Australian Prime Minister signals challenge to capital’s gay marriage bill

Tony Abbott

Tony Abbott

Newly elected Australian prime minster Tony Abbott said this week that his government is considering possibly blocking the Australian Capital Territory’s (ACT) proposed same-sex marriage legislation.

Speaking at a press conference Tuesday, Abbott said “the Commonwealth [Federal Government] had constitutional responsibility for marriage,” adding that he would ask the nation’s Attorney General, George Brandis, to look further into the ACT bill.

Tony Abbott

Tony Abbott

“The ACT is entitled to do what it can within the law,” Abbott said. “And, as you know, under the constitution the Commonwealth has responsibility for marriage. The attorney will be seeking advice on precisely how far that extends.”

Abbott is a vocal opponent of same-sex marriage, and as leader of his coalition party, has not allowed his Liberal and Nationals members a conscience vote on marriage equality.

Last week, The Australian Christian Lobby, a powerful anti-gay political faction, announced that it will pressure Abbott to override the proposed ACT marriage equality law by passing a bill in the federal parliament to block the effort.

The Federal Parliament has the power to disallow territory laws.

Katy Gallagher, the ACT’s Chief Minister, publicly stated that her government believed the same-sex marriage bill was constitutional.

“The ACT sought legal advice in 2008 which shows that a bill that did not contradict the Federal Marriage Act would be constitutionally valid,” Gallagher said.

“If the bill is passed, same-sex couples will be able to marry under the law and therefore can work alongside the Commonwealth Marriage Act. The ACT believes that we have the ability to legislate,” she said.

“If Mr. Abbott wants to overturn the ACT legislation there are two ways he can do it,” says constitutional law expert George Williams, reported The Sydney Morning Herald.

The first would be to mount a challenge through the High Court. Williams noted that Abbott may find this difficult given the ACT same-sex marriage bill would have been drafted with a view to withstanding a High Court challenge.

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The second way to override the ACT government’s sanctioning of same-sex marriage would be for Abbott to get a bill through both houses of Parliament that specifically refutes the legislation. The government took similar action in 1997 when it overturned the Northern Territory’s voluntary euthanasia law, Williams said.

“The Commonwealth has got the power (to override the ACT law),” Williams said. “The question is have they got the numbers?”

Opposition Leaders in Parliament are urging the Labor Party to commit to voting as a bloc to help stop any attempts by Abbott to override the ACT same-sex marriage bill.

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