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Tuesday, 14 October 2008
Page: 62

Senator BRANDIS (7:38 PM) —The opposition supports the principle underlying the Same-Sex Relationships (Equal Treatment in Commonwealth Laws—Superannuation) Bill 2008 and the related bill, the Same-Sex Relationships (Equal Treatment in Commonwealth Laws—General Law Reform) Bill 2008. That principle, stated broadly, is that nobody should be discriminated against on account of their sexuality. The bills therefore repeal or amend all provisions in Commonwealth law which treat homosexual couples less favourably than heterosexual couples.

Just as, in previous generations, Australian parliaments have legislated to protect our citizens from discrimination arising from their gender, race or religious belief, so now, in the early years of the 21st century, it is high time that the same principle were applied to protect people from being discriminated against on account of their sexual orientation. It is high time that we acknowledged that the domestic arrangements of gay and lesbian Australians ought to be respected and treated on the same footing as heterosexual de facto couples. I should stress that nothing in these bills contemplates so-called ‘gay marriage’. Both sides of politics in this country accept that marriage is a unique relationship which can only exist between a man and a woman. To recognise that—which has been a cultural commonplace in almost every human society since civilization began—is not to discriminate against gay people or to treat their domestic relationships with disrespect; it is merely to acknowledge the unique incidence and characteristics of marriage.

The Liberal Party’s support for this legislation reflects our deep commitment to the intrinsic dignity of every human being and our deep commitment to their fundamental right to lead their own lives in their own way. Like gender, race and religion, sexuality is intrinsic to identity. It is simply no business of society’s to dictate to its members about matters which are so private that they define a person’s very sense of self. But it is the obligation of society to ensure, as a basic principle of fairness, that its members are protected from unlawful discrimination and enjoy the right to equal treatment. As the former Leader of the Liberal Party, Dr Brendan Nelson, said on the second reading of this bill in the House of Representatives on 4 June:

We believe in the equal right of every Australian citizen to be treated with dignity and respect. We believe that all must have an equal right to lead their lives in their own way, according to their own choices and their own decisions, so long as they respect the equal right of all others to do the same. We believe that every Australian is equally entitled to a fair go regardless of who they are, where they live or whether their parents are right or poor. They are entitled to equal treatment regardless of the colour of their skin, the God whom they worship ... the political beliefs which they hold, their gender or professed sexual orientation.

I point out to honourable senators that the opposition supported the second reading of this bill in the other place. This is a position which has been strongly supported by the new leader of the Liberal Party, Malcolm Turnbull.

Let me say bluntly that this legislation has been too long in coming. I was one of many who sat on the back bench in the previous government who urged the redressing of the wrongs which this legislation at last seeks to address. As I told the Senate on 12 October 2006:

This is an enormous issue for Australia because it affects so many people. I think that, in years gone by, at a time when gay people were socially marginalised and, to use a famous expression, ‘in the closet’, it was thought to be a marginal issue, a boutique issue, that affected relatively few. But we know today that that is not so. The estimates vary but social scientists tell us that between four and six per cent of people identify as being exclusively or predominantly homosexual. If those estimates are right—and I have chosen the conservative end of the estimates—that means there are about one million Australians so circumstanced.

But each of those people have parents, most of them have siblings and many of them have children, so the number of Australians directly affected by discrimination against gay and lesbian people is many times greater than the five-odd per cent of the population, the approximately one million Australians, who so identify. If one takes into account only the members of their immediate families and disregards their close friends, workmates and colleagues, one is talking about a multiple of that number, several million Australians, directly affected by discrimination which in this day and age we identify to be ignorant, bigoted and, to use the words of the Liberal Party’s federal platform, a narrow prejudice which we will not countenance. So this is an important issue and it is an issue of wide significance.

But I can hardly claim to have been one of the more important voices in the Liberal Party. On an occasion such as this I must in particular mention my friend the Hon. Warren Entsch, the former member for Leichhardt, who championed this cause with tenacity throughout the latter years of the Howard government. Mr Turnbull, whom I mentioned before, has been a champion of this issue since well before he was elected the member for Wentworth in 2004. There have been many others—great Liberals such as Senator Marise Payne, Mr Petro Georgiou, the Hon. Christopher Pyne and Senator Simon Birmingham are a few of the names which come to mind—who have fought for the rights of gay Australians for many years, in particular during times when the climate of the Liberal Party was rather less congenial in relation to this issue than it is today.

Despite my disappointment that these reforms were not introduced by a Liberal government, I cannot let this occasion pass without pointing out that law reform in this area has, at critical times, been progressed by Liberals. In fact, the first time an attempt was made to reform the law in this area was in 1972 when a Liberal member of the South Australian parliament, the late Murray Hill, the father of our distinguished former Senate leader Robert Hill, introduced into that parliament a private member’s bill decriminalising homosexual acts between consenting adults. The first time the Australian parliament debated the matter was on 18 October 1973—35 years ago this week—when another great Liberal, a former Prime Minister, no less, Sir John Gorton, moved in the House of Representatives to decriminalise homosexual behaviour.

We have come a very long way in a generation and a half. And, although these bills are overdue, they have been overdue for a long time. It is a shame the Howard government did not act, yet it is equally a shame that neither did the Keating government nor the Hawke government. The fact is, from the time Australian society repudiated the idea that homosexual conduct was a crime and accepted that homosexual people should be allowed to get on with their lives just like everybody else, it was always appropriate to include them within the scope of antidiscrimination laws and to repeal laws which specifically discriminated against them.

The opposition does not regard this legislation as an attack on the family or upon family values. I have never been able to understand the argument that the formation of households is somehow a threat to family values. By recognising and supporting the formation of stable households by gay and lesbian couples, the legislation if anything reinforces social stability. In that regard, I might point out that, in their evidence before the Senate inquiry, the Australian Christian Lobby expressed their support for the bills, and they were not the only witnesses of a conservative disposition who did so. Nor have I ever been able to understand the attitude of some people who yield to no-one in their hostility to ‘big government’, in their conviction that governments have no business telling their citizens how they should run their own businesses or spend their own money, yet seem perfectly comfortable with governments telling their citizens whom they may love and how they may love them. Liberals, and respectable conservatives too, believe that governments should let people make their own decisions about how they live their lives, provide a stable framework within which they may do so, and leave them alone.

Although, as I have said, the principle underlying this bill, and the cognate bill, has the opposition’s strong philosophical support, I must express disappointment at the manner in which these important bills have been handled by the government. The proposed government amendments to this bill were first received by the opposition at about 5.30 this afternoon, at a time after the Senate committee report had already been tabled in the chamber and almost 4½ months since the bill was introduced into the House of Representatives. We have yet to see the foreshadowed amendments to the cognate bill. I understand that the committee stage of the bills will not take place until the next sitting week of the Senate. Until such time as the opposition has had the opportunity to consider the amendments and the report of the Senate committee, we will of course reserve our position in relation to any particular matters which they may raise. Nevertheless, as I have indicated this evening, the position of the opposition—and it is a position based profoundly on Liberal philosophy—is to support the principle underlying the bills.