Senate debates

Wednesday, 18 June 2008

Same-Sex Relationships (Equal Treatment in Commonwealth Laws — Superannuation) Bill 2008; Tax Laws Amendment (Medicare Levy Surcharge Thresholds) Bill 2008; National Health Amendment (Pharmaceutical and Other Benefits — Cost Recovery) Bill 2008; Tax Laws Amendment (Luxury Car Tax) Bill 2008; a New Tax System (Luxury Car Tax Imposition — General) Amendment Bill 2008; a New Tax System (Luxury Car Tax Imposition — Customs) Amendment Bill 2008; a New Tax System (Luxury Car Tax Imposition — Excise) Amendment Bill 2008; Excise Legislation Amendment (Condensate) Bill 2008; Excise Tariff Amendment (Condensate) Bill 2008; National Fuelwatch (Empowering Consumers) Bill 2008; National Fuelwatch (Empowering Consumers) (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2008; Tax Laws Amendment (2008 Measures No. 3) Bill 2008; Commonwealth Electoral Amendment (Political Donations and Other Measures) Bill 2008

Referral to Committees

10:38 am

Photo of Kerry NettleKerry Nettle (NSW, Australian Greens) Share this | Hansard source

I want to speak on the reference of Same-Sex Relationships (Equal Treatment in Commonwealth Laws—Superannuation) Bill 2008 to the never-never, which is the opposition’s proposal in relation to this matter. I will start by reading out a letter, which I received some time ago in relation to proposals by the ACT to introduce civil unions legislation. I will read the letter from this individual and then discuss the impact that this legislation would have on him. He wrote to me two years ago and said:

I am a 58-year-old gay man who has been living in Canberra with my partner (of a similar age) for the past 14 years.

We are both ex-serviceman. His was a long career in the army, mine a short one as a National Serviceman from 1969 to 1971.

We have both worked extensively in the Australian Public Service; in my case, in Social Security, Health and Veterans Affairs portfolios for many years.

Each of us has at various times held Top Secret security clearances either in the military or in sensitive public service portfolios.

Both of us have lived the majority of our lives in situations where our relationship was considered to be criminal in one state or another.

Throughout my partner’s military career he kept his sexuality utterly secret, since the alternative (till the early 1990s) would have been summary discharge from the Services. I was more fortunate in that the public service reformed its attitude a little earlier.

Governments were happy to accept our contribution to the national good, but for many years they did so on the condition that we lied about our personal lives and pretended to be something we were not. As for entitlements, we were expected to be grateful for not being arrested.

Those days of hypocrisy and persecution are largely past. But whilst all Australian states and territories have now decriminalised same-sex relationships, we are not accorded recognition by social security, superannuation, health and taxation systems controlled by the federal government. Though we pay for our share, we don’t receive our share. And our schools are still reluctant to teach kids that gay sexuality is ok, and many teachers turn a blind eye to victimisation and bashing.

I have once experienced being the target of gay-hate violence. Half a dozen thugs with baseball bats attacked me just a few years ago here in Canberra. If I weren’t both lucky and prepared to stand up for myself, I would have died that night. Some of my friends have been less fortunate.

The continued existence of this sort of anti-gay violence is due in great measure to those who seek to impose on the entire community their narrow view of what is ‘moral’, and who seek to use gays as scapegoats to blame for society’s ills. I recall all too well the attempt by some religious groups in the 1980s to blame gay men for HIV/AIDS and to cynically use HIV as a weapon to try to drive society back into the sectarianism and hypocrisy that characterised the 1950s.

Certain religious groups still have no hesitation in promoting the most appalling and dishonest anti-gay propaganda in the name of ‘family values’. But as I recall, the Nazis also claimed to be committed to family values, and were equally intolerant of freedom of choice. Tens of thousands of homosexual men were interned by the Nazis, and many of them perished in concentration camps. It was not the first time we have been used as scapegoats by political and religious fanatics, nor was it the last time.

I consider myself to be a highly moral and principled person, a quality I attribute to the nurture of my late parents. My family have always been absolutely supportive of me and my partner, and my siblings often travel to stay with us at Christmas or new year.

I have made (and am continuing to make) a significant contribution to the society in which I live. Those with whom I have worked have always respected my contribution and have had no difficulty with the fact that have I am an openly gay man. Likewise, those with whom I am involved in amateur sport at ACT and national levels respect me for my contribution and my honesty, not because I am or I am not gay.

I am proud to be an Australian, and thankful that over the past 30-40 years our country has gradually become a fairly tolerant and welcoming place for most people.

But every step of the way over the past thirty-forty years attempts to remove the punitive and discriminatory laws that made me and my partner second-class citizens have been met by ideological bigots claiming that to remove such discrimination would somehow damage the rights of those who suffered no such ill-treatment. What poppycock.

I’m truly sick of the whingeing and whining that comes from the religious conservatives every time someone obstructs a little of their pathological crusade against gay men.

The proposed ACT legislation does not equate civil unions with marriage. To complain, as the Attorney-General has done, that it implies ‘equality’ shows just how much influence religious bigots have over a supposedly secular federal government.

