The Canberra Liberals have accused ACT Labor of having an “appetite to avoid the usual process” regarding how the drug decriminalisation legislation was introduced in the Territory.
Canberra Liberals MLA Nicole Lawder called for Health Minister Rachel Stephen-Smith and Labor backbencher Michael Pettersson to be investigated by a special committee for allegedly breaching the Ministerial Code of Conduct 2020, either individually or by a “conspiracy” between them.
Given this was a last-minute addition to the schedule of the Legislative Assembly on Thursday (31 August), Ms Lawder needed a majority to agree to suspend standing orders to allow the debate to occur.
It comes off the back of a report in The Australian which stated it had obtained a recording of Ms Stephen-Smith speaking at the ALP National Conference about Mr Pettersson’s advocacy for drug decriminalisation in the ACT, commending him not only for his internal advocacy on the matter, but also for his use of “the mechanisms that are available within the political process”.
“Michael sat on a Legislative Assembly committee into youth mental health in the last term of parliament and managed to get a recommendation in there that was supported unanimously … for a recommendation to examine simple drug offence notices,” Ms Stephen-Smith allegedly said.
She went on to say that, because the Assembly had supported the recommendations from that inquiry, it technically had already been responded to by the government.
“We took it to the election quietly, but we could point to our platform and say it’s in there, it’s there,” the transcript attributes to Ms Stephen-Smith.
“It was [then] done through a private members bill, which meant it could be done much more quickly.
“If the government had tried to do it, I tell you what, it would have taken two years to develop the legislation, and the police, we would have had to deal with all this risk aversion and complexity.”
Ms Lawder wrote to Speaker Joy Burch on 29 August outlining her concerns.
She stated the transcript showed Ms Stephen-Smith had “gloated” about the government’s approach to drug decriminalisation.
“In doing so, the Minister outlined a clear politicisation and misuse of the committee process and the deliberate avoidance of government legislative procedures,” Ms Lawder wrote.
“The Minister clearly outlines how the ACT Government colluded with Mr Michael Pettersson MLA, as chair of a Legislative Assembly committee, to ensure a recommendation was included in the final Committee report, which would then give authority for the government to implement their drugs reform agenda.”
Speaker Joy Burch rejected Ms Lawder’s request to hear her motion without notice, stating it didn’t contain enough information to rule that the matter had “precedence” over other business.
“I am not required to judge whether there’s been a breach of privilege or a contempt of the Assembly. I can only judge whether the matter merits precedence,” she said.
“I have concluded [it] does not.”
Ms Lawder then attempted to suspend standing orders to let the debate occur.
She argued this was a matter of transparency and accountability and ensuring politicians did not abuse their positions.
“There appears to have been an appetite to avoid the usual process, legislative process, of the Assembly in this particular matter,” Ms Lawder said.
“At first blush, at first glance, when you read the transcript … it raises alarm bells.”
Opposition Deputy Leader Jeremy Hanson went further, arguing there had been an “abuse of the processes”, given committees aren’t meant to be used to push or endorse agendas.
He said a committee inquiry wasn’t the same as the executive fulfilling its commitments to hold full investigations into proposed legislation.
“There is a distinct difference between the obligations of the minister and the executive … what [Ms Stephen-Smith] has done is abused that. It is a contempt of the Assembly to do so, and this matter should go before a special privileges inquiry,” Mr Hanson said.
“It is pretty outrageous what has happened here.”
Labor and Greens members disagreed that the matter was urgent.
“If you want to bring this motion forward, there’s more than enough capability to get organised, bring it on as a matter of private members business, bring it forward as part of Assembly business in the regular program,” Attorney-General Shane Rattenbury said.
Mr Pettersson labelled the motion a “stunt” and a “response to the right-wing media cycle”.
Given they hadn’t brought the matter up earlier in the week, he felt it wasn’t a “genuine attempt” to have this debate.
“The Canberra Liberals have no respect for this chamber. They often run all of their agenda through the media first and then the parliament as an afterthought,” Mr Pettersson said.
“They do not care about this parliament. They care about cheap media stunts.”
Given Ms Lawder’s motion itself was not voted upon, it can be re-introduced at a later date.