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Wednesday, 12 November 2008
Page: 6753

Senator WORTLEY (4:11 PM) —I rise to indicate my support for the Same-Sex Relationships (Equal Treatment in Commonwealth Laws—General Law Reform) Bill 2008. Article 26 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights entered into force on 23 March 1976. Its words have particular resonance in the context of this bill:

All persons are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to the equal protection of the law. In this respect, the law shall prohibit any discrimination and guarantee to all persons equal and effective protection against discrimination on any ground such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.

This bill and the Same-Sex Relationships (Equal Treatment in Commonwealth Laws—Superannuation) Bill 2008, on which I have already spoken, are unique and historic pieces of legislation. Together they will put into effect Labor’s promise to redress inequity of rights and entitlements and of responsibilities across our community. The bill is intended to eliminate same-sex discrimination from many areas of Commonwealth government interactions with the Australian people as a whole. In fact the bill will amend 68 federal laws.

All present in this place are familiar with the Australian Human Rights Commission 2007 report Same-sex: same entitlements. The inquiry which resulted in the report found that every day at least 20,000 same-sex couples experience discrimination embedded within our system of finance, work and governance. It found that same-sex couples are not granted carer’s leave to look after a sick partner, that same-sex couples have to spend more on medical services to gain access to the Medicare and PBS safety nets than opposite-sex couples do and that tax concessions available to opposite-sex couples are denied to same-sex couples. That discrimination also exists in non-financial areas such as evidence and administrative laws. To demonstrate the financial and emotional strain same-sex couples experience just trying to support each other and their families, I quote with permission personal accounts provided to the commission:

Put simply, I want the same rights and responsibilities to form a family and support it and nurture it. I want my partner to feel as secure in her parenting role as any other parent, without the uncertainty that comes with not being on the birth certificate, not being on the same Medicare card, not being seen as a family for tax purposes, and so on.

Again I quote:

We are productive members of our society. We are both employed, so we contribute to society with our taxes. We serve the community in other ways as well. We have been together now for 19 years. Our commitment to each other is deep, genuine and ongoing. Our relationship is utterly lawful.

Just one example of unfair discrimination from the aged care system: where a member of an opposite sex couple is incapacitated and requires nursing home care, the means test for an accommodation bond excludes the family home. However, if one member of a same-sex couple requires residential nursing care then that person’s share of the family home is treated as an asset. What this means for us is that if either of us were ever incapacitated we would face the possibility of being forced to sell our home out from the other one. It is happening to other couples now.

A serving member of the Australian Defence Force made this submission:

I am continually bemused at the Federal government’s concern—

that is, the Howard government’s concern—

that giving recognition to same-sex couples is going to disintegrate the moral fabric of society. The implementation of changes in the military came with a minimum of fanfare. We are not asking for new or unusual benefits, just to be treated in equality with those in heterosexual relationships.

A doctor’s submission put it quite succinctly:

I am a first-class taxpayer but a second-class citizen …

And a same-sex couple from my own home city of Adelaide submitted:

We are an average suburban family. We are working hard and contributing to our community …

We don’t want special treatment—just what others can expect from their legal and social community. Our rights are denied simply because of who we love.

It is our intention to alleviate the injustices that emerge so clearly from these very human stories. The Same-Sex Relationships (Equal Treatment in Commonwealth Laws—General Law Reform) Bill provides for this by way of revision to definitions. The bill ensures that each law amended will recognise a same-sex partner and will ensure equal treatment of children, whether of opposite-sex or same-sex parents. The Acts Interpretation Act 1901 will include a new definition of a de facto partnership to be used in most instances.

This bill will put an end to discriminatory treatment presently existing in Commonwealth law of people who are in the same circumstances as those who are married. So, for example, if a same-sex couple with a child or children separates, child support will be accessible in the same way as it is presently for opposite-sex couples. Marital status discrimination embodied in Commonwealth laws with regard to stepchildren, step-parents, widows and widowers will be removed. A new tracing rule to identify family relationships is also introduced by way of the bill to ensure that these relationships will be acknowledged in the same way for both same-sex and opposite-sex families.

These measures import fairness and consistency into the law. Once again, I join with so many Australians—here, in the other place and in communities both urban and regional right across our country—in expressing my sincere view that the reforms set out in this and the related superannuation bill are well overdue. As I said on an earlier occasion, these measures are not about special treatment or special rights for same-sex couples and their families. They are about equal treatment for all Australians. They are about equal access to the rights and entitlements which not all Australians yet enjoy. And they are about equal adherence to the responsibilities that accompany those rights and entitlements.

We know that the amendments as a whole are expected to be in operation by mid-2009. But, as I have also noted, every day’s delay in passing this legislation is an extra day of discrimination against same-sex couples, an extra day of discrimination that could have long-term detrimental consequences for many in same-sex relationships and for their children. Labor is committed to achieving equity in our community. I support the measures and the intention of this bill, which will lay the path for this to be achieved.