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Australia: Prime minister seeks advice about ACT’s gay marriage bill

Expert says Commonwealth has power to override bill but wonders if it has support to do so

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott seeks advice on the ACT gay-marriage bill. Credit:

Following news that the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) had introduced a gay marriage bill in the Legislative Assembly Sept 19, Prime Minister Tony Abbott says the federal government is seeking advice about whether the territory’s move is constitutional, The Sydney Morning Herald reports.

The ACT is entitled to what it wants within the law . . . within the law,” Abbott emphasizes, adding that the attorney-general will look into “precisely how far the ACT can go on this.”

Asked if he’s hoping the legislation will be blocked, Abbott didn’t give a direct answer but said that under the law the Commonwealth is responsible for marriage and repeated that the federal government is seeking advice on the matter. ACT’s chief minister, Katy Gallagher, who recently said she didn’t expect Abbott’s newly elected federal coalition government to stop the bill, says that her government believes the bill is constitutional and that the ACT has the “ability to legislate.”

Gallagher notes that there is “overwhelming support” for the measure in the community.

According to The Herald, the bill is expected to make it through the 17-member ACT assembly with support from all Labor legislators and the sole Greens member. The ACT’s opposition leader, Jeremy Hanson, says the Canberra Liberals will not support the bill, arguing that it’s “just simply not the job of the ACT Assembly to be determining what is clearly controversial, national social reform.”

Constitutional law expert George Williams says the federal government has two means of recourse available to stop the legislation: pursuing a High Court challenge or piloting a measure that refutes the bill through both houses of parliament.

But The Herald quotes Williams as saying that while the Commonwealth has the power to override the legislation, he’s not sure if the government has “the numbers” on their side to do so.