and Queensland, which has a government-sponsored bill to be debated by September, will make it five out of six Australian states. And New South Wales is well on the way to debating a private member’s bill. It will be extremely difficult for the federal parliament to avoid changing its law banning the territories. I predict Australia will be totally covered by VAD laws by mid 2022.


Regarding those state laws now in operation, or soon to be in operation, is there more work to be done?


There are still flaws in earlier legislation. The Queensland draft bill addresses most of them. The Australian state structure means that we all have different Acts, but this has had the advantage of making incremental improvements.

There will be an ongoing task to bring the earlier Acts up to scratch. The major outstanding problem is the discriminatory prognostic requirement involving terminal illness. Intolerable suffering is not confined to the terminally ill.

The more long-term and very difficult issue is to devise legislation that includes untreatable mental illness and, beyond that, dementia. The battle is not over.

Si Gladman is Campaigns & Communications Coordinator at the Rationalist Society of Australia. You can contact him at sigladman@rationalist.com.au or follow him on Twitter at @si_gladman

All the more reason.