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August 2012

‘An unprecedented, extensive and unconventional relationship between a High Court judge and a governor-general during a constitutional crisis’? Really? Such was the claim made in The Australian on 28 August. Much hyperbole has been generated by the recent revelations concerning Sir Anthony Mason’s involvement in the 1975 dismissal, but for the most part it shows ignorance of the past. Not only was it not ‘unprecedented’ or ‘unconventional’ for a High Court judge to have advised a vice-regal representative on the extent of his or her powers back in 1975, but it is actually quite hard to find an occasion when judges have not been involved in advising upon the exercise of reserve powers.

The reserve powers are powers exercisable by the Governor-General or a State Governor without, or contrary to, the advice of his or her responsible Ministers. They are primarily exercised in circumstances where the Governor-General does not have ‘responsible’ advisers (eg when the Governor-General is appointing a new Prime Minister or where the Prime Minister has lost the confidence of the lower House and seeks an election or to continue to govern without confidence, in which case the Governor-General can refuse a dissolution or dismiss the Prime Minister) or where there is a breach of the rule of law (eg the Prime Minister persists in acting in breach of the law, in which case he or she may be dismissed). Although the appointment of every Prime Minister is technically an exercise of the reserve powers, it is normally uncontroversial because it is clear who has the support of a majority in the lower House. For the purposes of this post, a reference to the ‘reserve powers’ means the refusal of a dissolution, the dismissal of a government or the appointment of a Prime Minister or Premier who does not or may not hold the confidence of the House.

Excluding Lord Hopetoun’s blunder, the very first exercise of a reserve power by a Governor-General in Australia was the refusal of a dissolution to the first Labor Prime Minister, terminating Labor’s first term in office after a mere four months. Prime Minister Chris Watson had lost a crucial vote on an industrial relations bill. He had made it clear that the vote would indicate confidence in his government. He asked the Governor-General to dissolve Parliament and hold an election. The Governor-General, Lord Northcote, sought the advice of the Chief Justice of the High Court, Sir Samuel Griffith. After listening to that advice, he refused Watson a dissolution and asked Watson to stay in office until a new administration could be formed. George Reid was then asked to form a government.

In 1905 Reid’s Government was defeated on the Address in Reply, which is the equivalent of a vote of no confidence. Reid sought a dissolution but was also refused. Although it is likely that Griffith advised the Governor-General (as he did in relation to other constitutional matters), there are no documents to establish whether or not he did, leaving this the only example of the exercise of such a reserve power at the Commonwealth level in relation to which we cannot be sure that a High Court judge advised.

Certainly, Griffith advised in relation to the third exercise of the reserve powers, being the refusal of a dissolution to Fisher Government in 1909. He also advised the Governor-General on the extent of his discretion in relation to the grant of a double dissolution in 1914 and advised how the Governor-General should deal with the resignation of Fisher as Prime Minister in 1915. Edmund Barton, when a High Court Justice, was also a frequent adviser to the Governor-General. Both Barton and Griffith advised on whether a referendum could be held over conscription and also on how to deal with Prime Minister Hughes’ resignation after the second conscription referendum failed in 1917.

Interestingly, the Governor-General, Sir Ronald Munro Ferguson, took the view that Griffith and Barton were entitled to advise him because they were Privy Councillors. In England, it is the role of Privy Councillors, including members of the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, to advise the monarch. There are formal mechanisms to give this advice, such as s 4 of the Judicial Committee Act 1833, but such advice also apparently continues to be given informally to the Queen by British judges. After Sir Samuel Griffith’s retirement, the Governor-General urged the appointment of the new Chief Justice, Sir Adrian Knox, as a Privy Councillor, in order to gain the benefit of his advice.

