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Thursday, 27 September 2001
Page: 31636

Mr WILLIAMS (Attorney-General) (10:15 AM) —I move:

That the bill be now read a second time.

The Marriage Amendment Bill 2001 gives effect to the reform of the marriage celebrants program and other technical amendments to the Marriage Act 1961. This bill is the culmination of a four-year process that I began in 1997.

The marriage celebrants program was established over 25 years ago to provide marrying couples who did not want to have a religious ceremony with a dignified and meaningful alternative to a registry wedding.

When the program was launched in 1973 less than one couple in six chose a civil marriage. Today, over half of all marriage ceremonies within Australia are conducted by civil marriage celebrants.

The growing demand for civil ceremonies has resulted in a steady increase in the numbers of authorised civil marriage celebrants and an even greater increase in interest in the profession of celebrancy, with inquiries from people wishing to become a marriage celebrant running at approximately 3,000 per year.

There are now some 1,700 civil and 1,700 non-recognised denomination religious marriage celebrants appointed under the program.

However, since the program commenced, the process for authorising especially civil marriage celebrants has developed in an ad hoc way.

Prior to this government coming into office, marriage celebrants were appointed on an electorate by electorate basis. Labor government members would regularly involve themselves in the authorisation process. In 1997, the Howard government replaced this system of appointment with one based on regional or special community need.

However, the current system remains far from perfect. Authorisation based on regional or special need excludes many people who would make excellent celebrants from entering the profession.

The overarching catalyst for reforming the program is to ensure that couples intending to marry have wide access to thoroughly professional marriage celebrants.

Given that marriage will be one of, if not the, most significant commitment couples will make during their lifetime, they deserve to be able to choose the right celebrant according to their own personal preferences and needs.

This is the philosophy and intent behind the review process. It is a philosophy the government shares with the celebrant community.

The bill has two major focuses.

The first, and most significant, is to improve the marriage celebrants program through a range of reforms designed primarily to raise the level of professional standards required of celebrants and to capitalise on the unique position of celebrants in the community to encourage and promote pre-marriage and other relationship education services.

These reforms will be given effect by the provisions contained in schedule 1 of the bill and by regulations to be made to the Marriage Act.

The second focus is given effect by amendments in schedule 2 of the bill, which will provide for a series of technical amendments to the Marriage Act. These changes are primarily in relation to the notice of intended marriage; the introduction of passports as an acceptable means of identification for overseas couples; guidelines concerning the shortening of time between the lodgment of a notice of intended marriage and when a couple can marry; and the removal of redundant provisions in the act.

The provisions of this bill will commence either on proclamation or 12 months after the bill receives royal assent, whichever is the sooner. This time will allow for the development of the necessary training regimes and for regulations to be developed to cover such things as the new complaints mechanism. It is my intention that these steps be undertaken in close consultation with marriage celebrants and other interested stakeholders.

Moving to the detail of the bill, there is to be a statutory appointment to a position in my department to be called the Registrar of Marriage Celebrants. The registrar will have the functions and powers set out in the bill. The registrar's primary function will be to establish and maintain the register of marriage celebrants. This register will be the mechanism for the appointment and revocation or suspension of all marriage celebrants.

Persons are to be authorised as marriage celebrants on a lifetime basis where the person has the necessary training qualifications or skills for appointment as prescribed in the regulations. In addition, the registrar must be satisfied that the person satisfies the fit and proper person criteria set out in the bill.

The necessary training will be available through distance education and online learning techniques to ensure that regional and rural areas are not disadvantaged.

There will be a transition period of five years from the commencement of the new provisions.

The registrar will conduct a review of the performance of each celebrant every five years, taking into consideration any complaints received, feedback from couples, the requirements of ongoing professional development and the code of practice. The registrar will be able to discipline the celebrant if the review is unsatisfactory.

The final details of the code of practice will be settled in consultation with celebrants.

Any celebrant whose authorisation has been revoked or suspended shall have the right to seek a review of that decision in the Administrative Appeals Tribunal—AAT. There will not be a right to seek merits review of other decisions.

All celebrants will be required to undergo ongoing professional development.

There will also be a detailed complaints mechanism that complies with the rules of natural justice. The current mechanism is inadequate. This bill contains power for such a mechanism to be established in accordance with regulations.

Despite doubts that were expressed when I released the proposals paper last November, the government has listened and acted upon the concerns expressed by celebrants. This is evident by the changes made to the package of reforms including, the maintaining of lifetime appointments, the removal of the requirement for existing celebrants to satisfy the new core competencies, the introduction of a five-year transitional period for the phasing in of the new appointments system, and by the fact that there will be no fees for being authorised as a marriage celebrant.

The development of the reform package for the marriage celebrants program has been a long and at times difficult process. Throughout this process the celebrant community has remained engaged and, in the main, very constructive in its approach to what the government had in mind. The celebrant community has recognised the need for change and has responded appropriately. Lasting and meaningful reforms cannot be achieved unless those most affected have put them to the test.

The reform of the marriage celebrants program will enable the profession of celebrancy to develop and flourish into what is clearly an expanding future. The changes will facilitate a better understanding of the true worth of celebrants.

Celebrants, both civil and religious, have been at the forefront of a major social change in only one generation. Their important role has long been underestimated.

By the year 2010, if present trends continue, some 60 per cent of weddings will be performed by civil celebrants under this reformed program. I also expect that the number of smaller religious groups seeking their own religious expression will continue to increase. Reform of the program to satisfy the community of the quality and integrity of the program into the future is critical.

I believe that this package of amendments will be fundamental to ensuring this outcome, but it will only be with the assistance and cooperation of celebrants that the outcome can be assured.

I commend the bill to the House and I present the explanatory memorandum.

Debate (on motion by Mr Kerr) adjourned.