Territories Self-Government Legislation Amendment 2011
It will, of course, be no surprise to the House that I rise to speak in favour of this legislation, because I do—despite what others might say—take the rights of territorians very seriously. I am a citizen of the Australian Capital Territory and I have been so for a very long time. It is the community that I proudly represent in this chamber and I am glad to be able to stand here this afternoon and speak on behalf of the citizens of Canberra, the people of Canberra. This Territories SelfGovernment Legislation Amendment (Disallowance and Amendment of Laws) Bill 2011 represents another step towards ensuring that the citizens of the ACT and the Northern Territory are granted a right freely available to every other Australian citizen: the right for the legislation of their duly elected parliament to be free of veto by executive government.
As it stands, citizens of the ACT can vote for a legislature, have that legislature enact laws on their behalf and then see those laws overturned by a single member of cabinet—a minister who will almost certainly be from outside Canberra and may in fact have their home several hundred, or even several thousand, kilometres from the community on which they seek to impose their will. This is a situation that is untenable and a situation I believe runs counter to the democracy of this country. This bill will seek to end the veto.
In speaking today it should be noted that this bill represents the latest step to ensuring the democratic rights, equality and equity of the citizens of the ACT and the Northern Territory. It may interest the House to know that citizens from the ACT have not always had political representation. In fact, it was not until 1949 that they received a representative in this place. However, this member was not a full voting equal in the chamber. The member for the Australian Capital Territory held no general vote here, only a vote limited to those issues directly related to the ACT. In fact, it was not until 1966 that full voting rights were granted and, further, it was only in 1989 that Canberrans were given the power to even decide the future for their own communities, when the first legislative assembly was elected. Before the establishment of the assembly in 1989, the future of the ACT community was decided directly by the federal government, again by people who did not live here.
I was fortunate enough to work in the assembly in the early days of self-government and so I witnessed firsthand the work of the assembly. I worked with the first ACT Chief Minister, Rosemary Follett, in those early days. They were pretty crazy early days because we had an assortment of parties in with us. It was a challenging time. In that first election we had the Sun-Ripened Warm Tomato Party and the No Self-Government Party included among an array of other interesting parties. Fortunately, many of them did not get up, but, from memory, some No Self-Government Party people who formed part of that first assembly. We had very colourful early days of the assembly and of democracy here in Canberra at the assembly level. But, after a challenging, difficult and colourful birth, for more than 20 years the legislative assembly has been making laws for the peace, order and good governance of the ACT and it has grown to be a mature, stable chamber that is accountable to its constituents.
As the former Chief Minister of the ACT, Jon Stanhope, said: From ambivalent beginnings—
and they were ambivalent—
self-government is now firmly embedded in the consciousness of our community. The ACT, through its stable government and mature parliament, has embraced the social responsibilities with which it is charged. On average, Canberrans are among the healthiest, the best educated and most prosperous in Australia. We are just, free and relatively free of prejudice. We have grown in population terms and as an indispensable presence in our region. We have also grown as a community, a vibrant and engaged polity, and increasingly we are recognised as such by a nation whose capital and seat of government we are proud to uphold and sustain.
So it is truly stunning that, having granted Canberrans the right to elect their own representatives and having granted them the right to decide the fate of their own community, the Governor-General, on the advice of a single minister—probably from out of Canberra— still has the ability to overturn legislation. I cannot understand why, if we are to grant to Canberrans the right to elect their own governments and enact their own laws, such a power would still exist. It is simply not fitting with the notion of modern Australian democracy. Surely, given that this place has granted the territories the right to govern, it should allow them to do just that, and respect the legislation the assembly passes.
I want to again quote Jon Stanhope, because he said that not to do this is: … a constraint on the legislative rights of the ACT that is both unnecessary and undemocratic.
He went on to say: It constrains the mandate imparted on the elected representatives of the ACT to govern the Territory responsibly and accountably.
