Social Development Committee: Statutes Amendment (Relationships) Bill

06 Jul 2005 archivespeech

This speech is on the matter of the Social Development inquiry report into the government's relationships bill.

The Hon. J.M.A. LENSINK: I rise to address the council on the matter of the Social Development inquiry report into the government's relationships bill, and I would like to say at the outset that I was very pleased to be on that committee. As I stated in my address on the second reading of the actual bill yesterday, there has been some confusion and misinformation in relation to the effects of the bill, and I think I have come to a much better understanding of what it all means, having examined it in some detail, and that has been very useful.

I would like to thank the staff who have been involved in producing the report, and thank them for their forbearance in what has been quite a difficult time for us to get through and with some difficulties, which I will outline in my speech. But I would like to place on the record that we appreciate the work that they do and their professionalism in what can sometimes be difficult circumstances, because members might disagree on process, and disagree quite vehemently. I would also like to thank all of the people who came in as witnesses. Some people provided very personal stories of their own situations. The parliamentary process can possibly be quite intimidating, and the committee process as well, for people who are not familiar with it, and what they had to say I think added great depth to our understanding of the issues contained within the bill and the difficulties that they might be experiencing.

The report is a technical majority report, that is, it needed the casting vote of the chair in order to be passed. The two Liberal members, Joe Scalzi (member for Hartley) and myself disagreed with most of the content and, indeed, the recom¬mendations of the majority report, and the Hon. Terry Cameron, who I think has put this on the record himself, disagreed with the entirety of the report.

From my point of view, as someone who, in many ways, is still a novice to this system, I had great difficulty with a number of the processes, in that there were times when we had some five sets of witnesses on the agenda, which made for very long hearings and to which I had to object and state that I thought it was unreasonable. I understand that for political reasons this government might want to get this bill through in a great hurry, but it is a complex piece of legislation. At the moment, the fact that four members of this chamber are speaking to parliamentary counsel trying to work out amendments and muddling through indicates that a great deal of complexity is involved. I also reject any statements or suppositions which people might have that we have done this for political reasons. I think that all legislation ought to be properly examined by both houses; and the Legislative Council, because the government does not have a majority (and nor did the previous government), is able to look at things more broadly and, in that sense, be more representative of the broader views.

We on this side of the chamber are allowing each of our members a conscience vote, which means that each member will make up their own mind rather than have their decision made for them by caucus and the faceless men who run it. Joe Scalzi (the member for Hartley) and I produced a minority report, and I will run through a few of the details in that report. We stated that we agree that there are people who are either members of a same sex couple or in a domestic co-dependant relationship and who are unable to access the benefits and conversely the duties applying to married and de facto couples, and this can cause unjustifiable hardship and expense in managing their personal affairs. We agree that this needs to be addressed, and we believe that there is broad community support. We also agree that a form of safety net or a presumptive model which recognises the status of such relationships would address these problems.

As I stated yesterday, the Attorney-General introduced the bill into the assembly and then it came to the Legislative Council. In his speech to the House of Assembly, he delivered some of his comments in what has been described as mock sadness. He said:

Speaking for myself, as a Christian, I was saddened that many people felt constrained by their Christian faith to oppose legal equality for homosexual people.

In his speech, he referred to a number of people who had written things that he found offensive. I have also found some of the arguments particularly against recognising people in same sex relationships offensive, but I would not place them on the record because I think that that gives credit to those sorts of views. I believe that each of us who is elected to this place has a leadership role. We should not give credence to those sorts of comments by repeating them and therefore saying, `If they are to the right, then we must be to the left.'

I think we need to be objective about these things and try to constrain ourselves from going down the path of delving into the emotional hubris that sometimes surrounds these debates. As we went through framing the report, it did become evident towards the end that it would be difficult to produce a unanimous report. However, I was pleased that during that process some similar sorts of offensive remarks were also removed, because, equally, I do not think that a parliamentary committee should be giving credence to that sort of nonsense, and I strongly reject those sorts of things being included for that reason.

