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Wednesday, 12 November 2008
Page: 6689

Senator HANSON-YOUNG (11:57 AM) —I rise to speak to the final piece of legislation, the Same-Sex Relationships (Equal Treatment in Commonwealth Laws—General Law Reform) Bill 2008, in the government’s reforms that aim to remove same-sex discrimination from federal law. This is indeed a very significant day. The fact that we will finally see an end to the endless discriminatory practices of the past is something that the Australian Greens certainly welcome, but we believe that it is more than overdue. There has been discussion and public debate about the removal of same-sex discrimination in Commonwealth legislation for decades. While the Australian Greens commend the government on following through with their election promise to remove discrimination against same-sex couples from more than 100 pieces of legislation, we must not forget the tireless efforts of all of the individuals and key community groups who have campaigned for decades with little recognition until now.

To think that in 2008, we are only now beginning to see steps to remove discrimination against same-sex couples and their families is an indictment of former Liberal and Labor governments’ failure to act on what is a fundamental human right. The Australian Greens congratulate the Attorney-General on this historic and comprehensive undertaking of human rights reform. While we believe that there are key areas that have not been addressed within this legislation, in no way do we wish our recommendations to undervalue the significance of the legislation that is before us today. The Greens have a strong and proud history of supporting same-sex rights in Australia. Diversity of sexuality and gender identity is part of our community, and our laws should reflect this. The Greens have a strong track record of defending the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people, and we believe all members of our community are entitled to equal treatment before the law and by the community.

The first stage of the Rudd government’s election promise to remove discrimination against same-sex couples from more than 100 pieces of legislation follows the 2007 Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission report which highlighted that at least 20,000 same-sex couples in Australia experience systematic discrimination daily. The same-sex general law reform bill seeks to amend some 68 Commonwealth laws, which involve 19 Commonwealth departments. This bill amends the definitions of ‘de facto’, ‘parent’, ‘child’ and ‘relationship’ to ensure that same-sex couples are finally treated equally before the law. The explanatory memorandum circulated by the Attorney-General states that the amendments contained within this legislation are required to eliminate discrimination against same-sex couples and their children and to ensure:

… de facto partners, children of same-sex couples, and persons whose relationship is traced through them will be considered to be members of a person’s family, and relatives for the purposes of relevant Commonwealth legislation.

As I said, this is indeed a significant day. The Australian Greens recognise that freedom of sexual orientation and gender identity are fundamental human rights. Acceptance and celebration of diversity, including sexual orientation and gender diversity, is essential for genuine social justice and equality.

I would like to commend the chair and the committee secretariat on the comprehensive nature of the Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs report. The Greens believe that the inquiry into the Same-Sex Relationships (Equal Treatment in Commonwealth Laws—General Law Reform) Bill, as well as the suite of legislation in relation to removing discrimination against same-sex couples, has provided the committee with the opportunity to recommend to the government ways to strengthen and tighten legislation to ensure same-sex couples are not discriminated against in any way.

In June 2007, the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission released the final report from their nationwide inquiry into discrimination against people in same-sex relationships, entitled Same-sex: same entitlements. Today we are here to ensure that the recommendations are implemented in federal law. It provided two simple recommendations that specifically called on the federal government to amend discriminatory laws identified in the inquiry to ensure that same-sex couples and opposite-sex couples enjoy the same financial and work related entitlements and to ensure that the interests of children in same-sex and opposite-sex families are equally protected in the area of financial and work related entitlements.

As I mentioned in my remarks earlier, the Australian Greens strongly support the bill before the Senate today, particularly in removing discrimination against same-sex couples on basic issues such as employment, workers compensation, tax, social security, veterans entitlements, health care, superannuation, aged care and migration. Despite the Greens’ support for this bill, I am concerned that not all the recommendations outlined within the HREOC Same-Sex: Same Entitlements inquiry have been implemented. We are particularly concerned about whether there will be possible future discrimination by not reforming acts which, although superseded by new acts, have nonetheless not been entirely repealed. I would like to question the minister when the legislation is considered in the Committee of the Whole as to how we should respond to this possible future discrimination.

While we support the bill without qualification, I will briefly outline the recommendations that the Greens believe are needed to finetune the objects of the legislation before us today. Legal reforms are only beneficial to the intended recipients if they are appropriately administered and implemented. While the Greens support the recommendation put forward by the legal and constitutional affairs committee report on this bill that all government departments and agencies responsible for providing Commonwealth benefits implement user-friendly initiatives and strategies to educate both clients and staff, we believe this needs to go much further and be much more effective. The New South Wales Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby pointed out in their submission the importance of a public education campaign to outline the new rights and responsibilities arising for same-sex couples which will come from these reforms. I will quote from their submission:

In our consultation with over 1,300 lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in NSW, confusion and uncertainty about legal rights were highlighted as a significant impediment to taking advantage of equal rights - even those which were granted to same-sex couples in NSW as far back as 1999.

