THE old Andrew was back. Or so it seemed. Watching the fire in Chief Minister Andrew Barr’s face as he backed the rights of gay and lesbian teachers and students was really so refreshing. Yep! The spark in his eyes, his manner and his strong leadership was back. The old Andrew fired up and fighting for the vulnerable.
The spark was on Monday in late October, this year’s eleventh sitting week. Tuesday was a different story. The question moved away from LGBTIQ to other vulnerable people seeking rental affordability. However, the legislation by opposition Shadow Minister for Housing, Mark Parton, was discarded on a technicality. The technicality later.
The irony is that the Liberals were finally being “liberals” rather than conservatives. Parton was laudably working to ensure more affordable housing. He had picked up on a motion of the Greens’ MLA Caroline Le Couteur who had put a motion in the Assembly to call for a discount on Land Tax.
The idea was to motivate landlords to offer lower rate rentals to people trying to afford their rent. This would mean a contribution from the landlord in foregone rent and a contribution from the public purse in foregone land tax. The winner – more affordable housing for the most vulnerable.
A motion encourages government. However, there was no action from Housing Minister Yvette Berry. Mark Parton moved. He prepared and introduced the Land Tax (Community Housing Exemption) Amendment Bill 2018 in a sitting week in September. Ironically, the legislation would effectively force them to go beyond lip service and do something which they had publicly acknowledged as a sensible approach to an important social issue.
Rather than the community interest being priority one, the debate fell once again into a them-and-us. There was a simple way to put the community interest first. Option one was to suspend that part of Standing Orders that would prevent the legislation from being considered. With full agreement of the Assembly this would have worked. However, concerns about setting precedents prevailed. Other options remained.
The legislation was disallowed by the Speaker on the grounds that it was a “money bill”. The Self Government Act is effectively the ACT Constitution and prevents anyone, other than a Minister, from introducing legislation for the appropriation of taxes. As the Speaker, in disallowing the legislation, pointed out: “The bill does not contravene the provisions of standing orders 200, 201 and 201A, as it is not a proposed enactment for the appropriation of public money.”
However, Speaker Joy Burch went further with the advice referring precedents set federally and in the mid-1990s in the Legislative Assembly regarding money bills.
House of Representatives Standing Order 179 restricts such power to Ministers to “initiate a proposal to impose, increase, or decrease a tax or duty, or change the scope of any charge”. On these grounds the Bill was disallowed.
An attempt by the Liberal’s Andrew Wall to suspend Standing Orders was not successful. Greens’ leader Shane Rattenbury explained: “We are stuck here. We do not like it” and later “we accept that there are rules and there are boundaries”.
He added “there are rules and boundaries”. The second option is that Shane Rattenbury is a Minister… however, moving outside his own portfolio with a money bill also sets an inappropriate precedent.
However, the simplest solution was right there in front of the government. Option three was up to Andrew Barr, or his deputy Yvette Berry. Where was the spark? With precedent so important to them, all they had to say was “at the next available opportunity, the Housing Minister will table this bill”.
Where was the fire in the belly? Such a move would have been a credit to Andrew Barr’s government. It would also have been a credit to the Greens and to the Liberals. Granted, the Assembly is the place for testing different ideas. However, when there is furious agreement, isn’t a co-ordinated approach the thing the community wishes to see? At least occasionally.
Michael Moore AM is a former member of the ACT Legislative Assembly and an independent minister for health. He has been a political columnist with “CityNews” since 2006.