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Wednesday, 28 March 2001
Page: 23259

Senator BARTLETT (7:31 PM) —I would like to speak tonight about an event that I do not need an invitation from the Prime Minister to attend, and that is the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. I would certainly invite him to go along if he is interested, and I wish he would. This year the Democrats conducted community surveys at a couple of the major gay, lesbian and bisexual events—the Sydney Mardi Gras Fair Day and the Melbourne Midsumma Carnival Day—to try to get a clearer idea of the issues of greatest concern to the communities attending these events. Several hundred people—I think upwards of 500—took the time to complete the surveys, and the results from both cities were quite similar. Relationship recognition was the top issue, with the specific issue of superannuation and recognition of same sex relationships in this context also separately identified by many. The next issue of most concern was homophobia in our schools. Other issues that also rated highly were HIV-AIDS resources and workplace homophobia. These results show in many ways how much the debate has moved on in terms of issues of concern to gay, lesbian and bisexual communities, and in terms of the era we now face in gay law reform. The debate is not primarily about sex; it is more about relationships, and long-term relationships in particular. As many people involved in long-term relationships would attest, they are not necessarily primarily about sex.

Gay law reform in the past has been dominated by discussions on age of consent, anal sex, beats and the like. In the future, the focus will be more on the recognition of relationships and same sex couples in law. It will be more about issues such as superannuation rather than sodomy. This does not mean that there will not be ongoing debate about explicit sexual material. No doubt there will be controversy over the new Victorian advertising campaign to promote safe gay sex, which was introduced after figures showed a 41 per cent jump in new HIV infections in that state. It is important, therefore, to make sure that the message keeps getting across, because Australia does have a record, I think without equal in the world, of successful education campaigns in this area and of success in altering people's behaviour so they undertake safer sex and safer behaviour more broadly. The Victorian campaign includes posters, which will be displayed at particular venues, depicting men having sex with the condom illuminated by ultraviolet light. I have not seen the images, but I certainly support the highlighting of safe sex measures in an attractive way, rather than simply through fear based campaigns.

There will continue to be a lot of discussion about sex, but in many ways the debate has broadened from being about sexual practices to being about relationships and seeking to give de facto same sex couples the same standing in law as opposite sex de facto couples. Property settlement, inheritance, compensation, stamp duty, medical decisions, taxation, social security, superannuation—they are all examples of areas in which same sex couples should be treated equally before the law but are not. In many cases, reform in this area is supported by industry as well. Certainly, the superannuation industry is quite supportive of the recognition of same sex relationships under superannuation legislation. It is unfortunate that such reforms are held up by governments such as the one we have at the moment, despite the best efforts of people such as the Democrats.

The federal laws are now behind the pack, with most states—including so-called conservative states like Queensland and the Australian Capital Territory—having gone some way to removing legal discrimination and including same sex couples in legislation. Tasmania as well has achieved a lot in relation to discrimination. New South Wales has achieved most reform in areas of gay law reform. In Victoria, the socially progressive Labor government—ably backed, I am sure, by Senator Conroy, who is probably driving this agenda of gay law reform—is looking at putting legislation through the parliament. The opposition there has sent out mixed signals in that regard, but I saw that the Liberal Party had a stall at the Midsumma festival in Melbourne, putting forward that party's support for gay law reform.

Senator McGauran —There was no National Party stall there.

Senator BARTLETT —I did not see the National Party stall there, Senator McGauran; you were obviously away that weekend, but I hope to see you there next year. The Liberals were there, and hopefully their support for, and their presence at, Midsumma in Melbourne will be reflected in their support for law reform through the Victorian parliament.

There have even been some signs of progress in Western Australia, the state which is furthest behind in reform in this area. The WA Legislative Council, the upper house, last year passed the Democrats' Sexuality Discrimination Bill, more than three years after it was first introduced by the Democrat MLC Helen Hodgson. It included sexuality as a ground of complaint under the Equal Opportunity Act and also equality in the age of consent for sexual relations. Unfortunately, it was not supported in the lower house. The then government would not support it, but the new Labor government has indicated a willingness to move on antidiscrimination rights for gays and lesbians this year. It is heartening to see the new WA Attorney-General, Mr McGinty, stating that there should be no place for discrimination on these grounds in this day and age and committing to look at bringing Western Australia's legislation up to date with the rest of Australia. Certainly, the Democrats will be monitoring that closely.

The slow progress to include same sex couples under law is deeply disappointing. As recently noted by Justice Kirby, a High Court judge, if we had a constitutional bill of rights, gay law reform would have occurred more quickly through the courts. This is particularly concerning in the context of the so-called Teoh bill that we are close to debating in this chamber. Indeed, one of the areas of reform that did go through this place, the human rights sexual conduct act—supported again by the Liberal Party and the ALP as well as the Democrats—was based upon Australia's obligation under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Yet we have legislation in the form of the Teoh bill being put before this parliament, which seeks to weaken the requirements for governments to meet their obligations under international conventions that we have signed as a nation. This will be a step backwards, and certainly the Democrats will be seeking to prevent that occurring. The Democrats are determined to pursue the recognition of same sex couples in law by whatever means we can. We still have a sexuality discrimination bill in this chamber under my name that perhaps we will seek to try and progress.

Coming back to the Mardi Gras, as well as the Mardi Gras Fair Day—which produced the community feedback that I mentioned at the start of my contribution—3 March this year saw the annual Mardi Gras parade, which marked the anniversary of a 1978 civil rights demonstration. Basically, at that time protesters were arrested and their names were printed in the newspaper; people lost their jobs as a result. Mardi Gras has come a long way—and, of course, community acceptance of this basic human rights issue has also come a long way, thanks to the efforts of so many people over those years.

The Mardi Gras does well to meet the desires of a very varied community. I would like to congratulate the organisers of the event for its ongoing success, and for the ongoing economic, as well as social, benefits that it brings to Sydney, New South Wales, and to Australia. I would also like to congratulate the participants in the event who marched, rode and danced the 2½ kilometre route. The lead parade float this year was entitled `Behind the pink picket fence'. This highlighted the issue of gay and lesbian families, particularly at a time when some who are involved in the political process are trying to deny some of the important contributions that families involving gays, lesbians and bisexuals make to the community. Once again, I am advised, there was a small entry in the parade this year under the Liberal Party banner, which the Democrats welcome. We did not see the National Party one again; you must still be working on your float.

Senator BARTLETT —The Democrats would welcome that, and we would welcome the genuine participation of all political parties. I would advise that the ALP was not there this year, unfortunately. Senator Conroy could not make it this year, but we hope to see you there next year and, hopefully, the ALP will be back again next year. They certainly have been there in the past. The Australian Democrats have said for some years that they were the first political party to participate in the Mardi Gras parade, which might not be strictly true, as I guess that Fred Nile's party, the Call to Australia Party, has been there in a different form, protesting for a long time as well but not actually participating in the parade itself. However, many other Christians were not protesting but were participating joyfully. Parade entries were there from the Uniting Church, the Quakers, Acceptance—which is a Catholic group—an Anglican group and a number of other religious entries, as well as human rights groups such as Amnesty International. Nonetheless, most opposition to equal rights for gay people, unfortunately, still tends to come from religious individuals and organisations; and the Democrats certainly receive some very abusive letters because of our participation in Mardi Gras from individuals who tend to cite religion as the basis for their abuse and their vilification of gay and lesbian members of our community. This is an unfortunate aspect, because there are clearly very many people involved in churches who are supportive of and encourage gay and lesbian—(Time expired)