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Civil Unions Bill passes

By Kerces - 12 May 2006 11

Not long before midnight last night the Legislative Assembly passed the Civil Unions Bill to allow, among others, same sex couples to have their relationships legally recognised.

All the Labor MLAs present plus Green Deb Foskey voted for the Bill and the Liberals voted against it. Katy Gallagher and Zed Seselja were absent from the vote.

The debate was reportedly highly charged and Andrew Barr in particular was very emotional, and apparently wept during his speech. A representative for queer activist group Good Process said they also thought the speeches made by Jon Stanhope, John Hargreaves, Simon Corbell and Deb Foskey were particularly moving and inspirational. ” It was great to see the Government respond to some of the cringe-worthy speeches from members of the opposition. Bourke & Dunne lived up to their reputations by really scraping the bottom of the barrel for some old chestnuts about homosexual relationships, marriage and children,” she said.

The Liberals had tried to introduce a compromise legislation for a register of same sex couples, much like Tasmania introduced about a year ago. However this was knocked down in favour of the Government’s Civil Unions bill, with amendments to make it more palatable to the Federal Government. These were:

1) Clearly define “a civil union is different to a marriage but is to be treated for all purposed under territory law in the same way as marriage” (Section 5 of Bill).

2) Create a new register of Civil Union Celebrants to officiate these schemes (new Section 2A).

3) Amend to allow 16- and 17-year-olds only to enter into a Civil Union only if they receive Parents permission AND a court order (in exceptional circumstances the 16/17-year-old may be able to do so with only a court order) (Section 10).

4) Clarify recognition of a “union entered into by any two people under the law of a foreign country” rather than recognition of a marriage solemnised in a foreign country (Section 19).

5) Clarification to the consequential amendments to spell out “marriage OR civil union” rather than “marriage includes a civil union” (throughout bill).

Now it the waiting will begin to see what, if anything, the Federal Government does about this new legislation which many Coalition members are morally opposed to.

UPDATE The ABC reports the public gallery was packed for the debate. They also say the new Attorney-General, Simon Corbell, is to write to the Federal Government to explain how the ammendments make the legislation unobjectionable.

UPDATE 2 The ABC further reports that federal Attorney-General Philip Ruddock says he would wait until he had seen the detail of the new Bill before deciding whether to chuck it out the window or not. The Canberra Times also had a wrap up of the bill’s passing, complete with human interest note via a former-Canberran gay couple who say they will come back from Sydney to get a civil union. The legislation has attracted international attention (Google News), particularly from New Zealand.

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11 Responses to
Civil Unions Bill passes
PB 10:55 pm 12 May 06

I was in the assembly for the debate. It was pretty intense on both sides. Andrew Barr spoke well but did get a bit emotional in parts of his speech. The speech was sent out on the queer email list today:

MR BARR (Molonglo-Minister for Education and Training, Minister for Tourism, Sport and Recreation and Minister for Industrial Relations) (5.49PM): I am very pleased to speak in support of the Civil Unions Bill. It is important to me and indeed to the whole community. I was there when this law reform process began 6 years ago with a series of resolutions from ACT Young Labor that led to the Labor party putting this to the electorate in 2001. And I am very proud to be here today to vote for this bill.

This bill is about recognising and strengthening relationships. It is about supporting loving, caring relationships regardless of the sexuality of those involved. Just last week I stood in this chamber and spoke about how good governments seek to lead on important social issues. This government believes all loving, committed relationships deserve to be treated equally and to be celebrated.

This government is standing up for what it and the citizens of the Territory overwhelmingly believe in. The Civil Unions Bill forms part of the Stanhope government’s commitment to reform all areas of ACT law that discriminate on the grounds of sexual preference or gender identity. It is a commitment that the government is taking to two elections and it is a principled commitment that has brought strong support from the community.

One of the reasons that people of Canberra voted so strongly for the Labor party at the last two elections was that we stand for progressive social reform. Good governments set the social agenda for their communities. They govern as leaders, not as followers. It is the duty of the government to reflect the much wider interests of our society and the common values of fairness and tolerance that bind us all together.

Mr Speaker, gay and lesbian Canberrans are part of our community. We are not nameless, faceless people who live on the margins of society. Gay and lesbian Canberrans deserve the respect and dignity afforded to others, we deserve equality. This bill affords us equality under the law. The equality is not only functional and practical but it is also highly symbolic. It allows us to hold our heads up high as equal members of the community and to celebrate our relationships. It is about dignity.

