Wednesday 22 July 2015

Australian Federalism - Competitive, Coordinate, Cooperative, Coercive or … Confusing?

Illustration: Mallory Brangan

The first Issues Paper in the Reform of the Federation White Paper process canvassed three approaches to federalism beginning with the letter 'c'  ̶  competitive, coordinate and cooperative. The paper also acknowledged the potential for the cooperative to morph into the coercive. According to the latest release from the Federation White Paper taskforce, Australia has a 'confusing' federalism  ̶  a problem the White Paper aims to address.

A story about a leak and a draft

Since our previous blog entry on the Reform of the Federation White Paper, the taskforce has released four Issues Papers about the allocation of roles and responsibilities between the Commonwealth and States. These papers were designed to outline key issues before coming up with policy options in the Green Paper on how to reduce duplication, limit wasteful expenditure and end the 'blame game' between different levels of government in Australia. However, a series of potentially damaging 'leaks' from the Green Paper, has led the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet to publish a draft Discussion Paper ahead of a formal Green Paper.

How does the draft Discussion Paper hope to reform the Federation?
The draft Discussion Paper is a consultation document containing a number of policy proposals. Although the paper opens with the optimistic assessment that 'Australia's Federation has worked well since 1901', the taskforce has identified a particular need for improvements in how we manage health, education, housing and homelessness. There are also separate proposals for improving the Federation's governance arrangements and financial relations.

The draft policy proposals were arrived at after consultation with the community, states and territories, local government, and the Prime Minister's recently appointed Expert Advisory Panel. The paper stresses that the proposals are merely options; they are not necessarily mutually exclusive, listed in order of preference or approved by all levels of government. The proposals also vary in magnitude and we are cautioned not to expect a 'big bang' moment in federation fixing.

In general terms, the options involve either one level of government 'getting out of the way' while the other adopts full responsibility for a policy area, improved coordination among governments, or something in between.

A principled and practical approach

A key weakness of Australian Federalism, according to the draft Discussion Paper, is the ad hoc approach we take to deciding who does what, based on discrete events or priorities of the Government of the day. The taskforce advocates that we instead adopt a principled way forward.

Interestingly, the draft Discussion Paper has replaced the principles set out in the White Paper's Terms of Reference with a new set of 'practical' values, including the decree: 'be fair'. It seems that the new criteria will be used to drive a very pragmatic approach to how federation reform can best drive improvements in community wellbeing, with a focus on the 'main game' of effective service delivery.

Will the real green paper please stand up?

It is unclear how far the real Green Paper will depart from the draft Discussion Paper. However, we can expect to see the final product by the end of the year and in light of the upcoming COAG leaders' summit, perhaps in the very near future.

The process will wrap up in 2016 with a series of suggested policy preferences published in the White Paper. Based on the draft proposals, we now know that constitutional amendment is not on the table.

Finally, given the underlying role played by financial relations in the present state of 'confusion', the Reform of the Federation White Paper will track closely with the White Paper on the Reform of Australia's Tax System. As many of you know, the Commonwealth raises far more revenue than is required to meet its constitutional responsibilities, while States face a significant funding shortfall. For his part, the Federal Treasurer has recently indicated a desire for all levels of government to take responsibility for their own spending requirements. However, if the White Paper supports a policy preference for returning full responsibility to States and Territories in areas like health and education, funding the 'Federation for our future' will be a significant challenge.

VGSO's experts in constitutional law and intergovernmental relations can help Victorian government bodies if you require advice on engaging with the White Paper process.

Managing Principal Solicitor
8684 0899

Managing Principal Solicitor
8684 0220

Thursday 16 July 2015

Native Title Round Up

With NAIDOC Week fresh in our minds, VGSO's Land, Planning and Environment Team thought it timely to provide a round up of recent developments in Native Title in Victoria.

1. ALRC recommends significant Native Title Act reforms 

The Australian Law Reform Commission's report on the Native Title Act 1993 includes recommendations that could create significant change in the jurisdiction if the Federal Government passes laws to implement them. The report, 'Connection to Country', was tabled in Parliament on 4 June 2015. Its key recommendations include amending the Act so that claimants would not have to prove that traditional laws and customs have been observed by each and every generation since sovereignty, nor that the society defined by the laws and customs has continued in existence since before sovereignty. The report also recommends that the Act explicitly acknowledge that traditional laws and customs may adapt, evolve or otherwise develop, and that native title rights be capable of including commercial trading rights. The Report contains 30 recommendations overall. The Native Title Act applies nationally.

2. Northern Victorian Claim Ends After 15 Years

The Wadi Wadi, Barapa Barapa, Wamba Wamba native title claim was struck out by the Federal Court on 15 June 2015. It was struck out on the basis that the claim had not progressed for some time, and in the present circumstances the three claimant groups were not in a position to move the claim forward in an efficient way. The Court noted that the strike out was procedural, and did not reflect on whether or not native title rights exist in the area. The groups are still able to file a new native title claim, or pursue rights and recognition under the Aboriginal Heritage Act 2006 or Traditional Owner Settlement Act 2010. The claim covered areas along the Murray River and extended south of Swan Hill.

3. Gunaikurnai People: New Wilson's Promontory claim registered

The Gunaikurnai People have made a new native title claim over Wilson's Promontory, which has now been entered on the National Register of Native Title Claims. This triggers certain procedural entitlements under the Native Title Act in respect of any projects over Crown land in the claim area that would affect native title (a 'future act'). The claim includes Corner Inlet, extends north inland towards Berry's Creek, and west to Point Smythe. It also includes islands off Wilson's Promontory. The Gunaikurnai People lodged the claim in the Federal Court on 9 December 2014. The Native Title Registrar's delegate was satisfied that the claim met criteria under the Native Title Act, and accepted the claim on the Register of Native Title Claims on 20 April 2015.