I was very interested to read the submission by George Williams to the Senate inquiry. George is quite a brilliant legal scholar and somewhat of an expert on territory self-government. He said in his submission: Removing power is a blunt instrument that prevents the making of any laws, for good or ill, including those that are clearly in the best interests of the local community. It also sends a clear signal that the Commonwealth believes that the Territories are not up to the task of enacting appropriate laws on the subject. This is at odds with the fact that the ACT and the Northern Territory both have a larger population, and a better functioning system of self government, than some of the colonies that became states upon Federation in 1901.
This is a view supported by the Australian Law Council, which said: Territorians elect representatives to their local assemblies in the expectation that those representatives will make laws for the peace, order and good governance of their communities within the parameters of the law making powers afforded them by the self-government Acts. It is an affront to the democratic process in which Territorians participate if legislation lawfully passed by their elected representatives is rendered invalid by the operation of Commonwealth laws …
Further, the Castan Law Centre for Human Rights, at Monash University, said: At present, legislation emanating from territorial parliaments may be struck down by an exercise of executive power by the Governor General (acting on the advice of the responsible Ministers). In other words, the will of the people of the ACT, as represented by its Parliament, can presently be struck down on the basis that it does not conform to the will of the federal government of the day.
We are talking here about a population that is highly educated and highly altruistic. Most of the people who come here to work in the Public Service want to make a difference. They want to take part in public service, they want to be public servants, they want to make a difference to this nation. They are highly motivated and highly committed to the enhancement and benefit of this nation, and yet they have diminished rights. In the ACT we have one set of rights; if you drive over the border into Queanbeyan you have got enhanced rights.
These are just three excerpts from the report of the Senate inquiry into this bill. Submission after submission to the inquiry spoke about how the current way of operating is outdated and against the interests of democracy. Given this, it is difficult to see why this bill has caused so much consternation among groups in the community. It is the principle of democracy here. I suspect that the concerns stem from some inaccurate and, I believe, at times mischievous reporting in the media about what this bill is actually about. We have also had some of those comments from those opposite today.
Let me outline what this bill is and what it is not. This is a not a bill about euthanasia. It is not a bill about samesex marriage. It is not a bill that grants the territories statehood. This bill continues the long history of granting citizens of the ACT political rights. This bill ends the ability of the federal executive government to arbitrarily, and without oversight or input, override the legislation of a self-governing territory. This bill is about equity, this bill is about equality, this bill is about democracy. It does not change the ability of the federal parliament to legislate to override legislation. While this in itself may not be ideal to some, I accept the fact that the ACT is a territory and as such is subject to the relevant section of the Constitution. However, this is a far superior process to that which currently exists. As Professor Cheryl Saunders said in her submission:
Because the Territories do not formally have statehood, they are subject to overriding legislation, on any subject, enacted by the Commonwealth Parliament. But this at least is an open process, requiring the executive to explain the reasons for the action that it wishes to take in the forum of the Parliament, which is designed to subject them to public scrutiny and debate.
Despite all the evidence in support of this change, despite the very real principle at stake here, there was some concern expressed in the Senate report. In particular, I note the view expressed by the coalition senators that this bill should be set aside until a full review of the territory self-government act is undertaken. However, the passage of this bill and such a review are not mutually exclusive. The passage of this bill does not rule out any future review of the legislation—a review that has long been advocated by successive ACT governments. I also note the coalition senators' scepticism of the motivation of Senator Brown and the Greens political party. I do not know what his motivations are for putting this legislation forward. But it is the right thing to do for the people of Canberra and I urge the opposition to support this legislation.
Removing the power of the executive to overturn the duly passed laws of a territory is more fitting with the notion of a modern Australian democracy. The legislatures of the ACT and the Northern Territory are mature bodies that have for decades proven their stability and their ability to govern well for their communities. The answer to overturning legislation should be through the will of the community demonstrated through the ballot box—not through executive fiat. The method proposed in this bill is a much better way of ensuring that good laws are made and, in the case of Australia, it has stood the test of 110 years. I urge the members of this chamber to focus on the contents of this bill, on the principle of this bill, and not on the inaccurate and extraneous discussion on the sidelines. I urge members to support the enfranchisement of members of my community, the Canberra community. I urge them to support the equality of the Canberra community, equity for the Canberra community and democracy for the Canberra community. I urge them to support this legislation.