‘Oldest outlaw’ gets gong

Andrew Denton once called him “Australia’s oldest outlaw” – but Yandoit’s Dr Rodney Syme chuckles at the term as he celebrates news he’s just been appointed a Member of the Order of Australia (AM).
The high-profile voluntary assisted dying campaigner is among the nation’s Queen’s Birthday Honours recipients, and the prestigious accolade is especially significant as Victoria prepares for its new voluntary assisted dying legislation to come into effect from June 19, making it the first Australian state to legalise voluntary assisted dying.
Dr Syme’s AM award is “for significant service to social welfare initiatives, and to law reform” – a fact that’s particularly significant when set against the struggles the retired urologist has endured in his decades-long quest to give dying people autonomy over the end of their own life.
“I’ve always been battling the medical establishment and this award is a recognition that times have changed, that I as someone who might a few years ago have been regarded as a criminal, am now an honoured Australian,” he laughs.
“I find that very pleasant.
“I was excited to be contacted by the Governor General’s office. It is a recognition. I started thinking about this 40 years ago and I’ve been actively working on it for 25.
“Social change of this nature does take a long time. But I would never have achieved anything without huge support from hundreds and thousands of people who backed the change and really I see it as a recognition of them as much as it is for me.
“Sometimes you come in conflict with laws that need to be challenged.”
Dr Syme has counselled over 2000 patients and has openly admitted to assisting patients with terminal illness end their own lives.
In 2016 he successfully appealed a ban imposed on him by the Medical Board of Australia, aimed at stopping him from providing advice to terminally ill patients.
“Conscience really has driven me all along the way,” says Dr Syme who has been vice-president of Dying with Dignity Victoria since 2007 and currently chairs Your Last Right.
“I couldn’t see people suffering grievously and just say oh well it’s just bad luck.”
The former head of the urology unit at Melbourne’s Austin Repatriation Medical Centre (1986-2001) has also written Time to Die (2017) and A Good Death (2008) and was named Humanist of the Year by Humanism Australia in 2017.
“It’s fantastic to have this (Victorian) legislation,” he says of the state’s soon-to-be-enacted voluntary assisted dying legislation.
“It’s broken the ice and I’m quite sure that other states will follow Victoria.”
But while he celebrates the new legislation coming into effect from June 19, the veteran campaigner says much remains to be done and he hopes to see aspects of the legislation fine-tuned when it’s reviewed in five years time.
“It’s limited in its scope. It’s going to be hard to administrate and for people to use and I’ve got two lessons for people – that if they want to use it, they’ve got to start thinking and acting early,” he says.
“And secondly that the community, just as it has driven the development of this law, the community has to drive its implementation.
“People have to go and see their doctor and talk to their doctor about it and find out what their doctor thinks about it, ask if they’ve done the training, and make the medical profession address the issue.”

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