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Tuesday, 23 September 2008
Page: 8294

Ms ANNETTE ELLIS (7:17 PM) —It is indeed with pride and pleasure that I rise this evening to speak on the Same-Sex Relationships (Equal Treatment in Commonwealth Laws—General Law Reform) Bill 2008. It has been said before, and I need to say again, that it is a matter of shame for both sides of this parliament that it has taken so long for this to happen. It is hard to believe that 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. More recently, in 1997, the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs References Committee identified discrimination in Commonwealth laws and programs that deal with tax and superannuation benefits.

This long-awaited and welcome bill will amend 68 Commonwealth laws. It has taken the work and dedication of 19 government departments and the public servants within those departments who have been involved in its drafting. I am extremely proud that we have a government that is prepared to remove discrimination against same-sex couples in the way reflected in this legislation. The Australian Human Rights Commissioner, Mr Graeme Innes, has welcomed wholeheartedly the introduction of the bill. The Association of Superannuation Funds of Australia, ASFA, has given in principle support for superannuation and tax legislation which does not discriminate against partners of either gender.

As I said, approximately 20 years ago sexual preference became a ground of discrimination under the regulations of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, yet federal legislation continued to discriminate against sexual preference. In 2004 the UN Human Rights Committee found that Australia was in breach of a 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. This bill will remove discrimination not only against same-sex couples but also against their families and, most notably, their children.

It is fair to ask how same-sex couples are discriminated against. There is a long list of areas of discrimination, and previous speakers have referred to some of them. Same-sex couples and their families get fewer leave entitlements, including less carers leave to look after a sick partner; less workers compensation; fewer tax concessions; fewer veterans entitlements, such as pensions and concessions; fewer healthcare subsidies; less access to the Medicare and PBS safety nets; and less superannuation. They also pay more for residential aged care than do opposite-sex couples in the same circumstances. The amendments will allow same-sex couples equal access to these entitlements.

At least 20,000 couples experience systemic discrimination on a daily basis throughout our community. That is a very large number of people who, just as a matter of course through their daily activities, suffer discrimination. Same-sex couples are denied basic financial and work related entitlements because they are excluded from the definitions of a couple in federal laws. Federal laws generally define a ‘partner’, a ‘member of a couple’, a ‘spouse’ or a ‘de facto spouse’ as a person of the opposite sex. The bill will change these definitions to include same-sex couples. The bill will also formally recognise children of same-sex couples, with the general approach taken that it will include a child who is the product of a relationship where one partner is linked biologically to the child or is the birth mother of the child. Presently, there are inconsistencies in the recognition of relationships across states and territories. This legislation will provide national uniformity to the recognition of same-sex relationships and therefore provide certainty.

The legislation will remove discrimination in relation to access to superannuation benefits. Under the current law, a surviving member of a same-sex couple does not meet the definition of either ‘spouse’ or ‘dependant’ and therefore cannot receive the deceased partner’s lump sum or the pension benefits paid by most of the Commonwealth’s civilian or military superannuation schemes. Payment of superannuation benefits to children is another point. At present, dependent children of a deceased partner have access to benefits but children of a surviving partner do not. The legislation will, thankfully, change this. It is particularly important where the surviving partner may be incapacitated or terminally ill. Those circumstances are well known to many of us in the House, unfortunately. Then there is the question of taxation of death benefits. This legislation will allow same-sex partners to receive benefits tax free, as do current opposite-sex partners. With respect to the ability to contribute to superannuation, under the current law a member of an opposite-sex couple may make a tax deductible contribution to their spouse’s superannuation account. Amendments in the bill that will define ‘spouse’ for the purpose of superannuation will allow same-sex couples to also make these contributions.

Over the years that I have had the privilege of being in this place, you often hear in debates of this kind people saying, ‘I know someone who knows someone who has had that experience’ or ‘I have had that experience’ or ‘I understand how they feel because my best friend has had that experience.’ We hear those sorts of references often, and I have to be tempted to go down that path now because, like many other people in this place, I have very close friends who are in same-sex relationships. These are people in the community who have very longstanding, highly regarded relationships and for whom I have a very high regard. I have always been embarrassed that our community and this parliament have never found it possible to remove the discrimination that these people have to suffer through their normal, everyday lives in workplaces or wherever. I am extremely pleased that we have this piece of legislation before the House. I sincerely hope and trust that those on the other side will find themselves in a position to give us the support to get this legislation through.

This is very good legislation, it is very important legislation and it is very welcome legislation. It is shameful that it has taken us so long to get to this point in our history. Blatant discrimination based on whom people have a relationship with or whom they love is the most misunderstood direction I could ever wish to see a society go in. I frankly do not understand why we have not been able to do this before. I am very proud to be part of a government that is presenting this legislation. I want to put on the record my absolute, heartfelt commendation for the work of the Attorney-General, the member for Barton, and for his leadership on this issue. I know that it has not been easy. I know that the work put in by members of the Public Service, in those 19 departments that I have referred to, has been long and hard. They are to be commended and the Attorney-General is to be commended for the leadership that he has provided in bringing this legislation to the House. I congratulate him, I congratulate everyone within those departments, and I sincerely look forward to the passage of this very important and, I believe, historic legislation through the parliament.