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Thursday, 18 August 2011
Page: 4779

Senator CROSSIN (Northern Territory) (09:53): I rise to provide a contribution to the debate on the Australian Capital Territory (Self-Government) Amendment (Disallowance and Amendment Power of the Commonwealth) Bill 2010. I do that in two respects: firstly, of course, as one of the two senators from the Northern Territory and, secondly, as Chair of the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee that inquired into this bill earlier this year.

I want to begin by saying that there are some aspects of Senator Brandis's remarks that I tend to agree with and there are some aspects of his remarks that I totally disagree with, and I think that what is happening in the Northern Territory and the views of people who are supporting statehood were a little misconstrued in his contribution. Can I say in providing some input into this debate that I often feel that, representing the Northern Territory, I am a bit like the youngest child in a family of 250 here. Sometimes when you are representing the Northern Territory in this chamber, you feel like you are at the bottom of the pecking order. You feel like you have to fight for every piece of recognition and acknowledge­ment you can get for the Northern Territory.

For the last 13 years it has always eluded me as to why we are constantly coming into this chamber for debates such as this when we would not have these debates if we were a state or if people somehow did not feel that they could pick on the Northern Territory all the time. They do that by using some sort of hook rather than letting the legally competent, elected governments of the Northern Territory—whether they be under the Country Liberal Party or under the Labor Party—just get on and do the job they are elected to do. They enact euthanasia legislation, but for some reason here in Canberra, if we do not like it, we think we can overturn it. They enact mandatory sentencing legislation, but for some reason here in Canberra, if we do not like it, we will overturn it. People fought to keep euthanasia laws; people here overturned them. People wanted to keep mandatory sentencing laws; people here wanted to overturn them. It is always about an issue when you come to the Territory. It is never about the competency of the governments.

I have lived in the Northern Territory for 30 years. Let me tell you: there are some laws that the CLP enacted that I did not particularly like at all, but I did not think that that was a key for me to open the door to Canberra and say, 'Overturn the legislation.' I think people down here have got to get out of that mind-set and totally get off picking on the Northern Territory and its government, no matter which party leads that government. Just leave us alone. Just let us get on with governing in our own right.

We inquired into this piece of legislation. It is not a comprehensive review of the self-governing aspects of the ACT and the Northern Territory, and we make those strong recommendations here. I look at the amendment that Senator Humphries wants to make, and in some respects perhaps that does need to happen, but at least I am saying, 'Pass this piece of legislation,' because this piece of legislation could become law while a review of the self-governing acts is occur­ring. I will get on to why I would not support that for the Territory in a minute.

What this bill simply does is remove the power of the executive government to veto legislation that has been enacted in the territories. That is all it simply does. It stops somebody in the executive arm of the federal government deciding they do not like a piece of legislation that has been enacted in the Northern Territory or the ACT. But it still leaves in place the provision for this federal parliament to overturn a piece of legislation. To me, that is not good enough either. I think the Territory government should be allowed to just get on with what it is competently elected to do. But for me at least this is a first point of call. At least we could be assured in the Northern Territory that one particular minister or one particular Prime Minister of any governing party in this country could not go off to the Governor-General or the Administrator and seek to overturn a piece of legislation.

So is this a perfect piece of legislation? It is not a comprehensive piece of legislation in terms of the self- governing act of the territories, but at least it is one start. You could argue: 'Let's not do it at all. Let's do a comprehensive review.' But I think at least it gives the people of the Northern Territory some confidence to know that not one single person or one part of the executive govern­ment will be overturning legislation. Unfor­tunately, it does leave the door open, as I said, for this federal parliament to overturn legislation. Can I go to some of the remarks that Senator Brandis had to make on behalf of the opposition. You cannot step away from the fact that both the Chief Minister of the ACT at the time, Jon Stanhope, and the current Chief Minister of the Northern Terri­tory, Paul Henderson, flew specifically to Canberra. Jon Stanhope made himself specifically available to appear before the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee to support this legislation. That in itself showed me that both those governments and parliaments supported this legislation.