Mr Speaker, despite the Stanhope government taking this reform process to the electorate on two occasions, and winning the support of the community quite decidedly, the federal government is threatening to intervene in this Territory’s law making process. The federal Attorney-General, Phillip Ruddock, has made a series of outrageous statements about the federal government’s intention to overturn this ACT legislation. This is despite his earlier comments, and I quote, “That the matter of civil unions is a matter for the states and territories.”

Mr Speaker, Mr Ruddock’s first instinct was correct. Civil unions are a matter for the states and territories. And the amendments that have been circulated by my colleague, the Attorney-General, will address the concerns raised by the Commonwealth. If the federal government now seeks to intervene and say, “No”, to civil unions it will be endorsing discrimination against people who choose, for whatever reason, not to marry or who in fact cannot marry.

Saying, “No”, to civil unions is to say that some relationships are more legitimate than others, that some loving, committed long-term relationships are for some inexplicable reason of lesser value. I find that an unacceptable proposition. And so to do many Liberal MPs. Dr Mal Washer, the federal Liberal member for Moore has said that:

“This country is civilised enough to get beyond the fact that people are different. If same sex couples have a commitment to one another, then it is reasonable for us to allow them recognition of their union.”

And Warren Entsch, the Liberal member for Leichhardt in far North Queensland, who I quote is a, “Fierce heterosexual”, has said:

“What we want is equal treatment for two people that are committed to each other. You are always going to get those fundamentalists who we are never going to convince, but the more I talk to people about it, the more support I get.”

Mr Speaker, what is really at play here is a battle between the progressives and the conservatives for control of the social agenda in this country. The late Professor Manning Clarke spoke in his, History of Australia, of this struggle in Australian life in terms of the enlargers taking on the straighteners. He said:

“This generation has a chance to be wiser than previous generations. They can make their own history. With the end of the domination by the straighteners the enlargers of life now have their chance. They have the chance to lavish on each other the love that previous generations had given to God, and to bestow on the here and now the hopes and dreams they had once entertained for some future human harmony.”

Mr Speaker, I call on those members of the Liberal party who still hold liberal values to stand up now and oppose the straighteners. If they do not take a stand on these issues then the Liberal party will have given up its last vestiges of liberalism and the transformation to fundamentalism will be complete.

I also call on the Liberal party to stand up for our local democracy. If there is any member opposite who supports their federal party vetoing this legislation then they should resign from this place right now. They not only disrespect to their constituents. They are saying that they do not believe in local democracy, that they do not believe in the right of ACT residents to make decisions about how they are governed and by whom they are led.

Mr Speaker, there are often those motivated by religious convictions, who believe that same sex relationships are immoral and that those relationships should be discouraged at every turn. They are, of course, entitled to hold such views. But just as we tolerate the right of this minority to disagree, and let us be clear that they are a small minority of Canberrans, I would welcome, as would the community, a reciprocal tolerance to put the alternate view.

We live in a secular liberal democracy, and while much of our tradition is based on a Christian ethic, I do not believe that organised religion has the monopoly over morality or ethics. Governments permit divorce, abortion, sex before marriage, and child bearing out of wedlock. None of these things had affected the right or ability of Christians to live by their religion. And there is no reason why civil unions will either.

Mr Speaker, another great furphy in this debate is that civil union are some way of undermining marriage. This is simply not the case. Civil unions do not undermine marriage. The easiest way to assess this is by applying the general principle. Does the conferring of rights on a minority ever undermine the majority. The answer is no, it never does. I do not think anyone’s marriage is undermined because Andrew and Anthony living next door to them will have their relationship recognised in law.

Mr Speaker, we often also hear that marriage has a special place in society and should be elevated to a status above all other relationships. But what does this mean in practice? Should a married person be treated differently in relation to a sale of a motor vehicle? Do married people deserve greater protection under the Witness Protection Act? Or on the other hand, should both parties in a same sex relationship be able to claim the first home owner’s grant? The answer to these questions is clearly no. We should treat all relationships the same. And that is the practical effect of what is proposed with this change to ACT legislation.

