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Tuesday, 23 September 2008
Page: 8296

Ms REA (7:26 PM) —It is with great pride that I rise tonight to support the Same-Sex Relationships (Equal Treatment in Commonwealth Laws—General Law Reform) Bill 2008. There have been many comments made about this bill both inside and outside this chamber, but I think what is really important to note is that this legislation is not about sexuality or sexual preference. It is about children. It is about the family values that we all share within this chamber and within our broader communities. It seeks to uphold those values by acknowledging the rights of all children, regardless of where they live in this country and regardless of the relationship of their parents.

This legislation acknowledges that children and adults have the right to live in a secure and loving domestic arrangement. They have the right to enjoy the comfort and security of a place that they can call home, where they grow and are nurtured by people who care for and love them. I do not think that anyone can disagree with that basic right for our children, and I do not think anyone can disagree that it is a basic rights for adults to live in a caring and loving relationship within their own home.

Families come in all shapes and sizes; we know that. I am one of seven children and our parents were married. I have many friends and family members who live in a number of different relationships. It is not a measure of the love that people feel for the children that they care for. There is no measure for a relationship other than one where people are tied together emotionally. Marriage is not the only relationship in which children can grow up and be nurtured, and it is not the only way in which adults can live together in a fulfilling and satisfying relationship.

Of course, the nuclear family of working dads and stay-at-home mums is one that is cherished by many, but it is in fact a phenomenon of a very small part of the 20th century. It has been perceived as the norm for a very short period of time. Relationships of all kinds have existed over the years. They have changed through Western society. They exist in different forms in very different religious and cultural societies. I think we need to acknowledge that the notion of family is not one size fits all; it is many sizes. What is important is that the rights of people to enjoy the benefits of that relationship are recognised by law.

I am very pleased that our laws and our attitudes have changed. As a woman, I have benefited as a result of changing attitudes in our society which have resulted in changes in laws. This has enabled me to pursue a career that I find satisfying and interesting, it has allowed me to be financially independent, and it has allowed me the great fulfilment of having children and pursuing my career at the same time. It was not so long ago that these were hard-fought rights. Many, many women campaigned for many, many years for laws that reflect my right as a woman to enjoy all of those relationships and, as a result, to have what I believe is a better quality of life than many women who have preceded me. I am also proud to support this bill because it acknowledges the support that the Australian community has always given to human rights.

In my capacity as the Chair of the Human Rights Subcommittee of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, I am pleased that we are once again ending what has been unfair and necessary discrimination towards same-sex couples and their children in our community. It has taken a long time to acknowledge that we as a country, whilst appearing to be progressive and liberal, have had some hard fought battles to acknowledge the individual human rights of many within our society. It was not so long ago that Indigenous people were not even allowed the right to vote. It was not so long ago that many people with disabilities did not enjoy access to the services and opportunities that they do now, because we did not acknowledge their individual rights and support them in their endeavours to lead a better quality of life.

That is why I am so pleased that this government has acted on the inquiry that was conducted by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission. That inquiry investigated and eventually acknowledged that there were many financial and work related entitlements and benefits that people in opposite-sex relationships take for granted whereas people in same-sex relationships were clearly discriminated against. Most importantly, that inquiry found that it was not just the adults who are involved in those relationships but also their children who are discriminated against. I appeal once again to any Australian who supports the right of a child to a loving and nurturing relationship to support this legislation, because many children in same-sex relationships live in domestic circumstances that are much more nourishing, loving and caring than those of many opposite-sex relationships. Unfortunately, it is a fact of life that it is not the legal status of your relationship that defines your ability to care for your children and for your partner; it is in fact what an individual brings to that relationship.

It is important therefore that we introduce laws that allow everyone who has the desire and the capacity to share their life with someone to bring children into that relationship if they so choose. We as a society can only benefit by more loving parents, not simply a stereotype of what we think should be the case. That is why I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate the Attorney-General for ending these areas of discrimination so quickly on being elected to public office. I think it is a clear sign both of the individual fortitude of the Attorney-General and indeed the support and aspirations of the whole Labor government that these laws have come into place within the first 12 months of our election to office. It acknowledges and builds on that great Labor tradition, which has always been about equality, about fairness and about ending those social and cultural obstacles which deny individuals and, indeed, in this case, their families the opportunities that are enjoyed by some but not all.

