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Tuesday, 14 October 2008
Page: 77

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS (9:14 PM) —Mr Acting Deputy President Barnett, can I at the outset associate myself with the comments that you made earlier in your speech, having had the benefit of being on the Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs and hearing witnesses. I have in particular noted the comments of the Liberal senators in the report that was tabled earlier.

I would like to focus this evening on two matters and comment on the package of bills which includes the Same-Sex Relationships (Equal Treatment in Commonwealth Laws—Superannuation) Bill 2008. I would like to make the general observation that what we really should be focusing on is the removal of discriminatory treatment in federal laws as it applies to all interdependent relationships. Senator Fielding mentioned earlier some of those relationships. I would like to go back and look at where this has effectively been done in recent years and really focus on what I think has been the change of attitude of this government in terms of its treatment of interdependent relationships.

The previous government took the attitude of looking at interdependent relationships and discrimination across different areas—in other words, see where that discrimination exists and deal with it as it applies to interdependent relationships of the type that Senator Fielding has just described. What this government seems to be doing instead is actually taking a discriminatory approach by choosing a particular relationship and then trying to do blanket changes across a wide range of areas.

I think in the end what is happening here is that quite a number of people who are in interdependent relationships are being discriminated against because the recognition of their rights—and their right not to be discriminated against—is not being addressed here. I ask the question: why has the government adopted this deviation of now discriminating in favour of particular groups of people in interdependent relationships rather than looking at interdependent relationships in the global sense?

It is a complex area when we talk about interdependent relationships. I believe that it is more appropriate to deal with this on a case-by-case basis. Australia has a very good commitment in protecting human rights, and governments of different persuasions have condemned discrimination. Indeed, in our society all should have the opportunity to participate in our community and to experience the benefits that are associated with that participation. On the other hand, I think that all in society should also accept the responsibilities that flow from such participation without fear or discrimination. As I have indicated repeatedly, governments have been committed to the protection of human rights, and our approach to human rights is a reflection of our liberal, democratic ideals. It is also a reflection of the belief that justice and human dignity are basic rights that all in society should enjoy.

Our human rights in Australia have been underpinned by the interaction of important institutions within our legal framework. We are one of the oldest democracies and we have strong democratic institutions. Our common-law system has also been important in protecting human rights. In addition to current legislation at a federal level, there are antidiscrimination laws at state and territory levels which together form the body of law which protects human rights. We have a wide range of programs, services and support mechanisms designed to assist all Australians, irrespective of their interdependent relationships. We all share the commitment to ensure that programs and services are targeted to those most in need, while encouraging Australians to contribute in our community.

The previous government was committed to the elimination of discrimination against same-sex couples, but this was part of a program of the elimination of discrimination in relation to the body of interdependent relationships. This is really the concern that I have here. It is my belief that the issues that we are dealing with ought properly be treated on a case-by-case basis. Rather than doing things in this across-the-board fashion, I think it is important to look at particular areas where discrimination could exist and then apply changes to legislation across a body of laws where interdependent relationships are affected.

I would like to just to touch on areas of interdependent relationships where the previous government took significant action to address differential treatment and discrimination and did so on a case-by-case basis. For example, in the area of superannuation, superannuation laws were changed to include same-sex partners as potential beneficiaries of death benefits in some circumstances. There were changes to income tax legislation to expand the range of potential beneficiaries of tax-free superannuation death benefits to include interdependent relationships. This would include elderly siblings intending to live out their lives together, adult children living with and caring for their parents, and same-sex couples who might not otherwise be recognised as dependants. Tax-free superannuation death benefits could previously only be paid to spouses, children under 18 and those who could establish financial dependency on the deceased. Various changes were made in those areas. For example, legislation enabled same-sex couples to choose a super fund that best served their needs—that is, one with governing rules that allowed payments to same-sex partners.

Another case is that of Australian Defence Force employee entitlements. The previous government made progress in eliminating discrimination against people in interdependent relationships in the Australian Defence Force. For example, in October 2005, a decision was made to extend certain conditions-of-service entitlements to other interdependent relationships of ADF members, including same-sex partners of ADF members. A wide range of work-family balance provisions that recognised interdependent partnerships were made available to ADF members.

Provision was made in the area of immigration for a full range of interdependent relationships. For example, in the areas of temporary and permanent skilled visas people who shared an interdependent relationship with an Australian citizen or permanent resident were able to apply for interdependency visas to allow them to reside in Australia and, of course, this included same-sex relationships. Interdependency visas were created as a class of visa under the migration legislation. Another example is in the area of federal employment laws, where discrimination in employment on the grounds of sexual preference became grounds for lodging a complaint under the HREOC legislation. Also, various changes were made in the area of public servants’ superannuation and Australian superannuation schemes through benefits in the CSS and PSS. I raise these examples because that really was a different approach. We are now seeing a change of attitude by this government that in effect singles out one interdependent relationship, in my view to the discrimination of other interdependent relationships.

I now turn to some of the issues that have been raised by other senators, in particular the concerns that were raised in the additional comments by Liberal senators in the committee report in relation to some of the terminology and language used in the various bills, in particular what has been described at 1.8 of those additional comments as the ‘novel approach’ which ‘undermines the unique status of marriage in Commonwealth law’. I agree with the comments that have been made by Liberal senators that the term ‘couple relationship’ should be abandoned. We really do need to look at the terminology and the amendments in the Senate and change some of that terminology. Other senators have also talked about the terminology of a child being a ‘product of a relationship’—

Senator Cormann —’Bureaucratese’!

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS —In its extreme. We talk about sensitivity; well, describing a child as a ‘product’ is just very much devaluing the concept of a child and of being a child. I look at that and I think that something is terribly wrong there.

I would like to conclude my comments by putting on the public record the importance of marriage as an institution in Australia. Marriage is a unique institution in our society and it is one that we as senators and members of the Australian parliament should do everything in our power to protect, and ensure that it is supported, encouraged and backed up in every way, shape and form. The package of bills that are now before us has afforded me the opportunity to express my views on the sanctity and uniqueness of marriage and the very important role that it plays in Australia. Marriage is a very important institution not only for the traditional Anglo-Saxon culture in this country but also for so many others in our culturally diverse community. It is the important umbrella institution which helps to nurture children in an environment where they can grow and prosper. Indeed, the traditional form of marriage in my view provides the best form of security in our society. I know that some of those opposite do not share that view but I know that it is a view that is shared by so many. Often people talk about the silent majority in this country. I think that the silent majority in this country would agree about the sanctity of marriage and the sanctity of what is the traditional family. Like Senator Bernardi, I too stand for the traditional definition of marriage and for the traditional definition of the family.