Mr Speaker, there is strong public support in the enactment of civil unions. A recent news poll taken in February 2006 found that 52 per cent of respondents supported the introduction of laws to formally recognise same sex relationships. Support for civil unions was even higher amongst younger Australians and women. I know that Canberrans want a fair, open and inclusive society that respects and embraces people in non-traditional relationships. It is time our law reflected these changes in society in formally recognising same sex relationships.

Mr Speaker, I would like to make some observations on the Registration of Relationships Bill that Mr Stefaniak has proposed on behalf on the Liberal party. In the context of the recent amendments to the Commonwealth Marriage Act, this bill can really only be viewed as offering grudging tolerance of same sex couples. It is better than nothing, but really it is just a recognition by the Liberal party that absolute opposition to any form of same sex relationship recognition would be politically untenable.

I consider this a win for the progressives. It is hard to imagine that the ACT Liberal party of 2003 would propose such legislation. In fact three years ago, the conservatives were trying to block the Tasmanian law reforms that they are now champion in this place. Those opposite cannot continue to walk down both sides of a street on this issue. Saying to gay and lesbian Canberrans on one hand, “We do believe in you and we value you as members of our society”, but on the other hand saying, “By the way, you cannot have access to a civil union.”

If they really do value gay and lesbian Canberrans, they will come out and support the Stanhope government’s civil union scheme that enables people in loving relationships to make a legally recognised public declaration of their commitment.

Mr Speaker, it takes more than showing up at Mardi Gras to demonstrate support for the community. You have to take a stand in this place where the laws of the territory are made.

Mr Speaker, strong relationships deliver important benefits for us all. We all define ourselves in some way by those we choose to share our lives with. Love, trust, intimacy and commitment are to be found at the heart of all good relationships. There is no good argument for allowing only opposite sex couples to form alliance and celebrate their relationships and to deny that right to same sex couples.

Those who oppose the Civil Unions Bill have frequently talked about its alleged dire effect on families. This ignores the fact that gay men and women have families too. We are sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, cousins, aunts and uncles and we are parents. Mr Speaker, this government has seized the opportunity to support family and to say plainly that no one deserves to be excluded simply because of his or her sexual orientation, we have drawn a line in the sand. Mr Speaker, the Civil Unions Bill encourages and empowers and protects couples who want to make their relationships loving, long-term, stable and committed.

We all should embrace such relationships because they enrich us all. Mr Speaker, the passage of this bill will remove a form of discrimination – – –

At 6.00 pm, in accordance with standing order 34, the debate was interrupted. The adjournment of the Assembly having been put and negatived, the debate was resumed.

MR BARR (Molonglo-Minister for Education and Training, Minister for Tourism, Sport and Recreation and Minister for Industrial Relations) (6.00): Thank you, Mr Speaker, a timely break. Mr Speaker, the passage of this bill will remove a form of discrimination that is intensely felt by Canberrans who have been living quietly in long-term loving relationships. It will also help ensure that all our citizens, regardless of their sexual orientation, are shown the dignity and respect to which they are entitled.

Mr Speaker, discrimination has no place in our society and I strongly commend this bill to the Assembly and hope that this legal recognition will prompt more people in same-sex relationships to come forward proudly into our community.

Mr Speaker, finally I wish those couples that choose to formalise their relationships under this new law long and happy lives together. I know that their commitment will be recognised and embraced by the vast majority of their fellow Australians.

Thank you, Mr Speaker.

MR SPEAKER: Order! Order! Observers in the gallery, whilst legislation in this place often has a good deal of supporters, there is a long-held custom that we observe in silence.

Thank you.

Indi 11:04 am 12 May 06

Unbeliever – I stand corrected, on review of the Marriage Act it is concerning that there is no reference to an automatic transfer of legal guardianship or responsibility from a parent/guardian to the partner who is 18 or older and has just married a person between 16 and 18.

Surely from a practical perspective it would make sense to consider that as the ‘union’ has been entered into, the partner of 18 years of age would then assume legal responsibility from that point forward.

I noticed also that during any process undertaken to fulfill the requirements of consent for a person under 18 to marry, there are a lot of safeguards surrounding the obtaining consent and ensuring that due process is followed. After consent is granted the marriage must occur within a certain period to avoid the ‘consent’ order becoming void. In addition, if a request for consent is unsuccessful a certain period must also lapse before another application can be made.

