Queensland LNP senator Matt Canavan insists the newly referred Senate inquiry into the ACT government's forced takeover of Calvary hospital will not alone stop the acquisition, but he is expecting the territory government will be a "bit embarrassed".
ACT independent senator David Pocock said the referral of the bill effectively sets up a federal Senate inquiry by stealth and he is concerned about the precedent it sets.
Less than a year after the restoration of territory rights over assisted dying laws, Senator Canavan also insists the inquiry is not lording over the ACT.
"I'm not telling a territory what to do. The bill doesn't tell the territory what to do. An inquiry cannot tell a territory what to do. The territory can do what it would like to do. But I think one thing the territory government cannot expect is that it should be somehow immune from scrutiny," he told The Canberra Times.
The federal opposition has pitched itself firmly against the move against Calvary's Catholic operators to create a new $1 billion northside hospital, but the ACT Labor-Greens government, and the federal government through Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, insists the acquisition is about restructuring healthcare and it is not driven by religion.
In a surprise move, the federal Greens combined on Thursday with the Coalition to refer Senator Canavan's Australian Capital Territory (Self-Government) Amendment Bill, a private senators' bill, to the Senate's legal and constitutional affairs legislative committee.
The move, a "Plan B" by Senator Canavan, forces an inquiry by the Labor-controlled committee into the decision by the ACT government, including the ACT Greens, by inquiring into the bill. The bill itself seeks to make the territory government hold an inquiry which would report back before June 30, 2024.
The federal Greens insist the support is a "run of the mill matter of Senate procedure" and not part of any deal or concession to the Coalition over its fervent opposition to the takeover.
Government sources have questioned the Greens apparent support through the inquiry for what they call Senator Canavan's "latest culture war".
The Greens are adamant that is not the case and they will not support Senator Canavan's bill when it comes to the vote.
While the committee will scrutinise the bill, Senator Canavan is expecting submissions and perhaps a hearing to look into the entire takeover.
Senator Pocock, who supports a territory level inquiry, abstained on the vote.
"Today we saw interstate federal Senate colleagues from the Coalition and the Greens team up to interfere in an ACT government issue," he said.
"After a 25-year battle to restore our territory rights I am concerned about the precedent this sets."
Senator Canavan said inquiry alone cannot stop the acquisition, and that is not what the bill does, but he wants to shine a light on it.
"It does seem to be a very bad situation. A lot of people whose employment has been thrown up in the air. People are concerned about their health services in the months ahead," the Queensland senator said.
"We possibly can get some good outcomes for people through this because who knows what happens, but maybe the ACT government will be a bit embarrassed by some of the details that come out through an inquiry and I'll have to respond and make good on certain matters. So let's just see what happens.
"One thing though an inquiry might do is cause a backlash that might cause them to reconsider the decision, but that's ultimately still a decision for the ACT government."
ACT Health Minister Rachel Stephen-Smith said the inquiry would not hold up the government's takeover of Calvary.
She said the new Senate inquiry was frustrating but said the territory government was happy to provide evidence.
"It is very frustrating at some level that the Senate has recently voted to uphold territory rights in relation to removing that restriction in the Self-Government Act around our capacity to make our own decisions on voluntary assisted dying and there's now debate on another bill to restrict territory rights," she said.
Senator Canavan said he was "much more keen to protect the rights of territory people than I am to protect the rights of the territory government."
The ACT Greens have backed their federal counterparts.
"The Greens support almost all private members' bills being referred to committee, as do Labor. It's standard process," Emma Davidson, the ACT Greens Minister for Mental Health said in a statement.
"The federal Labor Party choosing to create a political wedge in the Senate on this, is nothing but a cheap stunt. Referring private members bills to committee doesn't equate to supporting the bill. The Greens will never support this legislation."
Ms Stephen-Smith did not criticise the federal Greens over the move, also describing the referral to committee as a "pretty standard process".
Despite the acquisition bill passing the territory's parliament, she said the Legislative Assembly's standing committee on health could decide to undertake an inquiry. However she said that would be a matter for the committee members.
"This is about the federal Coalition playing games in the federal Parliament aided and abetted by the Canberra Liberals," Ms Stephen-Smith said.
Acting ACT opposition leader Jeremy Hanson was "thankful" for the actions of the federal Greens.
"It is normal practice for legislation to be subjected to an inquiry and if the ACT Greens along with the Labor Party had not blocked an inquiry in the Legislative Assembly none of this would be happening," he said.
"The behaviour of the ACT Labor-Greens government has created significant concerns about the democratic process not being followed as it should be.
"I am thankful that the federal Greens are not trampling over democratic process in the Senate as their counterparts are in the assembly."
The take-over of the hospital is well under way with the government to take full control from July 3. Ms Stephen-Smith said more than 1100 of the 1800 staff at the Bruce hospital had signed a form to transition to the new North Canberra Hospital.
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