How death became the fight of Andrew Denton’s life

Jan 9, 2023 •

When Andrew Denton committed to a lecture on the topic of assisted dying, little could he suspect it would lead to a political fight that would consume his life, and change a country.

From a debate paralysed for decades to a year of major legislative change, Denton speaks about the campaign that changed how Australians might die, and how they might understand care.



How death became the fight of Andrew Denton’s life

862 • Jan 9, 2023

How death became the fight of Andrew Denton’s life

[Theme Music Starts]


People when they chose this path…The range of ways people choose to go is as wide as the range of people who choose it.

One young guy held a big party with bonfires and dancing before he took the medication.

Some people empty their in-tray.

One woman I know she bought French champagne to drink the medication with.

But one person insisted on being alone. And the expression he used really got to me.

He didn't said to me. He said it to the care navigator who the nurses and social workers at the heart of the system. He said, I don't want my family's love holding me back.

It's an awesome decision to make. And it's. It's unlike any other, because you really are determining this day, this hour, this minute.


Hey there, I’m Ruby Jones, and welcome to 7am’s summer series: an exploration of big ideas with some of our favourite contributors and thinkers.

Misinformation, fear and pain – when Andrew Denton was asked to speak on the topic of euthanasia, he found something that he couldn’t look away from.

What started as a single lecture became the biggest political fight of his life.

That fight culminated in the last year, with every state now having laws to allow people the right to choose to end their life, when faced with terminal illness – and the territories are well on their way to doing the same.

Go Gentle, the organisation he founded, helped change the tide of a debate around death that had been paralysed in Australia for decades.

Today, Andrew Denton, on the campaign that changed how Australians will experience the end of their lives and the way it’s changing the care we receive at the end.

[Theme Music Ends]


Andrew, first of all, welcome to 7am, thank you for coming on.


Thank you, Ruby. Nice to be here.


I wanted to start by asking you about what's happened recently in New South Wales because I know that's your home state and that was the last state in Australia to legalise voluntary assisted dying that happened back in May. It hasn't come into effect yet, but should in a few months time. So after years of campaigning, what was that moment like for you?


It was brilliant on many levels because it had been such a long road and because New South Wales probably had the fiercest resistance to this law.

Archival tape -- Dominic Perrottet:

“If we pass this bill, the legacy of this Parliament will be to open a door that no one can close. That is not the future we should want for New South Wales.”


But as it has been in all the other states, I think all of us who've campaigned for this issue felt very strongly the ghosts in the room, including my own father, people who had suffered as they were dying because such a law wasn't in place.

Archival tape -- VAD Advocate:

“At the end of my life, it's I'm going to be suffocating. I'm going to be drowning because my lungs are simply not going to be working anymore and no one else can tell me to me to keep suffering that.”


And to see them and many others campaigning for this law and knowing the suffering they had been through, it made me sad that this law could have been passed in New South Wales five years earlier, but there were a couple of MPs who went back on their word and it didn't happen.


And you mentioned your father, and I know that your connection to this issue began around the time of his death, and he died, I think, quite painfully and without the option of euthanasia. Do you mind taking me back as much as you feel you want to today to tell me about his death and how that shaped the questions that you began asking about euthanasia?


Yeah. Dad was 67 and he'd been in ill health for some time, and essentially his system collapsed. So he was taken to our local hospital, who did the best job they could do. I don't have any complaints against them, but it was indicative of why you have an assisted dying or because he was given all the medications and it was many years before we spoke about it, actually, because it's very traumatising and you don't really know what to do with what you've just witnessed. But his last three days were painful. He was thrashing and moaning and it didn't look like a peaceful end at all.

So when I hear, as I have heard down the years, doctors argue, oh, we've got powerful drugs that can deal with everything at the end of life, I know for a fact that's not true.


And so after he died, how did your campaigning start?


I had no inkling or intention that this was going to take over my life and really almost become my full time work. So to cut a long story short, I was asked to present a speech at the Wheeler Centre in Melbourne called the Di Gribble argument. And without really thinking about it, I said, look, I'll do it on euthanasia and but I didn't want to just turn up as quote unquote, a celebrity with an opinion. So I thought, if I'm going to talk about this, it's a big issue. I'm going to go and research it.

