Same Sex: Speech
National Inquiry into Discrimination against People in Same-Sex Relationships: Financial and Work-Related Entitlements and Benefits
Jim Woulfe, Opening Statement
A "normal" couple
Thank you Commissioners for conducting this inquiry, and for giving me the opportunity to speak to you.
At the outset I'd like to say that quite frankly, it confounds me that we need to be going through this process in Australia, in 2006. We live in an essentially tolerant and inclusive society, so you've got to wonder why people like my partner Andreas and me are still waiting for equality.
In all but one respect, Andreas and I are an ordinary everyday middle-aged couple, living lives just like all the people around us. Thirteen years ago, in a 60-page application for Andreas' permanent residence visa we actually proved this to the Australian Government. I won't go over the details again, except to say that since then our lives have become even more closely intertwined.
We're productive members of our society. We're both employed, so we contribute to society with our taxes, and with our work we contribute to the organisations that employ us. We serve the community in other ways as well. Andreas has been a participant in the UNSW Health in Men Study since its inception. I'm a Justice of the Peace, and a first aid officer.
We participate as a couple in the lives of our extended families - indeed my nieces and nephews all think of Andreas and address him as an uncle.
We've been together now for nineteen years, so like every couple we've had the opportunity to share some incredibly joyful times, and to support each other through painful ones. We fully intend to spend the rest of our lives together, and our commitment to each other is deep, genuine and ongoing.
Just like our straight friends we contribute to the life of our society, our families and each other. Just like our straight friends, our relationship, and our expressing it by living together, is utterly lawful.
we face discrimination
Yet, in spite of this we face arbitrary discrimination in a number of areas, almost all of them because our Federal Government refuses to recognise our relationship.
My written submission lists some of our concerns: the unequal application of the Medicare Safety Net, and the fact that the definition of spouse in the Income Tax Assessment Act excludes us from provisions like superannuation splitting. Our inputs to the system are the same as comparable opposite-sex couples, yet we get less out of it. Every single one of these instances of discrimination is a nasty reminder that we are not equal.
It's not like the government gives us a choice in these matters. We can't opt out of the Medicare Levy or superannuation. Given the compulsion in the tax, Medicare and superannuation systems, it's reasonable to expect that having contributed at the same rate as everyone else, we'll get the same benefits - but we don't. Very simply we believe that forcing us to contribute to a system which discriminates against us is just plain wrong.
Just one more example from the aged care system that to us, underscores the meanness in this discrimination: where a member of an opposite-sex couple is incapacitated and requires nursing home care, the means test for an accommodation bond excludes the family home. However if one member of a same-sex couple requires residential nursing care, then that person's share of the family home is treated as a asset. What this means for us is that if either of us were ever incapacitated, we would face the possibility of being forced to sell our home out from under the other one.
Fortunately, it looks like there will be plenty of time to fix this problem before it affects us, if ever. But of course it's happening to other couples now.
normal except in one respect - harassment
Two men living together as a couple is a completely lawful situation in this country, so when I said that we are an everyday middle-aged couple in all but one respect, I wasn't referring to the fact that we're both men. For us the critical difference is that opposite-sex couples don't find themselves under attack because of who they live with.
I've lived in five countries, in varying degrees of openness with regard to my sexuality, but the only place I've been the target of homophobic behaviour is in Australia. For most of the last five years we have been the target of homophobic harassment by a former neighbour. Discussion, mediation, an AVO, and even his moving out of the neighbourhood haven't stopped the attacks. The police have been very supportive, but they are powerless to act until our tormentor slips up in front of a witness.
I'm not so nae ve as to confuse coincidence with cause, but it was notable that our former neighbour's worst behaviours were occurring while our Federal Parliament was discussing and enacting the amendments to the Marriage Act in 2004.
Andreas and I strongly believe that by retaining the inequalities, and refusing to recognise same-sex relationships, our Federal Government maintains an environment in which hate and homophobia can thrive. It validates the views of the very few in our society who would attack us because of our sexuality. The government treats gays and lesbians differently, they say, so why shouldn't we?
There are wider effects as well: for example some young gay people attempt to escape into marriages with opposite-sex partners (I did): some young gay people leave their homes and communities for the anonymity of large or foreign cities (I did): or worst of all, some young gay people are defeated entirely, and resort to suicide. All these are painful and unnecessary effects for individuals, families and communities.
We believe there is no essential difference between a same-sex couple and an opposite-sex one. Indeed decades ago when homosexuality was de-criminalised the perception of difference was made redundant. The Australia Institute's study last year on Homophobia in Australia showed that homosexuality is not an issue in most people's minds either. In our view, the only thing that's different about our relationship is the fact that we are attacked and discriminated against because of it.
A great power to end the discrimination and neutralise the homophobes resides with our Federal Government. Granting equality for same-sex relationships would rob the people who attack us of their phoney justification - it's the single biggest step our government could take against homophobic harassment and violence.
In closing, I'd just like to say that two things struck me when reading through the personal submissions to this Inquiry. The first was that the relationships documented here are incredibly resilient, given the obstacles they have overcome. The second was the sheer number of these obstacles which can be sheeted home to our Federal Government's refusal to recognise same-sex relationships.
In our view, there's absolutely no justification for this. We abide by the laws of this country, and we pull our weight in society, yet effectively we're being punished for our sexual orientation which as we all know, is entirely lawful.
So what do we think the government should do? Well, in June, the Prime Minister said that he is in favour of removing discrimination against homosexuals. A good start would be to extend the definition of spouse in federal legislation to include same-sex couples, in the same way as in now covers de facto couples. However, real equality won't come until we can also choose to formalise our relationships, the same as opposite-sex couples. Until then, we're just not equal.