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Tuesday, 14 May 2002
Page: 1406

Senator ABETZ (Special Minister of State) (5:50 PM) —I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

I seek leave to have the second reading speech incorporated in Hansard.

Leave granted.

The speech read as follows

It gives me much pleasure to introduce this bill which was first introduced by the Attorney-General on 27 September last year and which effects major changes to the Marriage Celebrants Program that performs such an important function in our community.

The Marriage Amendment Bill 2002 gives effect to the reform of the Marriage Celebrants Program and other technical amendments to the Marriage Act 1961.

This bill is the culmination of the four year process commenced by the Attorney-General in 1997.

The growing demand for civil marriage ceremonies has resulted in a steady increase in the numbers of authorised civil marriage celebrants, and an even greater increase in interest in the profession of celebrancy, with enquiries from people wishing to become a marriage celebrant running at approximately 3,000 per year.

There has also been a steady increase in the number of non-recognised denomination religious marriage celebrants appointed under the program.

However, since the Program commenced, the process for authorising civil marriage celebrants in particular has developed in an ad hoc way.

Prior to this Government coming into office civil marriage celebrants were appointed on an electorate by electorate basis. Labor Government members would regularly involve themselves in the authorisation process. In 1997, the Howard Government replaced this system of appointment with one based on regional or special community need.

However, the current system remains far from perfect. Authorisation based on regional or special need excludes many people who would make excellent celebrants from entering the profession.

The over-arching catalyst for reforming the program is to ensure that couples intending to marry have wide access to thoroughly professional marriage celebrants.

This is the philosophy and intent behind the review process. It is a philosophy the Government shares with the celebrant community.

The bill has two major focuses.

The first and most significant, is to improve the Marriage Celebrants Program through a range of reforms designed primarily to raise the level of professional standards required of celebrants and to capitalise on the unique position of celebrants in the community to encourage and promote pre-marriage and other relationship education services.

These reforms will be given effect by the provisions contained in Schedule 1 of the bill and by regulations to be made under the Marriage Act.

The second focus is given effect by amendments in Schedule 2 of the bill, which will provide for a series of technical amendments to the Marriage Act. These changes are primarily in relation to the Notice of Intended Marriage; the introduction of passports as an acceptable means of identification for overseas couples; guidelines concerning the shortening of time between the lodgement of a Notice of Intended Marriage and when a couple can marry; and the removal of redundant provisions in the Act.

The development of the reform package for the Marriage Celebrants Program which has culminated in the introduction of this bill has been a long and at times difficult process. Throughout this process the celebrant community has remained engaged and, in the main, very constructive in its approach to what the Government had in mind. The celebrant community has recognised the need for change and has responded appropriately.

There were doubts expressed when the Attorney-General released the Proposals Paper in November of 2000 that the Government would pay sufficient attention to the concerns of celebrants. This bill demonstrates that the Government has listened and acted upon the concerns expressed by celebrants. This is evident in the changes made to the package of reforms. These include the maintenance of lifetime appointments, the removal of the requirement for existing celebrants to satisfy the new core competencies, the introduction of a five year transitional period for the phasing in of the new appointments system and the removal of the proposal for a fee to be paid in order to be authorised as a marriage celebrant.

By the year 2010, if present trends continue, some 60% of weddings will be performed by civil celebrants under this reformed program. It is also expected that the number of smaller religious groups seeking their own religious expression will continue to increase. Reform of the program to satisfy the community of the quality and integrity of the program into the future is critical.

I believe that this package of amendments will be fundamental to ensuring this outcome but it will only be with the assistance and co-operation of celebrants that the outcome can be assured.

Debate (on motion by Senator Ludwig) adjourned.