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Launch of Final Report of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission’s Same-Sex: Same Entitlements Inquiry: Graeme Innes AM (2007)

Rights and Freedoms

Launch of Final Report of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission’s Same-Sex: Same Entitlements Inquiry

Graeme Innes AM, Human Rights Commissioner

22 June 2007

I begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, the Gadigal people of the Eora nation, and pay my respects to their elders past and present.

John has explained how we conducted this inquiry. What we found is really quite astounding - there are 58 federal laws which discriminate against same-sex couples in the area of financial and work-related entitlements.

Call me naïve, but even after a year of thinking and talking about this topic, I am still incredulous that there could be such blatant and widespread discrimination against an entire sector of our community in such fundamental areas of life. We really didn't have to look very hard to find almost 60 federal laws which clearly and explicitly discriminate against same-sex couples in employment, workers' compensation, tax, social security, veterans' entitlements, health care, superannuation, aged care and migration. The discrimination is there on the statute books in black and white.

Let me give you just one example. The federal Comcare legislation provides that if a worker covered by the scheme dies on the job, his or her 'spouse' can get workers compensation death benefits. The Comcare legislation states that a person can only be a 'spouse' if they are of the opposite sex. And that's the end of the story. With two small words - 'opposite sex' - same-sex couples around the country are denied access to Comcare death benefits.

In our report we've tried to identify every different federal benefit which is available to opposite-sex couples, but denied to same-sex couples. The list is very, very long, and affects people at every stage of life.

But the discrimination doesn't stop at same-sex couples. Of the estimated 20,000 same-sex couples in Australia, approximately 20% of lesbian couples, and 5% of gay male couples, are raising children. Federal laws, and some state and territory laws, fail to recognise both same-sex parents as genuine parents. The consequence is that same-sex families are frequently denied access to entitlements which are intended to help parents financially support their children.

And when you deny financial benefits to same-sex parents, you inevitably sacrifice the best interests of the children being raised by that couple.

As one person said to us:

If benefits to couples are designed to promote the interests of children, then how can one possibly justify withholding those benefits from some children for no other reason than that their parents are both of the same gender?

The only good thing about the blatant nature of the discrimination is that it is easily fixed.

The discrimination against same-sex couples is directly attributable to the way the laws define who qualifies as a person's partner. The solution is to amend those definitions so that a same-sex partner is included. Once that occurs, everything else will fall into place.

The discrimination against the children of same-sex couples is slightly more complicated because it involves amendment of both the federal Family Law Act and some state and territory laws. But even those changes are not overly challenging for legislators.

And we have pretty much done the work. Our first appendix to the report sets out every federal law that needs amending, which definitions need to be amended, and how to amend them.

I want to thank Vanessa Lesnie and the Human Rights Unit, Public Affairs Unit, and Legal Unit at HREOC, all of whom have put in an enormous effort to get this report to you today. But most importantly, I want to thank the many, many individuals and organisations who took the time to share their stories and expertise with the Inquiry team.

Over the past year I have been incredibly moved by those people in the gay and lesbian community who have made it very clear that there is only one thing that they want: to be treated equally; no more and no less than any other Australian. Just equal.

The legislation listed in our report fails the litmus test which all Australians apply in the schoolyard, the workplace and the sports field- the fair go test. Our report lists the laws, sets out the impact of the discrimination, and explains how it can be fixed. As 71 per cent of Australians agreed in Get Up’s Galaxy poll this week, to treat people differently simply because of who they love is just not fair.