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Thursday, 12 August 2004
Page: 26504


Senator LUDWIG (2:03 PM) —I rise to speak on the Marriage Amendment Bill 2004. Labor supports the Marriage Amendment Bill and will be voting for it today. Labor has said from the beginning of this debate that we will not support same-sex marriage. In a doorstop interview on 31 May this year, the Leader of the Opposition, Mark Latham, said:

... we have always said that we believe the Marriage Act is an institution for a man and a woman, and we've never proposed in the Labor Party to change that. So we will be supporting what really is the formalisation of it—they're writing from the common law now into the statute law that it's an institution for a man and a woman. That is something we support ...

He went on to say:

The Labor Party decision not to advocate for gay marriage is a position that was determined last year by our Labor caucus as part of a whole package of other reforms relating to same sex couples that we are taking to this election. This package was developed prior to the Howard Government's recent attempts to raise the issue of gay marriage in the parliament.

We all know that the Howard government continues to try to make same-sex marriage a central issue in its re-election strategy. In fact, debate on the issue has gone back and forth and there are now before the parliament two bills that deal with marriage. Last week the Prime Minister announced that he intended to bring back into the Senate the government's second marriage bill, and we are now at the second reading stage of that. This bill deals only with the definition of marriage and a prohibition on recognising same-sex marriages made overseas. It does not deal with adoption. The bill accords with the current common law definition of marriage in Australia as being between a man and a woman, and it is consistent with the social and religious history of this institution. This second bill, without the adoption clause, was the result of Labor rejecting the provisions of the previous bill which sought to allow the Commonwealth to interfere with adoption issues usually handled by the states. Importantly, and irrespective of the votes today, the Labor Party will ensure that the first bill continues to be examined by the Senate committee. Many thousands of submissions have been received and the detailed submissions need to be considered, as I understand it, by the committee. It is clear that this issue has attracted a great deal of community interest, although much of it is conflicting.

The committee is due to report in October. Labor expects that the recommendations of the Senate committee report will be on a range of issues affecting the gay and lesbian community and will be useful as part of our reform plans if we are in government after the next election. Labor acknowledges that some members of the gay and lesbian community would like the right to marry, but it also acknowledges that the institution of marriage is held dearly by many other Australians who are strongly against any change. Consider also the fact that marriage has not been a major focus over past years. The influential NSW Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby Group said in a press release on 28 August 2003:

The GLRL has never opposed marriage. But we have been very clear about what we can achieve strategically as well as what rights are of the most immediate practical benefit to our community.

They went on to say in this press release:

When we have surveyed gay men and lesbians about how they want the GLRL to spend its time, they have told us loud and clear that what matters most is to be free of discrimination in everyday life, in relationships and with the families we form.

These are exactly the matters Labor have prioritised. In the recent media and community debate about the Howard government's plans to change the Marriage Act there has been no focus on these other reforms which have been pursued by the gay and lesbian community for many years and will benefit all members of the community, not just those who would like to be able to marry. In fact, it is quite ironic to the Labor Party that parties to both the right and the left of us are criticising our position. We are not reacting to calls from any particular group in the community; we are listening to, and talking with, many Australians with many differing views and we have formulated a solid, long-term response and a plan for action when a Labor government is elected. Those who want same-sex marriage think we are too conservative, and those who oppose decent treatment of gays and lesbians think we are too progressive. It is a pretty sure sign, in my view, that we have in fact got a balanced, sensible and fair plan of action.

Let me recap on Labor's major commitments. The recent focus solely on same-sex marriage, as covered by this bill, has largely ignored the extensive commitments Labor has made to ensure that loving and caring relationships within the same-sex community are acknowledged and respected. Labor is committed to pushing ahead with the reforms it prioritised in consultation with representatives of the gay and lesbian community well before this Howard government bill was even raised. Only Labor will immediately introduce antidiscrimination laws based on sexuality and introduce protection from harassment and vilification. Only a federal Labor government will deliver to same-sex couples equivalent status to heterosexual de facto couples, following an audit of all Commonwealth legislation similar to exercises already conducted by many state and territory governments. The purpose of the audit is to identify where, among the thousands of pieces of Commonwealth legislation, discrimination against same-sex couples exists. Labor will then amend legislation to remove discrimination against same-sex couples in all areas such as taxation, social security, superannuation and immigration. The one exception is the Marriage Act.

When these commitments by Labor were first announced last year they were hailed as the most progressive package of reforms a major party had adopted on same-sex issues in decades. Labor have long campaigned for equal rights to superannuation benefits for same-sex couples. For many years Labor have put forward private members' bills which the government has never adopted. Last year Labor moved amendments to a number of superannuation bills that would have given same-sex couples those superannuation rights, but they were opposed by the Liberal government. At the end of our long campaign the government finally introduced its interdependency amendments giving superannuation rights where an interdependent relationship exists, which includes same-sex couples. Of course Labor were pleased that the government finally supported this campaign. Some doubts have been raised by the gay community suggesting that the interdependency arrangements may not adequately cover all same-sex couples. So when Labor are in power we will revisit the area to ensure that the rights of same-sex couples to superannuation are properly protected. But superannuation is just one of many areas where same-sex couples suffer discrimination and where Labor are committed to making a real difference. The reform commitments by the Labor Party on same-sex issues are a plan ready for implementation.

I foreshadow that Labor will not support amendments and motions in this place that will simply be rejected by the government in the other place and go nowhere. The minor parties can put forward any package they see fit to. They are free to do so, and it might advantage them in their constituencies, but in our view it is simply grandstanding. They know, and the gay and lesbian community should know, that these are futile attempts that will not become law. The amendments will not be accepted by the government and will never become law under a Howard government.

The Labor Party is the only party with a thorough, well thought out policy that it can actually deliver by implementing the plan in government. The minor parties cannot do that; only Labor can do that. Look at the record of previous Labor governments in terms of discrimination laws. Focus on the reforms that have been delivered by Labor state governments around the country. Labor clearly has runs on the board and intends to pursue these reforms in government. We will not support amendments and motions in this place that will simply be rejected by the government in the other place. We do not think they will go anywhere in this instance.

It is true that marriage is today being tied to its social and religious history. For some people this is critically important. Others object to it. But it does not change the current law and will not remove rights from, or deliver benefits to, anyone. In contrast, Labor's reform package is about serious and far-reaching change for the gay and lesbian community. We will fight for our package and continue to advocate its benefits. These will be delivered by a newly elected Labor government.