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Monday, 21 October 2002
Page: 5539

Senator GREIG (7:58 PM) —I, too, rise to speak in support of insisting on the amendments to the Members of Parliament (Life Gold Pass) Bill 2002, and I do so for a number of key reasons. Firstly, I think it is very important for all of us to understand that marriage for most people is a choice. You have the option to marry, unless of course you happen not to be heterosexual. But statistics recently released from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the ABS notes dated the 22nd of the 8th of this year, show the following in relation to marriage and divorce trends:

In 2001 there were 103,100 marriages registered in Australia, the lowest number recorded since 1978—

At that time there were 103,000 marriages but in a significantly reduced population. It continues:

The 2001 figure was a decrease of some 10,300 marriages when compared with 2000 and a decrease of 10,800 marriages when compared with 1981. While marriage rates per 1,000 unmarried population (aged 15 years and over) are not yet available for 2001, the marriage rate trend since 1981 shows that marriage is declining. Marriage rates for the unmarried population fell in 2000 to 34 per 1,000 unmarried men and 32 per 1,000 unmarried women from 35 and 33, respectively in 1999 and 55 and 53, respectively in 1981.

There were 55,300 divorces granted in Australia in 2001, the highest number granted in the last 20 years. This was an increase of 5,400 on the number of divorces granted in 2000 and an increase of 13,900 in 1981.

Divorce rates for the married population are not yet available for 2001. However, since 1981 divorce rates, while fluctuating, have shown an increasing trend. In 1987 the divorce rate was at a low of 11 divorces per 1,000 married population. Since 1987, divorce rates, while still fluctuating, have shown an upward trend to a high of 13 in 1996. The divorce rate in 2000 was 12.

What does that tell us? I think the fundamental thing it tells us is that people are voting with their feet—many more Australians are choosing not to marry. Because they are doing so, they ought not be discriminated against by this government in any area of an otherwise bona fide domestic relationship. The statistics also suggest that divorce is increasing. While that is not a pleasant thing, the statistics also suggest that, of those people divorcing who will remarry, some 50 per cent will find that their second marriage fails. So there are, and will be, many people either about to divorce or remarrying after a divorce who are going to be in a de facto situation not recognised by this government or this minister for the purposes of this or some other legislation.

I agree with Senator Cook that there is such a thing as social engineering. I would argue very strongly that the engineering being done here is the engineering of the government failing to recognise the reality of Australian relationships in contemporary Australia and trying to impose a model that harks back to the 1950s. I remember Senator Abetz as minister saying in his second reading speech on this legislation that this was not about discrimination. That is an absurd statement. It is also patently false. This bill is about discrimination. It discriminates in favour of those people who are legally married and discriminates against those people who are not legally married or who cannot legally marry. And for many tens of thousands of Australians that is a reality. I would like to draw to the minister's attention and read into Hansard a press release dated today from the Tasmanian Gay and Lesbian Rights Group:


In what has been described as an historical first, the Tasmanian Liberal Party was briefed today on the discrimination experienced by same sex couples.

At the invitation of Liberal leader Rene Hidding gay and lesbian community representatives briefed all Liberal members on a wide range of issues including superannuation, wills, medical decision-making, adoption and the registration of relationships.

Representatives at the meeting included Tasmanian Gay and Lesbian Rights Group spokesperson, Rodney Croome, Australian National University sexuality law lecturer, Wayne Morgan, and Hobart gay couple Dave Arnold and Peter Brown.

Mr Brown, a former mayor of the Hobart municipality of Clarence, and Mr Arnold, a retired teacher, spoke of the legal problems they have encountered during their twenty year relationship.

“The fundamental point is that the law as it stands says our relationship doesn't matter and that we are second class citizens”, Mr Brown said.

Wayne Morgan answered a number of questions about the experience of reform in mainland states, legal definitions of relationships, adoption, and the need for registration.

“A registration scheme is important to ensure that couples are easily able to prove their relationship status if required”, Mr Morgan said.

Mr Croome opened the meeting by pointing out that this was the first briefing of a Tasmanian political party by gay community advocates and contrasts markedly with past Liberal Party hostility to lesbian and gay issues.

“Ten years ago, in the midst of the desperately bitter and divisive gay law reform debate, it was my great hope that one day Tasmanians could sit down together and discuss gay and lesbian issues rationally and constructively. Today that hope has become a reality”, Mr Croome said.

Sadly, while that might be a reality for the state of Tasmania and state Liberal politicians, we continue to find, even through a Liberal senator such as Senator Abetz, that that is not reflected in federal legislation or federal approaches to legislation that deal with relationships.

