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Wednesday, 4 June 2008
Page: 4492

Mr BEVIS (5:40 PM) —The Same-Sex Relationships (Equal Treatment in Commonwealth Laws—Superannuation) Bill 2008 is long, long overdue. I thought the opposition was supporting this bill, although they have moved an amendment, which starts by saying, ‘Whilst not declining to give the bill a second reading,’—and, listening to some of those opposite speaking in the debate, you would wonder. I also note at the outset that we are restricted in time; there is a lot of business to be dealt with. Whilst many of us would like to make a more extensive contribution, in consideration of others, that is not possible.

I do not want to go over some of the things I have previously said in this parliament about the importance of removing discrimination against people based on their sexuality or other similar defining aspects of their life. I am, however, amazed at the continuing position of the Liberal and National party members who seem unable to address this issue without trying to provide some political spin, as John Howard did a couple of years ago when he sought to introduce into the legislation of the land a definition of marriage. Contrary to what most may believe, that definition of marriage was not in legislation until a few years ago. The definition of what constituted marriage in Australian law was determined through common law, and that is a system which had evolved over a couple of centuries and was seen on a bipartisan basis to be a far better way of addressing this issue. I want to go to that because it highlights what I think is a level of duplicity that enters this debate when people try to deny the same rights to others purely on the basis that they may be in a same-sex relationship or that their sexual preference may be different.

The Australian law until a couple of years ago was predicated on both Australian and British common law going back some centuries, best encapsulated by a decision of Lord Penzance in England in 1866 when he said this:

... marriage, as understood in Christendom, may for this purpose be defined as the voluntary union for life of one man and one woman, to the exclusion of all others.

That definition basically stood the test of time until quite recently. It has been changed in a couple of respects around the world to reflect different attitudes in the community, but I find it amazing that some of those opposite can be so accommodating of certain changes that happen to suit their personal lifestyle and then denigrate others and try to prevent others from having equal rights. That definition held and, indeed, one of the early debates in this parliament about introducing a definition into the legislation was in 1961. A debate occurred in the Senate in which an amendment was moved to legislation then before the parliament effectively to insert these words:

‘Marriage’ means the voluntary union of one man with one woman, for life to the exclusion of all others.

That is remarkably similar to the common-law position at that time, which had been enunciated 100 years earlier.

That particular wording was put before the Senate in 1961 during a period in which the Liberal Party was in government. Bob Menzies was Prime Minister. It was defeated in the Senate by 40 votes to eight. There was clearly a widespread view across the political divide that these matters are best dealt with in common law rather than statute. That was not good enough, however, in the last parliament. John Howard and the Liberal government wanted to divide and conquer in this area of social engineering. They introduced into the parliament legislation to define marriage. It made no difference to the common law. It did not stop any same-sex relationships being determined as marriage under law, because there were not any under Australian law. It was done as a political vehicle to try and divide, and it was very hurtful to a lot of constituents in my electorate in same-sex relationships. I am amazed to find today that the Liberal Party, after its election defeat and with a new leader, wants to persist with the same approach. The amendment that has been moved by the Leader of the Opposition, in my view, goes down the same grubby path that John Howard went down.

Let us have a look at the difference that has occurred since 1961. I want to read that definition again:

‘Marriage’ means the voluntary union of one man with one woman, for life to the exclusion of all others.

We no longer define marriage that way, even though it was the common-law definition for more than 100 years and even though it was the proposition advanced in the Senate in 1961. We do not define it that way anymore because we have dropped off the business about it being ‘for life to the exclusion of all others’. It is a convenient thing for people in this parliament to say, ‘We don’t have to worry about marriage as a bond between a man and a woman for life; we’ll get rid of the life bit,’ because that does not happen to suit the way those individuals and those they represent want to live their lives. That is the truth of it.

Twenty per cent of marriages in Australia end in the first 10 years, so we conveniently change that part of the law. That conforms to the party set for all of us; you do not get into any trouble by doing that. There are a few people for whom that may have been a convenient change, and they want to have the same rights extended in a second, third or subsequent marriage or relationship as they had in the first, and I have no problem with that at all. But it strikes me as enormously hypocritical that those people who advanced that change, and live their lives in that way, then turn around and say that people in a same-sex relationship do not deserve the same rights at law that they enjoy. That is fundamentally flawed.

I am one of those people who must be approaching minority status in the Australian community. I was happily married very young, before I turned 19. I took advantage of Gough Whitlam’s 18-year-old adult suffrage and said, ‘That’ll do me. I’m 18 and I’m getting married.’ Thirty-four years later I am very happily married to the same lovely lady, Cathy, and we have four wonderful children, but I readily accept that that is not a model of love that suits everybody. The key ingredient that we surely must acknowledge in a relationship is the open, honest, loving nature with which those individuals embrace one another. It is fundamentally wrong for a society to deny people the same rights purely because of their sexual preference or similar personal attributes.

I think that view would be shared by the overwhelming majority of people on both sides of this parliament, which is why the amendment moved by the Leader of the Opposition and Leader of the Liberal Party is not to deny a second reading. But I think in order to pander to the more extreme right-wing conservative group behind him on the opposition benches, the Leader of the Opposition has decided to put a skewer in—another devisive tool, just like John Howard did. It is about time this parliament stopped trying to victimise people because of their sexual preference or other similar lifestyle choice.

The people of Australia elected a Labor government knowing that we had a commitment to remove all discrimination against people based on their sexuality. There was no doubt about that. In fact, we moved private members legislation in the parliament when we were in opposition to try and engender debate in this place on that very point. We also made it clear before the election that we would not alter the legal status of marriage as being between a man and a woman. Our position on that has been clear and often stated, and the people of Australia knew it and clearly took it into account when they decided they wanted a change in government. I say to those people in the opposition, in the Liberal and National parties, who share the sentiments voiced on this side of the parliament about those basic principles: do not allow yourselves to be dragged down by the small rump of extreme conservatives on the opposition benches who cannot help themselves when these issues come up. It is about time—it is past time in the 21st century—that we accord all Australians, irrespective of their sexual preference, the same rights in law.

This is the first step along that road. There will need to be additional pieces of legislation, and I look forward to voting for those additional pieces of legislation. I congratulate the Attorney-General on bringing this before the parliament. I know that the overwhelming majority of people in my electorate share that view—I do not pretend they all do, but I know the overwhelming majority do. What is more, in my heart I know it is right and I am pleased to see a Labor government moving on this fundamental question of civil liberties and human rights so early in our first term.