Living in Canberra I am also sick of the disadvantage every ACT resident endures. Namely, having substantially less representation in federal parliament than Tasmania which has hardly more population than we do, and having our legislation and planning decisions threatened or overturned by federal government bully-boys.

Whether on this issue or any other, it is intolerable that Australian citizens in the two territories do not have true self-determination in the manner that people in the states do. Those of you who come from states might care to think how you would feel if the federal government could over-ride your state’s laws.

As I said, this letter relates to the ACT legislation, but he continues:

My partner and I still have our military service medals. Sometimes I wonder if we should send them back, since our contribution to the military service of this country is apparently not considered sufficiently worthy to accord us the entitlements that most people take for granted.

He continues on the ACT legislation in particular and goes on:

It’s high time the federal parliament stopped avoiding the issue of its discriminatory laws. We are all citizens and there should not be one law for my brother and a different law for me.

He says:

I am happy to take unpaid leave from my job to come and see any MPs or Senators at Parliament House, so that they can meet in person one of the many people who has had to fight tooth-and-nail all his life to get some measure of fairness from governments. Someone who for most of his life was arbitrarily classified as a criminal, denied the protection of the law, and refused the entitlements that my siblings are given automatically.

He concludes the letter by saying:

I sincerely wish you and your family the same peace and security that I seek to have accorded to myself and my partner.

I wanted to read that letter out because that is just one of many individuals who have a right to their entitlements—entitlements that other people in heterosexual relationships have. These are people who are public servants in this country would have that discrimination removed if this piece of legislation is able to pass in our parliament. I recall when this legislation was first proposed that the opposition said that they would be supporting it. Yet now we are in a situation where they are proposing to refer it to a committee with no reporting date. I want to know what opposition members are going to say to people such as this gentleman about whether or not they deserve their entitlements.

The issue to do with interdependent relationships is an issue that has been talked about many times in this chamber. Some change has been made and there is more change that needs to be made. But simply because one group of people—people in interdependent relationships—are being denied entitlements does not mean that we should deny other groups of people their entitlements as well. People in same-sex relationships have had their entitlements denied to them forever. That discrimination has not been removed.

There has been discussion and public debate about the removal of this discrimination for decades. Discussion about removing this discrimination has probably been going on for the whole of my life and longer. So for the opposition to say, ‘We need a bit more time to think about this,’ is just extraordinary. I am 34 years old and I reckon for the whole of my life there has been discussion on this issue about removing these entitlements. I do not really think that sending it off to a committee is going to change the nature of that discussion or indeed parties’ views in relation to that discussion. In fact, we heard the Leader of the Opposition say that the opposition would be supporting these reforms. So why does the legislation need to be sent off to a committee which has absolutely no reporting date? The opposition are saying that they want this matter dealt with and that the committee should not conclude until all issues relating to same-sex entitlements have been dealt with.

One of the issues that I have talked about a lot in this chamber in relation to same-sex entitlements is that of recognising same-sex marriage. I like to be optimistic, generally, about the removal of discrimination, but I am not holding my breath waiting for both of the two major parties in this country to accept that same-sex couples have the right to be recognised under the law that people in other relationships do. Are the opposition really saying that they want all reforms that relate to same-sex couples sent off to a committee until everything that relates to same-sex couples has been dealt with? Does that mean this has to wait until both the major parties decide that they want to support same-sex marriage—as I believe they inevitably will, as we see more and more countries doing that around the world.

This reference is quite extraordinary, saying, ‘We want this matter dealt with in a committee until all these matters have been resolved.’ There are many matters that relate to same-sex discrimination. HREOC identified many and the government have identified more; there are others that were dealt with by HREOC and there are others, such as the issue of marriage, which the government are not proposing at this point in time to make a change to as well. So it is just extraordinary to be proposing that the legislation be sent to a committee, where it will stay until all these matters are dealt with. It is just not acceptable to treat same-sex couples, or indeed the parliament, in this way.

The government—for all their many failings that I might point out on another occasions, and indeed have—indicated prior to the election that this was an issue on which they were going to move, that they were going to remove the discrimination that was identified by HREOC. We heard the Leader of the Opposition say, when the government introduced the legislation, that the opposition would be supporting it. Why can’t these people—like the gentleman who wrote the letter I just read out—have their entitlements? Why should their entitlements be sent off to the never-never land where maybe, down the track—if finally both the major parties get with the program and recognise same-sex marriage—they can deal with it? It is just not an acceptable way to operate.

Senator Bartlett moved yesterday to put in a reporting date that relates to the same-sex superannuation legislation. That reporting date is Tuesday next week, which would allow this legislation to be dealt with. I join him in supporting this particular proposal, and the Australian Greens will be dividing and voting to ensure that the same-sex superannuation legislation has a short committee, reporting on Tuesday of next week, so the legislation can be dealt with and so that it can be in place by 1 July, which is the government’s intention in relation to this legislation. If it is not supported, we will not support this indefinite reference for all same-sex matters.