Another thing that impressed me, not only as a Territorian but as chair of that commit­tee, was that members of the Northern Territory Legislative Assembly Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs flew here, including the Hon. Jane Aagaard and Kezia Purick. Members of that committee were in person at the committee hearings here in Canberra. I want to impress on people here that that was a bipartisan committee. That was a bipartisan attempt, to come down here and say, 'This legislation is okay; we support it.' But really what we in the Northern Territory are trying to do is get support for statehood. That is the endgame here. A 10-year process has been put in place by the Northern Territory government, which has been supported by the opposition. I am very impressed by the way in which both political parties have worked towards achieving this outcome. There has been a five-year consultation period and there will now be a five-year period of actually drafting a constitution and working out exactly the questions we will be asking Territorians.

This is where I differ from the comments that Senator Brandis put on record. The Chief Minister of the Northern Territory did come down here and, in endorsing the bill's proposals as they pertain to the Northern Territory, said:

It is a very basic principle that we are arguing for here. The 25 members of the Territory parliament, who make laws for the good governance of the people of the Northern Territory, are elected by Territorians and they are accountable through fixed-term elections … For the Commonwealth executive arm of government to have the power, essentially at the stroke of a pen, to make a recommendation to the Governor-General to disallow a law in the Territory undermines democracy in the Northern Territory.

So, yes, he was supportive of this legislation. However, both he and the members of the Northern Territory legal and constitutional committee fervently put to us that the endgame for them is a move to statehood. That is what they really want. In your pro­posed amendment, Senator Humphries, you seek not to consider this bill but only to consider the interests of the ACT, in examining the self-government act for the ACT. I say to myself again: the Northern Territory would miss out on both counts here. We would not get this legislation through and support the wishes of the Northern Territory parliament, the submitters and the representatives of the Northern Territory. This amendment does not suggest that we would look at a move to statehood in the Northern Territory. We do not want the self-government act in the Northern Territory reviewed. We actually want an endgame where, essentially, that act is repealed. So this amendment is not a win for the Territory either.

But I think we need to clearly understand that this piece of legislation 'ought to be about votes, not about vetoes'. That is a phrase that was written yesterday by a journalist in the Age. It ought to be about democracy, not about particular issues. It ought to be about, at least, taking a first step in recognising that the Northern Territory has competent governments. Those govern­ments are elected by the people of the Northern Territory, just like the New South Wales and the Victorian parliaments are elected by the people of New South Wales and Victoria. They put legislation in from time to time that people do not like, and that also happens in every other state in this country. But what this bill seeks to do is ensure that those laws are not overturned by the executive government of the federal ruling party. That is all we are asking for in this legislation.

It is a first step. It is not the best step and it is not the step that we want to achieve at the end of the day. We want to see legisla­tion go through this parliament that grants the Northern Territory statehood in our own right. This is another example of where you have to come in here time and time again and keep flying the flag for the Northern Territory. It somehow eludes me why it is always the case that people here in this building believe that they can continually interfere in what is happening in the Northern Territory. This is one piece of legislation where, for a change, we would get some positive interference. Yet it seems it will not be supported unanimously in this chamber.

I am speaking in support of this legislation, but I am speaking more in support of the view that the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee expressed in section 3.6.1 of this report:

The committee places on record its strong support for statehood in the NT …

The committee would also welcome any opportunity to work cooperatively with the NT Legislative Assembly Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs towards achieving that goal.

I can say that, as Chair of the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee, it is an issue that we will pick up and write to that committee about. Perhaps for the first time in the history of this coun­try, we might see a standing committee at a federal level and a state level come together to hold an inquiry or do some work together to achieve that outcome.

But let us be very clear here: what we want in the Northern Territory is statehood. We want to get to it in a measured way and in a bipartisan way where people of the Northern Territory are comfortable and confident about that on the day they vote yes. This legislation is just one step on the journey. It removes the power of the exec­utive arm to overturn our laws. Unfortunate­ly, it still leaves provision for the federal parliament to overturn our laws, and that is still not good enough. But, at the end of the day, this bill is certainly worthy of support. Unfortunately, Senator Humphries, I think that your amendment, again, really ignores the wishes and the wills of the Northern Territory and that there would be no benefit for us if your amendment actually succeeded.