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Tuesday, 14 October 2008
Page: 66

Senator LUNDY (8:06 PM) —I am very pleased to have this opportunity to speak on the Same-Sex Relationships (Equal Treatment in Commonwealth Laws—Superannuation) Bill 2008 this evening. There is no doubt that it is long overdue. It will remove inequities which have existed for a considerable time. That Labor took on the difficult task of removing these inequities within six months after coming into government provides me with a great sense of satisfaction and confirms our great party’s ongoing quest for social justice.

First, I need to make clear that this bill only covers Commonwealth defined-benefit superannuation schemes, which are the Commonwealth Superannuation Scheme and the scheme under the Superannuation Act 1922. Simply put, this bill will remove discrimination against same-sex couples and the children of same-sex relationships in acts that provide for reversionary superannuation benefits upon the death of a scheme member and in related taxation treatment of superannuation benefits. As I am sure my colleagues know, these acts were identified in the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission report Same-sex: same entitlements, which found that same-sex couples experience discrimination in a wide range of Commonwealth laws including superannuation, taxation and social security. This bill will allow same-sex couples and their children to receive the benefits and entitlements that they have been prevented from accessing for far too long.

On Labor coming into government, Labor’s Attorney-General commissioned a whole-of-government audit of Commonwealth legislation, which confirmed the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission findings. The audit also identified further discrimination in the legal treatment of same-sex couples, and their children, occurring in a range of non-financial areas, such as administrative and evidence laws, and the government will be examining these matters as well. This bill marks one of a number of stages of the government’s commitment to addressing this inequitable treatment of same-sex relationships in other legislation, some of which have been debated this evening.

There has been a considerable amount of ill-informed comment both inside and outside this place about what the legislation seeks to achieve. Some of the more radical opponents of this legislation have expressed views that this is the beginning of a so-called slippery slope which will lead to hellfire and damnation. Fortunately, the great majority of those who have previously opposed the provisions that are now in this bill have a much more reasoned attitude once they hear the facts of the matter, and I hope they would now support what the government is trying to achieve.

Let us be clear about this: removing sexual discrimination does not undermine marriage; it simply removes discrimination. The question of recognition of same-sex marriage is a separate issue from that of providing equal recognition for same-sex couples. What this bill does do is make sure that same-sex couples are recognised as the same as for all practical purposes and have the same entitlements as opposite-sex de facto couples.

There was a concern that having a differing category of relationships would increase the risk that courts’ interpretations might have varied and could even have included one of a same-sex couple being denied access to benefits. As a result, the bill ensures equality by replacing the term ‘marital relationship’ with the term ‘couple relationship’. This is similar to the approach recommended by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission. The bill also replaces the phrase ‘husband or wife’ with the term ‘partner’. The definition of ‘partner’ is non-discriminatory and applies to persons, whether the persons are in a same-sex or opposite-sex relationship. This will place all persons who have an opposite-sex or same-sex relationship with a scheme member on an equal footing. Let me state again: removing discrimination in no way diminishes the status of a marriage in the assessment of superannuation benefits. A ‘couple relationship’, which includes both of these types of relationship, recognises equally the children produced. Following on from this, the new definition will prevent the problem of the denial of benefits coming from a surrogacy arrangement, as can presently occur.

It was also found that Australia was in breach of its international obligations. Some 58 of our present federal laws have been found to discriminate against same-sex couples in the area of financial and work related entitlements, in breach of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Many of those same laws also discriminate against the children of same-sex couples and fail to protect their best interests in financial and work related entitlements, in breach of both the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. This bill will mean that Australia is no longer in breach of its international obligations.

This bill reinforces this government’s basic belief that all Australians are equal before the law. There should be no diminution of any of our citizens’ rights or of their expectations to live with dignity and to be treated with due respect. Australians should not bury their heads in the sand and should appreciate that this bill actually causes us to recognise real family situations for a considerable number of Australians. Finally, this bill will ensure that the fundamental benefit of superannuation, which is to provide financial security for working people and their families into the future, is available to all Australians. I think it is an outstanding step on the road to ending discrimination in Australia, and I commend it to the Senate.