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Small parties, big ideas

  • 29 March 2011

The 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