By Dr Lael Weis
How could the same constitutional provision that Darryl Kerrigan famously invoked to protect his ‘castle’ be relied upon by former Members of Parliament to protect ‘gratuitous’ — in the sense that they go above and beyond entitlements based on superannuation contributions — retirement benefits against any possible future reductions? As news coverage of the High Court’s recent decision in Cunningham v Commonwealth  HCA suggests, the very contention is offensive to public sensibilities.
The constitutional provision in question, s 51(xxxi), protects individuals from the arbitrary acquisition of property by requiring that the acquisition of property by the Commonwealth be ‘on just terms’. Yet it seems highly counterintuitive to think of gratuitous retirement benefits — funded by taxpayer money, no less — as ‘property’ that the Constitution affords protection to. As one opinion piece scoffed, ‘you could hardly be blamed for imagining a snort of derision from the Bench at the implication that the [former parliamentarians] believed it was their own money they were fighting for.’ Surely they’re dreamin’ … or are they?
In this blog post I will briefly comment on the seemingly odd character of the constitutional challenge, explaining why Cunningham is not in fact that odd as far as s 51(xxxi) cases go. I will then offer a few remarks on what the commonplace character of challenges of this kind tells us about the broader challenges that confront the High Court’s jurisprudence in this area, and why the Court didn’t exactly tell the plaintiffs to ‘dream on’.
‘Property’ protected by the constitutional guarantee
In reality, cases like Darryl Kerrigan’s — which involve straightforward real property interests — are atypical for Australian constitutional property law. Australian constitutional property law much more frequently Continue reading