Constitutional crisis or storm in a teacup?

Section 53 of the Australian Constitution states:

Proposed laws appropriating revenue or moneys, or imposing taxation, shall not originate in the Senate. But a proposed law shall not be taken to appropriate revenue or moneys, or to impose taxation, by reason only of its containing provisions for the imposition or appropriation of fines or other pecuniary penalties, or for the demand or payment or appropriation of fees for licences, or fees for services under the proposed law.

Or, put another way, only legislation that originates in the House of Representatives can appropriate public money. The reason for this is fairly obvious: the Upper House, as is the case at the moment, can be controlled by the Opposition (with support of the Independents in the current instance).  The Opposition, however, cannot control the federal coffers. Only the Government can do that and the Lower House is always controlled by the party of government (albeit with the support of the Independents in the current instance).

So why did the Opposition think they could sneak through a Senate-initiated bill for improved access to the Youth Allowance for country students? The bill seeks to appropriate a total of $317million from the government’s budget for the proposed Social Security Amendment bill, which would enable students from inner regional areas better access to the Youth Allowance.

The irony of this bill has presumably escaped chief Opposition loudmouth, Christopher Pyne-in-the-Bum. As a member of the Howard Government he supported successive cuts and restrictions to social security. When the Howard government took the axe to Youth Allowance, both Peter Costello and Tony Abbott told the Parliament that “in my day” students had part time jobs and therefore didn’t expect welfare. Pyne was quick out of the blocks this afternoon, after the Government said it would ask the Governor-General to dismiss the bill under Section 53, to shriek Constitutional Crisis and say that the Government is hiding behind the Governor-General. ‘Human shield’ was the actual term he used. There is no constitutional crisis. We sailed close to that particular reef in the post-election wrangling last year, but the last real one was in 1975.

The writing on the wall should have been clear enough when the Greens, longtime supporters of increased social security for students, voted with Government senators against the bill.

The Opposition knows full well that this bill cannot pass under constitutional law. This is tactic designed to force the Government into a situation where they either have to support a bill that will draw severely on a budget surplus already under strain due to the Queensland flood recovery, or to block it on constitutional grounds and therefore look as though they’re running to the G-G for help. The Government is in a no-win situation here.

The Attorney-General, Robert McClelland, might do well, however, to think twice before invoking the advice of former Menzies Government Attorney-General and later Chief Justice of the High Court, Sir Garfield Barwick, in building the Government’s defence. It was Sir Garfield who advised Governor-General Sir John Kerr to sack the Whitlam Government in 1975 on constitutional grounds.


About Coffee with Ruby

Ruby is a writer, lecturer and thinker who blogs mostly on politics, environment and social philosophy. She has been at the coalface of the political process, but is now strictly an observer. Join Ruby for coffee and musings over whatever is going on at the time ...
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One Response to Constitutional crisis or storm in a teacup?

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