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Thursday, 18 August 2011
Page: 4775

Senator LUNDY (Australian Capital TerritoryParliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister and Parliamentary Secretary for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs) (09:31): I am pleased that Labor will be supporting this private member's bill to strengthen the rights of territories. The Australian Capital Territory (Self-Government) Amendment (Disallowance and Amendment Power of the Common­wealth) Bill 2010 has been referred to a committee. That committee has reported back to the Senate. I would like to warmly welcome their recommendation that this bill be passed.

At the outset, before I talk to some amendments, I would like to make it very clear that there are fundamental differences between this bill and another private member's bill that has also been introduced to the Senate, the Restoring Territory Rights (Voluntary Euthanasia Legislation) Bill 2010. It is fair to say that there is often some confusion about this, because they both relate to the way in which the territories are treated under Commonwealth law and their capacity to make legislation. But very clearly the purpose of the Restoring Territory Rights (Voluntary Euthanasia Legislation) Bill 2010—not the one we are debating today—is to repeal the euthanasia laws of 1997 and to repeal the provisions that preclude the ACT and NT from legislating on euthanasia. We will have an opportunity to speak about that another time. My own view is that it is about restoring territory rights.

But the purpose of this bill is to remove the power of the executive to overturn territory legislation behind closed doors without a parliamentary process. This has become known as the power of veto, if you like, over territory legislation. It is an executive mechanism that we in the Labor Party agree does not accurately reflect the status, the capability and the maturity of either the ACT assembly or the Northern Territory parliament. This bill will not stop the federal parliament acting in the national interest in an open and transparent way—in other words, from dealing with issues through both houses of parliament—should there be a conflict between Commonwealth and territory legislation.

I would like to foreshadow government amendments to the bill that were recom­mended by the Senate committee. These amendments will remove some words in clause 4 of this bill, which at the moment says, 'providing relevant territory legislatures with exclusive legislative authority and responsibility for making laws'. Our amend­ment would remove that reference because it does not accurately reflect the current power of the Governor-General to recommend amendments to territory laws. As such, it cannot be achieved by the bill. And this parliament can use a legislative process to override territory laws. To reflect in this private member's bill that this did create exclusive legislative authority and responsi­bility for making laws was indeed inaccurate. Nonetheless, this bill is an important change, because it does remove that executive veto, as I mentioned.

The other government amendment that I wish to foreshadow reflects the recommend­ation of the Senate committee and removes the reference to Norfolk Island. Norfolk Island is currently undergoing an extensive reform process. That reform process has bipartisan support and the support of the Norfolk Island assembly. That process is underway and we need to give due regard to that reform process, which involves govern­ance and various accountability and transpar­ency measures. It would be appropriate to consider the status of Norfolk Island's governance arrangements through that reform process.

Through the course of the inquiry into this bill many comments were made, particularly by the opposition, recognising that it was time for a broad update of the Australian Capital Territory (Self-Government) Act. That recognition was across the board. In speaking to this bill as an ACT senator, I tend to agree. In fact the ACT government and Chief Minister have for some time been saying that it is probably time for an update of and a closer look at the Australian Capital Territory (Self-Government) Act, given that it came into force back in 1989. There are so many things one could say about the progress of the Australian Capital Territory. We can reflect positively on the maturity, stability and functioning of the ACT assembly in its governance role. All of these things stand up to scrutiny and support the general bipartisan view that an update of that act is due.

However, it was disappointing that through the course of the inquiry it became clear that the opposition's position on this bill was to oppose it and that they were hiding behind a call for a broader review of the Australian Capital Territory (Self-Government) Act and using that as a reason not to support this bill. I will be very inter­ested to hear what the opposition have to say, because there is nothing in the context of a more comprehensive review or consideration of an update of the ACT (Self-Government) Act that would preclude their support for this bill right now. I know Senator Humphries is very tuned in to this issue. He has spoken many times on the right of the territories to create their own legislation. Indeed, we exchange words fairly regularly about this very issue. I would like to take this opportunity to remind Senator Humphries, the other ACT senator, of his past expressed avid resentment of federal interference in territory affairs and remind him that this is a significant opportunity for him and, indeed, for the opposition to respect the capacity and power of the legislature and remove this feature of an executive veto that is not shared by any of the states. It is something which applies only to the territories and, therefore, supporting this bill and the foreshadowed amendments by the government to remove that executive veto would bring the ACT and the Northern Territory into line with the states.

The final point I would like to make about this bill is that it really is about respecting those democratic rights. That is the basis upon which this bill has been proposed and the basis upon which we have debated similar issues in the past. The way in which we have seen this measure used by the former Howard government reminds us all that when we provide for self-government it is about trust, it is about respect and it is about the democratic authority of the government that has been put in place by an act of this parliament.

This is an opportunity to bring ACT democratic rights in line with those of the states and to stand up for the ACT assembly and, through it, all the people of Canberra. If the opposition turn their backs on this issue now, it will provide evidence that that is not a core principle which informs their view on these matters and will enlighten everybody that there is a strong thread of opportunism in the opposition's stance on the issue of territories' rights.

In closing, I would like to remind people that this does not prevent the federal govern­ment from engaging in a parliamentary debate in order to challenge state or territory legislation that is inconsistent with the Com­monwealth. Any fear campaign to purport that it will is misleading.

Finally, I would like to take this oppor­tunity, because I think it is directly relevant to the subject matter today, to congratulate the new—not so new any more actually—Chief Minister, Katy Gallagher. She is the new Chief Minister following the retirement of former Chief Minister Jon Stanhope. I would like to acknowledge that the transition was a smooth one and that I am extremely proud to work very closely, as I always have, with an ACT assembly, a Chief Minister and an ACT Labor government so focused on the best interests of the people of Canberra. I know they are committed to their ongoing campaign to ensure that they have the democratic right that reflects that of the states and that is commensurate with the status, maturity and broad rights of the people of the ACT.

I commend the bill to the Senate. I was very pleased to speak to it today. I look forward to the government moving the amendments, as they reflect the recommend­ations of the Senate committee, and I will watch with interest what is happening on the other side of the chamber.