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Tuesday, 23 September 2008
Page: 8291

Mr COMBET (Parliamentary Secretary for Defence Procurement) (7:01 PM) —I obviously also wish to speak on the Same-Sex Relationships (Equal Treatment in Commonwealth Laws—General Law Reform) Bill 2008. Labor went to the last election with a clear commitment to end discrimination against same-sex couples in the area of federal law. The Labor platform, approved at the 2007 national conference of the Australian Labor Party, was very clear in this respect. It said:

Labor believes that people are entitled to respect, dignity and the opportunity to participate in society and receive the protection of the law regardless of their sexuality or gender identity. Labor supports the enactment of legislation prohibiting discrimination on the grounds of a person’s sexuality or gender identity and will audit Commonwealth legislation to amend provisions that unfairly discriminate against any person on the grounds of sexuality or gender identity.

It would not be an exaggeration, of course, as I think previous speakers have observed, to say that action in this area is well and truly overdue. As highlighted by the Attorney-General in his introduction of this bill to the House, it is almost 20 years since sexual preference was added as a ground of discrimination under the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission regulations. The Attorney-General also highlighted in his introduction to the bill other examples of this discrimination. In 1997, the Senate Legal and Constitutional Committee identified discrimination in laws and programs that dealt with tax and superannuation benefits. In 2004, the United Nations Human Rights Committee found that Australia was in breach of the prohibition on discrimination in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights because the Veterans’ Entitlements Act denied a person a pension on the basis of sexual orientation.

Last year, the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, following a substantial inquiry, tabled a report in parliament entitled Same-sex: same entitlements. I spoke about this report during my speech on the last bill in relation to this issue that was before the House, but I think it is important to reiterate some of the findings of that report as they are pertinent to the bill before the House at the moment. The report found that same-sex couples experience discrimination under a wide range of Commonwealth laws, including superannuation, taxation and social security laws. More specifically, the report identified a number of areas where legal and financial discrimination were faced by same-sex couples and their children. The report found, among other things, that: same-sex couples and their families are denied basic financial and work related entitlements which opposite-sex couples and their families take for granted; same-sex couples are not guaranteed the right to take carers leave to look after a sick partner; same-sex couples have to spend more money, generally, on medical expenses than opposite-sex couples to enjoy the Medicare and PBS safety nets; same-sex couples are denied a wide range of tax concessions that are available to opposite-sex couples; the same-sex partner of a federal government employee is denied access to certain superannuation and workers compensation death benefits that are available to an opposite-sex partner; and older same-sex couples will generally pay more than opposite-sex couples when entering aged-care facilities. These are indicators of deep and entrenched discrimination in our society that must be remedied. The Same-sex: same entitlements report also found that approximately 20,000 Australian couples and their children were experiencing discrimination and lack of equality for no other reason than the parents’ sexuality.

The report also rightly framed the issue of discrimination as an abuse of fundamental human rights, as the previous speaker was adverting to. It highlighted some of Australia’s international human rights obligations, finding that international treaties that we were party to created an obligation upon us to remove the discrimination against same-sex couples. It named four international conventions to which Australia was a party and which raised relevant rights and obligations of the Australian government. These included: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; the Convention on the Rights of the Child; the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; and the Discrimination (Employment and Occupation) Convention, which is known as ILO 111.

The report examined the rights and obligations that arose from these international agreements, compared these to the discrimination that was present within Commonwealth legislation and found that discrimination against same-sex couples and parents can interfere with the right to protection of family; that discrimination against same-sex couples and parents can interfere with the right to privacy, family and home; that discrimination against same-sex parents can amount to discrimination against a child; that discrimination against same-sex parents can interfere with the best interests of a child—unsurprisingly so; that discrimination against same-sex parents can interfere with the performance of their common and household responsibilities; that discrimination against same-sex parents can interfere with a child’s right to identity; that discrimination against same-sex couples in adoption can interfere with the best interests of a child; that discrimination against same-sex couples can interfere with the right to social security; that discrimination against same-sex parents can impact on a child’s right to benefit from social security; that discrimination against same-sex couples can interfere with the right to health; and that discrimination against same-sex parents can interfere with a child’s right to health.

This is an appalling indictment of Australia’s response to this form of discrimination. Time is up, and these matters must be addressed to ensure there is fairness and justice in our community for people in same-sex relationships and their children. All of these things can be interpreted as nothing less than a damning indictment of our ability to provide basic and fundamental human rights to all of our citizens. I believe that HREOC’s report was extremely valuable in helping to educate the general community on the extent of the discrimination contained within federal legislation, on the impact that this can have and on the need to make sure that government takes action on this failure to provide for fundamental human rights in our society.

