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Wednesday, 12 November 2008
Page: 6696

Senator BIRMINGHAM (12:27 PM) —It is a great pleasure to speak on the Same-Sex Relationships (Equal Treatment in Commonwealth Laws—General Law Reform) Bill 2008. I have already made contributions on the associated piece of legislation relating to superannuation, in which I canvassed a number of my general views about this issue and particularly about the pride I have as a Liberal in seeing these reforms being undertaken. It is a pleasure to again, as this final historic piece of legislation passes, reflect on the broadly cross-party support that is coming through this chamber and on the very significant change that we are taking for Australians today.

Having just had the pleasure of hearing Senator Pratt’s contribution, an emotional contribution at that, it demonstrates just how significant and important this change is for many people around Australia. Sometimes we as legislators can underestimate the human impact of the actions that we take in this place—the human impact of the laws that exist, the decisions that are made and the real way in which they are felt by mums and dads, young people, old people, families and communities throughout Australia.

I know that every time I step out into the community and meet with large groups of people I find that there are usually one or two people in the room who will touch you with a particular issue that is integral to their livelihood and the life that they are leading and they wish there was something that could be done about it. For this issue there are many thousands of Australians for which this is integral. It is wonderful to see that, today, something is being done to address their concerns.

As Senator Pratt put it: why should anybody live under a weight of discrimination? Why should an individual, a couple or particularly children live under the weight of any form of discrimination? All people should face equal treatment, particularly in the eyes of the law and in the legislation that emanates from this parliament.

In terms of discrimination there are many and enough challenges at a societal level that can occur throughout one’s life. I said in my maiden speech to this place that I am not silly enough to inherently believe at surface value that all people are born equal in terms of opportunities that are there for them. Sadly, that is not the case. We wish it were, but it is not. It is up to the state, families and society to support that ability of providing equality and that aspiration of equality of opportunity to so many people in our society. I am very pleased that the steps the parliament is taking through same-sex law reform will provide greater elements of equality and opportunity for people.

I put on the record that I wish these reforms had been undertaken some time ago. It would have been preferable. However, there have been—and I noted this in my previous contributions—many Liberal champions of these reforms. Senator Brandis has been amongst them and our leader of today, Malcolm Turnbull, has certainly been a strong advocate for change in this area. It is extremely pleasing to see the strong level of support from the Liberal Party to work cooperatively with the government and the crossbenches in obtaining these reforms through the committee processes and the analysis of the detail. There has been cooperation from those who find this reform more difficult than others but they have been willing to work constructively on the detail of the legislation to ensure that we end up with fair and equitable change for all Australians.

A significant step forward was taken in May last year, when the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission released its report Same-sex: same entitlements. It was a landmark report that is now being followed appropriately by landmark legislation. The report highlighted the vast range of Commonwealth legislation where discrimination continued to exist against same-sex couples in a vast array of areas, and indeed flowed through to their children as well. It relates to both rights and responsibilities. It relates to financial issues, as well as treatment more generally in the eyes of the law. All of those issues, however, are very important for those who are in such same-sex relationships—their families, their loved ones, their friends—whether it relates to the right of people to take carers leave to look after a loved one, the way that they are treated in relation to Medicare payments and the support that can exist for a couple as opposed to an individual. Just as some of these entitlements will change for the benefit of same-sex couples, some of the responsibilities in terms of their social security arrangements et cetera will also change. That is as it should be. Equality is not a one-way street of benefits; it is a two-way street of rights and responsibilities. Those responsibilities have been, I believe, warmly embraced by many in same-sex communities who want to ensure that their communities represent the same type of good standing and vision for Australia that so many others do.

Today in supporting this legislation, I particularly wish to focus on children and families. They are two things that have been spoken about at great length over many years and decades in debates on these issues. Senator Pratt highlighted, quite emotionally, the issue of children of same-sex relationships—children who live with parents, or step-parents, in a same-sex relationship and the reality that they face of not always being treated in an equitable manner.

We must accept that some children in those relationships will face difficult times, that prejudice still exists in society. It is not for the state to extend that prejudice further. It is important that, where possible, the state minimises those prejudices and actually delivers for those children the type of safe and secure environment that every child deserves to grow up in, whether their parents are in a heterosexual relationship or a same-sex relationship. We need to honestly and genuinely reflect the type of equality that those children deserve across all such families. That is not to take anything away from the importance of marriage as a fundamental institution in our society or from the importance of all parents being involved in the upbringing of a child. We on this side of the chamber certainly hold those as core beliefs. We believe that children have the paramount right to a relationship with their parents. But the child does not choose the type of lifestyle that their parents choose to live; the child does not get to choose what type of relationship their parents are in. A child finds itself in those circumstances. Children must have that level of equality afforded to them at all levels, and their loving parents in the overwhelming majority of instances, regardless of their sexual preference, must equally be treated with that same level of equality.

I also wish to briefly reflect on families, because so often we get caught up in these debates in talking about the people who are directly affected by the legislation: those who are in a same-sex relationship. But, for all of them, there are many other loving families involved. Senator Pratt reflected that, in some instances, of course, parents may not accept a child who is gay. But, in many instances, parents come to that acceptance and love that child, just as they should and just as much as any other children. Yet, sadly, those parents still find that there is a level of institutionalised discrimination. So families who have come to accept and love their children in a gay relationship equally, as they should, find that the state still entrenches a level of discrimination against those children. This legislation today will right that wrong as well. It will ensure that those parents, those loved ones and those families who have embraced their children for whatever decisions they have made, will not then find that their families are, in some way, shape or form, discriminated against. So this legislation is as much today for the mums and dads and brothers and sisters and other loved ones of people in same-sex relationships as it is for those who are in those relationships.

I know that some have argued that we should have extended this legislation to encompass those in interdependent relationships—that it needs broadening in some way. There are mixed views on that and there are mixed views as to how that can be constructed. I know that there will be those who are disappointed that this legislation has not gone further in addressing those points. I simply make one key point in response to that: that sustaining one form of discrimination—if, indeed, it is that—is no reason to continue other forms of discrimination. Those who believe that we should tackle issues where interdependent families, those in interdependent relationships, may be treated differently and who believe that there is reform to be had there should continue to pursue those reforms. But that is no reason to hold up the reforms that we debate today, because these reforms do stand alone and are a monumental and historic step forward in terms of Australia’s treatment of all people in an equal way.

In closing, can I again reassert, as I did in my earlier contribution, the pride that I have as a Liberal that we stand here on Liberal principles of fair and equal treatment for all before the law, fair and equal treatment of all in terms of their rights and responsibilities, and that this legislation is a marked step forward in delivering, for all Australians in relationships, the type of equality that they deserve.