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Thursday, 2 December 2004
Page: 31

Senator GREIG (11:18 AM) —I thank Senator Evans for his response. It is worth looking at what is happening internationally in this area. In the last two weeks alone Britain, under the Labour government of Tony Blair, has passed the Civil Partnership Act recognising same-sex couples and de facto couples—a significant jurisdiction to have done so. So a comparable jurisdiction—another Commonwealth country, another Westminster formed government and another Labour Party—has progressed civil relationships, a terrific and overdue move and one I would encourage Senator Evans and his colleagues to consider. At the same time, just in the last few days, our near neighbour New Zealand has introduced the Civil Union Bill, proposing to adopt a very similar system to that which I understand is now law in the UK. Within the last year we have seen Canada, another comparable jurisdiction, move to full marriage equality. It is clear that that does not have major party support in Australia, but we have had nothing to replace it.

Regrettably, our parliament has snuffed out the opportunity for same sex-couples to have a civil marriage, or for civil marriages between same-sex couples solemnised overseas to be recognised here. That is no longer possible—or not unless that law is to be repealed, and I do not believe it will be. There is now a vacuum; there is nothing that replaces that. We are one of the very few Western countries that have no national anti-discrimination laws on the grounds of sexuality and one of the very few countries in the Western world—indeed including Eastern Europe and Latin America—that has no partnership recognition for same-sex couples.

Senator Evans is correct to say that that means that there is a whole raft of discrimination in a range of areas. Veterans' affairs is but one of them. I include superannuation. We must acknowledge that all the discrimination there has not been removed. Key elements have, but there are still some problems with it. I understand it does not, for example, follow through to reversionary pensions but is quarantined only to death benefits. There are still issues within the defence forces. There is still discrimination within social security. Immigration is particularly problematic. I have recently had an approach—I understand other senators have, too—from an academic who is, I think, based at the University of New England and who is trying to bring his partner out from New Zealand. He is to teach; I forget his particular area of expertise. He has been highly sought after by that university but his entry into this country is being hampered because of his relationship. I find that extraordinary in this day and age.

There are other areas of discrimination. Senator Evans raised the question: why quarantine this particular reform to veterans' affairs and not apply it more broadly, to social security? It is worth touching on that for a moment. Social security is perhaps one of the only areas in which there exists an element of what we might call positive discrimination in that, because of the failure of government to recognise same-sex relationships, where there is a same-sex couple where one partner is working full-time the other partner, who may be unemployed, is entitled to the full amount of unemployment benefit. This situation does not apply to a heterosexual couple where one partner is working full-time and the other is unemployed. They would receive a reduced benefit because they are rightly seen as having a partner who is partly supporting them. But because of the wilful blindness of this government and previous Labor governments in not recognising those relationships, a curious benefit accrues there.

The question to me, quite rightly, is then: why am I not addressing that? To that I would say that, as an individual and as a party, I am not going to stand here and argue that the first reform for same-sex couples should in an area where a benefit is removed. I will argue that only when there is equality across the board. The gay and lesbian community—which does not speak with one voice, I must say, and nor does the heterosexual community—broadly understands that equality means equality across the board and that will mean for some people a paring back of benefits under future reform for the purposes of social security. But let us not make that the first reform. That would stick in my craw.

Senator Evans also made the point that Labor is not comfortable with or committed to reform on a piecemeal basis. That is not entirely true, with respect, Senator, because we have now done that with superannuation. As a portfolio area, that was excised from the broad range of other issues of discrimination and it was dealt with separately. I was able to prove, with my persistence, that that was possible even under a conservative government. I take some pride in the role that I played in doing that. I would also say to Senator Evans—and I am not saying this for the first time—that I wholeheartedly agree that sweeping, comprehensive national reform is the way to go. Let us do it all in one piece. I would be very happy to support any motion to do that this afternoon. But the fact is that we Democrats have had a bill on the Notice Paper in one form or another for nine years to do exactly that, but there is not the support in this chamber to bring that bill on for debate, let alone to support it.

Mr McClelland, who was then the shadow attorney before Ms Roxon, announced some months out from the last election, in an interview to the gay press in Melbourne, that the Labor Party would be committed in government to national antivilification laws, national antidiscrimination laws and partnership laws along a de facto model. I was delighted to see for the first time that kind of unequivocal support in black and white. I wrote to Mr Latham in response to that and I said, `This is a terrific policy. It doesn't go as far as we Dems would have liked, but it is a significant step forward for the alternative government.' I made the point to Mr Latham in my letter that all of the things which Labor was now proposing in a policy sense were contained within the Spindler bill—the bill to which I referred. They are already there in our bill. I asked if I could have his support, if for nothing else just to bring that bill on for debate. I effectively called on Mr Latham to demonstrate his bona fides on this by having some kind of debate on this before the election. Regrettably, I never had the courtesy of a reply.

I am a little cynical about Labor saying one thing but doing another, and that other being resistance. But I also take hope, when I focus internationally, in the extraordinary reforms that are happening in this area in so many other countries. Spain—a Catholic country—is moving to full civil marriage. I understand also that France has just done what Australia has done—that is, to extinguish civil marriage for same-sex couples—but it is now advocating civil unions for same-sex partners. I was staggered when President George Bush—a fervent campaigner in opposition to same-sex marriages—stated during the US election campaign that he personally was committed to civil unions for same-sex couples. That is a policy position that is now more progressive than that which is held by the Australian Labor Party.

In closing, I have made my point. I have raised the issue once again of discrimination within veterans' affairs. I accept that it needs to be dealt with more broadly in superannuation, but it ought to be done in a much more wholesale way in regard to all Commonwealth legislation that discriminates. I make the point again that my efforts to do that have been frustrated by this chamber. If and when we are to have a Labor government committed to this—and I would welcome that in advancing the policy—then it needs to look more closely at what is happening in comparable jurisdictions such as the UK and New Zealand. I ask the government to recognise that it really is quite extraordinary that Australia has fallen so far behind in this area. Even many conservative governments in other countries are moving towards partnership recognition and civil union for same-sex couples. It saddens me that our government cannot or will not do that and that the policy position of Labor is still more regressive than that of similar countries.