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Tuesday, 23 September 2008
Page: 8303


Ms KING (7:53 PM) —I rise today to strongly support the Same-Sex Relationships (Equal Treatment in Commonwealth Laws—General Law Reform) Bill 2008. This bill follows Labor’s election commitment to remove discrimination for same-sex couples from the Commonwealth system, and it has been a longstanding commitment. I am very proud to be part of a government that, in its first nine months, saw this as one of the issues to be brought forward in its first tranche of legislation.

The government is absolutely committed to amending Commonwealth legislation that discriminates against same-sex couples and their children. Current Commonwealth laws do not properly reflect the views and values of the Australian community. Current Commonwealth laws are outdated, and both sides of this House have taken too long to act against that discrimination. At present, some laws within the Commonwealth system reflect a view that we should somehow treat same-sex couples differently. Almost a quarter of a century after it was determined to be unlawful to discriminate against a person on the basis of sexual preference, the Commonwealth system is now only just catching up.

Since coming to office, the Rudd government has made significant inroads on this important issue. Despite making many promises to the gay and lesbian community, the previous government never ever acted. There was a lot of rhetoric and a lot of promises to act, but the previous government never actually introduced legislation to make good on their promises. Unlike the previous government, we have put this issue at the forefront of our legislative agenda because the federal government should be, across this nation, a leader on antidiscrimination reform. We have lagged behind for far too long.

On coming to office, we commissioned a whole-of-government audit of Commonwealth law to address the discrimination against Australians in same-sex relationships and their children with a view to removing that discrimination. Following this, in May this year the Attorney-General introduced the Same-Sex Relationships (Equal Treatment in Commonwealth Law—Superannuation) Bill 2008. That bill was first introduced by the Rudd government to remove the very significant discrimination that exists within our superannuation system. Unfortunately, those members opposite followed through on threats to delay the passage of that legislation by using the final days of their Senate majority to refer the bill to a Senate committee. That bill now sits with the Senate committee until next month. The bill before the House today is the second stage of the Rudd government’s reform to remove same-sex discrimination from the Commonwealth system. It reforms many parts of our Commonwealth system to remove discrimination against same-sex couples and their children. I urge those opposite not to again stall the legislation or play the political games with this second stage of reforms that they did with the first. Removing discrimination from our Commonwealth system should be something that we all embrace. It should not be delayed and it is critical that passage of this bill through both chambers is achieved during the spring sitting.

The bill is strongly supported by many domestic and international groups. The Human Rights Equal Opportunity Commission released its report Same-sex: same entitlements in May 2007. The first line of the report reads:

At least 20,000 couples in Australia experience systematic discrimination on a daily basis.

That is 20,000 couples who we have accepted will be facing discrimination on a daily basis. That is the issue that has been ignored for far too long. I would like to read an extract from the HREOC report. It states:

It is not just Australia’s same-sex couples who suffer discrimination; it is their children too. Approximately 20% of lesbian couples and 5% of gay couples in Australia are raising children.

That is the reality of the sorts of families we have within our community today.

The financial disadvantages imposed on same-sex parents will inevitably have an impact on their children.

This discrimination breaches human rights. And it can be stopped. All it takes is a few changes to the definitions in some federal laws.

That is exactly what this bill does.

Following the election of the Rudd government, the Attorney-General, Robert McClelland, commissioned a whole-of-government audit of Commonwealth legislation. The audit reiterated the statements in the report released by the Human Rights Equal Opportunity Commission. The report recognised the dire need for major reform to remove the discrimination that exists in the Commonwealth system. This bill also follows on from the United Nations Human Rights Committee that in 2004 found Australia to be in breach of the prohibition on discrimination in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The United Nations Human Rights Committee recognised discrimination in the Australian Commonwealth system because under the Veterans’ Entitlements Act veterans were denied a pension based on their sexual preference. The case of Edward Young has been canvassed fairly extensively throughout many of the other members’ speeches, so I will not endeavour to go into that now, but it is a discrimination that brought shame on our system.

The bill addresses the core anomalies within our system that currently discriminate again same-sex couples. The bill moves to reform those key areas that have been identified by the United Nations Human Rights Committee, the Human Rights Equal Opportunity Commission and the whole-of-government audit commissioned by the Attorney-General, and which, most importantly, have now been recognised by this government. This bill will remove discrimination to ensure that same-sex couples and their children will be able to receive equal treatment under the law. The same treatment cannot exist under the current Commonwealth laws, which are arbitrary and discriminatory. This bill will amend some 68 laws and will reform a significant number of areas of Commonwealth responsibility including taxation, social security, health, aged care, veterans entitlements, workers compensation and immigration. The bill will amend these laws and will reform our current system to properly remove discrimination against same-sex couples and their families.

Part of achieving such a major change in our Commonwealth system is to redefine our literal interpretation of words. The bill will amend our system to recognise a child in a same-sex family. The bill will recognise a child as being a child that is the product of a relationship—whether the child is linked biologically to one partner or where one parent is the birth mother of the child. The Rudd government is applying this proper definition to guarantee equal treatment for same-sex families.