It is not known the extent to which Knox advised the Governor-General. It may have been the case that there was no need to do so. As the two-party system solidified and majority governments became the norm at the Commonwealth level, there was no real call on the Governor-General to exercise reserve powers and therefore little need for constitutional advice. This did not mean that High Court Justices were necessarily more circumspect in their offerings of advice. Sir John Latham, for example, advised the Prime Minister on the drafting of a referendum to overturn the High Court’s judgment in the Communist Party Case.

The next occasion for the exercise of reserve powers at the national level did not arise again until the Prime Minister, Harold Holt, went missing in 1967. The Governor-General then sought the advice of the Chief Justice, Sir Garfield Barwick, as to what to do. Having taken Barwick’s advice, the Governor-General exercised his reserve power to terminate Harold Holt’s commission as Prime Minister and appoint John McEwen as Prime Minister until a new Liberal leader could be chosen.

In the meantime, at the State level, constitutional crises still abounded and advice was regularly given to Governors by judges. In 1932 the NSW Governor received advice from the NSW Chief Justice on dismissing the Lang Government, just as in 1927 his predecessor had received the Chief Justice’s advice on his reserve powers concerning the dissolution of Parliament and the ‘swamping’ of the upper House. In 1939, the next Chief Justice of the NSW Supreme Court advised the Governor about a constitutional crisis involving the defeat of the Government on a financial measure.

In Victoria, political instability and constitutional crises extended into the 1950s. In 1952, for example, the Chief Justice of the High Court, Sir Owen Dixon, along with the Chief Justice of the Victorian Supreme Court and a puisne judge, advised the Governor about a conflict very similar to that of 1975. Labor, with the support of break-away Liberals, blocked supply in the upper House. The Governor refused the Country Party Premier an election because supply would have run out during the election period. A new Premier was commissioned, who managed to achieve the passage of supply in the upper House but was then defeated in the lower House. Sir Owen Dixon first advised the Governor to refuse a dissolution and appoint the Labor leader, John Cain, as Premier because he led the largest party in the House. The Governor, Sir Dallas Brooks, replied that Cain would not accept the premiership because he preferred to go to the election as Opposition Leader. Dixon then advised the Governor to restore the former Premier to the premiership and grant him an election, which the Governor duly did. Note that Dixon was not simply advising on the scope of the Governor’s powers, but on how they should be exercised in the political circumstances.

The Victorian Governor again called upon Dixon’s aid on 2 April 1955. John Cain had been elected Premier of Victoria, but the Labor Party had split. Cain only had supply until 30 June and a faction of the Labor Party had proclaimed that it would not vote for supply when Parliament resumed. It was most likely that when Parliament met a vote of no confidence in the Government would be passed. Cain decided he wished to keep governing until the end of June without recalling Parliament to pass the supply bills. But if he resigned then, there would still have been a significant period in which the State had no supply. Dixon advised the Governor that he should ensure that there was no interval in which the services of Government were not paid. He told Brooks to tell Cain that he would not dissolve Parliament unless supply was provided or unless the possibility of a government of some kind obtaining supply was exhausted. This effectively warned Cain that rather than being permitted to go to an election as Premier, he would be replaced and a new government formed. In these circumstances, Cain agreed to the recall of Parliament in order to face a vote of no confidence. Cain’s government was defeated, he was granted a dissolution and went to the election as Premier, at which he was defeated.

Both these supply crises and the role of the Chief Justice in advising the vice-regal representative on their resolution show distinct similarities to what occurred in 1975. Interestingly, Sir John Kerr’s personal papers in the National Archives show that he took a great interest in what had occurred during the Victorian crises.

There were other occasions when Sir Owen Dixon gave advice to the Western Australian Governor. We only know this because he left behind diaries which informed the biography of Dixon written by Philip Ayres. We also know of Griffith’s and Barton’s extensive advice because their records were left to libraries and archives and because of the work of Don Markwell in writing about them. No doubt these examples are the tip of the iceberg and that much more informal advice has been given to vice-regal officers from judges over the years. In these circumstances, advice to vice-regal officers from judges can hardly be described as unprecedented, unusual or unconventional.

