Wednesday, 7 February 2007
Matters of Public Interest
Civil Partnerships Bill; Googong Dam
Yesterday the Howard government yet again showed that it is prepared to have its extreme ideology override what is fair, equitable and democratic. I condemn the Howard government’s moves to override the otherwise legitimate ACT legislation in order to prevent same-sex couples in the ACT from being able to have their relationships legally recognised. Yesterday the Attorney-General, Mr Philip Ruddock, told the ACT Legislative Assembly that he would advise the Governor-General to disallow the ACT Civil Partnerships Bill before the legislative assembly even had time to debate the bill. This is clearly a political stunt by a government that knows it is lagging in the polls.
I have no doubt that the Prime Minister and Mr Ruddock saw an opportunity to once again cause division and give prejudice some oxygen as a distraction to their poor performance on critical issues like climate change. I would like to take this opportunity to remind Mr Ruddock and his colleagues in this chamber that the ACT government was democratically elected by the people of the ACT to govern in the interests of ACT residents. In fact a majority Labor government was elected by the people of the ACT, having promised to legislate for same-sex couples to be legally recognised. But this government has form on interfering in ACT matters, particularly when it is a Labor government at ACT level. The local Liberal government did not seem to attract quite the same attention.
In June 2006 the Howard government used section 35 of the ACT Self Government Act to overturn a previous attempt at legislating in this area—the Civil Unions Act. This was a triumph of arrogant disregard for democratic processes and this government did it then because they could, and they will do it again because they can. Mr Ruddock cannot pretend to represent the people of the ACT—that is what the assembly is for. He disregards the views of all of the federally elected representatives of the ACT by taking this action. I call on him to reconsider his plan to recommend that this bill be disallowed.
I am also very disappointed, and think it is worth highlighting the fact, that this government has absolutely refused to consult with the ACT government on this matter. I think this is further evidence that it is a political stunt. The ACT Attorney-General, Mr Simon Corbell, wrote to the minister twice to discuss the Commonwealth’s problems with the original bill so that the Civil Partnerships Bill—this second attempt—could proceed without Commonwealth interference. Mr Corbell did not receive a response from the minister and yet on local ABC radio this morning Mr Ruddock said that the legislation would be disallowed because changes ‘should have occurred but didn’t’. Mr Ruddock’s refusal to constructively talk to the ACT government about what changes would be suitable makes it very obvious that this matter is not just about the legalities; this is a matter where Philip Ruddock’s and the Howard government’s extreme ideology has won over yet again. It also demonstrates how brutally they are prepared to treat the rights of same-sex couples in pursuit of an ideology and exploit their pain as part of a political stunt. Quite simply—and I say it again—the ACT government should be allowed to make laws with respect to same-sex couples as it is entitled to do under the ACT Self Government Act.
I would also like it noted that I absolutely support the contents of this bill. The ACT Civil Partnerships Bill is intended to ensure that everyone receives equal treatment under ACT law. The bill would have allowed a couple to establish a domestic partnership by making a formal declaration of their intention to do so. The bill is non-discriminatory in that anybody could access a civil partnership in the ACT regardless of the gender of their chosen partner. Mr Ruddock told local Canberra radio this morning that his ‘primary concern is to remove discrimination’, yet he is refusing to allow the Civil Partnerships Bill to proceed. I think this is blatant discrimination and, hence, blatant hypocrisy from the minister.
The ACT Labor government is committed to ensuring that everyone has the dignity and respect they are entitled to and deserve—that is, a commitment to protecting everyone’s right to participate in society and receive the full protection of the law. These aspirations have yet again been undermined by the Howard government. The minister has failed to give any substantive reasons for recommending this bill be disallowed except some vague reference to the ‘cultural institution of marriage’ and looking out for the interests of children. This is not a substantive reason; they are weasel words. There is no substantive reason, and I take offence at his implication that same-sex couples cannot provide supportive, loving and safe homes for children. It is possibly the most shameful and ignorant thing I have heard the minister say on this matter to date.
I would like to draw to the Senate’s attention some letters I have received only today from same-sex families outlining their desire to be legally recognised. One of them says:
I am a 30-year old lesbian and have been with my partner for 12 years. I have two beautiful young children whom we both cherish and adore. We like most parents wish nothing but the best for our children but we sometimes find this difficult to carry out when society in general does not validate the family system which my two daughters come from.
That really encapsulates the ongoing frustration of many of the couples who find themselves continually confronted by what they see as a prejudiced position emanating from the Howard government. For these letters to come in so quickly and so personally clearly shows that there is a great deal of feeling in the Australian community still. These letters came from around Australia, not just the ACT. We are being watched very closely as to how we stand on issues relating to same-sex couples.
Why should these parents be denied the same rights and privileges that other families have? It is a reasonable question to ask. Labor does not believe they should be denied those rights. Whilst all of us in this place have agreed that marriage is sacrosanct for heterosexual couples, that is not what we are talking about here: the ACT has proposed a civil partnership.
