Senate debates

Thursday, 25 February 2010

Marriage Equality Amendment Bill 2009

Second Reading

Debate resumed from 24 June 2009, on motion by Senator Hanson-Young:

That this bill be now read a second time.

3:34 pm

Photo of Sarah Hanson-YoungSarah Hanson-Young (SA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

The issue I rise to speak to this afternoon is one of great importance to all Australians who value fairness and justice: the right to have their love formally recognised by the state through marriage.

The Marriage Equality Amendment Bill 2009 seeks to amend the Marriage Act by removing any discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Today is a monumental, momentous day. It is a historic day for us to be debating a particular piece of legislation that deals specifically with removing the discrimination that currently exists within the Marriage Act. It comes after an inquiry that received over 27,000 submissions from Australians wanting this issue to be discussed and debated in our federal parliament. It is clear that the community has strong views on this issue and they wanted it debated by their elected representatives. Thousands have taken to the streets in support of this bill, with this year earmarked as the national year of action on same-sex marriage. Only this coming weekend, thousands and thousands of people will line the streets of Sydney for the Sydney mardi gras—people gathering together because they want to celebrate equality.

The momentum for this bill is growing. The momentum for amongst the Australian community for removing this discrimination is growing every year. The polls—the support out there in the community—suggest that over 60 per cent of Australians want to see same-sex marriage legal in Australia. They do not want to see people discriminated against any longer.

The idea that consenting adults should have the right to celebrate their love and commitment as they see fit is such a simple principle, yet in this place it is still controversial. While a majority of Australians agree—let’s remove that discrimination; let’s insist on fairness and justice—we still have objections from both sides of the chamber. The old parties continue, based on party lines, to think that it is still appropriate for them to deny same-sex couples the same recognition as heterosexual couples.

My message to Mr Rudd and to Mr Abbott today is very clear: we have just begun the second decade of the 21st century; it is time for us to progress. Surely, it is time for us to have moved past the days when we discriminated against people based on their gender or their sexual orientation. That kind of discrimination belongs in the past. I must say—it may sound crass but it is true—that if Mr Rudd and Mr Abbott are so wedded to it, they too belong in the past. Let’s recognise the diversity of modern Australia by giving all committed and loving relationships between consenting adults the same rights and protections.

The same arguments that are being trotted out by those who oppose this bill have some historical parallels. I am sure that when our predecessors debated giving Indigenous people the right to be recognised as citizens of their own country or when women were given the right to vote the same eyebrows were raised. There were some people who argued that the sky would fall in. But we changed those laws because we knew it was right. We drew a line in the sand and said: ‘Let’s consign this kind of discrimination to the past.’ That is what this bill is asking us to do today. We know that the nay-sayers back then were wrong, and we know here today that the nay-sayers are wrong. Removing that kind of discrimination makes the fabric of our society stronger, not weaker. Today I am calling on the Senate to move past these outdated petty prejudices and to strengthen our democracy and our society by removing another form of discrimination that has lingered for way too long.

While Victoria, Tasmania, the ACT and, as recently this week, New South Wales have established relationship registration and civil partnership schemes for same-sex couples, these schemes should not be used by the federal government as an excuse to not accept that what we need is true equality for marriage. These schemes continue to fall short of equal legal recognition enjoyed by heterosexual relationships and must not be used as a substitute for marriage. It is important for us to remember that this is not just an issue for same-sex couples but for all of us who believe in justice, fairness and the ultimate of human rights. It is a human rights issue. It is about the legitimacy of the institution of marriage not being undermined by discrimination.

We must also remember that this is not just a religious issue. We know that 65 per cent of marriages in Australia are conducted by civil celebrants, not religious celebrants. We know that 65 per cent of marriages do not occur within the institutions of the church. We know that 65 per cent of marriages in Australia are conducted by people and for people who want their relationship recognised not just by their loved ones, not just by their families and each other but by the state as well. The difference for same-sex couples is that currently under the Marriage Act they simply do not have the choice to marry. We need to be able to remove that discrimination and give them that choice today.