Looking at Sir Anthony Mason’s informal advice to Sir John Kerr through post-1975 eyes is unfair. In the context of the time, his actions were not inconsistent with those of his predecessors or his colleagues.

The primary objection to a judge giving informal advice to a vice-regal officer on a constitutional matter is that the matter might later come before the court. This was recognised by the Justices of the NSW Supreme Court when they agreed to advise the Governor in 1856 on the transition to responsible government. The Chief Justice, Sir Alfred Stephen, writing to the Governor, Sir William Denison on 8 February 1856, observed:

It is right to remind you, that in giving our views in the capacity rather of lawyers than of judges, without argument (or the means of hearing arguments) from any party to be affected by them, we may possibly hereafter, should the same question arise in the course of any judicial proceeding, see occasion to change these views, and that it will be our duty in the event of discussion to keep our minds open to change.

The other alternative is for a judge to decline to sit on a matter upon which he or she has previously advised. It should be remembered, however, that the likelihood of the exercise of the Governor-General’s reserve power to dismiss a Prime Minister being regarded as justiciable by the High Court in 1975 was extremely low. The question of whether the double dissolution criteria had been met could have come before the Court, but it does not appear that Sir Anthony advised upon that issue.

Since 1975, there have been significant changes. Some decisions of Governors-General have become subject to judicial review (see: R v Toohey (Aboriginal Land Commissioner); Ex parte Northern Land Council (1981) 151 CLR 170; and FAI Insurances v Winneke (1982) 151 CLR 342), but even now it is unlikely that the exercise of a reserve power would be regarded as justiciable. The High Court has also developed a stricter separation of powers, particularly when it comes to judges fulfilling roles that involve advising the executive, even as persona designata (see: Wilson v Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs (1996) 189 CLR 1). Yet all this, which we can see with the benefit of hindsight, could not have been seen in 1975.

Today, it would be unwise for a judge to advise a vice-regal representative. This has not, however, completely stopped this practice from occurring. In 1985, only ten years after the dismissal, the Victorian Governor, Sir Brian Murray, facing the prospect of dismissal from office, sought advice from the Victorian Chief Justice. The Chief Justice wisely refrained from advising but one of the other judges, Sir John Starke, who was shortly to retire, did provide advice to the Governor. Again, this is only known because of archival work. No doubt other examples also exist.

Perhaps the last word should go to the current Chief Justice of the High Court, Robert French. Taking into account the controversy surrounding the 1975 dismissal and the uncertainty concerning the justiciability of acts of the Governor-General, he concluded in his article ‘The Chief Justice and the Governor-General’ (2009) 33 MULR 647, at 656:

[I]t is difficult to conceive of circumstances today in which it would be necessary or appropriate for the Chief Justice to provide legal advice to the Governor-General on any course of action being contemplated by the holder of that office, whether such advice were tendered with the prior consent of the government of the day or otherwise. If, in some constitutional crisis requiring consideration of the possible exercise of reserve powers, the Governor-General felt the need to seek independent legal advice, there are plainly sources other than the Chief Justice to whom he or she could resort.