I now turn to the committee process. Submission were called on 18 and 19 December. It had been proposed that submissions would close on 10 February, which clearly is after what is called the silly season. Half the members of the committee expressed some concern with this process, so it was extended to 18 February, but it was still a shorter consultation period than is ideal. We were also concerned that not enough effort was made to alert the multicultural community, because the publicity was limited to English language mainstream media.

Statistics are often quoted in these sorts of arguments to advance one side of the argument or another. There has been some discussion about this already. I have seen figures thrown around in publications in the community. When you add it up, it was closer to 50-50 than has been advanced, but these things are six of one and half a dozen of the other. It certainly shows that the community is divided. I do not think that necessarily quoting those statistics advances one argument or another.

More organisations were against the bill than for the bill. I think comments have already been made that a number of those organisations would have represented very large numbers of people. One example is the Greek Orthodox Church, which says that it represents some 50 000 to 70 000 people across 10 parishes in South Australia. That is significant, and we should recognise that a number of the people who did present to us are leaders in their communities and represent very large numbers of people. There was some, I think, under-representation of those organisations. In particular, the non-government members were very disap¬pointed with the government's approach to the issue of domestic co-dependents because we felt rushed through the whole process. As I have stated, listening to five sets of witnesses in one afternoon's sitting is certainly more than an average committee would sit through.

I for one did not have the time or the energy to have my entire workday taken over by one committee. We were also very concerned about the potential loophole that would have affected the independ¬ent schools. In evidence, government members gave advice to representatives of the independent schools which was later shown not to be correct. I commend the independent schools on getting their own advice and not taking things at face value.

I note that that clause has been replicated exactly as the independent schools had written it. Chapter 3, I thought, was rather objectionable. It comprised some 38 pages, and it was highly repetitive of arguments in favour of and against the bill. A lot of this sort of stuff in this debate was very circular; and, in my view, it contained a great deal of hubris which did not add to the discussion whatsoever. There is the issue of the terminology that has been used in the bill. A number of witnesses expressed concern about people who are married and people in other relationships all being classed under the one terminology, that is, domestic partners. That was made very clear to the committee throughout the evidence, and I am pleased that some effort has been made in that regard.

I would like to highlight to the council the chapter on financial implications. Chapter 4 of the majority report (which was only some six pages) allegedly went into the financial implications of the bill. I note that appendix 4.2 provides a bit of additional information. However, this was not dealt with in detail. The committee did seek some information from government departments about what the impacts would be. A letter signed by Jim Wright, Under Treasurer, Department of Treasury and Finance, states:

I would note that, if the financial implications of the bill were judged to be small on average per couple (which we understand to be the assessment generally held), it is likely that consequences of extending the bill to cover domestic co-dependents would also be small if the number of domestic co-dependents plus same sex couples is not greatly larger than the number of same-sex couples. When the issue was considered in the context of removing discrimi¬nation as it relates to superannuation, Treasury employed an assumption that the category of domestic co-dependents was 5.4 per cent of the population compared with 2 per cent for same-sex couples.

That is pretty thin evidence on which to base any sort of assumptions; and, I think, some sort of modelling could be undertaken. We have been able to isolate which bills would have any financial impact. We can probably work out what the average would be, get a better idea of what the number of people are, do some scenario analysis and come up with some tougher figures than that. Also, I have some concern that Treasury is putting on the record that it believes that 5.4 per cent of our population are domestic co-dependents, because it all depends on your definition.

We did seek some sort of clarification about how it may have reached this proposal. Apparently, it has included in `domestic co-dependents' sisters, siblings and people in the sorts of relationships that might be included under `other categories'. That is the largest possible figure of anyone who might not be married or living in a single household and so forth. That 5.4 per cent includes the 2 per cent of same-sex couples, as well as a lot of other sorts of relationships. So, for those who are concerned about the possible impact of the cost of domestic co-dependents, I would like to give that reassurance.

Curiously, the major source of information about financial statements was not provided by Treasury but by the Attorney-General himself. We had a range of expressions, such as `very minor rise', `expected to be very small indeed', `very minor cost implication', etc., which are all somewhat Sir Humphrey Appleby in terms of trying to pin anyone down.

