States call for constitutional convention over WorkChoices decision

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States call for constitutional convention over WorkChoices decision

State Premiers have called for a constitutional convention on State and Commonwealth powers after yesterday's High Court decision on the WorkChoices IR laws.

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State Premiers have called for a constitutional convention on State and Commonwealth powers after yesterday's High Court decision on the WorkChoices IR laws.

In the wake of the High Court decision, Opposition Leader, Kim Beazley, has already signalled major changes could be made in cooperation with the States, while Prime Minister John Howard says there will be no extension of the Commonwealth's powers under his government unless they are 'in the national interest'.

The Democrats, however, support a constitutional convention that would look at abolishing the States, as well as other matters.

South Australian Premier Mike Rann today called for a constitutional convention to sort out Federal-State responsibilities. Queensland Premier Peter Beattie also supports a convention.

Fundamental shift

Rann said the convention should be held in Canberra in 2008, after the next Federal election, and on the 10th anniversary of the last constitutional gathering.

Queensland Premier Peter Beattie said the High Court ruling has generated a fundamental shift in Commonwealth-State relations and he has called for a Constitutional convention.

'I think we have a responsibility to try and make the current federation work,' he said. 'This is a major shift and unless we in some way address the future role for the States and the Commonwealth, then frankly we are going to be wasting taxpayers' money.'

Undermines powers

The High Court decision has raised concerns among the States, ALP and union leaders that the Federal Government now has the power to take over other State responsibilities, such as health and education through the extension of its now-validated corporations powers.

'Yesterday's High Court decision fundamentally twists the constitution and further undermines the role and powers of the States even though Australians weren't given a vote to amend the constitution through a referendum,' Rann said. 'The decision is the thin end of the wedge, mandating the Federal government the right to use corporations power to interfere in other State responsibilities such as health, education, the environment and planning.'

Rann said it was time for Australia to take a fresh look at federalism so that the constitutional arrangements could be made more relevant to the 21st century.

'Far fetched'

Immediately after the decision, Howard said he didn't think the High Court decision 'means that the Commonwealth can in future do anything it wants in a whole lot of areas, unrelated to the economy or trading and financial corporations'.

He said the claim that the Commonwealth had a capacity to take over a whole lot of other areas seemed 'very far-fetched'.

'We will not interpret this decision as being any kind of constitutional green light to legislate to the hilt,' Howard said. 'We have no desire to extend Commonwealth power, except in the national interest. I have no desire for takeover's sake to take over the role of the States.

Full advantage

'The only occasions when I support the use of the Commonwealth's power to extend its role and influence [is] where it is clearly for the benefit of all of the Australian people.'

Beazley, however, made it clear the Labor Party would take full advantage of the new powers flowing to the Commonwealth - but in cooperation with the States.

'We would use the full array of powers necessary to put in place a fair and balanced [industrial relations] system,' he said. 'One with a fair umpire, one with real rights protected in the workplace, including a right to effectively collectively bargain and a right to be represented by a union and a right to attract overtime pay, penalty rates, holiday pay and the like.

Harmonisation with States

'But we'd use them on the basis of a discussion with the States. Not by diktat. And by harmonisation with the State systems.'

Beazley said that cooperative method is how Labor would approach the use of Commonwealth powers 'in every area'.

'Commonwealth powers in education, Commonwealth powers in health, whatever,' he said. 'We'd use what we know of those Commonwealth powers as a result both of the Constitution itself, past practice and decisions by the High Court, but we'd use them in a particular context - not one of diktat, not one of bullying the States, but one of sitting down and negotiating through with them the best outcome.'

Everything on the table

Queensland Democrat Senator Andrew Bartlett backed the call for a constitutional summit, saying there 'is no doubt that this High Court decision represents a major concentration of power in Canberra and further reduces the role and purpose of State Governments'.

'This builds on the growing control in Canberra over the last decade, accelerating a trend that has continued for decades before that,' he said.

Bartlett said 'everything should be on the table for discussion' at the convention.

'It is time we thought seriously about options like:

  • abolishing the States
  • recognising and strengthening local government
  • the role of the Senate and Federal Parliament in the face of growing Cabinet control
  • the appointment of judges and senior government positions, and
  • how to ensure proper representation and recognition of Indigenous Australians

'There is no doubt our 19th Century Constitution is looking very creaky and inadequate in the 21st Century,' Bartlett said. 'It is time we had a thorough look at where our democratic systems are in Australia and what we want them to become, rather than continue with piecemeal and inadvertent change.

'If we continue to sleepwalk our way step by step into a completely different governance arrangements, we may well find we end somewhere we didn't intend and don't like very much.'

Backing off

Federal Government Ministers are backing off from the consequences of the extensive new corporations powers the High Court has given them.

Federal Attorney-General Philip Ruddock said the way Australia is governed will not fundamentally change as a result of the IR case. He said the Federal Government was not going to take an 'expansive view' of its powers in the light of the ruling.

'The governmental arrangements are not going to fundamentally change,' he said. 'It would be foolish to think that it was going to be sensible or helpful to argue that the Commonwealth, given the recent High Court decision, ought to take an expansive view of its own powers.

Divisive and unhelpful

Ruddock said nominating those areas of State responsibility which the Federal Government could not take over would be 'divisive' and 'unhelpful', and would inevitably lead to further litigation.

'I think it's important that there's a focus on working together, and I'm going to continue doing just that,' he said.

Treasurer Peter Costello said the High Court decision is not a threat to federalism and the ruling will not necessarily translate into Commonwealth power over other State responsibilities.

He said to say that the 'decision somehow destroys federalism as we know it is not right'.

Limited power

'It's a limited power, it's in relation to corporations, I think the High Court got it right. I think this will mean we'll have a better system of national industrial relations legislation.'

Workplace Relations Minister Kevin Andrews said the Federal Government will not use the High Court ruling to seize further key services from the States and Territories.

'This is not a green light for the Commonwealth to take over health or education or the police service, or whatever [is] traditionally run by the States,' he said. 'The Commonwealth doesn't have that approach to it.'

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