The Tail 'still wagging the Dog

Labor caucus backs Brown's Territories Rights Bill Bob Brown seems once again to have proven who wears the pants in the Greens on-again-off-again love match with Julia Gillard and Federal Labor.Readers may recall that in early March of this year the Federal Labor caucus backed Brown's Territories Rights Bill only later to have that support overturned when concerned Labor MPs pointed out that the bill would facilitate both same-sex marriage and euthanasia laws in the Northern and Capital Territories.  Following on from that, the Prime Minister publicly declared that she did not support either issue; comments that had some, including this writer, believing that a conscience vote would be allowed which would give us a fighting chance of seeing the bill defeated.

Not so.  News reports over the last few days indicate that Labor caucus has once more endorsed the bill with some minor amendments that will be introduced in the spring sitting.  Amendments, perhaps, but not changes that would see the executive of the Commonwealth Government retain the power of veto over territories legislation.

This, after all, remains the major point of contention.  Under the Brown bill a law passed by either the Northern Territory or the ACT legislature would stand unless it were negatived by a motion of both houses of the Federal Parliament; something that Bob Brown knows is unlikely given the increasing Green hue of the Senate since July this year.  The federal attorney general, the executive of government and the Governor General are rendered entirely impotent.

The Age newspaper reports that caucus was sold on the idea of supporting the bill under assurances that the bill was about, 'improving the democratic process and rights of territorians'.  The article says that ACT Greens convener, Meredith Hunter said 'the party had no plans to change the territory's current civil unions laws, saying the definition of marriage was a federal issue'.  Cold comfort and hardly convincing given her federal leader's litany of attempts to change the Marriage and euthanasia laws in recent years.  Since when have any assurances provided any value in a parliamentary debate?

This move by Labor creates more questions than it answers: Has the caucus effectively rolled the Prime Minister or did she simply go along with the 'territory rights' angle as a cover for another back flip?  What changed caucus' position on this bill given the welcome yet extraordinary reversal of the earlier decision of support?  Why would Labor be willing to risk such electoral suicide at a time when their polling is so abysmal?  What will Labor MPs who stand opposed to this bill do now?  Is another labor split developing?  Is the Labor barque so obviously close to sinking that the left faction is willing to risk scuttling her for the sake of a totemic issue?

It is worth remembering that the veto power has only been used to negate ACT legislation that mimicked marriage.  The NT euthanasia law was overturned by a bill debated by both houses of the federal parliament only after the veto powers were not exercised by the Keating Government and only after six months had passed since the NT bill became law.  The passage of the Brown Bill would effectively mean that a successful territories bill would become law until such time as a federal parliament passed a motion in both houses to negate it.  This would repeat the farcical situation that existed with the NT Rights of the Terminally Ill Act (ROTI) where four people were killed before the Andrew's Bill became law.  To state the obvious: retrospective application won't restore a life!

Currently the territories legislatures know full well that any law they pass in respect to either euthanasia or same-sex marriage will not stand — so why bother?  The Brown Bill would create significant uncertainty and a likely roller coaster of on-again-off-again laws.

One solution would be for the Commonwealth to assume the powers of legislation on euthanasia.  This would put all the states and the territories on the same footing with equal rights.  After all, isn't that what we're told is at stake here?