It is easy for Senator Abetz to suggest, as I think he has, that those people who want to take advantage of these privileges through the gold pass system should simply marry when in fact many people cannot because that is denied them under legislation. I approached this issue recently when I was dealing with the Marriage Amendment Bill 2002 in this place a few weeks ago. I asked the following question of the minister in that debate, Senator Chris Ellison, who said he would get back to me but who I note has not done so. I asked a question, which I will ask again of the minister here tonight:

Minister, I understand the Marriage Act 1961 as presently drafted will recognise marriages which are valid at local law overseas. Section 88 of the act provides that its object is to give effect to chapter 12 of the Convention on the Celebration and Recognition of the Validity of Marriages signed at The Hague on 14 March 1978. Further, it provides for the recognition of a marriage which was, at the time it was solemnised, recognised as valid.

The issue that I think is still unclear in Australia is, in relation to a same sex marriage valid at local law in an overseas jurisdiction, whether part IVA of the Marriage Act would permit recognition of that marriage in Australia. I think this is an interesting question when it has been argued by the High Court that section 51(xxi) may not provide legislative authority for the Commonwealth to provide for the recognition of same sex couples. In other words, the government has said in previous legislation that it will recognise all valid marriages that have been done at local law overseas. Yet we have the situation now where, in areas of the Netherlands and in other countries, local law does provide for the legal recognition of same sex couples. Where, then, does that leave us with this legislation? The reality is that there are retired members and there will be retiring members who are in or will be in long-term same sex relationships, and I do not believe this legislation ought to discriminate against them.

In moving his amendment to this legislation, Senator Faulkner chose wording that I am not fully comfortable with because I do not believe it addresses the issue of same sex couples. We had that debate to some degree when I was first inducted into this place. One of my first acts in 1999 was to seek a change to the Senate standing orders in relation to pecuniary interests for senators, arguing that the definition of spouse within that requirement excluded same sex couples. I argued that it ought to be the case that same sex couples should have the same responsibilities as other couples in nominating the property, assets and so on of their partners in the Senate's list of pecuniary interests. That argument was supported, curiously, by the government. So we have the extraordinary situation where the government is arguing that same sex couples must have the same responsibilities as other couples but not the same rights.

I have been listening to debate in the parliament during this and last week and I think senators will agree that question time has been very different. It has been very solemn. In some ways it has been quite effective and moving because we have heard reasonable, good and incisive questions and had genuine, compassionate and sensible answers from the government. If only it were like that every day. I was listening to questions to Minister Vanstone about what welfare entitlements would be available to the surviving partners of those people who were killed or injured in the Bali tragedy, and I know without having to ask that those entitlements do not apply to same sex partners, and so it is across all areas of Commonwealth legislation that relate to relationships.

It would be interesting to do a straw poll of those MPs and senators who are in long-term de facto relationships. I would think the number would be reasonably high. The evidence suggests that the working environment of this place is not conducive to long-term marriages. As Senator Cook has done, I guess I have to express my own interest in this, having been in a long-term relationship—as it happens, a same sex relationship—for almost 17 years. I do not aspire to be here for 20 years. I do not know that the electorate aspires to that either, but we will give it a go. My argument is not a personal one; my argument is one of broader advocacy. The issues we are canvassing here are broader than the one specific issue before us.

It is not only irritating but also offensive for a minister or, to be fair, a government to suggest that only one category of relationship is worthy of a particular recognition or a particular privilege. That is way out of step with community attitudes. I think it is way out of step with community understanding and it simply does not reflect the reality of Australian contemporary relationships. I find it extraordinary that, at a time when most states and territories to varying degrees are reforming and modernising their state based acts in relation to not just same sex couples but other de facto areas of jurisdiction, that is not being reflected at a Commonwealth level. And that results in a significant range of discrimination in areas as diverse as we are seeing tonight—not just the gold pass, which is a fairly discrete area of legislation, but also social security, immigration, veterans' affairs, taxation and so on.

The amendments first moved ought to be adhered to. They are far from radical; they should not be controversial. I express my disappointment again that they do not include same sex couples. We have had the debate about the definition of de facto many times in here, yet again we find extraordinary contradictions not just in this bill but also, as I have said, in declarations of senators' interests. There is also the situation where, if you happen to be a Commonwealth public servant in a same sex relationship and you are posted interstate with your work, the Commonwealth will provide for the transfer of your partner. So you have an extraordinary situation where de facto relationships and same sex couples relationships are recognised in the Commonwealth Public Service—that is an area of Commonwealth interest and concern in legislation—yet it is not reflected specifically and deliberately in the bill before us today purely because I think of a specific government agenda to push an ideological position in opposition to the creeping reforms we have had so far in this area. Those reforms have been positive and necessary and I think this is an attempt to stand against that and, in a tokenistic and iconic way, send a message from the government to the broader community that it will not be reflective of community relationships and community acceptance of those relationships but will set its own agenda against those.