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Wednesday, 16 June 2004
Page: 30564

Mr BEVIS (5:34 PM) —To listen to the contributions from members opposite, those who are listening would believe that there is a long queue of legal cases about to be determined by the High Court and that this is going to intervene in the traditional definition of marriage and somehow turn on its head the common law as we know it. Or they would believe that there have been rallies of same-sex couples throughout the country—as we have seen in the United States on our TVs—and that we have, at the moment, unlawful or unauthorised marriages. Of course, none of those things is the case.

I support Labor's amendments to the Marriage Legislation Amendment Bill 2004. In particular, I am pleased that I have been able to second Labor's second reading amendment. There are two parts to that amendment, and time will probably not allow me to go into them in full, but I do think it is important that Labor's second reading amendment acknowledges the view of this side of the parliament that there should be no discrimination on the grounds of sexuality and that it should be recognised and acknowledged that same-sex couples have the right to a full and active involvement in our community, free from discrimination and vilification. I think it is also important that we note at this time the need for legislation to remove the discrimination against same-sex couples in the area of superannuation—something that I will return to shortly.

This bill would not be here at all if we were not at the starting blocks for an election in which the Liberal government is in some trouble. There have been no Australian same-sex marriages as there have been in the United States. The number of Australian same-sex marriages recognised at law today, before this bill is passed, is a grand total of zero. If this bill were never introduced and we were discussing this issue in a year's time, the grand total of same-sex marriages recognised in Australian law would be zero. This is not a piece of legislation to deal with an issue of public policy. This is, as we have seen so often from this Prime Minister, a tactic in the lead-up to an election, for political gain. This is another piece of wedge politics.

The Prime Minister in his period in office has sought so many times to divide this nation, not to unite it. He did so in 2001 before the election. We all recall the `children overboard' saga, which we now know to be the truth overboard. This Prime Minister and this government have sought to vilify minorities, to marginalise those who hold different views and to attack those who disagree with this government as unpatriotic or un-Australian. These are the tactics of the United States far Right. These are also the tactics of John Howard's Liberal Party. That is the genesis of this bill, brought to you by John W. Howard in association with George W. Bush. When John Howard goes to Washington he should talk to Vice-President Cheney on these things, not to President Bush. He would get a different picture.

Interestingly, this bill has not only been introduced for, clearly, political and tactical reasons on the verge of an election but it has been given priority over a number of other bills from a very long list of legislation that this parliament is unlikely to deal with before the election is called. And some of those bills are important. For example, there is legislation on our books about money laundering that I doubt we will get to deal with—that is, measures designed to combat terrorism by cutting off the funds for criminal and terrorist organisations. There is a bill that we should be debating on improvements to the Australian passport system. That does not have priority before the parliament today. That is designed, as is the anti-money laundering bill, to ensure the security of our borders and our nation, something that the Prime Minister wants to campaign on in the media and with the public. But here, where it matters, he does not provide any priority for those bills to come before the parliament and rather brings forward a piece of legislation that is more about the games of politics than about any serious issue of substance.

I commented before that the total number of same-sex marriages recognised at law in Australia today is zero. That stems from the existing act and the common law. Australia's common law is based on the British determinations in the 19th century. Those determinations include that by Lord Penzance, who in 1866 said:

... marriage, as understood in Christendom, may for this purpose be defined as the voluntary union for life of one man and one woman, to the exclusion of all others.

That definition has held pretty constant since then. When this parliament first looked to legislate in this area in its 1961 debate, the question was also raised about defining marriage in the act. In fact, the act did not define marriage, as such. The common-law definition was regarded as appropriate. At that time there was an amendment moved which sought to insert the words:

`Marriage' means the voluntary union of one man with one woman, for life to the exclusion of all others.

That is effectively the same wording as the common law decision from 1866, repeated nearly 100 years later in 1961 in an amendment in the Senate. Under a Liberal government, that amendment was defeated in the Senate by 40 votes to eight. The Liberal senator who had carriage of the matter in the Senate was one John Gorton, later to become Prime Minister. He commented in relation to these matters:

... in our view it is best to leave to the common law the definition or the evolution of the meaning of `marriage' as it relates to marriages in foreign countries and to use this bill to stipulate the conditions with which marriage in Australia has to comply if it is to be a valid marriage.

That was the view of the Menzies government. It is strange that our Prime Minister, who likes to model himself on old Ming, has chosen on this occasion to depart from 140 years of common-law practice and the views of a former Liberal government.

It is also interesting that both of those definitions, including the one from 1961, refer not just to the union of a man and a woman, to the exclusion of all others, but to `for life'. I notice that is a convenient omission by a number of people on the other side of the chamber when they debate this now. Apparently for them marriage is not defined as something that is `for life'; I have heard nary a word of it. In fact, when the first speaker on the government benches omitted it I took the opportunity to interject, asking the question. The government member decided, obviously, not to respond. I suppose that is because, when you look at the statistics, sadly it is a reality that a very high proportion of marriages end in divorce. In 2001, the last year for which figures are available, there were 55,300 divorces. I have listened to people on the other side talk about how marriage provides stability, and I think that has a degree of truth in it. But the facts make clear that that is not so for many Australians.

I think I am in a minority in this place, probably in a number of respects but in particular in terms of this debate. I am very happily married. I am not divorced or separated and not in my second marriage or my third. I am in my first marriage and I have been very happily married to the same person for more than 30 years. So I suspect I am in something of a minority. One of my colleagues suggested that, if we were fair dinkum in this debate, given some of the hubris we have heard, maybe we should say that the only people who can speak and vote on this debate are those people who are in fact in a marriage and have been able to establish that marriage for some length of time. If you listened to some of the rhetoric of people in this debate, you would think there is a great deal of mystery about the institution of marriage—and I guess in some respects there is.

