01 October 2019

This piece was first published in The Canberra Times on Tuesday 1 October 2019.

Peter Dutton and Christian Porter have cried ‘Reefer Madness’ in response to the ACT Legislative Assembly’s decision to legalise the personal consumption and residential cultivation of cannabis in Canberra. Without a legislative agenda of their own to pursue, Federal Cabinet Ministers spend their time criticising the work of State and Territory governments actually delivering for the people who elected them. However, unlike for the States the Commonwealth Parliament can actually overturn Territory laws and Dutton and Porter have raised the possibility of doing just that.

It’s not at all surprising from this conservative Government. Canberra bashing suits their purposes and makes it easier for them to cut the public service and neglect our city. Porter has dismissed the status of the ACT Government as “not much bigger than a large council", with a tendency to "go out on the edge on a lot of these social crusades". These sound bites make it easier for them to dismiss other areas where the ACT government is leading the way, such as providing all ACT residents with 100% renewable energy by next year.

After 30 years of self-government, the ACT Legislative Assembly is a mature institution delivering for Canberrans. The ACT Labor Government has a long record of reform the Federal Government could only dream of. Despite persistent funding cuts and neglect from the Federal Liberals, Canberra’s population growth is second only to Melbourne and economic growth sits just behind NSW and Victoria. Canberrans have earnt the right to be taken seriously by the Morrison Government and oversight of the Legislative Assembly should be left to them as the electors, not Dutton from Brisbane and Porter from Perth.

Commonwealth intervention is not unprecedented, with ACT voluntary assisted dying laws and marriage equality previously overturned by the Commonwealth Parliament. We all know that the ACT (which delivered the highest YES vote), was eventually vindicated when it comes to equal marriage. In the case of voluntary assisted dying, this year Luke Gosling and Andrew Leigh’s attempt to overturn Federal restrictions preventing the NT and the ACT from legislating in this area was unsuccessful. Despite overwhelming support for these laws in the ACT, ACT Liberal Senator Zed Seselja voted against the rights of his constituents. Tara Cheyne MLA, who has first-hand family experience with the issue, has led the campaign to obtain these rights for Canberrans and has been appointed as a Special Secretary to the ACT Chief Minister to lead this advocacy. No snark, just honest political campaigning from a mature government.  

Andrew Leigh MP has been a long-time advocate for Territory rights since he was elected and points out the ACT cannabis law are actually just a “modest change” for the ACT, which decriminalised personal consumption of cannabis years ago. Currently, ACT Police impose modest $100 fines for those caught in possession of small amounts of cannabis. These are the same police that have enforced ACT law instead of the more punitive Commonwealth law Morrison Government Ministers are now threatening ACT residents with. The fact that the criminal law is traditionally considered the purview of the States and Territories is some comfort to those who, like me, believe that ACT residents should have the same rights as residents in other states. In February, the High Court indicated their support for this view also, finding in Work Health Authority v Outback Ballooning Pty Ltd that “there is no presumption that a Commonwealth offence excludes the operation of other laws”.

I support the right of my ACT Labor colleagues to pursue these laws despite the constant threat of Commonwealth overreach. Cannabis is the most widely used illicit drug, with 10.4% of Australians using cannabis in 2016 and 35% having tried it in their lifetime. Cannabis-related arrests have increased 30% over the last decade, with 72,381 Australians arrested in 2017-18. 92% of these arrests were for personal cannabis use. I think our police have more serious issues to respond to than prosecuting people for smoking a joint. The evidence has long been clear that harm minimisation is the most effective approach to substance use and I applaud the ACT Government for pursuing further harm minimisation policies that keep people out of the justice system.

As one of the ACT’s Federal representatives, I know this progressive approach is what Canberrans want. We would appreciate it if the Morrison Government extended to us the same rights as our fellow Australians.

Alicia Payne is Federal Member for Canberra

This piece was first published in The Canberra Times on Tuesday 1 October 2019.