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Wednesday, 16 June 2004
Page: 30584

Mr BRENDAN O'CONNOR (7:09 PM) —The Marriage Legislation Amendment Bill 2004 has a bad intent, and I do not think that fact has been lost on government members. The member for Wannon indicated that he cannot see anything wrong with introducing this bill. He raised his arms in mock indignation and said that the intention behind this bill is purely innocent and that it is about the restatement of the sanctity of marriage. I am afraid it is less about the sanctity of marriage and more about the sanctimonious character of the Prime Minister.

This bill has been introduced into the parliament in order to divide the community. It should be noted from the beginning that loving relationships take many forms. No discrimination should exist under Commonwealth law, or any law, to any relationship, be it a marriage, a de facto heterosexual relationship or a same-sex relationship. It should also be recognised that this bill has not been introduced to celebrate the institution of marriage. As I said earlier, the bill has been introduced to divide Australians. It is a quite tragic and brutal furphy contrived by the Prime Minister. There has not been any outcry in the community. There have not been any judicial determinations that have led to the introduction of this bill. This bill recognises an institution already recognised by existing law. It is a superfluous bill, intended to vilify a significant minority of community members.

I have listened to a number of speakers, certainly those on this side, and I think it is fair to say—and I think most people, if they were honest with themselves, would agree—that society has evolved. Relationships and the definition of relationships have evolved. The law has sometimes moved ahead of society, but rarely. The fact is that in this area the law seems to follow public opinion and what is acceptable to the community. I think it is fair to say that public opinion with respect to what marriage is and who is an appropriate partner has changed. It has changed very dramatically in my lifetime.

Less than a couple of generations ago, a mixed marriage, if it was defined as such, would be between a heterosexual couple, one of whom might be a Catholic and the other a Protestant. They were believers in the same God but of different denominations. I can recall people talking about the unacceptable union of two heterosexual people who believe in the same God but are of different denominations. Somehow, that union was not acceptable to many people—not only people from those particular religious institutions but also people from outside those two Christian groups. Since two generations ago, the community has rejected the idea that two people, a man and a woman, from different denominations of Christianity should not marry. Indeed, the bitter sectarianism that used to exist has, thankfully, dissipated and all but disappeared.

One generation ago the community acceptance of de facto heterosexual relationships was equivocal to say the least. It is hard to imagine now, but if you go back to the early eighties it was not acceptable in company, certainly amongst many people, to talk about people living together as an acceptable arrangement. That too has gone by the wayside, thankfully. The fact is that now the majority of people who enter a relationship commence that relationship on a de facto basis, and many maintain that de facto status indefinitely. That has now become a very acceptable relationship, one that most people tolerate. And I am not talking about the inner suburbs of the capital cities of Australia, what I suppose those opposite might term the bohemian enclaves of inner suburbia. I am talking about the outer suburbs, the regional towns and the regional communities where de facto relationships are acceptable. I know that there would be sons and daughters and, indeed, other relatives of members opposite who would be living in de facto relationships—which would be accepted, as they should be, as relationships.

If I can digress for one moment and make reference to an earlier speaker's comment on the rearing of children, I do not accept that the situation is necessarily that it is important that a child's parents be married. The best situation for a child being reared by adults is for those adults to be in a loving relationship. Formal state recognition of the relationship, even if that is indeed the preference of most, should not be first and foremost; rather, the household should be filled with love and care for those children. I would certainly rather see children raised in a loving and caring de facto relationship than a dysfunctional marriage. Anybody who is honest with themselves and honest with us in this place would articulate that view.

The fact is, we have moved on. Society has moved on and has accepted relationships. Indeed, I should not just refer to marriage between Catholic and Protestants. What were more controversial at one time were interracial relationships and marriages. Again, that is a blight on our history, no doubt, but there has been an evolution in people's tolerance and understanding and in what is acceptable to the community. Many relationships that were interracial in nature were not acceptable to many people. Indeed, as we know, in many sovereign states they were not acceptable under law. So we have seen many forms of discrimination, both in terms of the law and perhaps also in terms of community acceptance.

I use those other forms of relationships to draw an analogy to something that is becoming increasingly acceptable to the Australian people. I refer to same-sex couples. The fact is, like interracial relationships and like de facto heterosexual relationships, same-sex relationships are becoming increasingly acceptable to Australians. And that is a positive thing. What is happening here, unfortunately, is that we have a Prime Minister who does not accept the trend. That is not unusual for him. It is also not unusual for the Prime Minister to find reason to create a divide within our community. Unfortunately, what has occurred since the introduction of this bill has been an outcry by the gay and lesbian community, who are concerned that they are being targeted and discriminated against. It also has raised concerns in people in general, who wonder why the Prime Minister and this government spend more time playing politics with people's private lives than dealing with the public need for better education and better access to health services—those fundamental things people expect government to deal with.