It is rare for the world to be watching when the High Court of Australia makes a decision. But so it was yesterday with British American Tobacco Australasia Limited & Ors v Commonwealth, the so-called ‘plain packaging’ case. The case concerned a challenge by several multinational cigarette companies (aka ‘Big Tobacco’) to the federal Tobacco Plain Packaging Act 2011, due to come into effect in December this year. The Act prohibits, among other things, the use of logos and trademarks on cigarette packets, and requires in their place health warnings on a background described as ‘drab dark brown’, and the printing of brand names in a small, generic font. The idea is to make packets as unglamorous, indeed disgusting, as possible and thus reduce smoking by repelling purchasers. Several other countries, apparently, are contemplating similar legislation; they watched for confirmation that this world-first initiative would survive. The decision, upholding the Act in its entirety and ordering the plaintiffs to pay costs, was greeted with resounding applause.
The international interest, no doubt, is encouraging for the Australian government and inspiring for anti-smoking campaigners. Still, it is intriguing, even faintly nonsensical, for other countries to take heart from this decision. The BATA challenge was mounted on numerous grounds, but revolved, essentially, around the particular constitutional claim that the Act compulsorily acquires the companies’ intellectual property without proper compensation. Section 51 (xxxi) of the Australian Constitution (the provision that starred, albeit misleadingly, in the iconic 1997 comedy ‘The Castle’) empowers the Commonwealth to acquire property, but requires ‘just terms’ in return. There may well be counterparts in the laws and constitutions of other countries, but existing Australian case law is unlikely to provide a trans-national precedent, and this latest case is unlikely to alter this.
Fascinating and frustrating at the same time, the Court only handed down its Orders yesterday, telling us that ‘at least a majority’ had found the law to be constitutionally valid (is someone still making up his or her mind?) and reserving the reasons for a later date. Analysis of the reasoning must therefore be speculative. But while we don’t know what the Court will say, we have some idea of what it will not say. Australia, it seems clear, has resisted the invitation to go down the ‘regulatory takings’ road that the United States has pioneered and other countries have followed.
The Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution (upon which Australia’s section 51 (xxxi) was more or less modelled) requires that ‘just compensation’ must be given when private property is taken for public use. This provision evolved in the twentieth century to apply not only to actual acquisition, but also to the regulation of property that goes ‘too far’, not merely impairing value or utility, but depriving the owner of the property’s use or economic value, or thwarting ‘investment backed expectations’. Zoning and land use laws were the seedbed of the doctrine in the 1920s, and have generated the greatest challenges. The Supreme Court has not been consistent in its approach, however, and it has looked to the degree to which the public interest is served by the relevant law against the extent of the regulation. This of course, is the rub in the present case. There can be no doubt that the cigarette companies’ economic value and investment backed expectations will be affected by the Act, and that such an argument would be central if a similar U.S. law were to pass, but how much weight would the countervailing public interest be given? As Chief Justice French said, when invited by BATA to consider the regulatory takings argument, ‘none of the [U.S.] cases to which you have taken us involve somebody putting into the marketplace a substance which places at risk of serious and fatal disease ... all who use it.’
But this aside, no one on the Court seemed to want to bite at the regulatory takings carrot. The decision, at a guess, will rest instead on the familiar argument (one that does not arise under U.S. takings law) that the Act (which merely adjusts statutory rights) does not involve an acquisition. To breach section 51 (xxxi) something first has to be ‘acquired’ by the Commonwealth. What is acquired does not have to be the same as what was lost, but some Commonwealth benefit has to be made out. No one was seriously arguing that the cigarette companies’ intellectual property had been transferred to the Commonwealth. BATA, however, submitted that a benefit lay in the ‘negative use’ of property, in the Commonwealth’s ability to impose its own design, etc, on BATA’s property, and in its use of the property for its own ends. The Court, it is clear, did not embrace these propositions. We wait now, to find out why.
Meanwhile, other countries should not celebrate too soon, but would be wise to hold off for the WTO’s ruling in the challenge brought by Ukraine, Honduras, and the Dominican Republic to the Australian Act alleging breach of international trade law. That is where the international lesson will really lie. Meanwhile, in Australia (with a ruling that paradoxically reverses the grounds for the fictional ‘little man’s’ victory against big commercial interests depicted in ‘The Castle’) the government and, with it, the ordinary public can breathe freely. At least for the moment.

Luke Beck, a CRU Associate, has contributed the following post about prayer in the Commonwealth Parliament:

From time to time there are calls for Parliament to stop opening its proceedings with prayers. Equally, there are those who support the practice. For example, former prime minister, John Howard once said that to get rid of parliamentary prayers would be to ‘abandon our Judeo-Christian heritage’.

But why does Parliament open with prayers and is the practice legal?