The Prime Minister of the day and the Leader of the Opposition should not have the power to ensure that their members in this place vote based on their own ideological and conservative views. Let us be honest: we know that in this place and in the other place there are people on all sides of the chamber who fundamentally believe that this type of discrimination should be removed. Hopefully, today we will get to a vote on this bill. I would like to see us vote according to our conscience. If we look at the issue and at fairness and justice and want to vote according to what is right, we will want to remove that discrimination.

Throughout the Senate inquiry into this bill, numerous people submitted their personal stories suggesting how changing this bill would positively affect them. We heard mothers and fathers talking about how they longed for their children to have their relationships recognised. We heard from one mother who has two sons; one’s relationship is recognised because he is straight and the other’s relationship is not recognised because he is gay. The Prime Minister has been asked to consider why one of this woman’s sons is a second-class citizen. We need to remove this type of discrimination. We need to embrace equality for all—equal love.

The sky has not fallen in in places like Belgium, Sweden, Canada, South America, South Africa and various states of the United States because they have changed the laws to reflect an acceptance that same-sex couples have the same rights as heterosexual couples. In fact, I would argue that the sun is shining brighter in those places. We should not be in a situation where Australian citizens have to leave our country to have their relationships recognised through marriages in Canada, only to arrive back in Australia, step off the plane at Sydney International Airport and know that all of a sudden their marriage is invalid. It is time for us to move forward. It is time for us to progress. It is time for this parliament to discuss this issue and to think very carefully about what type of discrimination we want to leave future generations of Australians. How can we say, ‘All people are equal but some are more equal than others’? It simply does not make sense. I commend the bill to the Senate, and I look forward to the debate.

3:42 pm

Photo of Nick SherryNick Sherry (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party, Assistant Treasurer) Share this | | Hansard source

The Marriage Equality Amendment Bill 2009 seeks to make amendments to the Marriage Act 1961. The Australian government believes that all couples who have a mutual commitment to a shared life should have the opportunity to have their relationship officially recognised. That is why the government supports the development of a nationally consistent framework that provides the opportunity for all couples who have a mutual commitment to a shared life to have their relationships officially recognised. At the same time, the government is committed to maintaining the definition of ‘marriage’ as currently set out in the Marriage Act. It is for this reason that the government cannot support the Marriage Equality Amendment Bill currently before the Senate.

To date, relationship recognition schemes have been established in Tasmania, Victoria and the Australian Capital Territory. The government welcomes the announcement of the New South Wales government this week that it will develop a relationship recognition scheme. The scheme will enable de facto couples, both opposite sex and same sex, to have their relationships formally recognised and will form part of a nationally consistent framework. Of course, the federal government will work with the New South Wales government to ensure that all de facto relationships registered under the New South Wales scheme are recognised under Commonwealth laws and programs. This co-operation has already occurred in relation to other relationship recognition schemes which are recognised under Commonwealth laws and programs.

The Australian government believes that people are entitled to respect, equality, dignity and the opportunity to participate in society free of hatred and harassment and to receive the protection of the law regardless of their sexuality or gender identity. Consistent with this belief, the Rudd government moved quickly to pass legislation to remove discrimination against same-sex-couples and their children from 84 Commonwealth laws. The reform process was completed within the first 18 months of the government’s term and demonstrates our commitment to remove discrimination and make a practical difference. The reforms removed discrimination in areas of Commonwealth activity including taxation, social security, health, aged care, superannuation, immigration, child support and family law. As I said, 84 Commonwealth laws have been reformed by this government—and all of the reforms are now in force.

These reforms mean that same-sex couples have the same entitlements and obligations that apply to opposite-sex couples. Of course, the precise impact of the reforms will depend on individual circumstances but, in particular, equal treatment means that some same-sex couples will get access to benefits they could not previously access.

In summary, the reforms are as follows. Same-sex couples and their dependent children can now access the Medicare and Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, PBS, safety net as a family. This means same-sex families may have reduced medical costs once they reach the threshold. More information can be found on the Medicare Australia website or by ringing the information line.

