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Thursday, 17 June 2004
Page: 30735

Ms PLIBERSEK (10:48 AM) —`Countess G used to say, “What do I care if they love men, women or canaries?”' wrote Natalie Barney. I believe that as parliamentarians we should adopt the same approach. Surely, with so much hatred, war and division in the world, we would strengthen our community by celebrating love, devotion, kindness and constancy, not by seeking to proscribe it. Which one of us in this place is so morally superior that we have the right to judge other humans and their love for one another as inferior, second rate or second best?

Through the Marriage Legislation Amendment Bill 2004 the Prime Minister is seeking to amend the Marriage Act to insert the definition that marriage is `between a man and a woman, entered into for life, to the exclusion of all others'. The sad fact is that human beings are frail creatures, and I know very few marriages that meet the criteria of being `to the exclusion of all others' and `for life'. If these are really the criteria the Prime Minister sets for marriage then very few couples measure up. We are all fallible and many marriages fall by the wayside. Many have difficult times—some end, some rebuild. The point is that as a society we are stronger when we look for ways to celebrate and increase the sum total of love: not wall it in, deny it or ignore it because it does not read like a Mills and Boon novel.

The changes to the Marriage Act which the Prime Minister is proposing are unnecessary and they are discriminatory. Some time in the not too distant future, people will look back on this desperate attempt at wedge politics and treat it with the contempt it deserves. Some time in the not too distant future, there will be formal recognition of same-sex couples, and the sky will not fall in, and we will not be destroyed like Sodom and Gomorrah, and life will continue. The main difference will be fewer violent or abusive attacks on gay men and lesbians, and fewer teenagers suiciding, because they will not be taught to feel shame about their sexuality as many are now.

These changes are not necessary from a legal viewpoint. One has to wonder, with the packed legislative agenda that the government claims it has, why it would make such legislation a priority. Not one extra man or woman would be able to marry their same-sex partner if this law is not passed. The amendments are unnecessary because, firstly, the Marriage Act already says marriage is between a man and a woman. Secondly, the common law states that a marriage is the `voluntary union for life of one man and one woman' in Hyde v. Hyde, 1866.

Thirdly, countries where courts have extended marriage to same-sex couples have entrenched rights of equality absent in Australia. In Canada the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in section 15 specifically provides for the right of equality before the law. There is no similar right of equality under Australian law. Any suggestion that Australian courts may follow the lead of Canadian courts is misinformed and fails to understand the particular legislative background in Canada, which differs substantially from that of Australia in the area of fundamental rights and freedoms. Those European countries where same-sex marriages are permitted, such as Belgium, have chosen after much community debate to legislate to allow such unions, usually because their de facto relationship recognition is so poor.

Fourthly, the proposed definition anticipates that marriage is a continuing union `for life' notwithstanding the ability of parties to a marriage in Australia to divorce under the Family Law Act. The words `for life' are consequently inappropriate given that there is no suggestion that the amendments are intended to abolish divorce. This just shows how ill thought out and rushed this legislation is.

Since when do we make legislation to reassert the status quo? Since it has become a possible political wedge. This government and this Prime Minister should be ashamed that, with all of the pressing issues facing Australia today—our involvement in the so-called war on terror and what it means for our place in the world and our safety, the destruction of Medicare, the affordability of education and hundreds more I could name—they are wasting the time of the parliament reasserting the status quo for political purposes. Does anyone believe that it is a coincidence that this legislation came up at the same time as the member for Makin was making the front page of every newspaper with new revelations about the trip to Paris she took with her then boyfriend? This is an ugly little trick designed to rebuild the government's family values credentials after that fiasco.

This legislation is also offensive. It is offensive because it goes out of its way to say that same-sex love is second-class love. As one of my constituents wrote to the government:

I am a 29 year old Australian born woman, who also happens to be a lesbian. Today I do not feel like an Australian. I feel like my rights as a citizen of this country have been totally disregarded. That my rights to freedom, equality and lack of discrimination do not exist as an Australian citizen. I am part of a community, the gay and lesbian community, that is approximately ten per cent of the population. I am surprised that in this day and age, politicians think it necessary to use this community as a political football ...

Not all gay men and lesbians, even those in committed relationships, wish to marry. They just really resent being told that they have no right to want the same options as their straight brothers and sisters. I will be moving an amendment to this legislation in the consideration in detail stage which will state explicitly that same-sex de facto relationships should have exactly the same legal status, rights and responsibilities as heterosexual de facto relationships.

The adoption provision that the government has introduced is also offensive because it says that gay men and lesbians cannot be trusted around children. The coded message is that homosexuality is the same as paedophilia. It suggests that children are better off growing up in an orphanage in a developing country than in a loving family in Australia if that family happens to have two mothers or two fathers. The message that this sends to gay and lesbian parents in Australia is deeply wounding, but the message it sends to their children is even worse. I know a number of children who have grown up with two mothers or two fathers—usually two mothers—and they are perfectly well-adjusted little human beings who understand that their families are different from the norm but who are just fine with that.