Why Parliament prays

Parliament did not introduce prayers because of ‘our Judeo-Christian heritage’. It introduced prayers in response to lobbying from churches.

During the 1890s when the Constitution was being drafted, the colonial churches began a campaign of petitions calling for three things. The petitions read:

1. That in the preamble of the Constitution of the Australian Commonwealth it be recognised that God is the Supreme Ruler of the world, and the ultimate source of all law and authority in nations.
2. That there also be embodied in the said Constitution, or in the standing orders of the Federal Parliament, a provision that each daily session of the Upper and Lowers Houses of the Federal Parliament be opened with a prayer by the President and Speaker, or by a chaplain.
3. That the Governor-General be empowered to appoint days of national thanksgiving and humiliation. The Constitutional Convention drafting the Constitution received 49 petitions to this effect containing more than 36,000 signatures. That was a very large number in the 1890s.

The petitioners achieved two of their aims. The preamble to the Constitution says that in deciding to federate the Australian people were ‘humbly relying on the blessing of Almighty God’. And prayers began in Parliament in June 1901.

It is interesting to note that the Constitutional Convention did not start its day with prayers. And, only some of the colonial Parliaments had prayers. Indeed, some of them had even abandoned the practice by the time of the Constitutional Convention. Some of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention considered the parliamentary practice to be a ‘farce’, ‘a perfect piece of mockery’ and a ‘matter of … indifference’.

What are the prayers?

There are two parliamentary prayers. In the House of Representatives the Speaker reads the following prayers:

Almighty God, we humbly beseech Thee to vouchsafe Thy blessing upon this Parliament. Direct and prosper our deliberations to the advancement of Thy glory, and the true welfare of the people of Australia.
Our Father, which art in Heaven: Hallowed be Thy Name. Thy Kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, as it is in Heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive them that trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation; but deliver us from evil: For Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever and ever. Amen.

The first prayer in the Senate read by its President has a minor difference in wording.

Are these prayers ‘Judeo-Christian’? You can probably recognise the second prayer as the Lord’s Prayer. But it is not generically Christian.

There are two versions of the Lord’s Prayer: a Catholic one and a Protestant one. The difference is the line ‘For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever and ever’. That line appears only in the King James Version of the Bible used by Protestants.

When the prayers were introduced in the House of Representatives in 1901, the Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne at the time called them ‘distinctly Protestant’.

The first prayer is not just distinctly Protestant it is also distinctly Anglican. It is a modified version of the ‘Prayer for the High Court of Parliament’ in the Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer.

Is it legal?

As it happens, there are also petitions relevant to this question.

The churches were not the only ones sending petitions to the Constitutional Convention in the 1890s. Petitions with almost 8,000 signatures were sent to the Convention asking it to ensure that the Commonwealth would not be able to legislate to interfere with religious liberty.

These petitions were largely organised by the Seventh Day Adventists who were worried that any reference to God in the Constitution might be seen as giving the Commonwealth power to legislate for religious matters. They feared they might be on the receiving end of any such legislation.

They got what they wanted too. At the end of the Constitutional Convention, its president Edmund Barton, who later became Australia’s first prime minister, explained what had been decided:

While, therefore, a concession has been made to the popular opinion that some reverential expression should be embodied in the preamble, due care has been taken by the Convention that no reliance upon that provision, and no far-fetched arguments based upon it, shall lead to any infraction of religious liberty under the laws of the Commonwealth which we hope to create

The due care was section 116 of the Constitution. It says:

The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth.

So, do the standing orders requiring parliamentary prayers violate section 116? The prayers appear to closely identify Parliament – the heart of the Australian state – with Protestant Christianity. After all, the first prayer says that Parliament works to the advancement of God’s glory. This might be seen as involving some sort of religious establishment.

The standing orders also rather look like they impose a religious observance. They command the Speaker (and the President of the Senate) to read the prayers. Mandatory prayer might also be seen as an interference with the free exercise of religion.

