Senate debates

Wednesday, 12 March 2008

Social Security and Veterans’ Affairs Legislation Amendment (Enhanced Allowances) Bill 2008

In Committee

10:21 am

Photo of Andrew BartlettAndrew Bartlett (Queensland, Australian Democrats) Share this | Hansard source

The Democrats, not surprisingly, support this request for an amendment along the lines that the Democrats have moved similar amendments repeatedly to a raft of legislation. Perhaps before the end of June I should tally up the number of times we have moved them over the decades, just for historical purposes. I imagine that it would run to over the 100 mark. We have a track record of zero success with them, which is very unfortunate. Although, having said that, I should also put on the record the fact that such progress that was made under the previous years of the Howard era did occur because of the perseverance of the Democrats in areas such as superannuation. That was not through an amendment like those in this request but through negotiation with Mr Howard. He did choose to talk to people sometimes about these sorts of things when he needed to get other legislation through and we were able to get some improvements via the superannuation choice legislation.

He held up that legislation for about three years, I think. The notion of choice was obviously not so important to him that he would actually allow that choice to expand to people in same-sex relationships, but after about three years of hold-up he did agree to a modified version to allow people in co-dependent relationships to more clearly share their superannuation entitlements—though that does not apply to the public sector as yet, unfortunately.

That is one example. I should take the opportunity to put on the record that the Democrats were able to successfully move things forward and enable some people in same-sex relationships to have the same access to their partners’ superannuation entitlements as all the rest of us enjoy. It is an example of the benefit of negotiation and perseverance over a long period of time. That is why it is good that this request for an amendment is moved, because it is another example of perseverance, of continuing to put it on the record and of continuing to highlight that this inequality still exists.

If we moved an amendment along these lines to a particular act, the usual response from the then Liberal government—and usually, though not always, from the Labor opposition—was to say, ‘You can’t make this change in a one-off capacity; you’ve got to do it across the board all at once.’ Of course, the Democrats have also had legislation before this chamber for more than 12 years which does precisely that and does do it all at once. When we brought that on for debate we were told, ‘You need to do it one at a time and look at it case by case.’ That sophistry was used to basically make no progress at all and to have that discrimination continue.

It is a clear commitment of the new government to remove that discrimination. I am actually relatively confident that they will end up doing that sometime within the next year or so. It is appropriate to put on the record in this context once again the role of former senator Sid Spindler. I mentioned this yesterday during the debate on the condolence motion, but I take the opportunity to put it again that back in 1995 he was the first in this chamber to introduce legislation that sought to do precisely what this request for an amendment does—that is, to remove the discrimination. His legislation would have applied across the board; this obviously just applies to the Social Security Act. I also note his role in instituting a comprehensive Senate inquiry which was the precursor in many ways to the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission Same-Sex, Same Entitlements inquiry that Senator Nettle referred to. So I wanted to once again pay tribute to the legacy of Sid Spindler and many others who have continued to put this before the chamber.

It is worth noting with regard to social security specifically that it is often said that people in same-sex relationships actually benefit from the existing discrimination because one partner’s income is not counted against the other partner’s and therefore they have higher payments than a couple would if one of them were working, and also they are entitled to two single payments as opposed to a couple payment, which is less than two single payments. So in some aspects the differential treatment does benefit a same-sex couple, and that was made clear in the HREOC report. But it should also be emphasised that in some cases the differential treatment does have a negative impact on same-sex families. For example, a same-sex partner is not entitled to partner allowance, to concession card benefits, to jailed partner pension, to widow allowance or to bereavement benefits.

In the context of the earlier part of the debate on this legislation with regard to the burden of carers and the impact when one partner dies, I think a recognition needs to be put on the record that the partner’s relationship is not just about money. It is not all about, ‘There’s an entitlement over there; I want it because somebody else can receive it.’ It is about recognition, and that is at the core of this. That is why, as was demonstrated to HREOC during the course of their inquiry, and as is clear in their report, many same-sex couples make clear that they will willingly lose advantages. They will lose financial benefit in the social security area. They are quite willing to do that in exchange for equality and recognition. To me that is what is so crucial about this—it is not so much about people having equal financial entitlements or whether they lose or gain. On balance I suspect that, if this request for an amendment were successful, there would actually be a net saving to the taxpayer, in this area at least.

But it is about recognition, and that particularly comes into play when you are talking about bereavement, caring and the death of a partner. It is a pretty awful thing, and I would urge people to read some of the examples in the HREOC report or, indeed, in the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs References Committee report that was tabled in 1997. It is 10 years old, but the heartache that was seen during that inquiry and reflected in that report is just as real today. It is happening today in the same way. One of the most heartbreaking instances is when one partner dies and the other partner, who may have been with them for decades, is shut out, has no entitlements and, in some cases, has no recognition. I am sure we could all imagine how it would feel when your partner of decades dies and you are just shut out and seen as having no particular role or significance in what is going on. That can be amongst the worst forms of discrimination even though in itself it has no financial component to it at all. To me that is what this is about more than anything else—it is about recognition of the importance and significance of people’s relationships and equal treatment.

So, with those broader contextual comments, the Democrats support this request for an amendment. Now that the government has indicated a preparedness to make this change as a policy commitment rather than having to be browbeaten into it via Senate crossbench leverage, I think it probably would be more efficient to do it as one big block. I repeat the point that the modern-day version of the original Spindler legislation is still before the Senate in the name of all the current Democrat senators and that it does reflect precisely the two very simple recommendations of the HREOC report Same-sex: same entitlements. That would be an easy way to go.

I do note—with some interest and a slight bit of surprise—reports that the current government’s investigations into this issue identify more laws where this discrimination exists than even HREOC did. I think HREOC found 58 federal laws that denied same-sex couples and their children basic financial and work related entitlements that are available to opposite-sex couples and their children. I have seen reports that the number of those laws is apparently up around the hundred mark. That does surprise me in the sense that I had expected that HREOC would have identified almost all of them. It is not a shock that they might be out by one or two, but to find that there are that many more is a surprise. So we do need to ensure that it is done properly.

It would be more efficient, I think, to do it across the board in one go because, if you are amending 100 pieces of legislation, with all of the flow-on effects through various departments, that is a big job. You want to make sure that it is done coherently and cohesively. But I would also say that it has got to be done quickly. People have waited a very long time, and they are getting pretty sick of excuses. For that reason I think there is nothing wrong with doing it piece of legislation by piece of legislation, passing this amendment now and bringing it into social security, which would be one of the areas that would have one of the biggest flow-on changes in terms of the calculations of entitlements, reconstructing of IT systems and the like. Getting started early on that one has its arguments, but the main thing is to get on with it, and I hope the minister at the table today gives some indication of what the time frame is for when people can expect to see this very important promise delivered on.


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