The Territories, notwithstanding their self-government assemblies, are constitutionally the colonies of the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth has plenary constitutional powers in the Territories. In the past it has flexed its muscles to override Territorian legislation like the Rights of the Terminally Ill Act in the NT in 1997 and same-sex marriage legislation in the ACT last year.
The fact that the Commonwealth has now decided to respond to the sickening events in the Northern Territory is not through want of power in the past.
Indeed, the power over Territories was given to the Commonwealth at Federation in 1901, notwithstanding the fact that the Northern Territory was not handed over to the Commonwealth.
The historic referendum in 1967 further empowered the Commonwealth to make laws for “the people of any race for whom it is deemed necessary to make special laws”. This power is not limited to the Territories. The Commonwealth could arguably, though with greater political cost, legislate in the States as well.
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The decision by the Commonwealth may be seen as yet another blow to the Statehood aspirations of Northern Territorians. However, “Statehood” is not what it used to be. The willingness of the Howard Government to intervene in the governance of States and Territories, be it industrial relations, health and education policy, sits strangely with a conservative government.
The Howard Government has achieved more in uniform legislation in a time of peace than the Chifley Government did in a time of war. For the children’s sake — let’s hope it works.