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Monday, 22 September 2008
Page: 8144


Mr TURNOUR (7:51 PM) —I rise today to support the Same-Sex Relationships (Equal Treatment in Commonwealth Laws—General Law Reform) Bill 2008. It is an honour to be the first member of the government to speak on this bill. I have a large gay and lesbian community in my electorate of Leichhardt and I know that they welcome this legislation. I was pleased to hear the member for Farrer support this legislation in principle, but I must admit that I am surprised, and I am sure members of the government will be surprised, that this legislation has been referred off to a Senate committee, particularly given the fact that we have a new Leader of the Opposition who, I would have thought, would have been here tonight representing that side of the House, the Liberal Party, and putting very firmly his views in relation to this legislation.

We need to remember that when the government brought forward the legislation in relation to superannuation earlier in the year, it was the former Leader of the Opposition, Dr Nelson, who was the first speaker on this issue and who put forward the opposition’s point of view. Like me, the member for Wentworth, the new Leader of the Opposition, also represents a large gay and lesbian community in his electorate. He has communities such as Kings Cross, Darlinghurst and Paddington in his electorate. These communities are very well known within this country for having large gay and lesbian populations, and I would have thought that the member for Wentworth, the new Leader of the Opposition, would have taken a note from the former Leader of the Opposition and been here tonight to represent his constituents and show some leadership for his side of the parliament. We also need to remember very clearly his position prior to the last election when he was concerned about his seat. Where is the person who, before the last election, was jumping up and down and saying that he would fight for equality for gay and lesbian people until justice was done?

Now, after the election, we are here tonight debating this important legislation and we hear that the opposition is going to send it off to a committee. I think that constituents in the member for Wentworth’s electorate will be very disappointed with the position that he has taken this evening. I think they would be asking themselves about some of the deals that might have been done in the background in terms of his securing his position as the Leader of the Opposition—some of the deals that he might have done with some in the right wing in the New South Wales part of the Liberal Party.

I was very disappointed to hear the member for Farrer tonight, rather than supporting this legislation, basically getting wishy-washy and incorporating marriage issues in this legislation. This legislation has nothing to do with marriage. The Labor Party have made it very clear that we are not looking to change the definition of ‘marriage’ in the Marriage Act in relation to this legislation. We are about making sure that people in same-sex relationships get a fair go, and it is very clear that the Leader of the Opposition, the member for Wentworth, who has a very large gay and lesbian community in his electorate, is not here tonight to say what he is doing; he is out the back, no doubt talking to members of his party about how they are going to shuffle this out and play some politics around marriage in terms of this legislation. I was very disappointed to hear that this was going to be handed off to a Senate committee.

After just 10 months the Rudd government is delivering much-needed reform to remove discrimination from federal government laws against those in same-sex relationships. Twelve years of inaction by the Howard government will be washed away by these laws and finally some justice will be delivered to those in same-sex relationships.

Article 26 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights states:

All persons are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to the equal protection of the law.

In this respect, the law shall prohibit any discrimination and guarantee to all persons equal and effective protection against discrimination on any ground …

This is a United Nations treaty based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, implemented and supervised internationally by the UN Human Rights Committee.  It is considered by many to be one of the most important human rights treaties in the world. I am delighted to stand here today to support the bill being introduced by the Rudd government. It will help to ensure that Australian legislation reflects the sentiments contained in this article. The Same-Sex Relationships (Equal Treatment in Commonwealth Laws—General Law Reform) Bill will end discrimination against same-sex couples and the children of same-sex relationships in a wide range of Commonwealth laws.

Australia is the lucky country. We live in a healthy democracy, we have a strong human rights record and we have freedom of speech and freedom of press. But our nation’s treatment of same-sex couples is unacceptable. In the eyes of the Commonwealth law, they are not recognised. As a country, we still have a way to go to ensure equality for all of our residents. The legislation introduced by the Rudd government, being driven by the Attorney-General, the Hon. Robert McClelland, is well and truly overdue. This legislation will not be without controversy. It is important that we remember this is not about special rights for same-sex couples; it is about ensuring that all couples have equal rights to the same entitlements and benefits. This is a basic human right.

