It is really pleasing to be part of a discussion in this place where we have so much mention of the word 'commitment'. I think it is very valuable at this time. It is a bit of a shame, really, that issues that do encourage us to look at what we can do to improve our laws are sometimes debated in this period of business late on a Thursday afternoon. A few of us are interested, but nonetheless we can reinforce the views .
The bill before us, moved by Senator Bartlett this afternoon, has a strong title which refers to sexuality and gender identity. When Senator Greig moved this bill and spoke on it, I remember hearing with interest that one of the first things he said in his contribution was that this bill was an attempt at moving forward a piece of legislation that had been moved-unfortunately at a time when I was not listening-by a previous Democrat senator, Senator Spindler, in 1995. What is most frustrating is that so many of the issues that came into the discussion in this place in 1995 and then again in early 2000 through Senator Greig need to be reconsidered now in 2006. I think there is a bit of a message here for all of us.
I have enjoyed hearing the discussions this afternoon by people around the chamber on the attempts that have been made across a whole range of legislation and also the commitment that is shared by all of us, I hope, to ensure that we do not support any legislation or a society that allows discrimination against anyone. The Sexuality and Gender Identity Discrimination Bill 2003 , in particular, addresses those people who are identified as gay, lesbian, bi-gender, transgender or intersex. One of the more frustrating elements is that whenever we get into these discussions there seems to be great confusion and almost diffidence amongst people when they try to look at what the definition is. In terms of that process, it would probably be better for all of us if we looked at people first and, subsequently in the discussion, looked at the particular reasons that the legislation is applying to them. In terms of this afternoon's discussion, I want to put on the record my disappointment that now, in 2006, we still need to go through so many pieces of legislation, for which we are responsible at the federal level, that have not effectively provided safety, security and service for people who are from what has become known as the GLBTI community. We can all work together to implement the commitment that seems to be dripping from the various rhetorical statements that we have heard. There has not been in this place, in recent times anyway, any statement that any of these forms of discrimination should be allowed to continue. I think we have moved well past that stage, and that is something positive on which we can build.
We can go through the various realms of federal legislation-and we have heard several senators mention them already this afternoon. There are our social security services and then there are the superannuation debates that have been going on for so many years. Senator Sherry has been taking up the Labor cause in those debates for many years. There are also the areas around defence services, the specialised tax areas and issues of land and issues of title. Those are basic areas which all of us seek to work with, but they still contain elements whereby people who identify with the GLBTI community feel that they are not getting a fair go; they are not receiving the respect that all of us should be able to understand.
It is not good enough that we come here and reinforce our commitment to make it better. What we should be able to do, as Senator Fierravanti-Wells has been able to do in some ways, is point out what has changed. But in 2006 we should not be saying that we are moving towards establishing a result in this area. We should be able to say that we have achieved the result. It has been happening across all our states, although not as quickly as it should be. Discussions similar to those we are having here this afternoon have been taking place in every state and territory in Australia.
At this point in time, the legal system in each of those jurisdictions has moved closer to achieving equity than we have. That is not just my opinion. It has been put through the media; it has been addressed by law councils and, I think to our shame, to an extent by the United Nations. The definition of equity has not been met by our federal legislation, and no-one denies that. That is almost more disappointing: no-one denies that we have not achieved equity. What we discuss is that we are moving towards it. The Prime Minister has stated his commitment to making sure that it will happen. The Attorney-General has also done so. People from the Labor Party have said that they are moving towards it. Our shadow Attorney-General, Nicola Roxon, has moved a bill in her own name in the lower house that aims to remove discrimination. But how long does it take? Will we be sitting here at this time in general business on a Thursday afternoon in 2007 having another go at ticking off the audit of what has been achieved and what has not-once again reinforcing our general and combined and strongly stated commitment?
If we are going to provide the service to constituents across our community for which we have been elected, instead of saying that we are moving towards achieving a result we should be able to say, within a reasonable period of time-and I hesitate to put a date on it; it would be far beyond my ability to do so-that we can point to the fact that, under the social security legislation, all areas of interdependent relationships are acknowledged and that the rules have changed so that people are treated the same way. We should be able to say that the promises that have been made in this place as a result of previous debates on superannuation-where year in, year out the Australian Democrats, supported at times by the Labor Party, have moved clauses in the midst of the other legislation-will ensure that there is equitable treatment of people in interdependent relationships. In the last round of debates on superannuation, the commitment was made that the changes would occur. We have been told again that the changes will occur, that the commitment exists, but the changes have not been made.
We need to be certain that we will not always be talking about what is going to happen. We need to face our responsibilities under the raft of international law, state law and federal law to ensure that equity will be in place and that we will no longer be talking about other people's responsibilities or how one piece of legislation works this way and then how we can always go to the antidiscrimination commission and implement another piece of legislation in another way. We need to ensure that there will be such a strong underpinning of safety and security in our federal system that there will be no need for fragmentation.
When we have achieved that level of certainty, we will have done our job. We will then be able to say that people from the GLBTI community are being given the rights, the responsibilities and the respect that they each should have as a member of the community and that, under law, they will be seen as the same as other people in terms of the way we impose legislation. Their rights as individuals will be respected and protected across all other forms of law. I remember when I was working in the Australian Public Service in the 1980s. There were great debates at that time around the superannuation laws and there were particular debates about the human rights treatment of people who were then identifying as gay partners. It was pretty tough in the Australian Public Service in the eighties to identify as being part of a same-sex relationship for the various kinds of conditions of service that applied to partners. At that time, the final decision and delegation as to whether your partner would be able to obtain basic rights, such as travelling when you were moving to a new place of employment or acceptance to attend conferences as a right as a partner, was made at various levels in the Australian Public Service. We would actually try to find ways around the regulations to ensure that delegates would be able to say, 'Yes, you and your partner will be treated as a partnership for these entitlements.' We yearned for the day when we would not have to play those games around the rules and legislation, so that people would be able to identify in their own right and say, 'This is me, this my partner, and this is how we interrelate.' That has improved, but I am not confident that that is the standard right for people across our community in all forms of interaction with their employers and with the various organisations to which they wish to belong.
That is the basis of the legislation which is in front of us this afternoon. It is very detailed legislation, and I believe that was done quite deliberately-in 1995 and, again, two or three years ago when Senator Greig brought it forward. It remains current. If you go through the sections of the bill in front of us, each of those sections needs to be addressed. It is disappointing that, in 2006, I cannot feel confident as a member in this place that the people who put me here would know that this is their right. I do not feel confident that the same people with whom I worked in 1985-some of whom are still surviving in the Australian Public Service, bless them-would have the same rights as we were trying to achieve for them in the early eighties. It should not be a debating point. It should not need to be discussed-but it needs to be, because it needs to be entrenched in law.
1 It is one of those arguments: should it be in law before it is accepted in our general environment, or is it the other way around? Because in many ways, what we are debating is not just what is going into the legislation; it is the confidence that we have as a community that this is the right thing to do-and that is one of the challenges for those of us who have the privilege of being in this place and having that ability to make an impact through change and to be leaders. If our parliaments can state proudly that we believe that the GLBTI community must have the same protections, rights and responsibilities as every other form of community that we have, that is actually what permeates social conscience. That is how communities think and behave. There is no question. The particularly frightening element of this legislation, which has to look at violence and discrimination against people and their being treated in bad and evil ways-and I use those adjectives directly-is that we should not need to do that, but we do. What we can do as a community and as a parliament is ensure that we say that should not happen and that we will legislate to ensure that it does not happen. More importantly, we should say publicly that it cannot happen.
12 October, 2006