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Small parties, big ideas


CanberraThe right of the two territories (ACT and NT) to have legislation overturned by the Commonwealth Parliament but not by the Government alone has become embroiled, to their disadvantage, with gay marriage and euthanasia law reform. The Greens have moved the relevant Commonwealth bill and are the most active supporters of both reforms. This combination is explosive and emotional, causing the bill to be sent to a Senate committee.

A small party (The Greens) is leading the debate, and the smallest components of the federation (the territories) are perceived to be central to the process, and may be among the likely locations for follow-up legislation.

These related issues necessitate understanding both Australian federalism and the broad social reform movement that since the 1960s has challenged accepted laws in the social sphere.

The dynamics of federalism involve both independent action by the constituent units (states and territories) and cooperative action overseen by the Commonwealth Government. The territories are creatures of the Commonwealth Government with limits on their constitutional powers. Nevertheless they generally act as states and are allowed to do so until they threaten a larger interest.

Territory citizens are limited not just by their constitutional position but by their small populations. They get pushed around for both reasons. The ACT gets discounted for being socially atypical and, as a Labor stronghold, is disregarded by the Coalition and taken for granted by federal Labor.

ACT interests should not be disregarded. Not only does it have a legitimate claim on due and transparent democratic process, but it also indirectly represents a sector of the Australian electorate often submerged in larger state populations.

The ACT speaks not just for itself but also for equivalent like-minded segments (middle class, highly educated, urban) across Australia. Each big Australian capital city has at least one, and Sydney and Melbourne two or three, 350,000 sized segments composed just like the ACT.

The social law reform agenda includes controversial issues such as abortion rights, gay rights, and women's rights. For constitutional reasons the battleground has mostly been state parliaments.

The ACT electorate has supported such social movements, but the ACT Government has not led the way; self-government only came in 1989, coincidently about the time the Greens appeared federally. The NT generated pro-euthanasia legislation in the 1990s, later thrown out by the Commonwealth Parliament. Abortion law reform began in SA in the 1960s under a state Liberal government.

Social law reform was under way well before the Greens. By themselves they cannot either pass such legislation or veto its removal once a territory has introduced it. The major parties together can always outvote the Greens. In that scenario the balance of power means nothing.

There are in fact more MPs in both the Labor and Coalition party rooms than Green MPs who are pro gay marriage and pro euthanasia. But they are confined by the internal politics of the major parties which fear a split on these issues. In the long run it is the opinions of these major party social progressives, not the Greens, who should be feared by opponents of gay marriage and euthanasia.

Federalism theory supports a small territory playing a social reform role; that is supposed to be one of the advantages of federalism. But small territories should not be surprised that national governments and federal MPs from larger states want to rein them in on such issues.

Similarly the spirit of multi-party politics supports a small party like the Greens playing a prominent role in social reform, but only an initiating or ginger-group role, not a decisive one.

Gay marriage and euthanasia will continue to be debated in State and Federal Parliaments. Territory and Green aspirations have their equivalents in all parts of Australia and in the major parties in all parliaments. While some in the territories and in the Greens will be disappointed not to be right out in front on these issues, they will play a secondary role in determining the direction Australian society eventually takes. Larger parties in larger parliaments will ultimately prove decisive.

John WarhustJohn Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University and a columnist with The Canberra Times.

Topic tags: John Warhurst, Bob Brown, Greens, Julia Gillard, coalition



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Existing comments

This is the sort of article I would like the Catholic Bishops of Australia to have read, studied and reflected prayerfully upon before they pontificated (or should that be episcopated?) upon the role of The Greens in the recent NSW election.

Uncle Pat | 29 March 2011  

"The major parties together can always outvote the Greens. In that scenario the balance of power means nothing" Not exactly - if the Greens have the balance of power they can trade their support for something they want. We will now have a federal Parliamentary Budget Office because the Greens and independents insisted on having one and the ALP 'agreed'. The ALP will be desperate to get some form of carbon tax up and the Greens and independents will use their numbers, and Gillard's famed willingness to negotiate, to get something they want.

Russell | 29 March 2011  

Why do the proponents of liberal abortion laws, euthanasia and gay marriage get positive labels like progressive and social reformers, with no quotes or 'so-called'?

Gavan | 29 March 2011  

The NT doesn't quite fit the profile of 'highly educated, middle-class, and urban'. As I understand it, opposition to euthanasia is mainly confined to religious groups, some people in social welfare agencies and others in the legal, medical and quasi-medical fraternities. I wonder if any conclusions can be drawn about why it was first introduced in the NT, rather than the ACT or the States?

Russell, I don't think minor parties and indpendents could get the support of a major party on a big-ticket item like gay marriage or euthanasia. The kind of items the big parties concede are threshold or boundary issues (such as, for example, the Coalition's excluding the food from the GST for the Democrats, or Labor's compromise on the carbon tax re the Greens).

MBG | 29 March 2011  

I notice again an oft assumed conflation of all the social change phenomena under the one rubric. I would challenge the conflation and the common rubric. The social agenda for Christians is not as clearly divided as the progressive parties assume . I understand the lumping may have tactical advantages but it does not reflect the hearts and minds of all Christians, or even other Australians perhaps. The rubric 'progressive' and 'democratic' may also be an unwarranted presumption. Choose carefully your words if you want to bring others along persuaded by the rightness and suitability of your arguments.

graham patison | 30 March 2011  

As ever, resisting the moves against gay marriages only strenthens their cause. What if there was a continental system ( say French) whereby all marriages could be performed by government appointee and recognised accordingly but church members could opt for a marriage ceremony within their faith belief and their marriages sanctified accordingly?

Peter D Harrigan | 01 April 2011  

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