So I spent the next year at my own expense. I went off to an anti euthanasia convention and I was deluged with all these arguments against which were quite confronting.

What I basically found is the arguments didn't hold water and most of the facts were distorted or plain wrong or questionable.

So I saw an unfair fight.

Those that needed this law. People who are terminally ill, families who've been through terrible trauma they didn't really have a voice and they were not physically or in many cases emotionally capable to be heard in the corridors of power, whereas those against were very powerful institutions, most particularly the Catholic Church or so the Anglican Church or so many of our peak medical bodies.

And I thought, well, I'm going to bring in some professionals, people who are good at communicating, people who go to politics and try and balance up the fight.


And so once you gathered all this information, and started campaigning for voluntary assisted dying legislation. What kind of blowback did you begin to receive? And, was there a moment when you realised what you were up against and that this was going to be a difficult and long running fight?


You know, they always say there's two things you should never see being made. One is a sausage and the other is legislation. Where it became really clear to me that this was a very difficult fight. So the first state I got involved with was in South Australia in 2016, their Parliament had debated this issue something like 14 times I think, and we just failed to get it over the line. And what I saw was how powerful forces, but particularly powerful medical forces. I saw some senior palliative care doctors go to MPs and tell them untruths about what was happening at the end of life. And I saw the then states attorney general…who was supposedly going to vote for this literally at the last minute, crossed the floor and voted against it and basically condemned the bill to fail.

So I mean, look, it's politics, it's how it works. But it was real eye opener and what I realised was we have two approaches to campaigning with Go Gentle: one is the debate is lost until it's won. So never ever assume and unless somebody says it to your face or says it in public, that their vote is locked in. And our second motto is no stone unturned, no turd unstoned, which basically means every bit of bullshit, every piece of misinformation, always challenge it, always chase it down, and always make sure the information we're giving is credible, peer reviewed and can be proven.

They would trot out lots and lots of arguments, but probably the main ones were that palliative care, which by the way, is brilliant in this country. I think it's rated second or third in the world. The palliative care could do with all end of life pain and suffering.

The second one was a lot of information, misinformation about what was happening overseas. The main one was, oh, look what's happened in Europe. Laws that started for the terminally ill are now for all kinds of conditions, even basic research would have told you that the laws, as they are written in Europe, weren't just written for people who are terminally ill. So they would run many, many lines to try and make people scared. They would use phrases like suicide contagion that these laws encourage more people to commit suicide. And the evidence on that has been so massively debunked, I hardly know where to start.

But they ran dozens and dozens of arguments to what I referred to as FUD. Fear, uncertainty, doubt. If you can show one seed of FUD, you're going to get a harvest of hesitation and you'll end up with not this bill.


And do you remember the first person who you managed to change the mind of?


Well, that's a good question. I think it was more a case not so much of changing minds, because often I found that people come to this debate. It's either their life experiences inform them that, yes, there absolutely must be this law because they've seen someone die badly or their life experience, they may have a very strong religious upbringing which says this law is completely unacceptable. So the people I think we were able to have most influence on were those who weren't sure and they might not have been sure on on a couple of levels.

A big part of our job was to connect them with experts and others who could give them good information. The other reason they were unsure, it was just electoral maths. Particularly the case in Victoria which became the first state to pass this law and that was a very significant moment in 2017 because it opened the doors for every other state to do the same.

But at that time there were many MPs who had been led to believe by Right to Life and other such groups that to vote for these laws was electoral poison that they would be preferenced against and they would lose their seat. So we embarked on what I think still stands as the most extensive piece of single issue research ever undertaken in Australia. And we closely research 14 electorates Metro, Rural, Liberal, Labour, National, and it wasn't push polling. We weren't seeking an answer to the question that we wanted. We asked really open questions about the legislation that was being proposed and the issue at large and what came back. And I remember the pollster who is a very senior pollster who worked for years at the highest levels, they said, I have never seen research like this in my life.