The fact that the Prime Minister has decided to do this says a number of things about him as a character. As I have indicated, it is a sanctimonious and bigoted form of expression, if you like, to introduce this bill for the reasons it has been introduced. It also shows that the government lacks an agenda and is unable to focus on the things that Australians want their government to focus upon. So on one hand it is a sign of bigotry; on the other it is a sign of the desperation of a government that lacks ideas and lacks the wherewithal to fix many of the problems that exist out in the real world.

I live in and represent an electorate that is a cross-section of the Australian community. It has rural and suburban parts to it. I have never had, in all of the conversations and contacts and correspondence with constituents through my office, a local constituent raise with me concerns about the issue of the institution of marriage being undermined by some subversive plan of anybody's. If we listen closely we might be able to hear something. I believe the Prime Minister is blowing a dog whistle for certain sections of the community. This is not about restating what we know the institution of marriage to be. This is about looking to divide the community.

It is also important that we look at some of the areas of discrimination that same-sex couples suffer. I suppose if there is one silver lining to this cloud, it is that in raising this matter in this way we get a chance to focus on some of these areas of discrimination. It is important therefore to focus on the amendment moved by the member for Gellibrand, in which Labor has committed to taking a strong stand against discrimination on grounds of sexuality. Indeed, as the second paragraph of the amendment indicates, Labor will commit to an audit of all Commonwealth legislation in order to remove any areas of discrimination.

If we look at some of them we should be a little alarmed. Most people would be alarmed to know what is denied partners in a same-sex relationship. For example, a partner in a same-sex relationship may be denied the right to: make medical decisions on a partner's behalf when he or she is sick, or to even visit the partner or partner's child in hospital; take bereavement or sick leave to care or mourn for a partner; share equal rights and equal responsibilities for children in their care; have their partner covered under their health or employment benefits; apply for immigration and residency if their partner is from another country; inherit from a deceased partner if he or she were intestate; choose a partner's final resting place; or obtain pension benefits if their partner dies.

They are just some of the deficiencies in the law that do not make it clear whether partners in longstanding same-sex relationships are given the same rights as those given to partners in other relationships. I think it is time to look as closely as we can at the Commonwealth laws in order to rectify those levels of discrimination. It is not acceptable, in my view—and indeed in Labor's view—that we go on accepting that if you are in a same-sex relationship you do not have basic rights.

It is important to note, as members have already indicated, the effort by the member for Grayndler, who introduced a private member's bill, and has been on the record for a long time, in support of same-sex couples being entitled to superannuation benefits. His private member's bill should have been accepted by the government. What is telling about this debate is that the government did foreshadow that it was interested in looking at rectifying the deficiency in relation to superannuation, but there is no mention of superannuation in this bill. Indeed, if the government were genuine about wanting to ensure that marriage was defined as being between a man and woman—and restate that, as I think has been accepted—and at the same time wanting to look at removing at least some areas of discrimination in relation to same-sex relationships, it would have incorporated provisions that would have removed discrimination in the area of superannuation.

That has not happened, so we can only conclude that there is no genuine intention to arrest an unfortunate set of laws that deprive partners in same-sex relationships of what could be their retirement benefits. I therefore found the words of the Prime Minister to be false and empty when he said that he was looking to restate marriage as an institution between a man and a woman and to find the means to remove these areas of superannuation. The bona fides of those intentions should be found in the provisions of this bill, but they are nowhere to be found.

Mr Price —Has he left them out?

Mr BRENDAN O'CONNOR —He has left them out. I do not think they just slipped off the page. The fact is that they have been intentionally omitted. In my view, the Prime Minister has deliberately misled the public by saying that he would be looking at a balanced approach but, when it comes down to the drafting of the legislation and the introduction of the bill into the House, there is no mention whatsoever of superannuation provisions. I think the member for Brisbane said that we should not allow this matter to proceed as it is and that we should be saying to the government, `If you are genuine about introducing provisions to rectify discrimination in the area of superannuation, let's do that concurrently or before we pass this bill.' That does not appear to be acceptable to the government. We can only conclude that it has never been the intention of the Prime Minister or the government to ever do it.

I think it is very hurtful, on the one hand, to focus on this significant minority and vilify and demonise their relationships and them as individuals—in many ways that is probably the worst thing—and, on the other hand, to give partners in same-sex relationships the hope that they no longer have to suffer the indignity and possibly the economic problem of not being entitled to their partner's superannuation benefits in the case of their partner dying. That is an outrage.

It should never be forgotten that in this matter this Prime Minister has again played loose with the truth and has sought to divide the community—and unnecessarily so. I believe that the community will not forget that this is a Prime Minister who is more about vilifying significant minority groups than improving health and education in this country and focusing on things that people in my electorate and indeed all electorates in Australia are wanting to see fixed. That is the blight on this government and this Prime Minister. This is another effort by the Prime Minister to dog-whistle, to see the worst side of humanity and to play to people's prejudices. In the end, I do not think it will be acceptable to the Australian community, because this country is about a fair go, tolerating people and tolerating their differences.