There are no such safeguards in the Civil Unions Bill whatsoever. So from the ACT govt’s perspective, if the Civil Union Bill is to reflect under the eyes of the law, an equal standing with the concept of marriage, such issues should surely have been taken into consideration.

If people want the legal and community recognition it would be a positive step to reflect in the legislation a willingness to put in place safeguards to protect people’s rights and responsibilities when entering into this particular legally binding relationship.

RandomGit 10:42 am 12 May 06

VY is more like a broken record now.

Anyway, I was also stuck by the idea that anyone less than 18 could get married, no matter the circumstances.

Thumper 10:01 am 12 May 06

VYBerlina is definitely a man of his word…

Unbeliever 9:50 am 12 May 06

Indy, it’s true that the federal ALP needs to address their position on this issue, cause it’s just not going to go away.

On the point of at least one person in a marriage being 18, it is not the case that the 18 yr old would in fact automatically assume responsibility – that is a legal fiction.

The 16 year old party would have to consent to giving the other person that responsibility.

The equalising of 16 year olds for the CU scheme, gets away from the oddity – as present in the Marriage Act – that the right to enter in a CU for a 16 yr old should not be conditional on the partner’s age. And importantly, 16 yr olds will need parental consent/Children’s court order.. which is no minor task (no pun intended). Children’s court is there to ultimately benefit the interests of the child.

Since we’re splitting hairs though, the ACT libs opposition to the 16yr clause in the CU Bill highlights the fact that they have no problems with two 16 yr olds having meaningingless consensual sex (legal age of consent being 16y) but they have a problems with two 16 yr olds entering into a committed relationship under the CU? And despite the whole point of this bill being about equality, removing discrimination etc – opponents will always come back to sex! Sex that people are having that they can’t quite get comfortable in their heads.. As will be obvious by comments here.

Mr Evil 9:39 am 12 May 06

Wow, run into the streets and shout for joy: the world is a better place, there will be no more war and love will rule the day because the ACT Labor Govt is great!

Too bad that the city’s infrastructure is falling apart, the Govt is busy “cooking the books” so it looks as if the ACT isn’t going bust, and we can’t have an inquest into the bushfires without the Chief Minister going out of his way to obstruct due process.

Sssanta 9:37 am 12 May 06

Folks of the LA. High fives to you. Although the incessant bleating for equal rights began to shit me somewhat, I do believe it is the right way to go. A shame that the wowsers from the federal government, and a couple of conservative wankers couldn’t face up to the fact that these unions really should be seen the same as marriage, by the community and the law.

kimba 9:27 am 12 May 06

Barr weeps during his speech…….another ‘hard’ Labor man.

Watched Insight (SBS) this week and apparently next weeks show will be on same sex marriage with local pollies nero Stanhope and Humphries two of the guests.

Indi 9:26 am 12 May 06

True consistency from VY…however, I recall that in 2004 the fed ALP joined with the Coalition to amend the Marriage Act to ensure same-sex couples could not enter into a ‘union’. So I’m unclear on the true policy position that the ALP holds.

This new Bill now displays that the ACT is delivering truly non-discriminatory legislation. Only one point of concern, I think it is short-sighted to allow children between the ages of 16 and 18 to enter into a legally binding union, whatever the form. Call it a community perceived standard, but at least the Marriage Act contains safeguards on the issue by insisting that at least one person who is entering into marriage must be over 18.

Some will say that’s just splitting hairs, but picture a scenario – as a parent, would you still want to be held responsible as a guardian of your child when they have entered into a ‘union’ to commence their own life with a new partner? Guardianship isn’t an issue under Marriage as one person in the household, for legal purposes, would automatically assume legal responsibilities without the need for an external guardian.

This component just shows deficiency in policy making, and could expose complications when reflecting on the application of other Acts.

VYBerlinaV8 9:04 am 12 May 06

I only believe in gay marriage when both chicks are hot.

Thumper 8:42 am 12 May 06

“apparently wept during his speech”

FFS…. What a sheila…

However, I have no problems with it. Especially with this amendment, “a civil union is different to a marriage but is to be treated for all purposed under territory law in the same way as marriage”.

Wonder what the Feds come up with. Hopefully they’ll sack the whole ACT Assembly and take over the running of this little principality and normality will be resumed.

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