What right does this Prime Minister have to tell those children that their families are so abnormal and so dangerous that this government has to override state legislation to make sure no more families like theirs are created? What message does this send to those children? There is no evidence that growing up with same-sex parents is in any way harmful to children. A number of my constituents wrote to me saying:

This flies in the face of all credible research that suggests that it is family processes, not family structures, that determines a child's health and well being. That is, it is the love and care within a family, not the gender or sexuality of the parents which is of utmost importance for a child's wellbeing. Even if this bill is passed by Parliament, gay men and lesbians will still be able to adopt as individuals. Denying both persons in a same sex relationship from adopting a child will serve only to deny that child of rights, such as the right to child support payments, inheritance rights etc.

We have no evidence to suggest that growing up with same-sex parents is in any way harmful to children. We do in contrast have evidence that child abuse and neglect are harmful, yet the government is not interested in developing a national plan for child abuse or neglect. We know that pneumococcal disease kills children, yet this government has had to be dragged kicking and screaming to follow expert recommendations to vaccinate children against pneumococcal disease. We know that smoking around children harms their health, is associated with low birth weight, with sudden infant death syndrome, with other illnesses and with a greater likelihood the child will become a smoker later in life. This is something we know damages children, but the government has made little or no effort to stop this killer of children.

We have the highest rates of child obesity in our history, but the government refuses to join Labor in supporting a ban on the advertising of junk food during children's television viewing hours. It seems absolutely bizarre to me that instead of doing anything to deal with these great challenges facing children, not to mention the chronic federal underfunding of the public education system, this government instead builds up this straw man, this imaginary threat, just to be seen to tackle it with this unnecessary and offensive legislation.

It seems bizarre also that parliamentarians, people who choose to spend well over 80 nights a year away from their children, have the right to suggest that loving same-sex parents cannot bring up a child. I have heard several times in this debate that children would ideally have a mother and a father who were married and so on. I am very sorry to disabuse the pollyannas who have suddenly populated this place—there are no ideal families. All families face challenges and most muddle through as best they can. That is just life. There are no ideal parents and there are no ideal families. All we can do is our best. If our children scramble into adulthood mostly undamaged, with intact self-esteem, a positive outlook and a strong set of values, then we have done a great job as parents.

To be honest about same-sex parents, I have to say that the same-sex parents I know are often more thoughtful, dedicated parents than the average parent. They have made a clearer, more considered decision to have a child—there are no unwanted pregnancies in lesbian relationships. Friends of mine, Penny and Jo, who are soon to have their second child, were foster parents for many years before they made a decision to have their own biological children. There is a chronic shortage of foster carers around the country, and one of the reasons is that sometimes the young people are so damaged by their past experiences that they are difficult and disruptive.

This couple usually took in teenagers who had experienced years of abuse or neglect before they reached Penny's and Jo's home. This couple and their friend Allan, who shared the caring duties and provided an excellent male role model for these kids, were robbed. They had one girl whose friends trashed their home. They stayed the distance with these troubled kids because they were committed to giving them a better start in life. Who has the right to say that these women, who exhibited so much care and compassion for troubled children who came to them as strangers, have no right to children of their own?

I know another family that was made uncomfortably famous by this government's ridiculous response to their appearance on Play School recently. Young Brenna wrote two books with her mum Vicky so that the kids at her school and at other schools would understand that families come in all different shapes and sizes. On top of her usual work and being a mum, Vicky has spent unpaid hour upon hour trying to get these excellent books into schools so that all kids are presented with the notion that families are varied. How many parents go to such lengths to make sure their children feel secure? How can anyone say that Vicky and Jacky are less worthy of being parents than I am?

I simply cannot believe that, of all of the things this government could do to improve the lives of Australian children, it thinks the most pressing—the most necessary—is to stop a few couples from two states being able to adopt children from the few countries which might allow adoption to same-sex couples one day. It is a travesty and an insult to every same-sex parent and it is a terrible, terrible message to send their children.

I want to end by telling the stories of two couples I know. Colin and Izzy have been together for more than 20 years. Recently they participated in a commitment ceremony in Melbourne, which they wish was a proper marriage with the full force of Australian law. But their relationship is living proof of the fact that people do not need a bit of paper to show their commitment to one another. In 20 years together, Izzy's diabetes has worsened. Colin has saved Izzy's life on a number of occasions by preventing him from slipping into a coma. He has supported Izzy financially when he could not work because of his illness. They have a respectful, committed, loving relationship. Their families and friends see them as an inseparable couple. What is so very threatening about their love that they should be singled out by this absurd legislation and legislatively corralled so that they do not pollute the rest of society?

My friends Bruce and Greg had a commitment ceremony many years ago. About seven years ago we celebrated their 10th anniversary with a big party. What was really special about that party was that Bruce's parents and Greg's mum, who had not been at the original ceremony, came to the 10th anniversary party. Over a decade they had come to accept that their sons' love was deep and genuine and deserved celebration. Bruce's brother-in-law's mother—a wonderful, devout Catholic mother of five—said at that ceremony that, seeing all the love that was around her, she could not understand why she had been taught to be prejudiced.

Bruce's mum once said to me that her only regret for her son and his partner was they could not have a family of their own, especially as children loved Greg so much. As it happened, Greg later became the biological father of the daughter of lesbian parents. Bruce and Greg play a big part in this little girl's life, as do their families. How can it be bad for her to have so many extra people to love her? This is the reality of modern life: love comes in all shades and textures. As a society we should recognise and value human kindness and constancy; we should seek to increase the sum total of happiness, not shrink it with proscription and prejudice. Surely, like Bruce's and Greg's parents, as we grow, we will learn to accept what we previously feared.