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Monday, 22 September 2008
Page: 8149

Mr GEORGIOU (8:09 PM) —I wish to speak in support of the Same-Sex Relationships (Equal Treatment in Commonwealth Laws—General Law Reform) Bill 2008. This bill reforms federal law to remove discrimination against same-sex couples and their families. This phase of the process of reform commenced in May this year, with the Same-Sex Relationships (Equal Treatment in Commonwealth Laws—Superannuation) Bill 2008. This dealt only with the issue of superannuation. I supported that bill and I welcome the government’s commitment to end discrimination against same-sex couples in other areas of federal law. I am pleased that this additional and significant instalment has been introduced so promptly.

The impetus for the reform process was the Same-sex: same entitlements report by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission. This report resulted from a 14-month inquiry into whether Australia’s laws relating to financial and work related entitlements complied with our human rights obligations with regard to same-sex couples and their children. The inquiry found that 58 federal laws relating to financial and work related entitlements discriminated against same-sex couples. Subsequently, an audit by the Attorney-General’s Department requested by the Attorney-General, which covered non-financial areas, identified approximately 47 additional pieces of discriminatory legislation.

Our laws discriminate against same-sex couples and their families in all areas of life and in all manner of everyday experience. The areas affected include employment, health, aged care, immigration, taxation, social security, family law and superannuation. Same-sex couples do not receive the same tax concessions as opposite-sex partners. They cannot register for the Medicare and PBS safety nets as a couple or, if they have children, as a family. They are not treated equitably as regards social security assessments. They are denied the usual guarantees to some of the minimum workplace conditions, such as parental and carers leave. The impact is that gays and lesbians—thousands of them—are denied rights and opportunities that are available to their fellow citizens. This differential treatment is unreasonable and it is unfair. It is inconsistent with the fundamental values we espouse as a nation and it has persisted for too long. HREOC concluded that the discrimination manifest in federal law breaches the most fundamental of all human rights principles: the right to nondiscrimination and to equality before the law and the protection of the best interests of the child.

The Howard government committed itself to review the commission’s recommendations and to confer with interest groups in preparing its response. In the election campaign we put forward a policy which extended death benefits to same-sex couples under the Commonwealth Superannuation Scheme. This policy accorded with the federal platform of the Liberal Party, which commits it to oppose discrimination based on irrelevant criteria. We never implemented that policy because we lost government, but this bill addresses the same issue. It addresses the elimination of discrimination based on irrelevant criteria, and I support it strongly.

This bill addresses the unequal treatment of same-sex couples by basically implementing the solution recommended by HREOC: changing the relationship definitions that currently exclude some same-sex partnerships. The commission recommended retaining current terminology insofar as possible while redefining it to include same-sex couples. As the explanatory memorandum states:

The general approach taken by the Bill is to extend the existing meaning of these terms to include same sex relationships.

The bill adds a new standard definition of ‘de facto partner’ to the Acts Interpretation Act 1901, extending it to include same-sex de facto relationships. Where appropriate, it also amends existing references to ‘de facto’ or ‘unmarried couple’ relationships so that they encompass both opposite- and same-sex couples. The bill extends what are mostly financial and work related rights to existing parent-child relationships to accord with the fundamental principle that all children should have equal rights under the law. Where appropriate, the bill extends the definition of ‘child’ to provide legal recognition of the child-parent relationship in same-sex families in cases where it did not previously exist. This recognition will also be extended to the stepchildren of de factos. Under current law, only the stepchildren of married couples are recognised. The amendments in this bill expand existing definitions of ‘stepchild’ and ‘step-parent’ to include the stepchildren of de facto couples. This change applies equally to same-sex and opposite-sex de facto couples.

This bill removes discrimination against same-sex couples and their families across a wide spectrum of federal government activity, including health, social security, education, tax, defence and veterans affairs. I cannot do justice to all these amendments in the time permitted, but it is important to take a measure of the consequence of this new equality for people’s lives. In the core area of taxation, for example, there can be no justification for inequality. As a submission to the HREOC inquiry stated:

If we are to pay the same tax as our heterosexual and de facto fellow citizens, we should be entitled to the same privileges.

Yet, in the tax area, HREOC established that same-sex couples are ineligible for a range of tax concessions and rebates currently enjoyed by opposite-sex de factos. Despite meeting all the other criteria, a same-sex couple is not eligible for the dependent spouse tax offset. In 2007-08, the maximum amount that could be claimed for this was $2,100. Similarly, a member of a same-sex couple is unable to access the tax offset for supporting their partner’s parents. This can amount to a maximum of $1,540.

