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Thursday, 17 June 2004
Page: 30749

Mr RUDDOCK (Attorney-General) (11:47 AM) —In the spirit of moving the matter on quickly, I will deal with general comments made on the Marriage Legislation Amendment Bill 2004. I think my comments should be generic, rather than picking up on comments from each speaker. Much of the ground was covered in a similar way in contributions, depending on whether people support the measure or support the opposition's approach and its amendment. For the record, let me make it clear that the government will be opposing the second reading amendment proposed by the honourable member for Gellibrand and will be opposing each of the amendments that will be moved in the consideration in detail stage.

I thank members for their contribution to the debate. The number of speakers who have contributed demonstrates the importance of this issue. The debate demonstrated that it is an important matter for the broader Australian community. I thank the opposition for its support for at least those amendments we proposed to the Marriage Act which seek to define the fundamental basis of the institution of marriage.

I note that, in relation to the question of the government's motivation in bringing forward this bill, some have suggested that it was because the government had in mind `wedging' the opposition. I find this a particularly fascinating term, primarily because I only ever hear it being used in relation to the government when it has a different view to the opposition on a matter of substance. It is well known that politics is about difference. I have not heard it said that, when the opposition present a different view on health policy or education policy, they are `wedging' the government. We could adopt this term and get the histrionics right, suggesting with some fervour that there is something improper about having a difference on public policy. Let me make it clear that there were substantial reasons for the timing of these matters.

Mr RUDDOCK —I will put them to you. They were determined by the fact that numbers of people believed that, by going offshore and entering into marriages that were permitted offshore, on return to Australia they could invite our courts to recognise those relationships. That is contrary to what we believe the common law to be, but it is not a matter on which the parliament has expressed a view. Our concern has been that some judges have already flagged that they believe they are the custodians of the common law and that they might offer another view. In those circumstances, it is quite appropriate for the parliament to leave no doubt as to what it thinks the situation is. It is not a matter that should be postponed until such time as we find that a court—

Mr RUDDOCK —A number of them. I understand there are as many as five. They have been reported in the press, so the information is as much available to the member for Gellibrand as it is to me. The fact is that in the government's view, with those proceedings afoot seeking a declaration of validity, this is not a matter in which the government should abdicate its proper leadership role in relation to families.

These provisions are not about discriminating against anybody. As I have been told over and over again in the context of this debate, this is merely affirming what people understand to be the law. They have not come into the parliament and advocated that it should be something else. It should be a matter of no contest. It should be supported, and if you support it the government's motives in relation to this matter should not be impugned. We are not about discriminating against anybody. We are of the view that people can have their relationships. It is just that they cannot have their relationships ascribed the characteristic of marriage, as marriage is a relationship between a man and a woman. So the purpose of the bill is to give effect to that commitment, to protect the institution of marriage.

The bill has another provision, which the opposition is not prepared to support, so let me deal with that second matter. It relates to the question of same-sex couples being put forward as adoptive parents for children from overseas countries. The government is firmly of the view that all children should have the opportunity, all things being equal, to the care of a mother and father. That is a statement that has been made by this government. It is a statement that was uncontested by the Leader of the Opposition.

Ms Roxon —What about if all things are not equal?

Mr RUDDOCK —The opposition raised this during the course of the debate and I answered a question some time ago in relation to this matter. There are few such situations which are likely to arise in relation to overseas adoptions because the pool of people available to adopt is in fact quite large and the number of children available for adoption abroad is quite small—as is the case with the number of children available for adoption in Australia generally. What that means is that this is not a question of suitability of people to adopt. This is a question of when you have a limited pool judging who among those who are suitable ought to be given priority. That is really what the issue is. We are not seeking to interfere in relation to the states' entitlement to make a judgment as to who might be suitable to adopt.

Ms Roxon —That shows it is a state issue.

Mr RUDDOCK —No, it is not. The law in relation to these matters is in the hands of the states. Some states are prepared, as some honourable members have said—and I think it was the honourable member for Sydney who said this—to allow same-sex couples to be approved for adoption; others are not. But that is not the issue. The issue is about a matter where the Commonwealth has primary responsibility—the approval of people for entry into Australia—and the implications of Australia going into countries that give some primacy to children having parents who are going to play the proper role as a mother and father and saying, `Regardless of your culture and your approach, we are proposing to put forward as suitable adopting parents same-sex couples.'