These amendments build on the previous legislation introduced by the Attorney-General regarding superannuation entitlements. What is interesting is that the essential aspects of this legislation actually build on a very simple concept. It is simply, when you boil it down and look at the essence of this discrimination and these laws, about the definition of words. The legislation says that a ‘spouse’ and a ‘child’ are recognised regardless of whether you are in a same-sex or an opposite-sex relationship. These are two words that many of us simply acknowledge as describing the relationships that we individually have with others or that our whole social framework is built on. We now can define those words more broadly to acknowledge all families in this country.

There are also close relationships that are defined by the words ‘stepchild’, ‘widow’ and ‘widower’—once simply definitions that could only apply in the case where two people were married. We all have many examples of people who live in de facto relationships and people in de facto same-sex relationships who clearly have relationships where those words come into play. They clearly have stepchildren, and when one of the partners dies we can only acknowledge the other as a widow or widower because we have seen for many years the strength of their relationship and the close connection and bond that their relationship enjoyed over the many years that they were together.

To acknowledge the grieving of the death of a partner by considering them as a widow or widower does not change the fabric of our society; it simply gives compassion and understanding to the living partner’s grief. A stepchild, a child who is not the biological child of one partner but has in fact grown up in that family unit, has built those very close bonds that occur in a domestic relationship when you live for many years in a house together and indeed occupy the same roles and relationships as a parent and child. The fact that they cannot be considered a stepchild until this legislation comes into force again does not diminish the nature of existing relationships; it simply adds a broader acknowledgement that stepchildren are part of all loving relationships not just married ones.

This bill amends 68 Commonwealth laws, and 19 departments were involved in drafting those laws. This alone must demonstrate to the Australian community the systematic discrimination that Australians in same-sex relationships and their children have endured for so long. The fact that 68 laws are to be amended only serves to indicate and emphasise how important this bill is. It demonstrates how significant and widespread the discrimination against same-sex relationships has been throughout our history. It means that so many of the financial benefits that have been enjoyed by those in opposite-sex relationships are now recognised for those in same-sex relationships.

The laws remove discrimination in many areas. These are areas in which those of us who are married or involved in opposite-sex relationships take our rights for granted: social security, taxation, Medicare, veterans affairs, workers compensation and educational assistance. These fundamentals rights that we take for granted have only now, in the year 2008, been extended to acknowledge the number of same-sex relationships in Australia at the moment. It is in fact incomprehensible to believe that, as the previous speaker said, simply because of who you love, you are not entitled to certain benefits under things like the taxation system and the health system through Medicare. It is incomprehensible to think that veterans, who have done so much and contributed so much to the freedom and the liberal minded policies that we have in this country, can have partners who cannot be acknowledged because they do not happen to fit into the current definition.

It is incomprehensible that it has taken us so long. It has been 20 years since discrimination on the ground of sexual preference was added as an additional ground of discrimination in the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission Regulations. It has taken that long for a child of a same-sex relationship to enjoy the same freedom, the same rights and the same benefits as those who have grown up with parents in an opposite-sex relationship.

I understand that this is a sensitive issue and that many people will find it hard to comprehend and understand the need for these laws. I appreciate that people have different beliefs and different attitudes—in fact, it is the strength of our democracy that we are allowed to express those differences—but what is important about this legislation and what is important about my privilege to be able to stand in this place to support it is that this is a time that we must act as decision makers. It is a time when we do not necessarily listen to the chorus out there. We are acting as decision makers in this national parliament to acknowledge that discrimination is wrong and that there are people within our own country who have been denied basic human rights. These people deserve to enjoy not just the privileges but, indeed, the very basic benefits that so many other families in this country enjoy. It is time for us to act—to support this legislation and show that, as a government and as a parliament, we want this country to progress and prosper and that we want everyone to enjoy that privilege.