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Wednesday, 4 June 2008
Page: 4482

Mr BUTLER (4:59 PM) —In the government’s view, the truest measure of a genuinely enlightened society is how we treat difference and diversity. The history of humanity is riddled with prejudice and discrimination and I, like many members in this House and in the other place, have been fortunate to have lived during a period which included the most significant advances in this respect in the history of humanity. We have seen, if not the entire elimination of discrimination, at least the beginnings of a serious fight against discrimination on the grounds of race, gender, religion, political belief and a number of other historical grounds of prejudice and discrimination. But discrimination on the grounds of sexuality or sexual preference remains a deep and continuing problem in our society. It remains a stain on the soul of this nation. The Same-Sex Relationships (Equal Treatment in Commonwealth Laws—Superannuation) Bill 2008 is a watershed in addressing discrimination against homosexuals and discrimination on the ground of sexual preference. It follows on from significant action in recent years by a number of state governments. In my own state of South Australia, legislation passed in the last couple of years now allows a same-sex partner visitation rights to the hospital to visit their sick partner as of right. Before the legislation passed in South Australia, a same-sex partner would not have been able to collect the remains of their dead partner from the morgue and would not have had the next-of-kin rights in relation to funerals and other post-death arrangements.

Unfortunately, though, as we know, the key levers in this area, as in so many others, lie with the Commonwealth, and the last government simply chose not to act. There was the glimmer of hope in May 2004 when the then Prime Minister, at a press conference, said that same-sex partners should have the same superannuation rights as married couples. One week later, every single member of the then government voted against a motion by the then opposition to introduce legislation to put that statement into effect. The present Leader of the House, the member for Grayndler, first moved a private member’s bill to establish these same-sex superannuation rights in 1998, and he has moved that private member’s bill on several occasions since. On every single occasion, he was opposed by every single member of the government.

As happens so often, the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission cast a very great public spotlight on this problem. In the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission report in 2007 entitled Same-sex: same entitlements, it was revealed that 58 pieces of legislation of the Commonwealth parliament discriminated against same-sex partners and children of same-sex partners. Those pieces of legislation involved breaches of a number of our international obligations, including the rights of children under various UN instruments. This was the result of very wide-ranging public consultations and 680 written submissions. The report was of almost 500 pages, but there is a community guide available, which I commend to everyone. It is short and very readable and contains some very stark examples of the discrimination that some 20,000 same-sex couples and their children in Australia face every day—discrimination at the hands of legislation of this parliament. For example, in the area of Comcare, the same-sex partner of a worker covered by that scheme is not entitled to lump-sum workers compensation death benefits as is the case with other couples. I could go on and illustrate many other examples, but I will not for the sake of time.

As an election promise for last year’s election, the Labor Party made a commitment to implement all of the recommendations of the HREOC report, and this bill starts that process. Indeed, after the election the new Attorney-General conducted an audit of Commonwealth legislation that revealed 47 additional instances of discrimination against same-sex partners. Those will be part of the program that this government has to remove this stain of discrimination.

The first phase of this phased approach, though, is to deal with the question of superannuation, and the first part of that is a range of reversionary benefits that apply under various Commonwealth superannuation schemes. Now a surviving same-sex partner, or a child of a same-sex couple, will have the same reversionary benefit rights that exist with other couples. The second part of the legislation is to extend tax concessions that apply on death benefits that flow from all superannuation schemes in South Australia—death benefits that would be paid to a same-sex partner or to the child of a same-sex couple when the deceased partner is not a biological parent. These are instances where at present under existing law those people get nothing.

The public support for these proposals is overwhelming, contrary to what the Leader of the Opposition just said. A poll conducted last year in June by Galaxy showed that fully 71 per cent of Australians supported the proposals contained in the HREOC report. For that reason the opposition position, if a bit predictable, is highly disappointing. The referral of this legislation, or any other legislation that seeks to implement the HREOC findings, to a Senate committee simply delays something that has been on the public agenda for years and has been examined in minute detail by HREOC, as I have sought to outline. Time is of the essence in relation to these matters. Same-sex couples and their children have waited too long for this discrimination to be removed from the Commonwealth legislation books. The tax arrangements that would apply if this bill were passed quickly should come into effect on 1 July, and the opposition’s position will delay that. Every death that takes place from now on before the legislation passes will see a reversionary benefit denied to same-sex partners or the children of non-biological parents in a same-sex relationship.

The second point made by the Leader of the Opposition goes to interdependency—again, a fairly predictable point raised by the opposition. Again, the House has a standing committee which is currently inquiring into interdependency issues. The Standing Committee on Family, Community, Housing and Youth is currently conducting an inquiry into the question of interdependent relationships, and it is more than appropriate, in our view, that that question be considered by that committee. This legislation seeks to deal with a range of family relationships which operate under same-sex couples and are quite different in type from the interdependent relationships outlined by the Leader of the Opposition. The government’s position is that those relationships deserve attention and examination but that there is a process in place that will do that and that that process should be allowed to continue.

One of the other aspects of this bill, and the bills that will follow it, that is incredibly important is to make uniform across the nation the way in which same-sex couples and their children can access these newly-won rights. The various bits of state legislation that have passed in this area frankly contain fairly inconsistent approaches to this. The Labor Party’s position on this is well known and was taken to the last election. We favour a system of registration based on the Tasmanian scheme and schemes which are either newly in place or soon to be in place in Victoria and the ACT. There is, for example, no such system in South Australia, which has relied instead on a range of qualifying criteria, and it is the view of the government that those different arrangements need to be brought into line.

Again predictably, the Leader of the Opposition’s address on this bill contains something of a scare campaign around the sanctity of marriage. Well, the position of the government is quite clear on this point. Our policy was quite clear before the election and it has been quite clear since. For that reason we have sought to bring in bills that focus, instead, on practical discrimination. The Labor Party has supported changes to the Marriage Act in recent years, and to say that these bills might somehow affect a completely different piece of legislation—the Marriage Act—is to draw a very long bow and to engage in nothing more or less than a scare campaign. To paraphrase HREOC, all that this bill seeks to do is to focus on ensuring that all couples have the same rights, whether or not they are married.

In conclusion can I say that this is the most significant advance in the rights of gay and lesbian Australians since the decriminalisation of homosexuality in the 1970s. This stain has remained on our nation’s soul for far too long and it is high time that it is removed. I commend the bill to the House and I urge the opposition to allow it to pass forthwith.