We would like to see the government fund a cross-departmental educational campaign for individuals, service providers and businesses, collating the relevant changes to legislation in one centralised location—an equal rights hub, let us say. We would also like to see the government establish a hotline for 12 months specifically for professionals to ensure discrimination does not continue due to a lack of understanding of the changes. As I said before, legal reform will only mean something to the people it is intended for if these reforms are properly administered and implemented. The reforms before us today would ensure that federal and state laws moved towards a consistent and comprehensive recognition of same-sex partners equal to that of opposite-sex de facto partners. So it is an opportune time to educate lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Australians about their new, and their existing, rights under the law.

The Greens also have concerns about the negative financial impact the changes will have on individuals who are receiving the disability support pension, sole parenting payments or concession card benefits. While we recognise that the majority of the proposed reforms will benefit same-sex couples, we are concerned that some aspects, particularly those related to social security, could have unintentional negative consequences for some same-sex couples. To combat these unintended consequences, we would like to see government implement a transitional period of at least 12 months to ensure individuals currently on social security payments have sufficient time to readjust their finances.

The Australian Greens strongly support the recommendation of the Australian Coalition for Equality for the introduction of an umbrella term in the Acts Interpretation Act. This term would be ‘couple relationship’ and would include marital relationships, de facto relationships and registered relationships. In applying an umbrella term to capture all forms of relationships, the separate definitions would ensure that the relationships were identified as being different from one another, especially in keeping the distinct recognition of marriage separate, while allowing recognition of same-sex couples who chose to formalise their relationship through entering into a registered relationship. It simply makes sense to recognise the three different levels of relationships, even though these people will all be able to access the same rights under the law.

The Greens would also like to see a clause that recognises registered relationships that have been registered in a foreign country where the relationship was, at the time it was registered, recognised as valid under local law. We do this for marriage relationships; let us also do it for registered foreign relationships.

The Australian Greens have some concerns about the approach taken when amending the Commonwealth Sex Discrimination Act. While the Greens are supportive of the amendments removing discrimination against same-sex couples on the basis of family responsibilities, we are concerned that the provisions of the Sex Discrimination Act relating to discrimination on the basis of marital status have not been amended. It seems silly to me that we would remove all discrimination and not amend the Sex Discrimination Act. The Greens believe that that the Sex Discrimination Act should be amended to provide equal protection to both same-sex and opposite-sex couples from discrimination on the basis of being in a de facto relationship and to also include another subsection identifying registered relationships. We need to ensure that our desire for and moves toward equality are consistent across federal law.

Those against same-sex unions argue that it would destroy the sanctity of the institution of marriage. In countries which have recognised same-sex unions for a reasonable period of time, heterosexual marriage still exists and the institution has not fallen into disarray. Many Western countries, such as Canada, the United Kingdom and our neighbour New Zealand, have enacted laws to provide for same-sex civil unions. Here in Australia we should be moving towards allowing same-sex couples the same rights to marry and register their relationships. Yet, while the Greens commend the government for staying true to its election promise to remove same-sex discrimination from Commonwealth law, we continue to see people of the same sex who are engaged in a loving and committed relationship, voluntarily entered into for life, denied the basic right afforded to married heterosexual couples. It is time for this parliament to have a proper debate about allowing same-sex couples to marry. The Australian Greens believe that discrimination such as that espoused by the Marriage Amendment Act 2004 must be overturned, because freedom of sexuality and gender identity are fundamental human rights and acceptance and celebration of diversity are essential for genuine social justice and equality. Today, the Greens are calling on all other parties in this chamber to allow for senators to have a conscience vote on the amendment I will move in the committee stage to amend the Marriage Act. If this is a moral issue, let people vote on their own conscience.

The Greens support the removal of discrimination in all areas of federal law. We do not want to see this bill delayed any further. While we will move some amendments we think will strengthen the intent and object of the bill, we recognise and support the public desire to have same-sex discrimination removed from law—and we need to see this discrimination removed swiftly. Today is a very important day. It should no longer be acceptable to allow legislation to continue to discriminate against a couple because of their sexuality. I commend the bill to the Senate and look forward to debating the amendments.