This bill introduces the second part of the Rudd government’s historic reforms to amend laws that discriminate against same-sex de facto couples and their children. Earlier this year, legislation was introduced in the House to eliminate discrimination against same-sex couples and the children of same-sex relationships in acts when it comes to superannuation, including the payment of superannuation benefits upon the death of a scheme member and in related taxation treatment of superannuation benefits. The former Leader of the Opposition, Dr Nelson, was here to put the opposition’s response to that, but we do not see the member for Wentworth tonight. We do not see the new Leader of the Opposition—somebody who represents very large gay and lesbian communities in this country—here tonight. The bill I rise to support tonight will build on our earlier legislation and will amend a further 68 Commonwealth laws. Taxation and social security, immigration, health and aged care, and veterans entitlements are just a few of the areas that will be reformed. It is certainly important legislation that will have widespread implications, and it is a positive step forward not only in our legislative framework but for our country in embracing the differences in our community.

Before I go on to outline some of the more technical aspects of this legislation, I would like to commend my parliamentary colleague and our nation’s Attorney-General, the Hon. Robert McClelland, for his leadership on this issue. He has acknowledged the shameful delay—that it has taken so long for a government of either side to take the necessary action to remove same-sex discrimination. As the Attorney-General highlighted in his second reading speech, it is almost 20 years since ‘sexual preference’ was added as an additional ground of discrimination under the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission regulations. In 1997, a Senate committee identified discrimination in Commonwealth laws and programs regarding tax and superannuation benefits. In 2004, Australia was found to be in breach of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights regarding veterans entitlements, denying benefits to a person on the basis of their sexual orientation. After being appointed to office, the Attorney-General commissioned a whole-of-government audit of Commonwealth legislation. He has considered the Same-sex: same entitlements report released in May last year by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission and has acted on the findings. He has coordinated over 19 government departments to bring us to this point—a significant undertaking. So it is with great pleasure that I stand here tonight to speak about this historic legislation that has been introduced, and I thank Mr McClelland for his effort to date.

Often we stand up in this place and talk about legislation that impacts on the community, and it does trickle down and impact on individuals within the community, but there are individuals out there tonight—who are listening to this broadcast and who will read the comments of members on this and the other side of the House—who will be directly affected by this legislation and will directly benefit from these changes. It is a great honour as a member of parliament to be able to stand up and know that, in making your decision, in casting your vote, you can impact directly on individuals’ lives. This will directly impact same-sex couples, many of whom have been living in relationships for well over 20 or 30 years. They will benefit from this legislation that recognises their rights as for other de facto couples. I am very proud to be a member of the Rudd government that is bringing this legislation forward and I congratulate the Attorney-General for the work he has done.

The passing of this bill will remove discrimination by amending a number of different definitions across Commonwealth legislation. The major amendments include changing the definition of ‘de facto partner’. The bill includes a new definition for the term ‘de facto partner’. De facto partnerships will encompass parties in relationships whether they are of the same or different sexes; it will be gender neutral. The new definition will be included in the Acts Interpretation Act and will become the standard definition for most Commonwealth laws.

The other major amendment includes changing the definitions of ‘child’ and ‘parent’. This bill will remove discrimination by altering the definition of a child. The term will include a child who is the product of a relationship where one partner is linked biologically to the child or where one partner is the birth mother of the child. By applying this definition, opposite-sex and same-sex families are treated equally. The definition of ‘parent’ will also be expanded where appropriate to include the parents of children of same-sex couples. This ensures that both members of a couple are recognised as parents of a child where that child is the product of the relationship.

The amendments contained in this bill are vital. At present, same-sex de facto relationships are not recognised in a number of Commonwealth laws which already provide recognition for opposite-sex de facto relationships. This is quite simply unjust. Until the amendments are passed through parliament, the same-sex partner of a person and that couple’s child will not be able to access the same treatment in the 68 laws outlined within the bill that is currently afforded to opposite-sex de facto couples in the same circumstances.

Another major feature of this bill which is important to note is that it will remove marital status discrimination in a number of Commonwealth laws. I disagree with the case being put forward by many members opposite that these changes undermine the institution of marriage and the family unit. But I wish to make it clear that this is not about marriage. As I have said: this is not about marriage; it is about giving people in same-sex relationships a fair go. It has never been Labor policy to change the definition of ‘marriage’ in the Marriage Act. It cannot be ignored that opposite-sex de facto couples represent a growing proportion of our population, and it is unreasonable that they do not have the same rights as a couple who are married. So it is the discrimination against people in same-sex and opposite-sex de facto relationships that we want to fix.

I agree with the Attorney-General’s sentiments that it is hard to believe that for almost 24 years it has been lawful to discriminate against a person on the basis that they are or are not married. This bill will amend some laws that treat people in the same circumstances differently based on whether they are married or not. For example, a widow—a woman who has lost her husband—may be entitled to government benefits. Presently, benefits are payable to a woman only if she was married. If she was a de facto partner, she is not entitled to the same benefits. The bill will replace the term ‘widow’ with ‘surviving spouse’ or ‘de facto partner’.

