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Wednesday, 4 June 2008
Page: 4500


Mr GEORGIOU (6:15 PM) —I speak today in support of the Same-Sex Relationships (Equal Treatment in Commonwealth Laws—Superannuation) Bill 2008. This bill initiates a process of long overdue reform to remove discrimination against same-sex couples and their families from the federal statute book, beginning with superannuation. In 2004, the coalition government improved access to superannuation for interdependent and same-sex couples in private funds. A similar move was proposed for Commonwealth superannuation. This extension had not taken place by the time the government was replaced in the 2007 election. Today, discrimination on the grounds of sexuality still exists in administrative areas of federal legislation, including taxation, social security, superannuation, health care and employment.

On 21 June 2007 the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission tabled in parliament the final report of their Same-sex: same entitlements inquiry. Conducted over a 14-month period, the inquiry included an extensive consultation and review process which heard firsthand of the impact of discriminatory laws on same-sex couples and their children. It concluded that same-sex couples in Australia:

... experience systematic discrimination on a daily basis.

Same-sex couples are denied the right to carers leave when their partner falls ill, they incur higher health costs because they are unable to access Medicare and Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme safety nets as a couple and they are excluded from numerous tax concessions enjoyed by opposite-sex couples. As partners of federal government public servants they are denied access to certain superannuation and death benefits. As partners of veterans they are not entitled to a range of pensions or concessions and in their old age they pay more for access to aged-care facilities.

HREOC found that 58 federal laws relating to finance and work related entitlements discriminate against same-sex couples and that this discrimination constitutes a breach of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Where these same laws discriminate against the children of same-sex couples, it found them to be in breach of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. HREOC described these breaches as:

... contrary to one of the most fundamental principles of international law: the right to equality.

The recommendations of the Same-sex: same entitlements report form the basis of the reforms before us today. When HREOC handed down its report in June last year, the then government—the Howard government—committed to review the commission’s recommendations and confer with interest groups in preparing its response. The response was not formalised before the 2007 election, but the Labor Party, as part of its election campaign, committed itself to implementing the HREOC reforms in full.

On 11 March this year I placed on the Notice Paper the question of when the government intended to implement the recommendations of the Same-sex: same entitlements report. I thank the Attorney-General for his answer and I welcome his commitment to eradicating this discrimination by implementing all the necessary legislative changes.

The amendments proposed in this bill have been prioritised due to the time-critical nature of the reforms that will allow reversionary death benefits to be paid to same-sex partners and their children where they presently have no entitlement. As the House is aware, the opposition proposed to refer the bill to a Senate committee to ensure it removes discrimination against people in same-sex relationships without unintended adverse side effects. Such references are the norm and I trust the committee will undertake its review expeditiously so that this reform can be implemented as planned on 1 July 2008.

The same-sex relationships bill addresses the discrimination identified in the HREOC report by amending 14 Commonwealth acts. Some of these govern particular superannuation schemes while others regulate superannuation and related taxation more generally. The affected superannuation schemes include—and I will only name a few—the Commonwealth Superannuation Scheme, the scheme under the Superannuation Act 1922, the Governor-General Pension Scheme and the Parliamentary Contributory Superannuation Scheme.

Same-sex couples are particularly adversely affected by current discriminatory legislation in the area of death benefits. Generally, superannuation savings flow through to the family of the beneficiary. But for same-sex couples this is not always the case. Because Commonwealth superannuation schemes require the couple to be of the opposite sex, same-sex partners may be ineligible to access their deceased partner’s entitlements. Alternatively, if they qualify as the beneficiary’s dependant they may receive an amount far less than that awarded to a spouse. In particular, a same-sex partner cannot normally receive a reversionary benefit. This inequity flows through to the children of same-sex relationships who may also fail to qualify for entitlement. But the impact is not just pecuniary. As one federal government employee expressed to HREOC:

I write to you to highlight the real consequences that the Commonwealth’s active discrimination of people in same-sex relationships have had in my life. I felt sick when I realised that once again the loving and supportive relationship I had with my same-sex partner, was not supported by the legal and social systems under which I conduct my daily life.

This bill creates equal treatment for same-sex and opposite-sex couples in superannuation legislation. It amends the legislation by removing the term ‘marital relationship’ and replaces it with ‘couple relationship’. It also changes the terms relating to the members of that relationship from ‘husband and wife’ to ‘partner’. Similarly, gender-specific terminology such as ‘widow’ is changed to the gender neutral ‘spouse’. I emphasise that removing discrimination offers nothing more and nothing less than equality. This bill does not introduce new entitlements for couples and families. It simply creates a long-awaited parity between same-sex and opposite-sex relationships with respect to existing entitlements. I also know—and it is sometimes glossed over on occasions—that the impact of equality will be negative on some same-sex couples. They will be treated in ways where they will lose benefits, not just gain them.

I have mentioned previously that HREOC identified 58 separate pieces of federal legislation that discriminated against same-sex couples and their children. I understand that an audit commissioned by the government earlier this year identified approximately 100 areas of discrimination. I welcome the government’s commitment to introduce legislation which will end discrimination against same-sex couples in federal law across all areas identified by the government audit.

That these future reforms occur in a timely manner is crucial. As a society, we do need to face up to the fact that discrimination devalues our society. I should note that there have been concerns expressed about some issues this bill raises: that of interdependent relationships and the definition of the child. With respect to the first issue, it was an election commitment of the coalition government to ensure that all permanent interdependent domestic relationships, including but not restricted to same-sex couples, are treated equally in relation to financial affairs. I call on the government to consider extending the reforms to these people. However, I believe that this bill itself should be enacted promptly.

As to the second issue, that of children, this bill defines children of same-sex and opposite-sex couples in the same way and treats them equally for the purposes of superannuation benefits. It leaves in place any difference in the treatment of the children of married and unmarried couples, whether the latter are heterosexual or same-sex couples. With respect to any concerns that this bill devalues marriage, I have to say frankly that I think that these concerns are unfounded.

I would like to put on record my appreciation and thanks for the work that HREOC has put into its report. I believe that the report has played an unparalleled role in bringing these issues before the House today. I would also like to give special acknowledgement to Warren Entsch, the former member for Leichhardt, who put his heart and soul into ending the discrimination faced by same-sex couples. I believe that Warren belongs to that group of liberal statesmen and leaders that acted in the best tradition of the Liberal Party and ended the criminalisation of homosexual acts. I think it was a great disappointment that the coalition government did not resolve this issue while Warren was in parliament.

I would also like to extend my gratitude to all those in the wider community who have worked tirelessly for many years in the effort to end discrimination on the grounds of sexuality. I look forward to the promised further legislation to remove discriminatory provisions and I congratulate the government for commencing these important and long-overdue reforms. I commend the bill to the House.