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Wednesday, 12 November 2008
Page: 6686

Senator BRANDIS (11:43 AM) —The opposition supports the Same-Sex Relationships (Equal Treatment in Commonwealth Laws—General Law Reform) Bill 2008. This bill is part of a suite of legislation, together with, in particular, the Same-Sex Relationships (Equal Treatment in Commonwealth Laws—Superannuation) Bill 2008, which has been considered by the parliament and by the Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs, whose purpose in aggregate is to eliminate discrimination against Australians in domestic relationships on the basis of their sexuality.

The legislation has been a long time coming. I will not repeat now what I had to say in this chamber on 14 October 2008 in debate on the Same-Sex Relationships (Equal Treatment in Commonwealth Laws—Superannuation) Bill 2008, when I set out at length the history of movements on both sides of politics for reform in this area, but may I refer to that speech as the principal exposition of the opposition’s position in relation to this matter. Might I also refer to the remarks made in the House of Representatives on the second reading of that bill on 4 June by the then Leader of the Opposition, Dr Brendan Nelson, and on the same day by the current Leader of the Opposition, Mr Malcolm Turnbull, in which they indicated their wholehearted support for that bill, to which this bill is a cognate piece of legislation. As Mr Turnbull said on 4 June in that debate:

Discriminating against people on the basis of their sexual orientation is as abhorrent as discriminating against them on the basis of their religion or their race.

That is a view that is shared by the members of the opposition.

This is a historic day because, when this legislation passes through the chamber and the related bill passes through the chamber, Australia will have brought to fulfilment a long history of legislative and policy measures to eliminate discrimination against people on unfair grounds and to instate and affirm the principle that people should be judged by their merits and by their merits alone.

As recently as the first half of the 20th century it was commonplace in this country to discriminate against people according to their religion. I am from a Catholic family and I remember my mother, who grew up during the Depression years, telling me that during the Depression years it was very common to see job advertisements in Brisbane with the subscription at the foot of the advertisement ‘No Catholics need apply,’ or, in some cases, ‘No Protestants need apply.’ Those social attitudes, discriminating against people on the basis of their religion, seem bizarre and antique to us today; yet, within the memory of people still living, that was commonplace in this country. As a result of measures taken from both sides of politics, that odious and—to use Mr Turnbull’s word—abhorrent form of discrimination is no longer part of our society.

More recently still, it was commonplace to hear of people being discriminated against on the basis of their race—not only Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians but also migrants to Australia from non-Anglo-Celtic cultures. As a result of a series of measures initiated by the Holt government, which began the abolition of the White Australia policy and which was responsible for initiating the great 1967 referendum, and measures of the Whitlam government—in particular, the Racial Discrimination Act—and other measures taken by both sides of politics in the years since, it is accepted as abhorrent to discriminate against people on the basis of their race. And so it should be. In more recent years, during the time of the Fraser government, the subsequent Labor government and the Howard government, there have been further advances in Australian antidiscrimination laws and advances in human rights—in relation to gender, with the Sex Discrimination Act; in relation to disability, with the Disability Discrimination Act; and in relation to age.

The last area requiring attention to assert the principle that every Australian is entitled to be treated and judged on their merits and not on any other basis has been in the area of sexuality. In the recent round of Senate estimates hearings, when Human Rights Australia—formerly the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission—gave evidence to the Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs, the head of Human Rights Australia, Mr Innes, observed that sexuality discrimination was, as it were, the final frontier or the final hurdle in instating a comprehensive suite of antidiscrimination laws in Australia. So, from a human rights point of view, this is a very important measure. It is, from my point of view as a Liberal—and therefore a believer in the autonomy, rights and freedom of the individual—a very important development. That is why the opposition welcomes it—not merely because it is a good public policy measure but because it springs from the depths of our liberal philosophy.

The legislation, in its original form, has been improved as a result of the hearings of the Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs. There were a number of misgivings that were entertained by senators from all sides, I think it is fair to say, in relation to some of the drafting of the measure in its original form. In particular, there are two significant issues where the government has conceded to objections raised by the opposition and which were flagged in the report of the committee in October 2008—and I refer, in particular, to the additional comments by Liberal senators from page 41 and following.

First of all, the legislation in its original iteration homogenised marital and non-marital relationships so as to eliminate, for all practical purposes, the distinction between marriages and relationships which were not marriages. We in the opposition believe—and I have said this many times in this chamber—that the unique, special and privileged status of marriage should be respected. And I am glad that the government has acknowledged that point by reinstating statutory language in government amendments, which will be dealt with in the committee stage, which make separate provision for marital relationships and non-marital relationships. Let me make the point that has been made on both sides of the debate on this measure, and that is that there is no suggestion from either the government or the opposition that the traditional nature of marriage as being a relationship between a man and a woman will be in any way affected by this bill or by any associated legislation.

The second area in which the government, in amendments that will be moved in the committee stage, has conceded to points that have been made by opposition senators in the Senate committee process and which form part of the additional comments in the report, is in relation to the treatment of children in such relationships. The opposition is now satisfied with the manner in which the definition of children in such relationships is being dealt with by the government, so that we no longer have this very clinical description of a child as a ‘product of a relationship’. Instead we have definitions of children and their entitlements within these relationships that we think are socially appropriate.

As I have mentioned the work of the Senate committee, may I pay a particular tribute to the work of the coalition senators who participated in those hearings over the winter recess and subsequently. Senator Russell Trood, Senator Guy Barnett and Senator Mary Jo Fisher are the principal opposition members of the Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs. Their recommendations, which are wise recommendations and which, as I have said, have largely been accepted by the government, have improved this legislation immeasurably. I know that all three of those senators went about their task and their work in that committee in a most conscientious and industrious fashion.

Finally, if the Senate will indulge me, I want to give due credit to those within the coalition who hold more conservative views on this matter than my own but who nevertheless, in a spirit of cooperation, sought to arrive at a common position so that the opposition is able to be united in support of this measure. There is no point in introducing law reform designed to heal wounds and to bind society together if you do it in a divisive way—and I am not accusing the government of doing so in relation to this particular measure. That means that you have to bring people with you. It means that people who want to pioneer liberal reform need to be sensitive to and respectful of the views of more conservative people than themselves.

There are some participants in this discussion, within the coalition parties in particular, who had severe concerns about some aspects of the bills in their original form but who nevertheless, in the best parliamentary fashion, worked with colleagues to achieve a common position. I want to single three people out. I want to again mention Senator Guy Barnett, whose approach to this matter has been principled, conscientious and honourable. There are two members of the House of Representatives in particular whom I would like to mention: the member for Menzies, the Hon. Kevin Andrews, and the member for Cook, Mr Scott Morrison. They are both from a more socially conservative perspective than others in the coalition, but they nevertheless sought to work with us to arrive at a position that we would all feel reasonably comfortable with. That has been achieved. If government senators will forgive me for saying so, it has been a great achievement for the Liberal and National parties to have achieved consensus and unity on this issue in which the more liberal and the more conservative elements of those parties have been able to accommodate one another’s agendas, concerns, aspirations and scepticism and nevertheless reach a position where the opposition will unitedly be able to support these measures in their amended form. The cause of law reform and the cause of individual rights in Australia will be very materially advanced today.