The people of the ACT have again been reminded that when it comes to our political rights we are second-class citizens, despite 30 years of self-government and electing our own local representatives.
Western Australia’s historic passing of its own voluntary assisted dying legislation after months of heated and passionate debate on both sides only serves to reinforce how qualified and limited is the ability of Canberrans to govern ourselves.
In the mid-1990s, the Federal Parliament inserted subsections 23(1A) and 23(1B) into the Australian Capital Territory (Self-Government) Act 1988 (Cwlth) which exclude the ACT from the power to make laws with respect to voluntary assisted dying.
It was an arbitrary and deliberate exercise of power to frustrate the will of the ACT’s own parliament, and while it was directed then at a particular issue the message was clear: you are not mature enough to make your own laws and if we do not like what we see the Commonwealth will step in.
As Chief Minister Andrew Barr said last month, the continued operation of the subsections is increasingly absurd, given states like Victoria had legislated for voluntary assisted dying and now Western Australia has followed suit
“When the Federal Parliament inserted those subsections into out Self-Government Act, it was because they did not want us to be among the first jurisdictions to legislate for voluntary assisted dying. Now, it’s increasingly likely we might be among the last – if the Federal Parliament ever restores our rights,” said Mr Barr.
He was commenting after the passing of a motion moved by Tara Cheyne in the legislative Assembly calling on the Federal Parliament to:
(i) resolve that no Australian citizen should be disadvantaged with respect to their democratic rights on the basis of where they live; and
(ii) remove subsections 23(1A) and (1B) from the Australian Capital Territory (Self-Government) Act 1988 (Cwlth).
The issue was also raised last week by Canberra man Neil O’Riordan after a criminal charge was dropped for helping his terminally ill wife, Penelope Blume, prepare for her death.
Mr O’Riordan said he wanted the ACT community to debate voluntary assisted dying, and pursue legislation if the people wanted it.
“With other states debating or implementing new laws on this issue, the time is now for the ACT to act,” Mr O’Riordan told the court.
Regardless of the contentious issue of voluntary assisted dying, the notion that the ACT, with one of the most educated and informed citizenry in the country and with a population not far behind Tasmania, cannot legislate on this matter is clearly unfair and out of step with democratic principles.
The ACT should not need to win statehood to be able to make its own laws without a paternalistic Commonwealth standing over it threatening to intervene at its whim.
The logical conclusion is that the Commonwealth should take back responsibility for the ACT, its maintenance and services, if its citizens cannot exercise fully their democratic rights.
The Chief Minister is an open supporter of voluntary assisted dying and argues the overwhelming majority of Canberrans also back legislating for it.
That may well be the case but he should be careful not to conflate the issues of assisted dying and Territory rights, connected though they may be.
The argument should not be for the Commonwealth to change its position so the ACT can legislate for voluntary assisted dying, but for the Federal Parliament not to have the power to prevent ACT citizens making laws for themselves on any subject, subject to the Constitution.
Yes, let us be able to have the debate and the right to consider whether we want and need to legislate accordingly.
But the case for Territory rights should not come down to whether you believe in voluntary assisted dying or not.
It’s time for the Commonwealth to trust the democratic process, drop the notion it can legislate whenever it feels the ACT has overstepped the mark and restore to Canberrans what is rightfully ours.