Constituents throughout my electorate have raised their concerns with me on the issue of discrimination against same-sex couples on a number of occasions. Many same-sex couples in my electorate have raised legitimate concerns about why their children are treated differently in the eyes of the law depending on the choice of gender of their parents’ partner. These are legitimate concerns, and this bill addresses those issues raised by people in my electorate.

This bill will redefine the term ‘de facto partner’ to equally recognise same-sex de facto couples. A major change within this bill is the way in which we recognise relationships. Couples may now register their relationship with their state or territory register—whether it be an opposite-sex or a same-sex couple—to properly recognise their de facto relationship. This will reduce the burden that couples face when dealing between different levels of government.

As a result, couples that satisfy the requirements of their state or territory government will now be automatically recognised by the Commonwealth government. This system already exists in my home state of Victoria, and this practice will provide much incentive to those wishing to officially register their relationships across Australia.

I would like to briefly touch on the issue of interdependent relationships. This is an issue that has been of particular concern to constituents in my electorate. The reforms outlined in this bill today set out to remove discrimination against same-sex couples and their families. Some members opposite have been very vocal in their desire to recognise interdependent relationships. The way the Commonwealth government views interdependent relationships is something that I and my colleagues are closely monitoring. If interdependent relationships were to be recognised through this bill, it could result in them being worse off. Interdependent relationship can be difficult to define, and the government may closely consider some forms of interdependent relationships into the future.

The bill goes even further to address discrimination that currently exists within other areas of our Commonwealth system. In some situations some laws give people differing treatment, depending on whether or not they are ‘married’ under the definition in the Marriage Act. This bill addresses this discrimination and recognises both opposite-sex couples and same-sex de facto relationships. As stated earlier, almost a quarter of a century after it was determined to be unlawful to discriminate against a person on the basis of marriage, the Commonwealth laws are only now catching up. I want to say a bit about marriage a little later in my speech.

We have also now addressed the discrimination that exists in relation to stepchildren, step-parents, widowers and widows. The bill will now redefine those terms to go beyond recognising only those cases where persons have been married to another person. Once again, this is another reflection of the expectation of values in today’s society and the reality of the many different family structures we have in our community.

Many members opposite have raised the issue of marriage in relation to this bill, and I want to say a bit about that. We well and truly stated our position on marriage when we supported the changes to the Marriage Act that the then government brought in. Marriage means a commitment between a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others. Some would say a marriage is ‘never to be torn asunder’, but obviously these things happen to people as well. Despite some of the speeches on this bill from those opposite—although not many have chosen to speak on it—there is absolutely nothing in the bill that undermines anything in the Marriage Act, nor does it undermine the principles of marriage and our understanding of marriage. There is nothing in this bill that diminishes the notion of marriage and there is certainly nothing in this bill that threatens my marriage or anybody else’s marriage. This bill should not be viewed with the fear we have had from some of those opposite.

By supporting this bill, I am proud to be supporting Labor’s election commitment to remove discrimination against people in same-sex relationships. At the same time, we continue to recognise the importance of marriage and the current definition of marriage under the Marriage Act. The current law, as it stands, in relation to same-sex and de facto relationships is discriminatory, arcane and very arbitrary in the way it is applied across laws and across the different states and territories. If we are to be a modern society then we need to ensure that our laws keep pace with changes in our society.

Just as we amend laws to keep up with economic progress, so must we amend laws to keep up with the community’s understanding of our social progress. The reality is that there are many configurations within relationships, and there have been for quite some time. It is not new that people are forming same-sex relationships. It is disappointing that it has taken until 2008 to get this right but, as the saying goes, I guess it is better late than never. It is imperative that our laws reflect the culture that we see around us. It is even more imperative that everyone is recognised before the law. This is particularly important in the case of children, who do not have an adult voice to lobby for what is rightfully theirs. A humane society is one which acknowledges all people—all taxpayers—and represents them all equally.

I am mindful that a number of members opposite are supportive of the removal of discrimination in this area. I certainly want to acknowledge the contribution made by those members—particularly the member for Kooyong—who have been fighting within their own party on these issues for some time. I am very pleased that they agree with the Rudd government on the action that is being taken and have acknowledged publicly that action has taken far too long.

As I stated earlier, this issue should be not used for political gain. I urge members opposite to stand up for their beliefs on this issue and to stand up for this bill. I say to those opposite that it is imperative that this bill pass through the House without delay. This issue has been a sore point for many same-sex couples for a long time. This bill has broad support across the nation and will go a long way towards showing that our nation’s leaders, across the Commonwealth, recognise and will amend the discrimination that exists in our national system.

The bill reflects that Australian families comprise many different structures. We need a legal system and a financial system that do not discriminate between same-sex couples and opposite-sex couples. The Rudd government needs to continue to reform our Commonwealth system to better reflect the realities that exist in our community and treat people equally. This bill works towards reflecting these realities. I am very proud to be part of a government that has done exactly what it said it was going to do in the election campaign. It said that it was going to end discrimination against same-sex couples in the Commonwealth system. This is the second piece of legislation that we have introduced in the nine months that we have been in office. I again urge members opposite not to delay the passage of this bill. I commend the bill to the House.