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Wednesday, 12 November 2008
Page: 6692

Senator PRATT (12:11 PM) —The Rudd government, and indeed this parliament, are undertaking what I think is widespread and historic legislative reform to remove discrimination against same-sex de facto couples, people from different gender identity backgrounds and their children. The Same-Sex Relationships (Equal Treatment in Commonwealth Laws—General Law Reform) Bill 2008 is one part of this reform. This bill will make sure that same-sex couples and their children are treated the same as heterosexual couples and their children in the same situations across a wide range of laws. These include tax, social security, health, aged care, veterans entitlements, workers compensation, immigration and other areas of Commonwealth law.

I would like to note the historic work of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, HREOC—which is now the Australian Human Rights Commission—when they conducted a detailed inquiry into discrimination under the Commonwealth laws. I am please that the Rudd government complemented this important work by conducting a whole-of-government audit of federal legislation. Indeed, this audit confirmed HREOC’s reports and also identified additional areas in which same-sex couples and people with different gender identity backgrounds and their children experience discrimination, including in non-financial areas such as administrative and even evidence laws. It found a wide range of areas in which people are discriminated against. The amendments in this bill are necessary to redress this discrimination.

The reality of equality is that some in our community will now be assessed as a couple rather than as singles for the purposes of social security and family assistance, and some of these people may indeed experience a reduction in payments. No-one knows this better than the many lesbian and gay activists who have worked so very hard for legislation of this sort. They understand the true price of equality, but they welcome it nevertheless for the many tangible benefits that it will bring in a legal sense—but, most importantly, for its symbolic and social significance, although I have to agree with Senator Hanson-Young that it is also incumbent on the government to manage the impact of the reforms on same-sex couples who may have benefits reduced under the changes, especially those who are already marginalised within our society and experience high levels of disadvantage. Many of these people have lived with discrimination within our laws for all of their lives and they have never experienced the financial benefits of being recognised as couples.

I would very much like to support the recommendation of the legal and constitutional affairs committee in this regard—namely, that the government needs to give consideration to the administrative and regulatory mechanisms that may be used to manage the impact of these reforms on such disadvantaged couples.

The bill will also end discrimination in other ways. For example, it will end the existing marital status discrimination in Commonwealth legislation that operates to the detriment of de facto couples in general.

It is not my intention today to discuss the detailed nature of the amendments to all of the individual pieces of legislation that are affected by the bill before us. And it is not my intention to enter into technical or semantic arguments in relation to the definitions of ‘couple’ and ‘child-parent relationship’. Suffice to say that I agree very much with the general approach taken to these definitional questions by the majority report of the Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs. I would very much like to commend the committee for the important work that it has done in examining these issues and also, I think, in bringing about consensus across the parliament to bring support for these important reforms.

I would like to highlight one of the committee’s recommendations—in relation to the definition of ‘child-parent relationships’. I also note that the government has already circulated amendments that give effect to that recommendation.

Today, I am going to focus my attention on what these reforms mean in practice for real people—for real people in real relationships with real children, living their own lives and currently facing all of the many and varied complex issues and challenges faced by straight couples and their children, but with the added burden of discrimination based on their sexuality; for real parents whose children are lesbian or gay; for real grandparents whose children are lesbian or gay and have children of their own; for real brothers and sisters whose children are cousins to the children of lesbian and gay parents. A great many of these people have had the courage to share their stories in order to further the cause of equality. Over the past few decades they have shared their stories and publicly outed themselves to advance same-sex law reform in each of the Australian states and territories. I commend them for their courage. Most recently they have shared their stories in the context of the HREOC National Inquiry into Discrimination against People in Same-Sex Relationships: Financial and Work-Related Entitlements and Benefits. They have shared their stories in submissions to the inquiry and also in the media. They have stood up in public hearings and forums and given evidence as to how discrimination against same-sex couples has directly affected them and their families.

With the permission of those involved, some of these stories were published by HREOC in an appendix to their report. I think that it is these stories that most clearly illustrate more than anything else the real reasons why the bill before us is so important. They demonstrate vividly how the various forms of discrimination faced by same-sex couples interact with each other. Sometimes they compound the negative effects of each individual instance of discrimination in the lives of real people. Finally, these stories highlight how the pernicious effects of discrimination against same-sex couples spread out beyond the lives of the individual gay and lesbian people involved; how that discrimination has affected their children, their parents, their loved ones and those that deal with same-sex couple families in a professional capacity—teachers, health workers, Centrelink workers, accountants, employers and so on; and how each individual instance of discrimination flows through into the broader community where it creates unnecessary burdens and administrative complexities, restricting access to essential services, encouraging intolerance, undermining relationships and fostering homophobia. To read these stories is to know that this discrimination must end and we must end it now. On that note, today is a very historic occasion.

