Financial and Work-Related Entitlements and Benefits
Launch 3 April 2006
Launch Speech - Graeme Innes AM, Human Rights Commissioner, Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission.
I would like to acknowledge the Gadigal People, the traditional owners of the land on which we stand and pay my respects to their elders, both past and present.
I want to start with a story about Joanna and Leonard - Jo and Leo for short.
Jo and Leo have lived together for fifteen years. Leo works in the Commonwealth public service and Jo, who has diabetes, has been unable to work for the past five years due to the impact of the disability. Leo has asthma.
Jo and Leo lead a happy life together. And while they only have one income and large combined medical expenses, much of their health care costs are reduced because they qualify for the Medicare safety-net and the pharmaceutical benefits scheme.
Tragically, Leo was recently hit by a car on the way to work and died in the accident.
Jo is completely devastated by Leo's death, but because Leo was a Commonwealth employee, Jo is entitled to the Comcare workers compensation payment payable to dependants. Jo is also entitled to the benefits of Leo's superannuation fund.
So Jo doesn't have to sell the house and can continue to live comfortably, albeit alone.
A relatively happy ending to the story, given the tragic circumstances.
But, like the tragedy of the Montagues and Capulets in Romeo and Juliet, in reality a rose by any other name may not be so sweet.
If Jo and Leo were a same-sex couple instead of a heterosexual couple then the story would have turned out quite differently. They would not have had access to the Medicare and PBS concessions available to family members. And Jo would not have had automatic access to Leo's workers compensation and superannuation payments.
In other words, if Jo and Leo were two men - or two women - Jo would be both emotionally and financially devastated. But if Jo and Leo were a man and a woman, Jo would need to deal with grief, but not destitution.
But why do our laws treat Australian couples so differently? It just shouldn't matter who is what sex.
Well it does matter under our current laws and that is what this Inquiry is about.
This Inquiry is about making sure that all Australian couples have the same financial entitlements whether or not those couples are made up of two women, two men, or a man and a woman.
As you may have guessed, Jo and Leo are fictional characters. But let me tell you another story about a man who is sitting in this very room.
Mr Young had been in a relationship with Mr C, a war veteran, for 38 years. Sadly, Mr C died at the age of 73. A few months after Mr C's death, Mr Young applied for a pension under the Veteran's Entitlement Act as a veteran's 'dependant'.
Mr Young's application for the pension was denied because he was not 'living with a member of the opposite sex' and therefore did not meet the definition of a 'dependent' under the Act.
Mr Young rightly believed that this was discriminatory and took his case to the United Nations Human Rights Committee. The UN found that this discrimination breached Mr Young's human rights under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and recommended that Australia rectify the discrimination. So far the law has not changed and Mr Young continues to be denied the right to apply for a veterans pension, just because his partner was a man.
So, how is this Inquiry going to address this type of discrimination?
First, we want to identify all the laws - Commonwealth, State and Territory - which create the completely unfair situations that Mr Young, Leo, Jo and many of you here have encountered.
We've developed a Discussion Paper - available in hard copy and accessible on our website - that begins the auditing process.
Some of the laws that we've already identified as discriminatory include:
Social Security laws
Certain superannuation laws
Workers compensation laws
Laws specific to war veterans, judges and parliamentarians.
But this is just the start of the list.
We'll be relying on many of you, your colleagues, your friends, State Equal Opportunity Commissions and government departments, amongst others, to help us develop a complete list of Australian legislation that perpetuates discrimination against same sex couples by denying access to the financial entitlements that are available to heterosexual couples.
Second, we want to collect real stories about how these laws impact on the daily lives of same sex couples, as a way to help the general community understand the unfairness of these laws.
Finally, we want to identify the best way to eliminate this discrimination so that we can make concrete recommendations to the Federal Government about what needs to change.
How will we gather all this information?
Well, as of right now we're open for public submissions. And for those of you interested in making a submission, a short guide is available here and on our website. We encourage you to spread the word, so that we get as many points of view as possible.
All submissions received in electronic format will be placed on the Inquiry website, unless we are asked to make the submission confidential.
Once the submission deadline has closed - on Friday 2 June 2006 - we'll commence public consultations around the country. This will give people an opportunity to expand on their written submissions and allow other community members to tell their story and express their views.
We'll also talk to government departments administering the relevant pieces of legislation and to any other organisations or individuals who wish to meet with us separately to provide advice.
Then, with all the information we've collected we'll write a report which will be tabled in the Federal Parliament. We hope to send the report to the Attorney-General by the end of this year so that it can be tabled early in 2007.
We have a busy year ahead of us, and we look forward to working with you to finally eliminate discrimination in this important area.