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Monday, 21 October 2002
Page: 5536

Senator COOK (7:43 PM) —I rise in this debate to speak in support of rejecting the message from the House and remaining behind the original decision of the Senate. I did not speak in the first debate. I thought the issues in the first debate when the bill proper was before us were covered more than adequately by a series of outstanding contributions from the minor parties and the Labor benches and therefore did not feel the need to add my voice to them. But on this occasion, given what is before us, it is entirely appropriate that I speak and that I declare my interests up-front.

I am a happily married man and have been for—my wife will kill me for not remembering exactly the amount of time—about 20 years. If I were to retire from parliament tomorrow or at the end of this term, I would be entitled to a gold pass. Under the terms of what the government is proposing, that entitlement would come to my family. So I do not have a vested interest in opposing this message, because the entitlement is established. But, having said that I do not have a vested interest in a personal sense, I do have a vested interest when I turn to my duty as a senator in this place representing Western Australian electors in the federal parliament. I have a duty to speak on their behalf. Even if I were disadvantaged in a personal sense, that would still remain my duty. I want to make this point up-front: there is a confusion by some that our public duty is to be confused with our private interests—that is not at all the case. We have a public duty despite our private interests, and the public duty here is to oppose what the government is wanting to impose on the parliament.

I make this challenge forthrightly and directly: if the government really believes that the relationship of entitlement should be one in which a proper certificate of marriage has been effected rather than a de facto relationship—and we know it does not, but I will come to that in a moment—then take this issue to a double dissolution and let the people of Australia vote as to whether they believe the government is right or whether they believe that we are right. I know, on figures that have come to me, that almost 80 per cent of young married couples have lived in a de facto relationship or in a stable, healthy, loving partnership for not one but up to five years before marriage. No-one sees that as being unreasonable. In fact, in many cases they see no need for matrimony, because what is intrinsic and important to them is the strength, love and nature of the relationship. You take that out there and ask people if that is not so and people will say that it is so.

One in 10 relationships in this country consists of those that live in a non de jure relationship, so you have lost 10 per cent of your vote straight off. But the other thing about what the electorate thinks on this is that the electorate understands modern mores and conventions and respects them. This is a tolerant society. Only an arrogant government could come forward believing that it was not, and so I return to the central point: call an election on this point if you have got the guts. I can promise you this: you will go down with a huge thud and we will occupy almost every seat in the green chamber. Bring it on!

The second point I want to make is that those who have come forward with this amendment ought to go and get a life. They ought to stop prying into the domestic household relationships of honourable members and senators and, for that matter, using that as some sort of gauge or template for the rest of the community and focus on what is important: is there a stable, strong, caring and long-running relationship? If there is, that is fine and that represents the community norm. The government knows that, because if it had any guts and if it actually believed what it was on about here and had the courage of its convictions, it would have called up every act of the federal parliament and asked all of the states as well to review all of their acts where they explicitly recognise de facto relationships. Has it ever done that? Of course it has not done that. It knows that there would be a massive revolt in the Public Service if it tried. It knows that it would be before the antidiscrimination tribunals around this country if it even thought about it. It knows that there would be a rebellion in the states, because the states— thank God—have a humane, tolerant and understanding view of what human relationships in the modern era are about.

So has the government got the courage to be consistent? No, it has not. Does it intend to be? No, it does not. Why not? Because it thinks it is on a little winner here or on some perfectly stupid right wing reactionary approach to what life should be like under a right wing, reactionary government. Only a government that is a supremely overconfident and arrogant and completely out of touch with how ordinary Australians live their lives would think for a moment about this amendment. If it is an illustration of just how out of touch the government is then I welcome it because it enables to Australians to see the character and nature of the government that we have in this country, which has for a long time been hidden from view by wedge politics and political opportunity. It enables us to actually see the innate nature, character and small-mindedness of what is at the heart of this government when it comes to human relationships.

We have been lectured by those on the conservative side for God knows how long about social engineering. I am proud of some of the social engineering that Labor has been responsible for, because it has brought a degree of transparency, fairness, tolerance and open-mindedness to the way in which we live our lives in this country. They are the values we celebrate as Australians; when we talk in the world about our values, they are our values. You can talk about social engineering, but that is what the purpose of it has been. There are excessive examples, and I do not support those.