The reforms removed discrimination in Commonwealth superannuation schemes as of 1 January 2009. The changes make death benefits available to the same-sex partners of deceased scheme members and their children. The changes also make it easier for regulated superannuation funds to recognise same-sex relationships. People should contact their superannuation scheme trustees for more information.

With respect to tax offsets, from 1 July 2009 same-sex couples have access to tax concessions previously denied to them, resulting in them having to pay less tax. A same-sex couple may be eligible for the dependent spouse tax offset, where previously they would have been denied eligibility. A member of a same-sex couple may also claim the net medical expense tax offset for medical expenses incurred by their partner and any dependent children. Some older individuals will also benefit from the changes. Members of a same-sex couple will now be able to transfer their unused senior Australian tax offset to their partner. The tax office website has information on these changes.

On immigration, from 1 July 2009 same-sex couples and their children have been considered members of a family unit for visa purposes. Same-sex partners of Australian citizens, Australian permanent residents and eligible New Zealand citizens are able to apply for the same partner visa as opposite-sex partners.

From 1 July 2009 same-sex couples have been able to apply for child support on separation.

The government also provided $450,000 for a community education campaign to inform same-sex couples of the implications of the same-sex reform package. This complemented Centrelink’s extensive information campaign. The measures included a website, which provides an overview of the reforms; $100,000 for the National Welfare Rights Network, to help Centrelink clients with independent and confidential legal advice about the same-sex reforms; and $350,000 for the development of a community education and advertising program, to be developed and managed by the National Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Health Alliance in partnership with a number of community based organisations.

In concluding, as I have said, the Australian government believes that all couples who have a mutual commitment to a shared life should have the opportunity to have their relationships officially recognised. That is why the government supports the development of a nationally consistent framework that provides the opportunity for all couples who have a mutual commitment to a shared life to have their relationships officially recognised. This position is consistent with the government’s position to maintain the definition of a marriage as currently set out in the Marriage Act. As I have outlined in my comments today, the Rudd Labor government has moved quickly. It has passed legislation to remove discrimination for same-sex couples and their children from 84 Commonwealth laws. This was a very significant set of changes in taxation, social security, health, aged care, superannuation, immigration, child support and family law. This was a very extensive set of changes to Australian Commonwealth law. So, for the reasons I have outlined, and on this basis, the Marriage Equality Amendment Bill cannot be supported.

3:50 pm

Photo of George BrandisGeorge Brandis (Queensland, Liberal Party, Shadow Attorney-General) Share this | | Hansard source

The coalition does not support this bill, because the coalition believes that the definition of marriage as contained in the existing provisions of the Marriage Act reflects the standards and the mores of contemporary Australia, and we are not persuaded that that definition ought to be changed.

I must say that, although I listened with great care and attention to Senator Hanson-Young’s speech, I fail to see this issue as being an issue about discrimination. What Senator Hanson-Young failed to acknowledge in her contribution is that there are certain customs and practices in any society that are unique to certain types of relationships, and to acknowledge that is not to discriminate against people. In our society the limitation of marriage to people of opposite sex is not to discriminate against people who wish to belong to same-sex relationships; it is merely to acknowledge the undoubted social reality and custom in Australia that marriage is a unique institution which has only ever been regarded as being between a man and a woman. I am astonished that there could be outrage at discrimination against gay couples by not extending to them the definition of a custom—that is, marriage—which has never, ever in any society, in the whole of human history, been regarded as other than a relationship or a status that exists between a man and a woman.

So, quite simply, the coalition does not see this as an issue about discrimination at all. The argument about discrimination was an argument that we had in this chamber in 2008. As Senator Sherry has said, in 2008 the Senate passed laws which removed discrimination against same-sex couples in 84 Commonwealth statutes. The removal of those discriminatory provisions against same-sex couples had the strong support of the coalition. In fact, as a result of the deliberations of the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee, which looked at the two bills concerned at length, we actually improved the bills and extended them further than was the government’s original intention. They were passed in the end without controversy between the government and the opposition.