Even if all of this were accepted it would only make the prayers unconstitutional if the standing orders requiring they be read are ‘laws’. There are arguments for and against that conclusion, and the answer is not clear.

That said, one politician seems to have had a point when he said in opposing the introduction of parliamentary prayers in 1901:

What did the framers of the Constitution mean? Did they mean that the Parliament was not to impose religious observances in the streets or in the schools? Did they mean that Parliament was not to impose religious observances anywhere else but here?

If you look closely at section 116 you will see that its final clause about religious tests is not limited in its application only to laws. If it were to be accepted that the requirement to read prayers every day amounts to a religious test for the position of Speaker (and also President of the Senate) then there might well be constitutional problems with the parliamentary prayers.

Legalities aside, given that in the 2011 census nearly half of the population reported either being Catholic (25.3%) or having no religion (22.3%) it might be wondered why Parliament continues to say distinctly Protestant prayers every day.

Does the Tasmanian Parliament have the power to pass a law permitting same-sex marriage? The short answer is ‘Yes’. But the more difficult question is whether that law will be effective or whether it will be inoperative because it is inconsistent with a Commonwealth law. The answer to this question is unclear and unknowable until the High Court decides.

The answer will depend upon two decisions which ultimately the High Court would have to make, assuming that the constitutional validity of the Tasmanian law would be challenged. The first is whether the Commonwealth Parliament’s constitutional power in s 51(xxi) to make laws with respect to ‘marriage’ extends to the marriage of same-sex couples. If the answer is ‘No’, then there would be no issue of a conflict between State and Commonwealth laws and a State Parliament, exercising its plenary legislative powers, could enact laws concerning same-sex marriage (although there may be an argument about whether the term ‘marriage’ ought to be used in such circumstances). If the answer is ‘Yes’, then the High Court would have to decide whether there was an inconsistency between any State law on marriage and the Commonwealth’s marriage law. If there was an inconsistency, then the Commonwealth law would prevail and the State law would be inoperative to the extent of the inconsistency.

The meaning of ‘marriage’ in the Commonwealth Constitution

Whether the Commonwealth Parliament has the power to legislate with respect to the marriage of same-sex couples will depend upon the approach to constitutional interpretation taken by the Court. If an originalist approach is taken, the Court will consider the contemporary meaning of the term ‘marriage’ at the time the Constitution was enacted in 1900. In doing so, it would take into account the common law, the statutes and the practice of the late nineteenth century. In 1866 Lord Penzance, in Hyde v Hyde, defined marriage as being ‘the voluntary union for life of one man and one woman, to the exclusion of all others’. This definition is likely to be regarded as representing the meaning of the term ‘marriage’ at the time the Constitution was enacted. It has been adopted by Australian courts from time to time in interpreting the meaning of ‘marriage’ in the Constitution. For example, Justice Brennan applied it in The Queen v L (1991) 174 CLR 379, 391-2.

The constitutional definition of ‘marriage’ cannot be expanded by the Parliament. As Justices Mason and Deane noted in Re F; ex parte F (1986) 161 CLR 376, at 389:

Obviously, the Parliament cannot extend the ambit of its own legislative powers by purporting to give to “Marriage” an even wider meaning than that which the word bears in its constitutional context.

However, the High Court can expand its meaning by way of constitutional interpretation if it is to take a non-originalist approach. It could look to the meaning of ‘marriage’ today, taking into account ‘contemporary understandings of its meaning’ including changes in the meaning of language and the different social circumstances in which the language applies. Justice McHugh explained these two contrasting approaches in Re Wakim; Ex parte McNally (1999) 198 CLR 511, where he said at 553:

[I]n 1901 “marriage” was seen as meaning a voluntary union for life between one man and one woman to the exclusion of all others. If that level of abstraction were now accepted, it would deny the Parliament of the Commonwealth the power to legislate for same sex marriages, although arguably “marriage” now means, or in the near future may mean, a voluntary union for life between two people to the exclusion of others.

