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Wednesday, 9 November 2005
Page: 31

Senator BARTLETT (11:38 AM) —The Democrats support the Defence Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 2) 2005 although, as Senator Bishop has outlined, we do not believe it goes as far as it should. For that reason we also support the second reading amendment that Senator Bishop has just outlined. However, it is worth making some positive comments about the legislation and the process that has been followed. It is somewhat ironic that it follows on from a debate where the relevant minister, Senator Hill, was to the fore in denigrating Senate committee processes and having an appropriate amount of time to examine matters of importance and where, quite literally, he was saying that if something is important we should rush it through.

That is in stark contrast to his quite laudable approach to this matter which derives directly from a Senate committee inquiry into an important matter. It was an inquiry by the Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee that took quite a long period of time—I think it might have been for more than a year that the committee conducted its hearings and investigations. That gives a stark contrast to the insistent assertions by government senators that a week to examine overturning a century’s worth of industrial relations practices is more than adequate and that having a couple of weeks—the same weeks, I might say—to examine comprehensive changes to the welfare system is also more than adequate.

If you are wanting to look at matters of substance and importance in detail, to suggest that you can just do it in passing in the space of a week is laughable. This legislation, I would suggest, demonstrates that. The legislation itself did not require extensive examination but it is the end product of a very long process. For more than a year the Senate committee inquiry looked very thoroughly, soberly and dispassionately at what is a very important and difficult area—as many of these ones are. It is an important one for the people directly affected—the defence personnel—but it is also important for the wider community. Naturally, it is very important for the safety and security of the wider community that we have a defence force that functions fairly and effectively and that the personnel in that defence force believe that on matters of military justice they will get a fair go. It is pleasing that the minister, unlike the government ministers on almost all other Senate committee reports, responded quite promptly. He almost made it within the three-month time frame that is meant to be the standard, but is virtually never met, for governments responding to Senate committee reports.

Having said that, I will repeat the remarks I made at the time the minister tabled his response to the Senate committee report, that I did not believe it went far enough. As Senator Bishop has said, the core recommendation of the inquiry was to remove military justice from the control of the military. Committee members accepted the clear argument that practice has shown that the conflicts of interest involved were such that the chances of getting just outcomes were compromised. I recognise that there is a strong counter-argument that military justice is a unique and special situation and the military chain of command is a unique situation that deserves and demands a specific and unique process. I can see that argument, but I believe the practice of how things have operated has shown that that has delivered too many injustices. The committee believed that the only way to really provide a good chance of making a solid leap forward was to break that nexus and remove military justice from the control of the military.

Clearly, the minister and the government did not accept that, and I presume that the ADF command did not accept that. That is disappointing but, having said that, there was still a genuine recognition that there is a serious problem and things needed to change. This legislation goes some way to doing that. As I said when the minister tabled his response, I think all of us here who have followed this issue—and I am sure particularly the opposition senators who were involved quite thoroughly in that inquiry—will continue to monitor the situation and if injustices and problems continue to occur we will draw attention to them. So this will probably not be the end of the matter, but it is a step forward and to that extent it should be praised. Given the context and the processes surrounding it, it does stand in stark contrast to the contemptible process that the government is following on such major matters as welfare and industrial relations.

I would also like to take the opportunity to note another change that has occurred in the defence personnel arena very recently. It is a matter that I have raised quite regularly when defence legislation has been debated, and that is the treatment of defence personnel with same-sex partners. My understanding is that a few weeks ago the ADF announced that service personnel with same-sex partners will now get equal entitlements in areas such as accommodation, relocation and education under the category of interdependence. I think that is an important step forward. It has been a long time coming and it is one that the Democrats in particular have pointed to the need for many times. My former colleague Brian Greig, now sadly departed from the Senate, was one who pursued this matter very strongly, but he was not alone in doing that.

It is an important step towards ensuring that all service personnel are treated fairly and equally by the country that they serve. It will also benefit the wider community because it will assist the Defence Force in improving rates of retention and the recruitment of personnel. Not surprisingly, the way people’s partners get treated is important, in many cases, to their level of happiness with their job, and that applies across the board. This discriminatory treatment clearly had an impact on service personnel with same-sex partners, because they did not get the same treatment as everyone else. All the sorts of things that defence personnel have to go through, particularly transfers and overseas service, can be stressful enough on a family, but when that family does not get the same assistance as other families purely because of the gender of their partner then that just compounds the difficulties that that person goes through. So it is a welcome step. I do not know whether it is an initiative of the minister or an initiative of defence command but, whoever is responsible, I would like to congratulate them for it.

Again, as always, there is a ‘but’: I need to note that these provisions of equal treatment do not extend to conditions of service. Conditions such as compensation, superannuation and veterans benefits are actually covered by legislation. On The 7.30 Report just a few days ago—I think it was Thursday or Friday last week—there was an example of the blatant unfairness and injustice that extends to same-sex partners of veterans because of the discrimination that is built into the legislation. I could have taken the opportunity with this legislation to move amendments seeking to make that change, but I decided not to on this occasion because I recognise there is a desire to get it through quickly, and that important but nonetheless separate issue can wait for another time. I flag in advance that it is a matter that the Democrats will continue to pursue through legislative amendment. Bringing things completely up to scratch in the defence area and removing that discrimination is something that we will pursue. As I said, it is not just important for the people directly affected; it improves the retention and recruitment opportunities for the defence department. Therefore, it is in the interests of the entire community that that discrimination be removed.

To get equality and treatment of provisions relating to compensation and superannuation and the like does require an amendment to legislation. We will seek to do that if the government does not do it. I urge the minister to do that. There are continuing rumours, which the minister keeps putting to one side, that he is moving on from this portfolio potentially rather soon. So it would be a good opportunity to go out with a very positive legacy if he were to shepherd through some legislative amendments in that regard. I am sure he would be quite able to do that if he put his mind to it. It is welcome, nonetheless, that, in regard to areas such as accommodation, relocation and education, there will now be equal treatment for all service personnel regardless of the gender of their partner. That is a positive step forward, and I thought it was an appropriate time to note that positive advance.

To sum up: we do support the legislation, but we do not believe it goes far enough. But the step forward is to be welcomed. I think the process that has been followed has been a positive one, and I am sure the scrutiny of how things operate from here will continue to occur as well.