One of the things that has struck me in this debate as someone who has been very happily married to one person for 30 years is that the thing that establishes that loving relationship is not gender and is not sexuality. Love, respect and tolerance for one another and honesty with one another are keys to that lasting loving partnership. I know a number of people, people I have worked with and people who are friends of mine, who are gays and lesbians in longstanding relationships who I believe have that same love and respect and tolerance and open honesty with one another that I identify in my relationship with my wife.

It is a pity that they have been drawn into this vortex of politics of division; this vortex of divide and conquer. The Prime Minister has very effectively over the years adopted the Bismarck approach to foreign policy: you divide your enemies and then you seek to conquer them. The Prime Minister has been good at that. He was pretty good at that internally within the Liberal Party. He has demonstrated as Prime Minister that he is pretty good at doing the same thing to the Australian population. That is the game that is being played here. Sadly, those people in Australia who are gay or lesbian or in same-sex relationships find themselves dragged into this debate as victims of this political charade.

Those people I know who are gay and lesbian have not raised with me as an issue their desire to be married. It is not something that is high on their agenda, it seems to me. They do expect to have respect; they do expect to be free from persecution; they do expect to have the same rights as other people in a relationship. But the actual institution of marriage is not an issue that has been something that they have pursued with me over the years I have been involved with that community.

However, what the Prime Minister has done by drawing them into this vortex is to say to them very publicly that their rights are to be demonstrably heralded as second class. The Prime Minister does that and gives this bill priority over far more important pieces of legislation that do affect our lives—indeed, affect our national security—because he and this government believe there is some short-term political benefit they can gain from it. It is obvious so far that that has not been the case, but it is a mark of the low level of public life that this government exhibit that they have been willing to play this card.

When the Prime Minister made his announcement about these matters he referred to a package. That package included providing superannuation rights to same-sex couples. Unlike every other piece of the announcement, this one area did in fact impact on people's lives. The other things that are in the bill will have little or no practical effect on the daily lives of anybody. There are not people lining up to get married in same-sex relationships. There are none at law in Australia at the moment. It is pretty much the same thing when it comes to overseas adoption by same-sex couples. I would be interested to know if the minister for immigration or somebody could actually tell us how many same-sex couples have adopted children from overseas. The number would be very small—if indeed there are any.

But there is one thing of concrete reality, and that is that today people in same-sex relationships are discriminated against when their superannuation entitlements are determined. If a superannuant dies, the beneficiary should be their partner. But same sex couples are not necessarily accorded the rights which would apply were they heterosexual partners. That is wrong. The Labor Party has tried to correct that and, as the member for Grayndler has said, on 21 occasions he has introduced a private member's bill to correct that problem.

The Prime Minister in the public relations exercise for this matter sought to put a sugar coating on the pill by saying that he would legislate to correct that problem. In fact, he has not. There is nothing in the bill before the parliament to correct that discrimination against same-sex couples, nothing at all. So of all of the things the Prime Minister indicated he would pursue in relation to this matter, he has pursued all of the ones that are political wedges but do not in fact alter the operation of the law of the land. But the one thing that would have changed the law to the benefit of same-sex couples he has not brought forward. That is the level of hypocrisy that the government has displayed in this matter. That is the duplicity. That is the dishonesty.

I have a view that this bill could sit around and wait until the government brings in the legislation to provide same-sex couples equal rights at superannuation. Then we will vote on it. That would suit me fine. But clearly the parliament is not going to hold up this bill and play John Howard's game of wedge politics. However, the one reform that should be here is not here.

Just this last sitting fortnight Labor again sought to have its private member's bill to correct that anomaly introduced into the parliament and the government voted it down again. The government have in fact used their numbers to prevent this parliament debating and voting on the elimination of that discrimination on a number of occasions over the course of the 21 times that the member for Grayndler has introduced the private member's bill into the parliament. The member for Grayndler deserves to be congratulated firstly for writing the private member's bill and presenting it and secondly for his tenacity in not letting things go.

This bill will no doubt pass the chamber. It will go, I suspect, to a Senate inquiry. I imagine there will be a number of people from the public on all sides of the argument who would want to make submissions to that inquiry. I would urge all the people with an interest in this matter, though, to step back and look at the bigger political picture of which this is a small part. The bigger political picture of which this is a small part is that we have at the moment a desperate government and a desperate Prime Minister seeking any means by which they can cling to authority, including by dividing the population and setting Australian against Australian. It is well past the time when that sort of politics should be behind us.

Instead of this parliament in its final weeks devoting hours of debate to this matter, we should be putting in place a more secure passport system—the legislation for which is in the line waiting outside this door. We should be putting in place legislation to fix the corruption in the financial system. That is probably not going to get here either. These are the things that the Australian people deserve to have their parliament dealing with, not the games that the Prime Minister has played here. This is a shameful exercise that the government has engaged in in this debate.

I wonder how members opposite can rationalise their involvement in this. We are all politicians and we know there is an election around the corner, but I really do wonder how some members opposite—who have, I think, quite genuine personal liberal views about these matters—can lie in bed at night and go to sleep having been a party to these games. It is a shameful exercise, and the government should be condemned for the way in which it has played politics over this issue. I say to the in excess of 500 same-sex couples in my electorate—who identify themselves as such in the ABS survey—that I look forward to the opportunity to talk to them about these matters. I look forward to the day when they do not have to find themselves being some sort of political football in games like this where government leaders, instead of leading and uniting the nation, seek to divide it and attack minority groups as this bill does.