In the area of health, same-sex couples and their families cannot register as such for the Medicare and PBS safety nets. This financial disadvantage is compounded by the fact that same-sex couples and their families also do not qualify for the medical expenses tax offset. This bill will rectify these inequalities.

In the area of employment, this bill amends the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Act, which governs federal employees’ workers compensation. Under the current law, same-sex partners of workers covered under Comcare do not receive lump sum death benefits upon the death of their partner. Similarly, the ordinary consideration that would be taken of the employee’s dependent spouse and children in a determination of a compensation payment may well fail to apply. The amendments made by this bill will redress this situation.

I think it is important that we note that the amendments required to remove discriminatory treatment from the Workplace Relations Act that affect entitlements to parental, carers and compassionate leave are not part of this bill. But the government has committed to incorporating the necessary changes within the industrial relations legislation it plans to introduce later this year.

In the area of aged care, same-sex couples face considerable financial hardships when one member of the couple enters permanent residential care—a hardship which would not apply to opposite-sex couples in like circumstances. This is particularly the case when a same-sex couple is faced with the prospect of paying an accommodation bond. Accommodation bonds can involve large sums of money. The amount payable for them is not fixed; the amount depends on the assets of the person entering aged care. For many couples, their home is their main asset. The Aged Care Act provides that, if one member of the couple enters aged care and the other member of the couple continues to live in their home, the value of the home is not included for the purposes of the asset test. As same-sex couples are not currently recognised under present definitions, an elderly same-sex couple is unlikely to benefit from this exemption. Their home will usually be counted in the assets test. Potentially, this discrimination could result in a same-sex couple losing their family home despite it still being occupied by a member of that couple. This bill amends the Aged Care Act to terminate this discrimination.

I think it is important, while we are talking about equality, to face the fact that equality can also result in less favourable financial impacts. Every person who enters residential aged care must pay a basic daily care fee, the amount of which is determined by an income test. For legally recognised couples, the income test takes into account the income of each member of the couple, adding them together and then dividing that by half. However, as a same-sex partner is not recognised as a partner, only the income of the partner entering residential aged care is included in the income test. As a single income would often be less than the income of a couple, a same-sex couple may find themselves at a disadvantage when compared to an opposite-sex couple in the same situation.

Similarly, equity with opposite-sex couples in the area of social security will have both positive and negative financial consequences for people in same-sex relationships. There are some social security payments, such as the bereavement and widow allowance, for which same-sex partners are ineligible because the Social Security Act does not recognise their relationship. The bereavement allowance provides people with low incomes and few assets a living allowance for up to 14 weeks following the death of a partner. The widow allowance supports women born before July 1955 who have lost a partner late in life and who are without any recent work experience. Same-sex partners also cannot receive the healthcare concessions that ordinarily flow to the dependent partners of social security concession card holders. These cards provide benefits such as discounts on PBS medicines and access to bulk-billed doctors appointments. This bill will address these inequities.

Finally, in the area of veterans affairs, the same-sex partner of a veteran is not eligible to a range of entitlements available to the opposite-sex counterparts. In the case of a war widow or widower pension, to take just one example, this discrimination results in a financial disadvantage of over $500 per fortnight. Even if the surviving partner of a veteran meets all other criteria, they remain ineligible for the entitlements given to opposite-sex partners in the same circumstances because the current legislative definition of ‘partner’ or ‘member of a couple’ denies them recognition. The injustice of such discrimination is poignantly illustrated by testimony given before the HREOC inquiry.

I note that the Attorney General, in his second reading speech, has dismissed requests that the reforms be extended to embrace interdependent couples. I believe that a number of the reasons that he advances for this limitation are not well based and stretch the imagination. Nonetheless, I believe that it would be wrong not to support this bill because of his arguments with respect to interdependent couples.

The bill has been referred to a Senate committee, where it will be considered alongside the Same-Sex Relationships (Equal Treatment in Commonwealth Laws—Superannuation) Bill 2008. I had hoped that this bill would have been passed prior to 1 July, and I would now urge the Senate to consider and pass these two bills as quickly as possible.

In conclusion, I regard the reforms contained in this bill as long overdue. Debates over wording and semantics have preoccupied us for far too long. There is no objective or just reason why these financial and work related rights should be denied to people because of their sexual orientation. The reforms will provide greater dignity and equality to many thousands of Australians. I commend the bill to the House.