It was off the charts across every constituency in favour of this law. And so that helped some MPs go, okay, I think I'm fine with this.

And in fact, when the Victorian election happened after that legislation was passed.

Everybody that supported the law openly bar one was returned and that one who wasn't returned was in a redistributed seat. And all the significant opponents were removed from Parliament.


Andrew, can you tell me a bit more about the people who are directly impacted? Because many of them gave their voices and spoke about what was happening to them and what they were facing it, what I think would have been probably the most difficult time in their life, and I think a lot of those people did that in order to try and convince people to change their mind on voluntary assisted dying. And there's probably a lot of people that you could mention here, but I wonder if there's anyone in particular that you could talk about.


As I referred before, to ghosts. It's the thing that I have found most moving, most humbling is sitting alongside people, staying up all night watching parliamentary debates. You know the business of dying of illnesses like cancer and worse than cancer is hard, every bit of it is hard as you could imagine. And for them to give the last of their precious days and weeks to see a law passed that wasn't going to benefit them was profoundly moving. So. Gee, there's so many faces going through my brain right now. Let's go back to South Australia in 2016. A young woman only in her thirties called Kylie Monaghan, who had breast cancer, which had metastasised, which means it had reappeared in all parts of her body. Kylie lived in Port Pirie, there were no bells and whistles about Kylie and she had agreed to be the human face of our campaign in South Australia.

Archival tape -- Ad:

“This is Kylie Monaghan. And this is Darrell. The man Kylie chose to marry.”


And she'd shot an ad for us, and we took it down to show it to her.

Archival tape -- Ad:

“My name's Kylie Monaghan and this is the Kylie Monaghan voluntary euthanasia bill”


But we knew that if there was a potential when this ad went out that, you know, people might harass her that she would be a public figure as she was dying. So we sat in her kitchen, we showed the ad and we said, Look, Kylie, if you don't want to do this, just say so and we'll never play it. She didn't blink. She just said, yeah, no do it, do it.

Archival tape -- Ad:

“Be the bill.”


And Kylie died, in fact, before that debate ended, but her parents took up the mantle. And when the South Australian law passed last year, they were on the steps of Parliament House.

You know, the church and particularly the Catholic Church in this country is a very powerful institution that used to walk in the corridors of power and indeed they still do. But, I think they completely misunderstood and underestimated what they were up against.

Yes. It took a lot of politicians to be able to cross the line… But mostly it's been an extraordinary example of a community movement.

Because let me tell you, somebody who's dying or somebody who's watched, somebody who's died in pain is not going to sit there and be bullshitted to and take it quietly. And none of these people were ever going to go away.


We’ll be back in a moment



Andrew, there’s no doubt that enormous progress has been made on the issue of voluntary assisted dying there’s now laws in place in every state in Australia that allow it to happen and the territories aren’t far behind but despite that do you worry that those gains could be wound back. That with a government changing hands in one place you could see these laws be eroded?


Look, the first thing to say is the existence of these laws is in itself a powerful argument for these laws. And what we've seen is an increasing number of doctors and nurses and other medical professionals step forward and become deeply engaged. It is becoming a part of accepted medical practise.

But are they under threat? Yes, always. We just saw what happened in America with Roe v Wade, where 30 years of skilful organisation and campaigning by those who had a moral opposition to these laws eventually saw them undone.

The minute New South Wales became the sixth and final state to pass this law, the leading Catholic Church Front advocacy group against voluntary assisted dying, called Hope, announced that it was their purpose from now on to see that these laws were repealed bit by bit, state by state.

We know there are politicians, particularly we’re seeing in Victoria at the moment, but also in South Australia. We know that Senator Alex Antic, for instance, in South Australia, federal Liberal senator has publicly declared it is his aim to drive the moderates out of the South Australian Liberal Party who passed laws like the assisted dying law and replaced them with, quote, God fearing conservatives.

So, yes, I don't think you should ever assume that this kind of social progress is locked in merely because it's law. There's a lot you can do when you're in government, which doesn't even involve legislation. So yes, these laws will always need to be defended. It's a very, very red line.