The need to remove this discrimination is an issue that many of us in the parliament have given many speeches on, and very little action at all has occurred. That was because of the failure of the Howard government, the now opposition, to move in this arena. The one instance that Senator Bartlett pointed to last night in relation to same-sex superannuation, which did include interdependence, is probably the only example we can point to where we saw some action from the Howard government on this issue. Finally, after all this time, we now have an opportunity to remove some of that discrimination, and the opposition are proposing to send it off into the never-never. Well, that is not acceptable. The Greens will never support that, because the Greens do not support discrimination.

For us, this is a matter of principle. We do not think people should be discriminated against on the basis of their sexuality. We do not think that certain public servants and certain members of the military should not be able to access the entitlements that their colleagues can simply because of their sexuality. That principle, for the Australian Greens, applies right across the board. That is why it includes marriage. We take the principal position of not supporting discrimination. It is one of the really fundamental elements on which civilised Western democracies all around the world are based—not supporting discrimination. We in Australia are a long way off being able to hold our heads high on this matter, because we still have so many areas of federal law where people are discriminated against on the basis of their sexuality.

Here is an opportunity being presented to us. We finally have a government that in one small arena is saying, ‘Let’s just remove this little bit of discrimination,’ and the Greens say: ‘Yes; thank goodness! About time!’ It is not like it is not something that we have been debating for, as I say, my entire life. It is not something that needs to be sent off to a committee so that the details can be pored over. I understand Senator Bartlett outlined in the chamber yesterday all of the inquiries into these matters in the past. It is a matter that needs to be dealt with. That is why a short inquiry that enables us to look specifically at this bill and to pass the legislation before the end of this financial year, so that it can come into effect by 1 July, is appropriate. The Greens are joining Senator Bartlett in moving an amendment to bring in a reporting date so that on Tuesday next week we have a report about superannuation for same-sex couples.

There are issues that relate to that legislation that we would like to deal with. One issue that I would like to see dealt with in a short Senate committee is that this legislation does not require the discrimination to be removed in private superannuation firms; it deals specifically with Commonwealth public servants. It deals with judges, veterans and Commonwealth public servants but it does not deal with other same-sex couples throughout our community who have their superannuation in private superannuation firms. It allows private superannuation firms to, if they choose to, remove the discrimination but it does not actually require them to.

Certainly the impression that the gay and lesbian community has been left with as a result of the advocacy by the former opposition, now government, the Labor Party, is that they were intending to remove the discrimination that same-sex couples face in the community in their entitlements—in things like superannuation. So it is disappointing for the Australian Greens to see that this government legislation does not in fact require private superannuation firms to stop discriminating against same-sex couples. It allows them to, if they choose to, remove that discrimination but it does not require them to do so. So, even if this legislation were to pass, we would still see same-sex couples who had their superannuation in private superannuation firms facing discrimination.

So there are genuine matters to do with this legislation that the Greens would like to see an inquiry into. I would like to understand how many same-sex couples with superannuation in private superannuation firms would continue to be discriminated against in relation to their entitlements were this legislation to pass. There are matters that we think are important to be discussed in a committee context. They are matters that we think can be dealt with within the timetable that the government has outlined. That is why we do support sending this to an inquiry—so that we can look at some of those matters and can also raise, as we have many times before, the issue in relation to interdependent couples. But we do not support sending this legislation off into the never-never, which is what is being proposed by the opposition.

We will be joining Senator Bartlett in moving the amendment to say: let’s have a report back next Tuesday; let’s have a short period of time for an inquiry to look at some of these matters. Yes, they are really important matters. I would like to see more discussion on the issue of why people in same-sex relationships cannot have discrimination removed by private superannuation firms but I am prepared to have a shorter inquiry so that we can see this change come into place. That is what we are going to be supporting. But we will never support a proposal which is about continuing discrimination, and that is what the opposition is proposing. We need to remove discrimination not just in relation to Commonwealth public servants and their superannuation but in all areas of federal law where same-sex couples are discriminated against. Get with the program, guys! Countries all around the world have been removing this discrimination. Countries around the world are recognising that, particularly in relation to areas like marriage, we need to remove discrimination. As I said before, I am an optimist; I think we will remove that discrimination in Australia. But I am not going to wait to remove all of the other areas of discrimination until both the major parties get on board with removing discrimination in relation to marriage, and that to me is what the opposition is proposing to do. It is just extraordinary. We cannot support it.

The Greens, as I said before, do not support discrimination. We want that removed. This bill is an opportunity for us to remove just one small arena where discrimination exists—in relation to superannuation and death benefits for Commonwealth public servants. We are going to seize this opportunity with both hands. We want to support this. We do not want to be told by the opposition that, perhaps because of the internal homophobia that they are dealing with within their party, they want to send it off to the never-never. That is no good. We have had 12 years of your homophobia holding back this removal of discrimination. Now is the time we need to remove that discrimination. The Greens want to be a part of that. The Greens will be a part of that. We will be supporting the removal of discrimination in all areas of federal law, including in marriage, and we do not want the opposition trying in a last-ditch effort to send off this discrimination, to say discrimination and homophobia can continue to be a priority for the opposition. That is not acceptable. The public have voted against that, and we need to see this discrimination removed. (Time expired)

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