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Victorian Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby: Graeme Innes AM (2007)

Rights Rights and Freedoms

Victorian Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby
Speech at AGM

Graeme Innes AM, Human Rights Commissioner

18 October
2007


I begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on
which we meet. Thank you for the opportunity to speak with you
tonight.

It's almost 18 months since we launched the Same-Sex: Same
Entitlements National Inquiry. In that time, we have travelled around Australia
to hear, first hand, about the impact of discriminatory laws on same-sex
couples, and their children. We received 680 written submissions from across
Australia and met with more than 500 people. The Inquiry put federal laws under
the human rights microscope.

What we found I still regard as really quite
astounding -- there are 58 federal laws which discriminate against same-sex
couples in the area of financial and work-related entitlements. Now, call me
naive, but even after 18 months of thinking, and talking, about this topic, I'm
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 one example. One
of the minimum conditions of employment protected under the federal WorkChoices
scheme is personal or carer's leave. This protects a worker's right to take
leave to care for, or grieve for, 'immediate family' or a member of his or her
household. However, these leave entitlements are not protected for couples in
same-sex relationships in the same way as they are for couples in opposite-sex
relationships. Because a same-sex partner does not fit the definition of
'immediate family' under the legislation, and only fits the definition of
'employee's household' in a limited way under the legislation, same-sex couples
have no guarantees that they will be able take time off to care for sick
partners. Although workers in same-sex families may be protected under
individual awards and agreements, or under state industrial laws, many have no
such protection.

As one couple told us: One of us had to have surgery in
2004, and the other needed to take some time off work to provide post-operative
care. This leave could not be taken as family carer leave, as would be the case
for an opposite sex partner.

And this unequal protection in the workplace
extends to parental leave and a whole range of other entitlements as
well.

In our report, launched in June this year, 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 25000 plus 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's
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've pretty much done the work. The
first appendix to the report sets out every federal law that needs amending,
which definitions need to be amended, and how to amend them.

So what's
happened since June when we launched our report? Well, the 58 discriminatory
laws haven't been changed- but all political parties have indicated support for
the removal of discrimination against same sex couples in one form or another.
A Bill was introduced in the Senate by the Democrats which pretty much reflected
the recommendations in our report. It was not listed for debate. Further, the
Democrats unsuccessfully attempted to have the Bill referred to a Senate
Committee. They then set up their own inquiry- and were joined by politicians
from the major parties. Their report recommended passage of the same
Bill.

The Greens have been supportive of reform in the areas which the
inquiry covered. They have effectively echoed the Democrats
position.

The Labor party has indicated that - if elected - it will move
to address the discrimination in the 58 laws which we listed in our report. It
has also said that it will support State relationship register
regimes.

The Coalition has consistently stated that it is opposed to
discrimination against people on the basis of their sexual orientation, and that
it will address reforms on a case by case basis.

Getup's Galaxy poll,
released several days before the launch of our report, demonstrated overall
support throughout Australia for reform. Their poll, plus the internet petition
they have been running on the issue which has received more than 27000
signatures, have demonstrated support for reform in the community. Overall,
politicians across all parties also support reform. I am confident that reform
will occur during the term of the next Parliament, whoever is elected.

A
key factor in the size and speed of that reform will be the extent to which the
issue remains the focus of attention. To some extent this is in the hands of
organisations such as yours. I'm not going to tell you your business- you are a
lobby after all - but continuing the level of media coverage which the issue has
received both during the election, and when the new Government is formed, will
be vital.

Before I finish this evening, I want to talk briefly about a
paper which will go on to our website this week. It details stories of
discrimination experienced by gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and intersex
Australians. HREOC was told these stories during our Inquiry. Those
experiences include stories of discrimination in accessing health care services
- including not being able to give consent for partners or children. We also
heard about the concerns of ageing GLBTI people, and the lack of appropriate
aged care services. Harassment and discrimination in the workplace continues to
be a problem for GLBTI employees and workers. We were also told about some of
the difficulties that the transgender and intersex community face in having
their gender or sex formally recognised.

HREOC hopes that by sharing
these stories, we can start meaningful conversations about how to address GLBTI
discrimination, and promote equality. HREOC will be talking with organisations
and individuals in the GLBTI community about these issues over the next few
months, in order to decide whether and how we do some work.

Over the past
18 months, I've been incredibly moved by those people in the gay and lesbian
community who've made it very clear that there's 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. As 71 per cent of Australians agreed in Get Ups Galaxy poll
in June, to treat people differently simply because of who they love, is just
not fair.

Thanks for the chance to speak with you tonight.

See Also