You mentioned the important role that doctors and nurses have here in making Voluntary Assisted Dying something that is an accepted medical practise. And I wonder is that the next big challenge for yourself and Go Gentle? Trying to change people’s attitudes? And especially the attitudes of people in positions of care?


I can't tell you how much respect I have for the doctors and nurses and others who've stepped forward to do this.

And that’s part of Go Gentle’s job now is to encourage others in the medical profession to consider what these laws are for, to consider what they give to people.

And the really interesting thing they've all said is how profoundly it has impacted their practise in that they are dealing with people in an entirely different way, they're people who are dying, there's not a cure they can offer them. But because the laws insist that you really interrogate somebody's request, it's not a right to a prescription. And off you go. It's multiple conversations. What they're finding is their connection with these people is far deeper than they've had in other areas of their medical practise. It was interesting, a geriatrician in Victoria said to me, he said, I almost felt a bit ashamed. I realised that unconsciously before this law, when I would speak to people, I would unconsciously ask them questions that I could answer. How's your nausea? Is your pain? I can give you drugs for that. I realised I wasn't asking the sort of total questions. What's your life like? What is your life feel like? What does it feel like for you? And there may not be an answer to that question other than to offer them a choice. So I do think this it will probably take a generation, but I when New South Wales law passed, I described it as a revolution in medical end of life care. And I think that's right. I think for those doctors and other medical professionals that wish to get involved with this, who are getting involved with this, it is a very different way of looking at people at the end of life than has previously been possible.


And just finally, Andrew, I wanted to ask you something that I think you've likely considered at length as you've been doing this work, and that is after meeting so many people who've faced death themselves. What are your thoughts on your own mortality and how are you approaching your own inevitable death?


Well, I'm very against death personally.

My reflections on mortality are... there's no easy way to die. You've still got to say goodbye to your one wild and precious life. And though voluntary assisted dying offers people who are suffering a peaceful and quick and merciful way to go, you still have to die. And that's why. I don't have an absolutist view about what's the best way to go. I think there are so many ways in which we can be helped at the end. For many it’s palliative care for some it’s their spiritual beliefs, for some it’s assisted dying for some it’s a combination of all those things.

You know, I look at the courage. That's the that is the single factor that ties all these people together, that've used these laws, and they come from every conceivable range of life. What ties them together is their immense courage.

I don't know, Ruby, if I'm going to have the courage to die, however I go, I'm not in a hurry. You know I always think that Antony and the Johnson song, in that lyric, I hope there's someone to hold me when I die. I think that is what we all hope for, that when it happens because it will, that we are surrounded by the people we love and care for. And you know, I hope there’s humour, I hope there’s music.

I do have a thought for my funeral. I do want to have a little boombox put in my coffin. So halfway up the aisle, you hear is sort of a thumping and me going, let me out. But that's just me.


[Laughing] That might scare people a little. Andrew, thank you so much for your time.


Thanks Ruby.

[Theme Music ends]

Archival Tape -- [Antony & The Johnsons - Hope There's Someone]

Misinformation, fear and pain: when Andrew Denton was asked to speak on the topic of euthanasia, he found something that he couldn’t look away from.

What started as a single lecture became the biggest political fight of his life.

And the last year has seen the fruit of those labours, with every state now having laws to allow people the right to choose to end their life when faced with terminal illness. The territories are well on their way to doing the same.

Go Gentle Australia, the organisation he founded, helped change the tide of a debate around death that had been paralysed in Australia for decades.

Today, Andrew Denton, on the campaign that changed how Australians will experience the end of their lives and the way it’s changing the care we receive at the end.

Guest: Andrew Denton.

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7am is a daily show from The Monthly and The Saturday Paper. It’s produced by Kara Jensen-Mackinnon, Alex Tighe, Zoltan Fecso, and Cheyne Anderson.

Our technical producer is Atticus Bastow.

Brian Campeau mixes the show. Our editor is Scott Mitchell. Erik Jensen is our editor-in-chief.

Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.

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