Wednesday, 12 March 2008
Social Security and Veterans’ Affairs Legislation Amendment (Enhanced Allowances) Bill 2008
I want to indicate that I am not trying to close the debate, but I do want to provide a response to the issues raised by both Senator Nettle and Senator Bartlett. The first point to indicate is that the government does not support the request for an amendment and will not be voting for it. At the risk of sounding like I am practising sophistry, I want to explain why.
It is not true to say that there is no progress being made. I do acknowledge that both the Democrats and the Greens have been persistent on this. Even their worst critics could not claim that they have not been consistent and persistent on this issue. Like Senator Bartlett, I acknowledge Senator Spindler, Senator Greig and a whole range of Greens senators, culminating with Senator Nettle, who have pursued these matters vigorously in the parliament. But our approach is to honour our commitment to removing same-sex discrimination in Commonwealth laws in a number of areas, including social security benefits.
I do not think anyone can claim that the government has not been honouring its commitments. Senator Nettle may be frustrated after 100 days, but I think, to be fair, these are complex matters, and no-one has said that in the first 100 days we are going to solve all the problems of government or honour all the pledges we have made for reform. I think this is one of the most complex areas. It will require a great deal of work, and I think one can be a little bit more generous. Even Senator Bartlett has been fairly generous today. I acknowledge that; I am sure it will not last. I think to argue that somehow the government is wrong in not delivering in the first 100 days on complex, major reform of over 100 federal laws is a little bit rich.
These discrimination issues will be considered as part of a comprehensive, whole-of-government process. We are not going to do it bill by bill in the first few months of the parliament. We are not going to take a piecemeal approach. We have got to work out how to handle these issues and apply a whole-of-government approach. As you know, the social security legislation is lengthy and complex. The Social Security Act 1991 and the Social Security (Administration) Act 1999 are currently around 2,400 pages combined—not as big as the immigration act, as I am finding, but pretty big. Given this complexity, we want to get any amendments right.
We have commenced the process. It is being driven by the Attorney-General’s Department. As you know, the department has finalised an audit of Commonwealth laws that more broadly identifies provisions that discriminate against people in same-sex relationships, taking account of the HREOC Same-sex: same entitlements report tabled in parliament in June last year. The A-G’s audit found over 100 federal laws which discriminate against same-sex couples and their families. Areas of discrimination include taxation, social security, superannuation, workplace laws, privacy and education assistance. I remember dealing with these issues in Defence when I had that portfolio in opposition. This covers virtually the whole of government as an issue, and there is a great deal of complexity involved.
But I want to make it very clear, particularly to Senator Nettle, that there is no lack of resolve in the government about this issue. There is no lack of commitment, and we are at work. No-one is more committed than the Prime Minister to delivering on the election commitments he gave. He has made it very clear to each minister that they are expected to deliver on every election commitment made by the government. There is that commitment in relation to these issues. That commitment will be implemented when we are able to get it right. Work is being done. We have every intention of delivering on the promise. It is appropriate for senators to seek to hold the government accountable but, as I say, I think to expect us to have completed this work in 100 days is not reasonable.
The Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby campaign is occurring, and that is perfectly appropriate. I think the suggestion of Senator Nettle was that we had to respond because they have a campaign running. We understand that lobby groups and pressure groups want to keep up the pressure on the government and want to be active around their issues, and that is fine. But the government is doing a very serious piece of work here. We are committed to delivering on the election commitment for reform in this area, and I can provide the Senate with the assurance that that commitment will remain.
Senator Nettle asked me to give her a timetable. The answer is that I am not going to give her that. Those sorts of decisions have not been taken as yet. We are working through the issues; we are seeing how we can implement our policy. When cabinet have been able to pull all that together and determine how we are going to proceed, an announcement will be made. But this is very serious, very complicated work across 100 federal laws. We are not going to sign up for an amendment requested by the Greens in isolation on one bill until we have done all that work and until we are clear on how we are going to proceed.
It seems to me that the sort of request for amendment that Senator Nettle is moving is pretty close to the mark. It is consistent with the HREOC report, but obviously, from what I have been told about some of the advice we have had, it will not be exactly what we will move. This, as I say, is complex, so we will be working through those issues. We will deliver on that commitment, but we will not be supporting the request for an amendment today.