So the position of the coalition, the Liberal and National parties, on the question of discrimination against same-sex couples is clear and unambiguous: we do not think there should be discrimination in any way, shape or form. We think the relationship between people in same-sex relationships is entitled to as much respect as the relationship between people in heterosexual relationships. But we also acknowledge that marriage has a unique status, that marriage has only ever been understood to mean one thing—a point that my colleague Senator Guy Barnett makes very eloquently in his additional remarks to the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee’s report on this bill, a report which, I should say, recommended that the bill not be passed.

This is a very sensitive area, and it has to be approached bearing in mind not one but two very important values. One of those values is that all people are entitled to equal respect and their relationships are entitled to equal respect regardless of their sexuality. But the other principle is that marriage has only ever been understood to mean one thing, and in the coalition’s view that understanding ought to continue.

Photo of Alan FergusonAlan Ferguson (SA, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Fielding, before you start, I omitted to say earlier in the piece that an agreement had been reached between parties concerned about speaking times and I had asked the Clerks to set the clocks accordingly. I apologise for not mentioning that earlier.

3:55 pm

Photo of Steve FieldingSteve Fielding (Victoria, Family First Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Family First does not support the Marriage Equality Amendment Bill 2009. The current definition of marriage is that it is the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life. Family First believes that this definition is still relevant in today’s society and should be maintained. The current bill seeks to undermine this definition of marriage and undermines the family. Family First believes that families are the foundation stone of society and that flourishing family life creates the best environment for children. Family First believes we need to do more to strengthen families and the relationships in families to reduce the incidence of and negative outcomes of family and relationship breakdown.

3:57 pm

Photo of Ron BoswellRon Boswell (Queensland, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I would like to make a short contribution to the debate on the Marriage Equality Amendment Bill 2009. Today the Greens have put before the Senate a bill that would endorse and make legal same-sex marriages and would give them the same standing as a marriage between a man and a woman. I cannot support that, and neither can many of my constituents. That does not infer that I discriminate against same-sex couples; I certainly do not, but I do not believe you can have a marriage between a same-sex couple as you have between and a man and a woman. I come confidently into the Senate as a happily married man of 40 years standing to recognise marriage as an institution that can never be replaced or mimicked by a same-sex marriage. I had an email from one constituent that I thought covered it better than I could:

We both vehemently oppose such proposals—

meaning same-sex marriage. It continues:

We have taken seriously the commitments we made to “marriage”, which has required each of us to faithfully maintain various disciplines over a long period.

But if the definition of ‘marriage’ is broadened and blurred as proposed, it would make the commitment we have made appear to be of little significance. Consequently we would regard it as an insulting, invasive and unacceptable violation of our rights to now have our commitment massively devalued.

We will of course maintain our commitment. It has been and will continue to be of enormous value to us and now our 21 descendants, all of whom are also benefiting from making the same commitments. It is clear to us from this experience as well as from observing—

(Time expired)

3:59 pm

Photo of Sarah Hanson-YoungSarah Hanson-Young (SA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

in reply—I thank the other speakers for their contributions to the debate today. It is important to point out that the Marriage Equality Amendment Bill 2009 is about offering marriage equality. It is about removing the discrimination that does not currently allow same sex couples to marry under federal law. I say to the minister through you, Mr Deputy President, that this is not about money. Marriage between a man and woman is not simply about money. Marriage between a man and a man or a woman and a woman, which this bill would allow, would not simply be about money. Marriage, of course, is about love. It is about commitment. It is about the symbolism of being able to show your relationship, with its true trust, commitment and support, to your loving family and having that respected under federal law. As a mother put it so perfectly when talking about her two sons:

My straight son has all the privileges that go with being heterosexual, including legalising his relationship and—


the respect that brings.

But she said—

my gay son—

that is, her other son—

does not share these privileges.

                  …              …              …

She said that, as a parent, she was very sad about this. She went on to say:

… to me—


is about building a life together. It provides emotional, financial and social commitment and it is a symbolic expression of love. It is … about people being happier and healthier because—

they are in—

… a stable relationship, which of course is what any parent wants for their child …

This is the discrimination we wish to remove.

Question put:

That the motion (Senator Hanson-Young’s) be agreed to.