The topic of domestic co-dependents was covered in chapter five of the report. The committee heard evidence from people who wished this group to be included in the bill. For those who say that these people do not exist, I have to inform them that we had some attend. Unfortunately, they did not want to give evidence, which I can understand: it would be quite an intimidating process. However, I believe their names are on the record under the committee section in Hansard if anyone wishes to read their comments. Mr Scalzi and I were concerned that the majority report did not apply much intellectual rigour to the recommendations, which would address the concerns of this group of people. So, we find that some crossbenchers and Liberal members are now having to do the work of the government and the work that should have been done at the committee stage.

There are trends, I think, in our community that indicate that this group of people is likely to increase, as we know that the number of people in our community who will never marry or who will divorce is increasing while, at the same time, the birth rate is decreasing. If that means that reliance on traditional family structures will decrease in the future, I think it should be expected that the number of people who rely on such domestic co-dependent arrangements is only likely to increase in the future. Unfortunately, chapter five really is devoted to describing the difficulties associated with defining the population, even though other states, such as New South Wales, Tasmania and the ACT, have been bold enough to tackle this issue. They have all examined the issue and been able to come up with some form of measure.

I have already discussed the conscience vote, and I repeat for the record that, on this side of the council, we do not rely on binding decisions of our party room to determine how we should vote. We are allowed to exercise our own minds and brains. A number of people who gave evidence said that all parties should provide a conscience vote, and I think that is significant. The last time I recall the Labor Party allowing its members to have a conscience vote was on the issue of euthanasia. I am not quite sure how it makes the distinction that this issue does not deserve a conscience vote, although perhaps it allows some members of caucus who do not necessarily support this legislation to be able to hide behind binding decisions.
People have said, in relation to this topic, `Well, a number of instruments already exist, such as legal wills, powers of attorney and so forth.' One of the recommendations of the committee was that there should be greater education in this regard. I could not agree more. I stand here guilty of not having a last will and testament—I suppose because my only dependant is a rather fat cat and I have not really had the need—

The Hon. Caroline Schaefer: That's all right—if you live with her long enough!

The Hon. J.M.A. LENSINK: The Hon. Caroline Schaefer interjects, `If you live with her long enough.' I might be able to declare her my domestic short-haired partner!

The Hon. D.W. Ridgway: It's a short-haired cat?

The Hon. J.M.A. LENSINK: Yes. And she is short: she is vertically challenged. Towards the end of our minority report, Joe Scalzi and I stated that we believe that, in seeking to address only perceived discrimination against same-sex relationships, this bill discriminates against other long-term, caring relationships. We believe that the committee has given high priority to one group based on sexuality, even though it received evidence from other groups. We had some alterna¬tive recommendations, which included that some definition of `putative spouse' remain and that the continuing discrimination resulting in unjustifiable hardship and expense for same-sex couples and domestic co-dependents be addressed. Also, rather than having the lame recommendation that was contained in the report, we stated that the bill should contain the exact wording of the recommendation of the Association of Independent Schools, and I am pleased to see that the government has taken up our recommendation.

The third recommendation relates to increased community education, with which we were entirely in agreement. The fourth recommendation—the majority report, which was again worded in a rather woolly way—asked the government to explore the implications of extending some legal entitle¬ments to a limited category of non-couple dependent domestic relationships, which are weasel words if ever I read them. The next recommendations were that the government undertake some financial modelling of the bill, which should be quite feasible; that the amended bill be reintroduced into the House of Assembly; and that all members be permitted a conscience vote.

I think this was a missed opportunity for the government. Instead of just coming up with a report which, in many people's view, merely endorsed the government's position and which was a bit of a whitewash just to avoid any of its own problems with this bill, the committee should have been much braver and should have addressed the issues that witnesses brought before us. However, I am pleased that Joe Scalzi and I had the opportunity to hear from a number of people and to produce the minority report, which probably reflects the view of a number of other people in the community besides the Labor caucus.