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Tuesday, 14 October 2008
Page: 69

Senator PRATT (8:24 PM) —It is with great pleasure that I rise to speak on the Same-Sex Relationships (Equal Treatment in Commonwealth Laws—Superannuation) Bill 2008. Superannuation is a fundamental benefit that, if we are lucky enough to have a working life where we can put some savings away, we can all enjoy a benefit which provides working people with security for their future and the future of those dependent upon them. It is a benefit in line with the principle of mutual obligation—the principle that those who work hard and save for their own retirement, thereby saving the state money, deserve the protection and assistance of the state to do this. That is what super does—it assists people to save for their retirement and it helps protect their retirement savings. This means that, when we talk about super, we are talking about people’s own money. This is not a benefit that the state provides to people without them making any contribution of their own, which makes it particularly important that all Australian taxpayers are treated equally in relation to their superannuation, have the same choices open to them and are entitled to the same benefits in equivalent circumstances.

However, until now, not all Australians have been treated equally by the Commonwealth or the state in this regard. Not all taxpayers have been offered the same protection and assistance. Some have been discriminated against, including me, and not for any rational reason. It was not because they were not as hardworking, because they paid less tax or because their need for protection was less—no. They were discriminated against for an absolutely arbitrary reason. They were discriminated against purely and simply because of prejudice about their sexuality. Unlike straight Australians, these taxpayers could not rest secure in the knowledge that reversionary death benefits would be paid by their superannuation fund to their partner and to any children of their relationship with their partner. Rather, in stark contrast, these benefits cannot be paid to same-sex partners and the children of same-sex couples in the same way that other people enjoy under current law. This discrimination has been allowed to continue despite the fact that every superannuation company and industry group in the country has for a very long time supported ending discrimination against same-sex couples in superannuation contributions, death benefits and reversionary pensions. It has been allowed to continue despite the fact that most Australians have long supported ending discrimination against same-sex couples in relation to superannuation.

Senator Birmingham’s previous remarks reflected on the change in social attitudes over many years in relation to acceptance of same-sex couples enjoying the same entitlements as other Australians. However, this is something that has long been accepted by the Australian public and indeed it has been the Australian parliament that has not, as yet—it will not until we have passed this legislation—caught up on Australian attitudes on this matter. So, despite the best efforts of the gay and lesbian community to bring this matter to the federal government’s attention over the past decade and more—in fact, the superannuation industry, trade unions and gay and lesbian rights organisations have been joining forces to campaign for law reform in this area for over a decade—and despite the best efforts of some Labor and minor party senators and members of another place to bring it to an end under the last coalition government, discrimination has been allowed to continue.

On 17 June 2004, Mr Anthony Albanese moved an amendment to a Howard government bill in another place in an effort to achieve equal entitlements for same-sex couples in relation to superannuation. On that occasion, Mr Albanese pointed out that this was the 23rd time that he had tried to achieve that objective through this parliament. He also pointed out that the Labor Party had had a bill before parliament to provide for equal super rights since 1998, a bill supported by the superannuation industry, gay and lesbian rights organisations and trade unions. I would like to put on record my appreciation of Mr Albanese’s exceptionally persistent efforts in relation to this matter and my appreciation of the efforts made by a number of Labor and crossbench senators to have this addressed in this chamber and through Senate committees, both by supporting Mr Albanese’s bill and through their own initiatives.

Let me repeat: we cannot blame the superannuation industry for this one and we cannot blame community attitudes. Nor can we argue that the issue was simply overlooked. No, this situation is the direct result of the arbitrary and ignorant prejudices of some past and present members of this chamber and of another place. But I am pleased to see that we now have the opportunity to move on from this time. The previous federal government had a willingness to let itself be held hostage to those prejudices time and time again. As just one example, I wish to remind the Senate of the Howard government’s response to a question asked by former Senator Allison back in 2000 in relation to this matter. The question and answer are worth quoting in full as they illustrate perfectly the Howard government’s ludicrous and fundamentally dishonest approach to these issues over 11 long years in government. I now quote them:

Senator Allison ... asked the Minister representing the Prime Minister, upon notice, on 13 February 2002:

(1) Was the Prime Minister accurately reported in the Sydney Morning Herald of 24 August 2001 as saying, `...I don’t think people should be in any way discriminated against or penalised against if they are homosexual.’

(2) Does the Government intend to remove discrimination against homosexual couples with regard to superannuation entitlements for surviving partners of members of the Commonwealth Superannuation Scheme; if so, when.

You will have to excuse me if the following is nonsensical, but it is indeed a quote. Former Senator Hill responded:

... The Prime Minister has provided the following answer to the honourable senator’s question:

(1) The report in the Sydney Morning Herald dated 24 August 2001 is based on an interview on radio station Triple J. The full question and answer are set out below.

“STUDENT: ... if we had a scale with total acceptance of homosexuality on one end and total rejection and abuse of homosexuality on the other, where would you place yourself?

That is the question to the former Prime Minister. And here is his response—and this was provided in an answer to a parliamentary question. He said:

... Oh I’d place myself somewhere in the middle. I certainly don’t think you should give the same status to homosexual liaisons as you give to marriage, I don’t. I mean that will make me unpopular with some people but I accept that. That’s my view. I think the continuity of our society depends on there being a margin for marriage if I can put it like that. But consistent with that view I don’t think people should be in any way penalised or discriminated against if they are homosexual. I mean I certainly don’t practice any kind of discrimination against people on the grounds that they’re homosexual, I think that is unfair. But I don’t think we should go the whole hog in the other direction and take the view that you give relationships between ... I mean I don’t believe in gay marriage for example, I don’t think our society should signal support for that.”

