Mar 28, 2006

Grievance Debate – Gay and Lesbian Issues, Same-sex Relationship Equality

Grievance Debate

Gay and Lesbian Issues, Same-sex Relationship Equality

28 March 2006

Mr ALBANESE (Grayndler) (4.31 pm)—Today I rise to outline the continuing legal and social inequalities that are still faced by lesbians and gay men across Australia every day. All individuals are entitled to the right to participate fully in society and to receive the support and protection of the law regardless of their sexuality. This is surely a basic right and one that I believe the majority of Australians would expect to be honoured in law. Yet this right is far from being a reality.

I have been fighting for basic legal equality for same-sex couples since I was elected to federal parliament in 1996. When I first set foot in this chamber as a younger, less cynical member in 1996, I knew that a government led by the current Prime Minister would not necessarily be a friend of the lesbian and gay community. But I did know that there were many members of the coalition parties who did support reform. I knew that it would be difficult to wind back centuries of legally entrenched discrimination against lesbians and gay men. Despite this knowledge, I genuinely believed that there would be steps forward.

I knew that governments around the world—including many in traditionally conservative countries—had rolled back antiquated, discriminatory laws. I knew that there were many supporters of reform within this chamber. And I believed that the case for reform was so persuasive that no government, no matter how conservative, could ultimately resist it. Ten years later, I stand here as a more cynical member on these issues. I no longer believe that major reform is achievable, unless there is a change of government.

The past 10 years have seen the greatest advancements in lesbian and gay rights of any period. Almost every state and territory now provides a system for formal recognition of same sex relationships. These reforms, introduced by Labor governments committed to equality and fairness, have progressed with broad community support including, in some cases, support of members of the coalition parties.

Yet what have we seen federally in the past 10 years? It is a pretty grim picture. The only legislative reform that has recognised same-sex couples as family members has been the antiterrorism legislation. At the same time, gay men and lesbians face daily discrimination, enforced by federal government legislation, that denies them access to government benefits, tells them that their relationships do not exist before the law, and imposes discriminatory rates of taxation. How could any member of the Government honestly reconcile this contradiction?

Recognition of same-sex relationships must not be seen as some kind of trendy, inner-city issue. In the past 10 years, as I have campaigned for equal rights, I have received messages of support from people across Australia. As the member for Leichhardt reminded us recently, this is as much a concern for people in regional Queensland as it is for the constituents of my electorate of Grayndler. This should come as no surprise, because the practical implications of the government’s staunch devotion to continued discrimination against same-sex couples are very real for those who suffer because of them.

Allow me to provide a few examples. In taxation, there are many rebates that provide benefits to people who live as members of couples, whether married or not. These benefits recognise that, when people live together as a couple, their relationship has an element of interdependency in sharing of resources and that there are often sound public policy reasons for recognising this through the tax system. These benefits include the dependent spouse rebate, the superannuation rebate and the parent rebate. Yet same-sex couples are not recognised for the purposes of these benefits. This means that people in same-sex relationships pay more tax for no other reason than the gender of their partner. The government is prepared to recognise that gay and lesbian terrorists may work together but is not prepared to recognise that law-abiding lesbians and gay men may share their finances and resources with their partner.

In health, a major area of government expenditure, we now have the Medicare safety net. As with tax rebates, the safety net recognises that some people live as members of a couple and provides a lower threshold than would apply if both members of a couple were treated individually. Once again, this benefit is denied to people in same-sex relationships. This means that a same-sex couple may have to spend as much as $1,000 more than their heterosexual neighbours in medical expenses in a year before they qualify for the safety net.

This discrimination continues through the health system into the private health insurance rebate. Once again, couples receive concessionary treatment but people in same-sex relationships are denied access to this benefit. The government is very happy to recognise that terrorists may be gay or lesbian but it will not accept that lesbians and gay men fall ill and need health services just like everybody else.

