Last Cab to Darwin

By Claire McKenzie

While it seems that every second film deals with the topic of death, it is incredibly rare for a film to talk about euthanasia. Last Cab to Darwin explores some of the tough ethical issues around euthanasia, but misses the opportunity to present a balanced view of the debate.

Rex (Michael Caton) is a taxi driver who has never left Broken Hill and who finds out his stomach cancer is now terminal. He leaves his lover Polly (Ningali Lawford-Wolf) behind to drive his taxi across the country to Darwin to access euthanasia from Dr Nicole Farmer (Jacki Weaver). Along the way, he is joined by Tilly (Mark Coles Smith), a young Aboriginal man from Oodnadatta, and an English nurse-turned-bartender, Julie (Emma Hamilton).

The film was originally a play and is based on the true story of terminally ill Max Bell, who drove his cab from Broken Hill to Darwin in 1996 to try and access recently legalised euthanasia from Dr Philip Nitschke.

“The potential for vulnerable people to be exploited is an ethical issue often raised by anti-euthanasia campaigners. While there will always be a risk of abuse of vulnerable patients, the film overstates the risk of this occurring when proper legislative measures are in place.”

While Last Cab to Darwin does show Rex’s anguish in living with an excruciating terminal illness, the film is certainly not a pro-euthanasia tale.

Dr Nicole Farmer appears far more interested in her own fame than her patient’s best interests.  She appears on television chat shows and radio talkback, while Rex grows impatient with the red tape wrapped around the new law. When Dr Farmer is struggling to obtain the required number of signatures from local doctors so she can go ahead with the euthanasia, her disappointment is related to her own reputation, rather than Rex’s wish to die with dignity.

The potential for vulnerable people to be exploited is an ethical issue often raised by anti-euthanasia campaigners. While there will always be a risk of abuse of vulnerable patients, the film overstates the risk of this occurring when proper legislative measures are in place.

In reality, abuse or exploitation of euthanasia patients would more likely come from family members rather than doctors seeking fame and fortune. Elder abuse by family members is a serious issue that is slowly starting to be recognised in Australia.  In this way, the portrayal of Dr Farmer as exploitative obscures the real issues around the potential abuse of euthanasia patients if it were legalised in Australia.

In addition to legislative measures, like cooling-off periods, to mitigate the risk of abuse, the way euthanasia is administered can be designed to ensure that the terminally ill person is in control. In the film, Dr Farmer has developed a machine that allows the patient to administer the euthanasia drug to themselves by answering yes to three questions on a laptop about whether they wish to die.

Dr Farmer’s machine is clearly based on Dr Nitschke’s “Deliverance Machine”, which also required the patient to answer three questions prior to administering the lethal drug. Four patients successfully used this machine in the Northern Territory in the 1990s. Dr Nitschke has stated that even when it was legal for him to administer the lethal dose, he preferred the patient to be in control of the process.

Like Max Bell in the 1990s, Rex does not successfully go through with euthanasia in Darwin, after changing his mind at the last minute and returning home to his love in Broken Hill. In truth, Max Bell returned home defeated. Unable to gain the required signatures to carry out the euthanasia, he died a painful and undignified death at the Broken Hill Hospital.

The story of Bell’s drive back to Broken Hill in his taxi, while suffering incredible pain, was televised by the ABC on Four Corners and was the impetus for at least one doctor – who had previously refused to assist Dr Nitschke –  to change his mind. He reconsidered signing-off on euthanasia for terminal patients. Dr Nitschke has commented that Last Cab to Darwin does not do justice to Bell’s legacy in the struggle for euthanasia rights in Australia.

Euthanasia was only legal in the Northern Territory for eight months before it was voided by Commonwealth legislation. Almost 20 years on from Max Bell’s trip to Darwin, euthanasia is still not legal in any Australian jurisdiction and there does not appear to be an appetite for legislative change any time soon.

The defiant attitude of the Northern Territory government in legalising euthanasia when it was so controversial, especially to those “down south”, seems to have evaporated. Meanwhile, Dr Nitschke has been involved in further controversy after allegations that he counselled a physically healthy but depressed 45 year-old man to take his own life. He subsequently accepted conditions on his medical licence preventing him from promoting voluntary euthanasia.

Personal stories of great suffering often create public support for a cause and force the legislature to change unjust laws. While Last Cab to Darwin does show Rex’s suffering through a terminal illness, the film is certainly not a call to action to legalise euthanasia in Australia.

Clare Mckenzie is a community lawyer based in the Northern Territory. She tweets at @claremckenzie

Feature Image: Last Cab to Darwin


Brolgas art work by Phoebe McIlwraith

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