The Federal Coalition’s attempt to stop the ACT’s drug decriminalisation laws has failed.
But concerns have been raised the Territory’s right to consider voluntary assisted dying will be the next law in the Opposition’s sights.
Senator Michaelia Cash introduced her ACT Dangerous Drugs Bill 2023 as a private member’s bill in September, arguing in the Senate today (19 October) that the “logic just isn’t there” to decriminalise small amounts of illicit drugs.
“For some baffling reason, the Labor-Greens government of the ACT has decided it is a good idea to, in but a few days, release ice onto the streets of Canberra,” she said.
“The suppliers of these hard drugs … they’re the people who are going to be the beneficiaries of the ACT Government’s laws.
“[My] bill responds to the egregiously bad public policy outcomes to decriminalising ice and other hard drugs.”
She argued her bill wasn’t about interfering in Territory rights, but about ensuring a national approach to drugs and protecting the community.
Ms Cash said by repealing the Andrews law, which prevented self-governance for the ACT, trust had been placed in the Territory.
Now, she argued that “trust has been misplaced” with the ACT introducing a law she felt would harm drug users, emergency workers and families.
“Only misery will result from this terrible law,” Ms Cash said.
“The ACT drug law is a bad law. It must be thrown out in the interests of all Canberrans and all Australians.”
However, several senators said this was nothing more than a Coalition attempt to interfere with the Territory’s right to self-governance.
NSW ALP Senator Tim Ayres argued the threshold for Commonwealth interference should be “very high”, and suggested the Coalition was only interested in trying to change ACT and NT laws when they were motivated by social issues.
“It is not possible, in my view, to assert that this does not affect Territory rights. The effective cancellation of legislation in the Territory does have a chilling effect on the Territory’s capacity to make laws,” he said.
“This [bill] should be rejected on that basis, and it must be rejected on that basis.”
Mr Ayres argued that while states and territories will make good laws, bad laws and imperfect laws, it’s their right to do so.
“The truth is, intervening in this way doesn’t just have a chilling effect on the capacity of the Territory government and a Territory Assembly to make its own laws, it effectively – I use this word not in its pejorative sense – but effectively corrupts the governance of the way that laws are made,” he said.
“It means this place has been invited to interfere on a consistent basis with the affairs of the territory governments.”
Mr Ayres pointed out the Canberra Liberals leader Elizabeth Lee had called on her Federal counterparts not to interfere as well.
NSW Greens Senator David Shoebridge also picked up on this point, stating the Federal Coalition was effectively “burning the brand” for their ACT counterparts.
“People who might have been open to supporting the Coalition in the ACT … have been completely burnt off by once again seeing the Federal Liberal party use its Trumpian-style, evidence-free, angry form of divisive politics,” he said.
“The poor old ACT Liberals in the Assembly are saying ‘please stop, please stop’.”
Independent ACT Senator David Pocock labelled Ms Cash’s bill as a “clear, unmistakable breach of our Territory rights” and pointed out the stark difference between how states could decide their policy futures.
“The states should breathe a sigh of relief that they have the protections in the Constitution; otherwise, you could bet Senator Cash and the Opposition would have long ago abolished this inconvenient second level of government,” he said.
He expressed his concerns that this wouldn’t be the last time the Federal Coalition would try to dictate how the Territory was governed.
“I worry that the Coalition will try again to erase our right to consider voluntary assisted dying for ourselves,” Mr Pocock said.
“Despite calls to do so, Senator Cash has not ruled out a future challenge to voluntary assisted dying laws, so it remains firmly on the table.”
Senator Cash’s bill was defeated 34 votes to 27.