The difficulty, however, if one takes a non-originalist approach, is identifying at what point the contemporary meaning of a term has changed and what level and evidence of community support is needed to justify a change in constitutional meaning. Given the current highly contested political debate on the meaning of ‘marriage’ this would be a difficult decision for the High Court to make.

Inconsistency of laws on marriage

If the High Court decided that the Commonwealth Parliament does have the power to legislate about same-sex marriages under s 51(xxi) of the Constitution, then a question would arise as to whether any Tasmanian law on the subject would be inconsistent with a valid Commonwealth law on the subject. The Marriage Act 1961 (Cth) provides in s 5 that ‘"marriage" means the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life.’ It picks up Lord Penzance’s definition from 1866 and would safely fall within an originalist interpretation of s 51(xxi) of the Constitution. The Marriage Act then sets out the requirements for all marriages solemnised in Australia and sets out the pre-conditions for marriage and the circumstances in which marriages are invalid.

The question would be whether the proposed Tasmanian law would be inconsistent with the Marriage Act. This would depend upon the wording of the Tasmanian law. If the Tasmanian law purported to give to same-sex couples the legal status of being ‘married’ for the purposes of all law across Australia, including Commonwealth law, this would give rise to a direct inconsistency with the Marriage Act, as it would be purporting to grant people a status which is denied to them by a Commonwealth law. It would therefore be inoperative to the extent of this inconsistency.

In any case, it would be beyond the legislative powers of the Tasmanian Parliament to purport to confer on persons the status of ‘married’ for the purposes of laws in other States or the Commonwealth. Hence, a Tasmanian same-sex marriage, even if made under a valid and operative Tasmanian law, would not give the same-sex couple any of the legal rights of a ‘married’ couple under Commonwealth law or under the law of any other State (unless the States or Commonwealth legislated to recognize the status of same-sex couples married in Tasmania or the courts interpreted existing laws widely enough to pick up a married status under Tasmanian laws). Same-sex couples married in Tasmania would most likely not, in effect, be legally ‘married’ for any purposes other than Tasmanian laws. This might dampen the anticipated tourist trade in same-sex weddings, if such a ‘marriage’ would not change the couple’s marital status on mainland Australia.

Even if the Tasmanian law was drafted so as to confine its effects to Tasmanian laws, it might still be held to be inconsistent with the Commonwealth’s Marriage Act to the extent that the Commonwealth law was regarded as ‘covering the field’ of marriage. Although the Marriage Act confines its definition of marriage to opposite sex couples, it is likely to be argued that it was intended to cover the entire field of marriage within Australia and to prohibit marriage of same-sex couples, just as it prohibits certain other marriages, including marriages between certain family members. Section 48 states that marriages solemnised in Australia otherwise than as stipulated by the provisions of the relevant division are not valid. Section 88EA also says that a union solemnised in a foreign country between a man and another man or a woman and another woman must not be recognized as a marriage in Australia. These provisions suggest an intention to cover the field. While s 6 of the Marriage Act states that the Act shall not be taken to exclude the application of State laws in so far as they relate to the ‘registration’ of ‘marriages’, this is only directed to registration – not the solemnisation of marriages and it is also confined to ‘marriages’ as defined by the Act.


A Tasmanian law permitting same-sex marriage, even if operative, would do little more than facilitate the holding of a ceremony, the consumption of champagne and the taking of photos. It might confer on the parties to a same-sex marriage the status of ‘married’ for the purposes of Tasmanian legislation, but it is most unlikely that they would be regarded as legally ‘married’ for the purposes of Commonwealth law or under the law of any other State and would therefore not attract any legal benefits or status accorded to a married couple.

In addition, there is a distinct possibility that such a law would be held to be inoperative because it is inconsistent with a valid Commonwealth law. It is therefore not yet time for same-sex marriage proponents to crack open the champagne.