But what we have here is some retro social engineering. This is the government from an ideologically narrow, blinkered, reactionary, conservative view saying, `Life will conform to our ideology, and we'll make laws in order to ensure it does.' That is what they are saying, `We'll make laws in order to ensure it does.' That is social engineering. Those on the other side that were proselytised in opposition to social engineering for a long time ought to get up and now apologise, because they are the agents of trying to do it here.

When the current Prime Minister came to power in 1996, I remember well that in some of his early dog whistling speeches he got up and said that he was opposed to political correctness. I might say that I am opposed to some of the excesses of political correctness. I was opposed to political correctness, for example, when someone described my dear friend and former colleague John Button as `short'; they were told that they should describe him as `height challenged'. How ridiculous! Of course that is beyond the pale. And I think that sort of political correctness is just a joke.

But political correctness does have a point to it as well; it is not all bad. Political correctness is trying to express in a sensitive way, if handled correctly, a consideration for your fellow citizen. Does this government want to do that? No, it does not. Does this government want to encourage intolerance? Yes, it does. Does this government want to divide the community? Aye, it does. Does this government enact laws that try to be divisive? Yes, it does. And does this government pursue a wedge political agenda? Of course it does, and it cannot pretend otherwise. But I come back to my original opening comment: if you have got the guts to actually believe in the position, then force it to a double dissolution and we will have a debate about what the family relationship really is. I think you will be surprised. Australians value the tolerance and value the different types of relationships that they can have.

This amendment should fail for two reasons. It is, in the first instance, a hypocritical proposal. If it were not, then we would see the legislation that is on the books of this parliament relating to other parliamentary entitlements repealed. They would do that. We would have a raft of amendments applying this principle. We would see superannuation entitlements for Commonwealth public servants repealed to take account of this, because they have this provision in the legislation. We would see, through the Executive Council and through COAG, efforts made in consultation with the states to uniformly impose the standards on the rest of Australia. We would see at least that the government have the courage of their convictions. If this is a conviction of the government, then it is notably an exclusive conviction that relates only to this bill; it does not relate to any of their conduct anywhere else in any of the legislation under their control, nor has there been any effort to actually deal with it. I am not inviting them to, as I think it is sensible to have that legislation in the manner that it is; what I am inviting the government to do is to recognise that commonsense and extend it to this item of legislation.

In the second instance, we are required to represent the community in this place. And if one in 10 marriages in Australia are of a de jure nature, then we are required to reflect that too. If the parliament is not a reflection of the community—and if in the parliament the different views, the different attitudes to life, the different political convictions are not represented—then we are unrepresented in this place. It is important that this parliament is a microcosm of Australian society because, after all, we legislate on behalf of that society. And if we do not properly reflect it and represent it, then we are unrepresentative of it.

It is a plain fact that in this parliament there are de facto relationships. It is a plain fact that they are recognised for travel entitlements; it is a plain fact that that represents about the degree of how it applies in the wider community, and we do reflect that social trend. Therefore it just follows, it is a plain fact, that we should be consistent in all of our laws. As it presently stands, somewhere upwards to 80 per cent of Australians live in a de facto relationship before marriage, and that is a fair enough thing. They represent all walks of life; they come from all sorts of political backgrounds, including conservative and progressive. They come from the middle class, the upper class, the lower class, the working class. The come from the farming and regional and rural communities too. Whether someone has a fundamentalist view about this, that they ought to all be `churched' and no-one can choose, goes against the philosophy of the Liberal Party.

Members of the government often come into this place and talk about choice and the right of individuals to make a choice. The plain fact is that a lot of Australians have made that choice about their domestic relationships. The important thing about that choice, the thing that should inform our mind about that choice and the thing that we should in a tolerant and considerate society have most regard for is that it is a long-term, stable, caring relationship between adults who genuinely are committed to that relationship. If the government gets its way in a small way, the thin end of the wedge will be inserted here to prevent that tolerance and to prevent that choice. You might want to try and get off on some political argument about the gold pass, because no-one likes politicians and no-one likes political perks. But if you insert the thin end of the wedge here at this point, there is no guaranteeing that you will not want to insert it everywhere else, which I guess brings me to where I came in: if you really believe it, go and have an election on it and let's see who wins.