4. Victorian alternative to future act regime commences for Dja Dja Warrung

The Dja Dja Wurrung Clans Aboriginal Corporation had the first ever 'Land Use Activity Agreement' commence in late 2014. This triggers procedural entitlements and requirements under Part 4 of the Traditional Owner Settlement Act 2014 that particular persons need to follow when carrying out certain activities in the agreement area. The agreement covers a defined area in the vicinity of Bendigo, Central Victoria. Examples of activities range from clearing Crown land, to the grant of mineral tenements, to the sale of Crown land. Agencies involved with activities covered by the agreement in that area should familiarise themselves with the relevant requirements. The agreement is publicly available on the Department of Justice and Regulation website. 

For enquiries regarding Native Title and related matters, please contact:

Managing Principal Solicitor
9947 1419

Principal Solicitor
9947 1422

Tuesday 7 July 2015

UPDATED: Marriage Equality in the USA, but what's the constitutional situation here in Oz?


Recently there have been calls for a plebiscite or referendum on marriage equality (the difference between the two is usefully described here. As we've explained in this post, the High Court has found that Commonwealth's marriage power is broad, leaving the decision on how to characterise marriage in Australia to the federal Parliament. A referendum would have to alter the Constitution, and thus constrain the marriage power in some way. Constitutional referendums rarely succeed in Australia because section 128 requires BOTH a majority of voters overall AND a majority of States to vote in favour of the change. It is possible to have an overall majority but to have minorities in 3 States with the result that the change is defeated.

Unless you've been hiding under a rock, you will know that last week the Supreme Court of the United States (or SCOTUS) found that the US Constitution requires all US States to license and recognise marriages between two people of the same sex.

Facebook even had a special function where you could put a "rainbow" filter over your profile pic. The effect of logging into social media was roughly this:

Source: unknown

Justice Kennedy delivered the majority judgment in Obergefell v Hodges, and he didn't hold back:
"The Constitution promises liberty to all within its reach, a liberty that includes certain specific rights that allow persons, within a lawful realm, to define and express their identity."
And this:
"Far from seeking to devalue marriage, the petitioners seek it for themselves because of their respect - and need - for its privileges and responsibilities."
The US Constitution contains a defined Bill of Rights, but the Fourteenth Amendment also contains a "Due Process Clause", which provides that no State shall "deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law." The "liberties" protected by that clause are broader than those set out in the Bill of Rights. Elegantly explaining how this clause leaves open the potential identification and recognition of "new" fundamental rights, the Court said,
"The nature of injustice is that we may not always see it in our own times. The generations that wrote and ratified the Bill of Rights and the Fourteenth Amendment did not presume to know the extent of freedom in all of its dimensions, and so they entrusted to future generations a character protecting the right of all persons to enjoy liberty as we learn its meaning."
In the past, the Due Process Clause was used to overturn bans on interracial marriage in the aptly named case Loving v Virginia. The Court also relied on the Fourteenth Amendment's "Equal Protection Clause" which provides that no State shall "deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." The Court noted that the two clauses "are connected in a profound way, though they set forth independent principles." Ultimately, the decision was in the most emphatic terms:
"The Court now holds that same-sex couples may exercise the fundamental right to marry. No longer may this liberty be denied to them."

OK, so what about here in Australia?

The Australian Constitution, as many of you know, has a few fundamental differences from the US Constitution. For one thing, no Bill of Rights. For another, no due process or equal protection clause. And finally, our Constitution specifically allocates power to legislate about "marriage" to the Commonwealth. While this power is held concurrently with the States (meaning that the States can also legislate about marriage), if the Commonwealth chooses to legislate about marriage to confine the institution to persons of opposite sex (which it did back in 2004), any State or Territory legislation that seeks to provide marriage for same-sex couples is invalid (due to the operation of s 109 of the Constitution).

Section 109 is a supremacy clause - it makes clear that, where there is Commonwealth and State legislation on the same topic and they are in conflict, the Commonwealth law prevails.

Some of you may remember the ACT marriage case, which the High Court decided back in 2013, and which invalidated the Marriage Equality (Same Sex) Act 2013 (ACT).
Although it doesn’t say in terms that same-sex marriage is prohibited, the High Court found that the Commonwealth Marriage Act "necessarily contain[s] the implicit negative proposition that the kind of marriage provided for by the Act is the only kind of marriage that may be formed or recognised in Australia."

The High Court rejected an argument that "marriage" means "marriage as it existed as a matter of law at the time of Federation" so there is no constitutional impediment to the Commonwealth amending the Marriage Act 1961 (Cth) to allow for same-sex marriage in Australia.

The upshot is that, in Australia, we have chosen to leave the protection of human rights in the hands of our parliaments. By contrast, in their Constitution, the United States chose "to withdraw certain subjects from the vicissitudes of political controversy, to place them beyond the reach of majorities and officials and to establish them as legal principles to be applied by the courts." As described in last week's decision, "The dynamic of our [US] constitutional system is that individuals need not await legislative action before asserting a fundamental right."

In a 5:4 decision, the US Supreme Court emphatically ended the marriage equality debate in America. The right of same-sex couples to marry is now constitutionally recognised and only a constitutional amendment could reverse the situation. As in Australia, such a path is a difficult one.

Victorian Government clients seeking advice on constitutional or human rights issues can contact:

Managing Principal Solicitor
8684 0220