The answer then goes on to say in very obscure terms:

... The Commonwealth Superannuation Scheme ... provides benefits for scheme members and their eligible spouses and children. The CSS is a regulated superannuation scheme for the purposes of the Superannuation Industry (Supervision) Act 1993 (SIS Act) which regulates the superannuation industry. Under the SIS Act benefits can be paid to a dependant, which includes the spouse or any child of the person. A spouse under both the SIS Act and the rules of the CSS does not include a same sex partner. However, where a member of the CSS has neither a spouse nor an eligible child there may be a minimum lump sum benefit payable to the member’s legal personal representative or, if none exists, any individual or individuals determined by the CSS Board. That could include a same sex partner.

Senator Parry —I’m totally confused.

Senator PRATT —Senators, what gobbledegook was that that former Senator Hill was indeed required to deliver on behalf of the then Prime Minister. What absolutely complete and utter gobbledegook! Senator Parry, you did say you were totally confused—as was I in reading the then Prime Minister’s response.

Senator Parry —Madam Acting Deputy President, I rise on a point of order. I am confused because Senator Pratt started talking about former Senator Hill quoting the then Prime Minister and then she went on to the then Prime Minister himself. I am confused about the answer and about how Senator Pratt is portraying the then Prime Minister.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Hurley)—Senator Parry, there is no point of order.

Senator PRATT —Madam Acting Deputy President, with your indulgence I am happy to reassure the senator opposite that I was simply quoting from Hansard and repeating what former Senator Hill was directed to answer on behalf of the former Prime Minister, which was a quote from Triple J saying that the former Prime Minister does not really condone, but does  not want to discriminate against, gay relationships—an answer that effectively said, ‘But we will continue to discriminate against same-sex couples and their superannuation’, all expressed in fairly gobbledegook terms. Senators, I ask you: did former Senator Allison ask former Senator Hill about gay marriage? Or did she ask whether the former Prime Minister’s professed aversion to discrimination extended to a commitment to legislate for equal super rights some time soon? Well, you do not need to be a genius to answer that question and you do not need to be a genius to work out what that rant about gay marriage was really about in this context. It was about, as has happened many times in this place, distracting attention from the fact that, despite his protestations against discrimination, the former Prime Minister had absolutely no intention of ever ending discrimination in the fundamental matter of superannuation entitlements.

The fact that the Howard government never had any intention of ending the discrimination against same-sex couples in superannuation law was even more clearly demonstrated the following year. In 2001, the government voted down its own superannuation choice legislation after it was successfully amended in the Senate to allow gay and lesbian couples the right to leave their superannuation contributions and entitlements to their partner. On that occasion, former Senator Greig had this to say:

... the Federal Coalition is hopelessly out of touch with community attitudes and the majority of States and Territories, most of which have already ended this discrimination at a local level.

“The Superannuation industry is understandably seething over the Howard Government’s inflexibility and are shaking their heads at last night’s decision.

“It is ridiculous to promote a Bill about Superannuation choice, if that Bill denies some people the choice to unambiguously nominate their partners as beneficiaries.

“Without exception, every Superannuation company and Industry Group supports ending discrimination against same-sex couples in superannuation contributions, death benefits and reversionary pensions,” ...

Former Senator Greig also pointed out that this was the first time in federal parliamentary history that antigay prejudice had led a government to sabotage one of its own bills. What an extraordinary step for a government to take! It just shows the great lengths the previous government was prepared to go to to avoid ending discrimination against same-sex couples in Commonwealth superannuation laws. It just shows the extent to which the government was held captive by the bigoted attitudes within its own caucus on this issue.

Well, senators opposite now have a crystal clear, cut and dried opportunity to finally do the right thing on this issue, and it is wonderful to see the bipartisan support for these measures. But they have been far too long in coming. Many people have died, without their partners receiving the full benefit of their superannuation.

It is well past the time for this arbitrary and unfair discrimination to be brought to an end—not indirectly and incompletely and not by trying to shove same-sex couples under the carpet by lumping them in with some catch-all interdependent category, but by openly, directly and completely giving same-sex de facto couples exactly the same rights under our superannuation laws as the rights of heterosexual de facto couples. Why shouldn’t we? This bill does just that—nothing more, nothing less. People in same-sex relationships today see themselves as the same as any heterosexual couple, with the same kinds of family, social and community commitments and with the same kinds of loving, mutual obligations to each other. We have spent so much time fruitlessly debating equal super rights for same-sex couples in this place and, because we have been banked up against this issue, we have not had the time or the opportunity to address the many other forms of discrimination affecting same-sex couples and their children. That is why it has been left to Labor to catch up on everything, to bring us up to date and to give same-sex couples the same substantive rights that other couples enjoy. I trust that, on that basis, this bill will be passed so that we can finally move on to deal with all of those issues of discrimination against same-sex couples regarding financial entitlements, many of which were addressed by the recent groundbreaking report of the Australian Human Rights Commission.

As senators are aware, the government has before the Senate a further bill which addresses these more wide-ranging issues through a large number of much needed reforms to legislation affecting taxation, social security and other critical financial entitlements.

This government’s readiness to take the initiative on these matters, to be bold, to be thorough and to be fair stands in sharp contrast to the prevarication, deception and half--heartedness that characterised the record of those opposite on these matters. I commend the government on moving so swiftly to address all of these matters upon coming to office. It means a great deal to me personally, and I wholeheartedly commend this bill to the Senate