The Rudd government has also moved to alter the treatment of de facto relationships. Changes in the Family Law Amendment (De Facto Financial Matters and Other Measures) Bill 2008 will allow opposite-sex and same-sex de facto couples to access the federal family law courts on property and spouse maintenance matters. This same-sex relationships bill will impact on 68 Commonwealth laws, as I have said. I will take just one piece of legislation that will change as a result of this bill as an example. It relates to medical benefits, so it is a clear illustration of the importance of passing this bill. Presently, same-sex couples have to spend more than opposite-sex couples on medical expenses to enjoy the Medicare and PBS safety nets. This bill seeks to amend the Health Insurance Act 1973, a piece of Australian law that regulates the payment of Medicare benefits. This act stipulates the persons who are eligible for Medicare benefits, the arrangements for safety net entitlements and the rules in relation to the provision of services that attract Medicare benefits. The passing of this same-sex relationships bill will mean same-sex de facto partners and their dependent children can register as a family for the purposes of Medicare safety nets.

As I have said, this is about making sure people in same-sex relationships get a fair go. We are not talking about changing the Marriage Act. We are not talking about changing the definition of marriage. It is about playing politics when you start going down that track. The Labor Party and the Liberal Party have the same policy on this, but we want to make sure we give people in same-sex relationships a fair go. The members opposite need to think very carefully about whether they are choosing to play politics on this and whether they want to go down this track, particularly given they have a new Leader of the Opposition who I would have thought would have wanted to distance himself from the Howard years and some of the policies and responses we have seen in relation to this sort of legislation in the past.

As I said, I have a wonderful gay and lesbian community in Cairns. Same-sex partners are members of my community and many of them are friends of mine. I am proud to stand up here and support this legislation that is going to benefit many of those individuals in my electorate. Last weekend my local gay community held the second Tropical Pride Festival in Cairns. Over 1,500 people came along and celebrated as part of the Tropical Pride Festival. There was an awards night on the Friday night and, over the weekend, people participated in the parade of lights as part of Festival Cairns. On Sunday, there was a fair at the Tanks. I had a stall there that enabled people to find out more about this legislation. We provided them with the Attorney-General’s second reading speech. I was disappointed that I could not stand up here last week and make this speech so that I could hand it out on the weekend, but I was proud to be there to support the local community.

The aim of this event is to bring the local lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community together and also to enable the general Cairns community to better accept and understand their lifestyles and choices. I want to congratulate members of the community for organising the event. I was pleased to support the event with a stall at the fair on Sunday. The organising committee need to be congratulated for the work that they do.

There are some great leaders within the gay and lesbian community in Cairns, and the importance of the same-sex legislation presently before parliament is best summed up in a quote that Amanda Dean, the health promotion officer at the Queensland Association for Healthy Communities, based in Cairns, gave me. They are a wonderful organisation that provide great leadership and great support within their community. The quote comes from their CEO, Paul Martin, who says:

To improve the health and wellbeing of LGBT people, we need to reduce stigma and discrimination. Legal recognition of same sex relationships is part of treating everyone equally and with dignity, and building a socially inclusive Australia.

I cannot stress how important this bill that I am supporting today is to my local constituents, and I believe that quote sums up my, and many in the community’s, sentiments perfectly.

The Same-Sex Relationships (Equal Treatment in Commonwealth Laws—General Law Reform) Bill is an important piece of legislation. It is the right thing to do. It means a new standard of fairness and consistency in Australian law. I am proud to be part of a government that will end discrimination in 68 pieces of Commonwealth law. As found by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, it is not good enough that more than 20,000 same-sex couples experience systematic discrimination on a daily basis; it is not good enough that same-sex couples and their families are denied financial entitlements and benefits; and it is not good enough that same-sex couples are not able to receive tax concessions that opposite-sex couples can. The Rudd government’s action to introduce this legislation will seek to rectify this.

This bill builds on our bill introduced earlier this year regarding the treatment of same-sex couples when it comes to superannuation, and it builds on our Family Law Amendment Bill, which is also presently before the parliament. That bill will allow opposite-sex and same-sex de facto couples to access the family law courts on property and spouse maintenance matters. Unlike the opposition, we are committed to stamping out discrimination against same-sex couples. I was very concerned by what I heard this evening in relation to these bills. We are committed to ensuring that people in same-sex relationships get a fair go, and we are working hard to ensure this. We committed to this before the election and we are delivering on that commitment within 10 months of being elected. I am very proud to be part of the Rudd government, delivering on its election commitments again. I urge the House to support this bill and I commend it to the House.