In the area of family law, the government seems committed to putting its own prejudice ahead of the best interests of children. Currently, when a marriage breaks down, all relating matters are heard by the Family Court. When a de facto relationship breaks down, however, the property division falls under state jurisdiction while disputes over children are heard by the Family Court. Accordingly, most states have agreed to rectify this division by referring their power over property to the federal government. But, instead of resolving this problem for all Australians, draft legislation indicates the Howard government will only accept the referral for heterosexual de facto couples. This means that, for same-sex couples, property division will occur in a state court but, if there is a dispute about child custody, this will be heard by the Family Court.

How can it be in the best interests of children for the relationship breakdown to be dragged through two courts, two legal systems and two lots of hearings? Labor is committed to ensuring that same-sex couples are included in these changes to the operation of the Family Court.

Another area of federal responsibility close to my heart is superannuation, where, for most of the life of this government, members of same-sex relationships have been denied access to death benefits upon the death of a partner or, in the rare circumstances where benefits have been paid, have faced discriminatory rates of taxation. As members of the House will recall, I have consistently campaigned for reform in this area. I have moved private member’s bills on a number of occasions and raise this now for the 26th time in the chamber.

I was therefore very surprised but pleased that, in 2004, the government announced that it intended to recognise same-sex relationships for superannuation purposes. Of course, the reality of the so-called reform was very different from what was promised. Same-sex couples were not specifically recognised in superannuation legislation. Instead, they were given a second-class form of recognition as part of a grab bag of other dependent relationships. Further, the many gay men and lesbians who have spent their working lives in the Public Service were excluded from the changes, meaning that they still face the reality that their partner may be denied access to death benefits, regardless of how much they may have contributed to superannuation over the course of their career.

The record of the government is clear. As a result of this discrimination, lesbians and gay men pay more tax and receive fewer services and benefits than other Australians. But of course there is another side to recognition of same-sex relationships. That is that, because of the failure to recognise these relationships, there are also many circumstances where extra entitlements from the Commonwealth are paid, in areas including social security, in particular. I stand here today with the same commitment with which I entered the House in 1996: a commitment to removing discrimination against same-sex couples in federal laws. I look forward to the day when a new Labor government will act to end the absurd anachronistic discrimination that I have outlined today.

Labor’s position on recognition of de facto same-sex relationships is clear. On 10 August 2004, the Labor caucus determined that Labor in government will work with all groups to reform federal laws to recognise the diversity of legitimate relationships in the Australian community. This resolution extended the commitment that Labor has taken in some form or another to every election since 1996.

Labor remains committed to recognition of de facto same-sex relationships as a basic measure to achieve equality in areas such as health, tax and superannuation. I note that the Prime Minister, at the end of 2005, gave indications that he also supported that position—but there has not been any action.

My message today is that it is no longer enough. Labor’s shadow Attorney-General, Nicola Roxon, will introduce a private member’s bill to outlaw discrimination, harassment and incitement to violence based on sexuality or gender identity. This is an important step forward.

Nicola Roxon has also announced that Labor has commenced consultation on models for a system of relationship recognition. Labor would not redefine marriage. I know from talking to many of my gay and lesbian constituents that there are many who do not seek marriage rights, even though there are some who do. Labor should allow those who want to ensure formal recognition of their relationship through mutual consent to do so. I believe civil unions are the best way to allow this to happen.

I believe that Australia should and ultimately will follow the lead of countries such as New Zealand, Canada and the United Kingdom and introduce a system for recognition of civil unions. I note that in the ACT assembly today just such legislation was introduced. This should be pursued in cooperation with the states and territories so as to remove any constitutional uncertainty and achieve a uniform system across the country.

In making my views clear in this way, I do not seek to impose a model upon the gay and lesbian community. In addition to Labor’s own consultation, we will also listen to consultations undertaken by the Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby. I have a strong suspicion, however, that these consultations will show strong support for civil unions. I want to make it clear that if this is the case I will support that model of reform.

When one sits in a house of parliament of a nation that accepts and enshrines discrimination and inequality, one should expect to be judged by history. It is time for the nation to move forward and remove this discrimination.