I am proud to be part of a government that is finally addressing these issues. I am also personally close to a same-sex couple who are parenting a child and I wish to see, on their behalf, an end to this discrimination. Upon coming to government the Attorney-General instructed his department to conduct an audit of all Commonwealth legislation to identify examples of discrimination against same-sex couples. That audit confirmed the findings contained in HREOC’s report and also identified further areas of discrimination in a range of non-financial areas, such as administrative and evidence laws. From this work the Attorney-General, on behalf of the Rudd government and in partnership with the Attorney-General’s staff, has been working on a program of legislation designed to remove all of this discrimination. It is my pleasure to be able to speak today on what is the second part of the government’s program to remove discrimination against same-sex couples and their children from all Commonwealth law.

The first part of that program, of course, was contained within the Same-Sex Relationships (Equal Treatment in Commonwealth Laws—Superannuation) Bill 2008, and I was pleased to have spoken in the debate on that bill in the House. However, along with others who were supporters of that bill, I am not pleased to see that that bill still has not passed the Senate due to the actions of those opposite. Instead the opposition appear to be more focused on the politics of this situation and perhaps pandering to some of the more conservative elements within their own party. They have hidden behind the veil of an argument that suggests that more work needs to be conducted on interdependent relationships.

The fact is that the Attorney-General has dealt with those arguments in a substantive and thoughtful manner on a number of occasions, none of which appear to have been properly considered by the opposition. The government, during the debate on the previous bill, highlighted the fact that a delay in the passage of that bill would result in individuals and children having their right to superannuation benefits unnecessarily denied for a further period of time. The opposition’s refusal to heed these warnings and their referral of the bill to the Senate committee process has only demonstrated, at best, a half-hearted commitment to ending this discrimination. I think that now that the member for Wentworth has become the Leader of the Opposition—in the past he has been engaged in some advocacy for same-sex rights—some leadership from the Leader of the Opposition on this issue is well overdue. I would like to see him provide such leadership and indicate support for this bill and the previous bill, as these bills can play a critical role in removing the discrimination against same-sex couples and their children in Commonwealth law. I call on the Leader of the Opposition to uphold the values that underpin these pieces of legislation.

The purpose of this bill is to eliminate discrimination under a range of Commonwealth laws in the manner that I have described. In detail, as previous speakers have adverted to, the bill will amend 68 Commonwealth laws to achieve this purpose. It does so by altering a number of definitions across a range of laws. Firstly, the bill before the House will introduce across these laws a new definition of a child. The new definition 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. The bill also includes a new definition of de facto partnerships, which will become the standard for most Commonwealth laws. Under this definition the couple will be taken to be in a de facto relationship if they have a relationship as a couple and live together on a genuine domestic basis, having regard to a number of circumstances included within the definition. Registration of a relationship on a prescribed state or territory register will also be recognised as proof that a couple is in a de facto relationship. Currently Tasmania, Victoria and the ACT have such schemes, and I encourage other states to look at adopting similar practices.

The bill expands the definitions of stepchild and step-parent to include a child of an opposite-sex or same-sex de facto partner by a former relationship and to include a same-sex or opposite-sex de facto partner of a parent of a child by a former relationship. The bill also removes some laws that treat people in the same circumstances differently depending on whether they are married or not. These amendments to the definitions contained within the Acts Interpretation Act will help remove the discrimination of same-sex couples and their children that currently resides in a number of laws of the Commonwealth. Similarly, in legislation such as the Social Security Act, which these definitions under the Acts Interpretation Act do not provide for, relevant amendments are made to ensure that same-sex couples and their families are recognised.

The amendment of legal definitions may not appear to be much; indeed, at first glance it appears to be just a number of technical amendments. However, the provisions contained within this bill can make a real difference to many families across this country. I would like to take the opportunity to outline some of the benefits that may now accrue to same-sex couples, depending upon their circumstances, and their children following the passage of this bill, to give concrete examples of some of the discrimination that will be removed.

Prior to the introduction of this bill, same-sex couples were not eligible for some payments because a same-sex partner did not qualify as a ‘partner’ under social security legislation. This meant that, for the purposes of some entitlements and benefits under social security legislation, same-sex couples were not recognised. This bill will correct that. Prior to this bill, a same-sex partner of a veteran could not receive benefits such as the war widow or war widower pensions, income support supplement, bereavement benefits, funeral benefits, gold repatriation health card or military compensation. Subject to the particular circumstances of a veteran, this bill will change the arrangements to remove discrimination. In relation to Medicare, prior to this bill a same-sex family had to spend more to access general and extended safety net subsidies. They also had to spend more to access the PBS safety net subsidies. Again, this bill corrects these injustices and deficiencies.

I conclude by reiterating how proud I am to be part of a government that is finally putting an end to discrimination suffered by many thousands of same-sex couples and their families. I urge the opposition to support the legislation and ensure that this discrimination is removed as promptly as possible.