It is for this reason, and as a testament to all those ordinary Australians who have had the courage to reveal the details of their personal lives in order to further the cause of equality, that I am going to share just one of those stories with the Senate today. I would like to acknowledge Bryce Peterson, who shared his perspective as a parent of a lesbian daughter with the Launceston forum held by HREOC on 25 September, 2006. Bryce said:

I am here as a father of four. My eldest daughter, Sacha, lives in Melbourne with her partner Anna and they have a daughter, Mabel, who is 11 months old.

I intend this submission to be based on what I consider to be the differences between my daughter, Sacha, and her sister Lauren, who also has a male partner and they have 2 children, a son, 4, and a daughter, 19 months.

Firstly, to have a baby, my daughter Sacha, the biological mother, after much research of the options available, opted for artificial insemination. This procedure is not available to gay couples or single women that are not in a committed relationship in Victoria, unless they have a problem with fertility, so they had to go interstate. This procedure is an expensive and mentally draining exercise. Part of the procedure is to have counselling of at least two sessions to prove you are ready and suitable to have children.

How many parents, male or female, would even consider this as an option before starting a family, and what would be their reaction to such a suggestion?

Sacha was treated as a single mother throughout the pregnancy, but was totally supported by Anna the entire time. Many of the costs involved are not claimable, either due to the nature of the procedure or threshold limits.

My other daughter, Lauren, and her partner have had their two children. The fact that he is male means no explanations are required and therefore their relationship is proof enough to satisfy the system. Sacha has to constantly explain the situation, which shouldn’t be an issue.

After the birth of Mabel, Sacha and Anna, to ensure the future welfare and care of their daughter, had papers drawn up to cover a, b or c etc. This cost $1500.

Another major purpose of these papers is to show Anna is just as much a parent as Sacha but that is still not acceptable to the system. Adoption by Anna is not possible.

While these papers go a long way towards helping solve some of the problems that may or may not occur, if they are put to the test, how credible are they? If separation occurs, my daughter could be left totally supporting herself and Mabel, and if something happens to Sacha where does that leave Anna as a parent, let alone financially. Ironically even fathers who don’t pay maintenance are still recognised as parents.

One of the plus sides of the situation is that Sacha is entitled to all social security benefits as a single mother, regardless of her living circumstances. Her partner could be a millionaire but in the system this is not considered. I guess while this can be seen as a plus, I know they would swap these benefits if it meant they were both recognised and treated as parents with the same rights as male/female parents.

Anna has supported their family financially and … took annual leave after the birth.

As far as Medicare is concerned they are treated as a family for Sacha and Mabel, and a single for Anna. Therefore the combination of costs if they reach the Medicare threshold is not possible.

This also applies to tax rebates; Anna is not entitled to claim either of them as dependants, unlike my other daughter’s partner. If you choose to stay at home once your paid maternity leave has run out, surely as a couple you should be entitled to the same rebates.

Recently while visiting my daughter, Anna came home form work in pain and distressed with a bad ear infection. Before departing to go to the emergency room, I couldn’t but notice sadly that Sacha gathered together all papers that states their relationship. Yet when we got there, that was one of the first questions asked, their relationship status, to be able to tick the right category, to which my daughter replied they are a couple and it was up to them to which category they thought was applicable.

My other daughter only has to be there with her partner, no further questions are needed, and the Medicare card says it all.

Due to their relationship these papers are taken everywhere there is a remote possibility they may be needed. As we all know not all families totally support their gay children, so couples need to be able to make decisions for each other if required without fear of a legal or family ramification.

As parents we want the best for our children and admire them for their academic/career and personal triumphs in life and don’t want to see them disadvantaged because of their sexuality.

While Sacha and Anna do come across sympathetic people in the system and with a strong network in the gay community, this all certainly helps; this doesn’t compensate the injustices brought about by the system.

As a parent and a grandparent when talking to family, friends and colleagues about these things, many of them are unaware … but agree that the inconsistencies should be righted and are pleased they don’t have to face the same problems.

What a pity people don’t see what my grandson (Lauren’s son) sees, while he may not be old enough to be able to understand the whole situation, he just sees a cousin with two mums.

Why should Mabel grow up with any less right either legal or financial than her cousins?

That, in a nutshell, is the question before us today. I am very pleased with the substantive legal equality for couples irrespective of the gender, identity or sexuality of couples that this bill implements. However, personally, I hope that one day there is a majority in this parliament to remove discrimination against all couples in relation to marriage. That is something I acknowledged in my first speech to this place. Although I really do believe it is important to note just how far we have come in achieving support across the parliament for these historic reforms. All those things that affect the family that I just spoke about will be fixed by this historic law reform. Of this I am extremely proud.