I would also like to recognise that Senator Humphries, the Liberal representative of the ACT in the Senate, did cross the floor on this matter. I call on Senator Humphries to show the courage that he has shown previously on this matter and speak out. I mentioned earlier that all four ACT federal representatives, Senator Humphries and me in this place and Mr McMullan and Ms Ellis in the other place, have supported the attempts by the ACT government to legislate in this area. I think that has been ignored unreasonably by the minister. All this points to another distraction, another stunt. That is unfortunate. I think it is very sad for the people who are affected, who were hoping that this would be able to be proceeded with. I call on the Attorney-General to reconsider his plan to disallow the Civil Partnerships Bill of the ACT. I urge him to allow it to proceed.
In the time available to me in this discussion of matters of public interest, I would like to raise another matter, which, sadly, is of a similar theme. It is another example of where the federal government has treated the elected government of the ACT with contempt. It fits well with the topic of political stunts. I am referring, of course, to the slimy deal that the Prime Minister and the Howard government have made with respect to Googong dam. The deal reneges on a longstanding agreement, in place since 1988, that would have seen the ACT’s ownership and control of Googong dam confirmed if not for the Prime Minister’s intervention. It appears that the intention of the federal Minister for Local Government, Territories and Roads to confirm the long-term arrangement with the ACT government as recently as August 2006 has been overturned by the Prime Minister’s office in order to give his mate Pru Goward a leg-up in her bid to get elected to the New South Wales parliament in the forthcoming New South Wales election. Unfortunately, this sneaky deal has confirmed suspicions that I have held. It obviously robs the ACT of its water security for the long term. Water is important and it ought not be used as a political tool by the Howard government to manipulate votes for the New South Wales election or, indeed, the next federal election.
As the ACT Chief Minister has already outlined, the ACT government—successive governments, I might add, not just the current government—has spent millions of dollars on Googong infrastructure by raising the wall and building a sophisticated treatment plant. The ACT has spent millions of dollars on the bulk transfer scheme that sees water from ACT catchments transferred to the dam to boost its drought affected storage. Yet the announcement that a pipeline will be built from the Googong to Goulburn was made without any consultation with the ACT or with the water authorities who manage the Googong dam. Obviously, the announcement to retain ownership was also made without consultation. So I, along with my ACT colleagues, Mr Bob McMullan and Ms Annette Ellis, will be standing by the ACT Chief Minister and the ACT government’s efforts to secure our region’s water supply. We would like to note their efforts to date not only to achieve water security for Canberra but also to assist towns like Yass and Goulburn—the very town that the Howard government purports to be trying to assist through this stunt. I and my colleagues condemn the Howard government for preventing this long-term sustainability strategy from being deployed by the ACT government, hence robbing the ACT and the region of a long-term solution.
Once again, the Howard government’s action is insulting and arrogant towards Canberrans, who have worked hard to conserve water. They have grappled for many years with all sorts of water restrictions, and we are facing even tighter restrictions because of the continuing low level of rainfall in our catchment areas. Senator Humphries has not shown the same amount of courage on this issue as he has shown on previous issues. I call on him to condemn this arrangement and to stand up for the ACT’s long-term water security, in the same way that he was previously prepared to cross the floor on the ACT’s right to legislate for civil unions. There is a bit of a theme developing here, and it relates to interference in legitimate ACT matters. I believe—and I think Senator Humphries understands the point I am making—that he has an obligation to stand by the democratic processes of the ACT government, albeit that it is not of his political flavour at the moment. Overriding this longstanding deal on the Googong dam is further evidence of the complete contempt the Howard government has for the ACT government.
I would like to make a general comment about the conduct of the Howard government in all these matters. It is not only extremely frustrating for the people of the ACT and the ACT government, which has worked hard on a range of policy issues; it also shows that the Howard government applies their thoughts, their energy and the Prime Minister’s much-vaunted political cleverness to strategies that are highly manipulative and exploitative of divisions in our society, rather than to all the good things one would normally apply cleverness to, like preparing a long-term vision for Australia—particularly on the issue of climate change, which will obviously always be a very important topic for Australia. I find it profoundly disappointing that so much of this government’s energy is directed towards creating division and manipulating public opinion. I refer both to the issue of overriding the Civil Partnerships Bill in the ACT for same-sex couples and also to what I call a slimy deal on the treatment of the Googong dam and the refusal of the Commonwealth government to proceed with the transfer of ownership in relation to the Googong dam.
It is characteristic of the nature of this government that leaves many, many people—not just Canberrans—with a bad taste in their mouth. It is a bad taste that I do not think will go away. It is a bad taste in their mouths that has been getting worse for a number of years because we are stuck with—at least until the next election—a government that uses its political nous for manipulative and divisive purposes rather than nation building and creating forward-thinking strategies in everyone’s interests.