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Tuesday, 19 March 1985
Page: 401

Senator GARETH EVANS (Minister for Resources and Energy)(4.02) —in reply-If I might pick up my remarks where I left off in the Senate on 28 February, it might be useful to remind honourable senators what the Marriage Amendment Bill does and does not do. The purpose of the Bill is to implement an international convention to enable the easier recognition of overseas marriages. It will also, in some other incidental provisions, clarify the interaction of the Marriage Act and State legislation dealing with parentage of artificial insemination by donor and in vitro fertilisation children; it will extend the maximum period of notice of intended marriage; and it will enable grants to be made for the purposes of marriage education. The Bill will not in any way rewrite the law relating to the dissolution of marriage. That is something entirely dealt with in the Family Law Act, although as I indicated previously, a good deal of the contributions to the second reading debate seemed to proceed on a different assumption.

Furthermore, there are two specific things that also attracted a great deal of debate which the Bill does not do and which it is not its purpose to achieve. The first of those specific things relates to in vitro fertilisation. I make it clear again that it is not the purpose and could not possibly be seen to be the purpose of this Bill to give this Parliament's stamp of approval to in vitro fertilisation or other procedures. The Bill simply makes it clear that the provisions of the Marriage Act dealing with legitimacy do not affect in any way the legitimacy of those children if the States or Territories choose to make specific provision for their parentage. It is simply a clarificatory exercise to avoid any possible argument of some intention on the part of the Commonwealth or on the part of the operation of the Marriage Act to override the arrangements that are properly in this respect matters for the States.

The other specific thing the Bill does not do, although there have been some fairly extravagant suggestions that it might have this effect, is enable so-called homosexual marriages to be recognised under the Hague Convention on Celebration and Recognition of the Validity of Marriages. Perhaps that point deserves just a little more elaboration for the benefit in particular of some of the more lasciviously inclined members of this chamber who seem determined to read such an interpretation into the language of the Bill. Honourable senators will recall that in the course of my earlier remarks in reply I mentioned that the Government was not aware of any overseas jurisdiction at all which recognised homosexual marriages and which as such could be picked up possibly by the operation of the legislation. It is probably impossible to speak for the whole world, but I can say that in the recess the opportunity was taken to seek urgent advice from the United States and the Scandinavian countries, which were areas mentioned particularly by Senator Teague in this respect. I am glad to be able to advise the Senate that advice received from Denmark, Norway, Sweden and the United States is that none of those places recognises the legality of marriages between parties of the same sex. The same advice has been received in respect of West Germany through its Embassy. Why West Germany in particular was singled out for this attention I am not sure; maybe someone had just come back from Hamburg. Mr Justice Nygh, who represented Australia at the session of the Hague conference which finalised the Convention in question, has also advised that these unions were definitely not in the contemplation of the framers of the Convention, so to the extent that there might be some argument about what the text of the Convention is meant to encompass, or in fact does encompass, that is a helpful clarification also.

If I might revert to other matters raised in debate during the second reading stage, Senator Durack referred to the establishment of the pilot project for family law centres as a duplication of existing services. Two of these centres, which are now called family conciliation centres, are being set up on a pilot basis in Dandenong and Wollongong. The object of the centres is to assist in identifying problems which may lead to marital breakdown, and to do so before the parties are locked into the judicial process. They will offer a range of services in the one spot instead of having the situation where people are lost in the process of being shunted about from one agency to another. They will offer interpersonal counselling, financial counselling, legal advice, mediation services and social welfare advice. I would have thought that their creation would have had the wholehearted enthusiasm of all members of this chamber.

Senator Harradine —They will be reconciliation counselling centres?

Senator GARETH EVANS —That is the intention. I think the concepts of conciliation and reconciliation overlap. It is certainly the intention to enable as many of these problems as possible, in particular problems with a wider ranging cause than purely interpersonal conflict, to be sorted out before the parties hie themselves off to lawyers and get involved in a litigation frame of mind.

I turn finally to the subject matter of the proposed Committee stage amendment relating to civil celebrants' fees in the hope that by mentioning it now I can keep very brief any supplementary remarks I might need to make in the Committee stage. As I understand it, the amendment proposed by Senator Durack on behalf of the Opposition would not just delete clause 15 (b) of the Bill, which was the original proposal before us, but rather would insert in its place a provision to allow civil celebrants to contract out of the prescribed fee. The arguments put forward by Senator Durack and Senator Teague-presumably in the new dry mode which has afflicted the Liberal Party-were essentially that civil celebrants should be free to charge any amount they see fit and that market forces will determine the appropriate price. The Government will not under any circumstances support this amendment. The provision setting fees has been part of the regulations since their commencement in 1963 and the purpose of the Government's amendment in clause 15 (b) of the Bill is not to change that situation in any way but rather simply to clarify it for all concerned. It is our intention that celebrants in respect of the solemnisation of marriage not charge more than the set fee; in other words, that it be a statutory maximum. The Government quite firmly rejects the Opposition's characterisation of the marriage celebrant service as a market-place situation. Civil celebrants are very carefully chosen on the basis of their suitability for this important task and the need of the population in the particular geographic area.

Senator Missen's comments about the difficulty involved in having people appointed simply reflect the very careful consideration that the Attorney-General's Department and the Attorney-General, I assure him, personally give to those applications. Celebrants are not, however, given authority to solemnise marriages in order to make a living out of the task. They provide a community service. That was the Government's intention and that will remain its intention. If the fees that celebrants can charge were left totally to their discretion, members of the public in the area in question would be totally at the mercy of any price fixing arrangement made between the celebrants in that area. In some of the more remote localities, where one could not expect the play of market forces competitively to have much reality, that could be quite disastrous. It is no answer to suggest that other celebrants could be appointed to the area in question to create a competitive environment. What are we to do? Continue appointing celebrants until one can be found who will charge a reasonable fee? What if no suitable persons can be found? In any case, the Government takes the view, which I am sure Senator Harradine will share, that the institution of marriage is not likely to be strengthened in the public sight by the unseemly spectacle of price wars between marriage celebrants.

Senator Harradine —The mind boggles.

Senator GARETH EVANS —I conclude, with that contribution by Senator Harradine, by making the point that the fact the Government has devoted resources to this fine tuning of the Marriage Act does indicate its continued commitment to marriage as one of society's fundamental institutions. The Government has no intention of departing from the understanding of marriage set out in section 43 of the Family Law Act and section 46 of this Act.

I urge honourable senators to continue to bring to this Bill the same thoughtfulness and sincerity which have been displayed, for the most part at least, in their comments so far. I commend the Bill to the Senate.

Question resolved in the affirmative.

Bill read a second time.