That would have significant implications for bilateral relationships. It would be likely to jeopardise those countries' continuation in a program which is important to Australians who are unable to find children for adoption. I simply make the point that this issue is within the Commonwealth's constitutional competence. We are not seeking to intrude in whether the states or territories regulate adoptions in any particular way. We have dealt with that in the area which is within the purview of our responsibility.

Opposition members interjecting

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Wilkie)—Order! The members on my left will have an opportunity to contribute during the consideration in detail stage.

Mr RUDDOCK —What you are saying—and I will put it bluntly—in relation to our external relationships is if the states want to put them in jeopardy by sponsoring as suitable for adoption same-sex couples, and it is likely to have an impact on our international relations, you would abdicate and say, `It was a matter for the states.'

Mr Danby —Show us the evidence.

Mr RUDDOCK —You tell me the countries which provide for adoption of children from overseas countries which allow same-sex couples to undertake adoption within their own jurisdiction. You tell me which countries they are.

Opposition members interjecting

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —The members on my left will cease interjecting. The minister should have an opportunity to respond in silence. The minister will refer his remarks through the chair.

Mr RUDDOCK —I thought I was. I apologise if I was not.

Mr Danby —You are not being honest.

Mr RUDDOCK —I am being very honest with the parliament in outlining the reasons why in relation to this matter this is a proper issue for the Commonwealth to make its position clear on. We are not seeking—

Mr Danby —Regardless of the circumstances of the children.

Mr RUDDOCK —Let me make it clear. Whatever the circumstances of the children, in our view they are best served if they have what is asserted by the opposition to be the best thing possible: that is, all things being equal, the care of a mother and father. There is a surfeit of Australians who are in a non-same-sex relationship seeking to adopt children from abroad. So there is no need to propose same-sex couples, regardless of their suitability, in priority over a couple.

Opposition members interjecting—

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —Order! If members on my left continue to interject, I will have to take action against them. They will have an opportunity to contribute during the consideration in detail stage of the debate.

Mr RUDDOCK —That is all that this legislation seeks to do. It is ensuring that priority will be accorded for genuine couples, a male and a female, and that same-sex couples would not be proposed as suitable under the scheme which permits overseas adoptions. That is the substantial issue. It is one which the opposition ought to support, and I am quite frankly very disappointed that it does not.

The only further point I would make in relation to this matter is that there are a number of measures proposed by way of amendment. I will deal with each of those when they are proposed in the consideration in detail stage. In relation to the second reading amendment moved by the member for Gellibrand, given the vehemence with which those opposite have attacked me in relation to my, I think, very sensible and modest interventions justifying the intercountry adoption proposal, we obviously see matters differently, and we would not support that amendment. In relation to an audit of all Commonwealth legislation and a statement that, regardless of what that audit might discover, measures that are discriminatory on the basis of sexuality might be removed, the only comment I would make is that there may be for some reasons in some parts of Commonwealth legislation valid differences that some might want to maintain.

Mr RUDDOCK —No, valid differences that some might want to see maintained, and I do not think a blanket statement of that sort is appropriate.

Ms Roxon —But a blanket ban on same-sex adoption is okay?

Mr RUDDOCK —If they are intercountry adoptions, yes.

Mr RUDDOCK —Yes, it is absolutely consistent—because that is an area in which we have responsibility and there are public policy reasons for it.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —I remind the minister to not respond to interjections and that remarks should be made through the chair.

Mr RUDDOCK —We disagree with point (3) of the opposition's second reading amendment. The government will in fact be moving amendments to remove discrimination in the area of superannuation. There is no need for a particular coupling of that matter. The government has been proceeding to draft appropriate legislation. It has been involved in consultations with a view to seeing that there are no unintended consequences as a result of the form that the amendment might take. For that reason, we will be introducing in the other place that legislation in an appropriate form when it has been settled. That should not be seen as a lack of commitment on our part to proceed with that measure. We clearly intend to do so.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Wilkie)—The question is that the words proposed to be omitted stand part of the question.

Question agreed to.

Original question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.