Wednesday 27 August 2003

Hansard of the Legislative Council



Mr Finch (Rosevears) - Mr President, it can be argued that every vote in the Council by an independent member is a conscience vote. We are elected by our constituents to represent them in Parliament. They place great trust in us, expecting us to carefully analyse proposed legislation in their interests. Few of them have the time or expertise to do so for themselves so they give us the job. For our part, we must understand the interests and opinions of our electors, varied as they may be. After we have canvassed opinions, read the fine print of the proposed legislation, we are aware that ultimately our electors have placed their trust in us. It is a great responsibility, particularly in controversial, potentially divisive legislation such as this. I think we have all tried to gauge opinion in our electorates.

We have received many submissions. In my office we have had to expand part of the filing system to cope with the vast volume of written material. I would like to record my gratitude and appreciation to the hundreds of people, both in my electorate and outside it, who have taken the trouble to contact me to express their views on various aspects of the legislation. Many submissions have asked for an urgent reply. This has not always been possible. I hope my speech today will be seen as a satisfactory response.

I have been a member of this Council for little more than a year and I am overwhelmed by the interest in this significant and substantive piece of legislation. I am sure that for everyone who has spoken to me personally or sent me written submissions there are at least another 10 with strong views. I believe this participation in the legislative process is what democracy is all about. Such a public debate is to be welcomed.

Submissions on the Relationships Bill have come from individuals, organisations, religious groups, from many parts of the State and from outside it. Some of the material has been part of a concerted and coordinated campaign either for or against the bill. Wherever it has come from, we have taken note of the arguments. For my part, I have obviously given greatest weight to the opinions and arguments of individuals in my constituency of Rosevears. On the whole, I have been impressed with the wisdom and clarity of some of the arguments on both sides of the debate. I have delayed forming any opinions during the process, preferring to hear all arguments and submissions first. It has been a complicated process but ultimately some arguments have won through commonsense and logic. Most Tasmanians, it would seem, regard parts of the proposed legislation as fair and just. This does not mean I have dismissed the opposite view. As a Legislative Councillor I respect everyone's right to express an opinion. However, I am not tolerant of views which discriminate against some of our fellow human beings. Bigotry and blind prejudice where they damage human rights have no place in a caring and tolerant society.

Mr President, these are my arguments. As far as the registration of significant relationships is concerned there is less disagreement. Some submissions against the registration of same sex relationships argue that the gay lifestyle is not acceptable to the majority of Tasmanians. Others interpret parts of the Bible as forbidding any form of a homosexual relationship. Some see registration as a form of marriage and fear it would undermine the institution of marriage and hence society. Others say there is statistical evidence that the average heterosexual marriage lasts longer than homosexual relationships. Most who argue for the registration of same sex couples say it would address the disadvantages and discrimination currently endured by same sex couples by amending a wide range of State laws which discriminate against same sex couples in areas such as hospital access, superannuation, wills and property division, employment conditions, State taxes and statutory compensation.

Mr President, one the many reasons for the institution of marriage is that couples want a legal way to demonstrate their commitment to each other. Many gay couples say that allowing them to register their relationship would not only do away with the discrimination just outlined but would have the same effect in demonstrating a commitment. They argue that registration would give same sex relationships more security and stability. Significant relationships, known for some decades as de facto relationships, under this bill will extend to same sex couples. But the bill of course also covers other types of personal relations such as caring relationships where domestic support and personal care is provided by a partner or between partners. People will have a choice of registering these relationships for legal purposes, and I do not think that most fair-minded Tasmanians would argue against that.

Mr President, public attitudes and opinions are always changing. We can remember strong disapproval of de facto relationships between men and women. Some sections of society regarded them as living in sin. We heard in our briefing yesterday or were reminded about the effects on illegitimate children. They were sometimes shunned in public and discriminated against, legally and financially. The situation is very different in 2003. Now, people in same sex relationships in a similar position and they suffer similar discrimination as those in de facto in 1903. I am sure that in 2103 people will look back in amazement at this society's inhibitions. Society changes. Social attitudes change and legislation must keep pace. I consequently support the part of the Bill which allows Relationships the registration of same se relationships. This does not mean I am anti family. In fact to the contrary. Consequently I am committed to the concept of caring relationships whether between same sex or heterosexual couples, and I believe society should give them some recognition especially to eliminate legal, financial and other types of discrimination.

I believe there is now in our society an overwhelming view that discrimination on the grounds of sexual preference can no longer be justified. I believe that if this was put to a referendum in my constituency, separated from other issues, it would receive wholehearted support. Rosevears is a caring and compassionate community. I can therefore support the registration of significant personal relationships on the grounds of majority backing in my constituency and my own conscience. Some have complained that allowing the registration of significant relationships apart from marriage between men and women will undermine marriage. I reject this. The institution of marriage based on heterosexual relationships is far too strong to be undermined. We need have no fears on these grounds.

Mr President, the other part of the bill allowing same-sex couples to adopt is much more controversial. In fact argument over adoption has virtually obscured the issue of registration, although of course the two issues are closely connected. Some argue that this legislation threatens the foundations of our society and will erode the basic family unit. Many letters I have received have warned that supporting or not supporting the Relationships Bill would threaten my political career. Well, I have never really seen myself as having a political career. Rather, I am the community representative for Rosevears in the Legislative Council, and as a community representative I carefully analysed the views of my community. There is wide support for the assertion that the wellbeing of the child in any adoption process is paramount. Unfortunately not many can agree on the definition of 'wellbeing'. Some say the wellbeing of a child can only be met effectively in the conventional family model of father, mother and child. Others argue that love, caring and competence are the main factors. There is also a conflict between those who argue that the proposed legislation only recognises situations that already exist in our society, and those who argue that the bill would encourage situations beyond the ideal or idealised concept of a conventional family.

Most submissions opposing same-sex adoptions did so on biblical grounds. Christian ethics to a great extent in the past have shaped our laws and attitudes. There is nothing wrong with that, but a modern society with established traditions and ethics does not need conflicting biblical interpretations to govern its conduct. It could be argued that we have moved far beyond ancient biblical rules for the way we live, whether we believe ourselves to be Christians or not. However, those who choose to define their lives through the Christian Bible must be respected. The irony is that some who support same-sex adoptions also speak of the Christian ideals of love between human beings, compassion, caring and human justice. Mr President, you will agree this is a difficult problem for an elected community representative trusted by his electors to do the right thing.

As I mentioned earlier, it is generally agreed that the wellbeing of the child is the primary concern. We have already heard a quote from the member for Rowallan from section 78 of the Adoption Act. I would like to turn to section 17:

'In all matters relating to the exercise of their powers and the performance of their duties under this Act, the Secretary and the principal officer of an approved agency shall have regard to adoption as a service for the child concerned.'

And, as the State Adoption Service put it:

'The interest of the child is paramount. Adoption is a service for children. Adoption is only one of a range of substitute care services. A child has the right to be considered for placement within an extended family prior to placement outside the family. A child has a right to be brought up in their birth family wherever possible.'

Mr President, can anyone argue against these principles?

In researching this contentious issue I sought the full guidelines of the State Adoption Service. I have a summary of some of their further guiding principles. The mother has always to consent to adoption. The father, if known, can be asked for his consent. The relinquishing parent is entitled to express wishes about race, religion, ethnic background of the prospective family. Birth parents have a right to be involved in the selection of appropriate adoptive parents for their child from the available prospective adoptive parents. Providing information about these rights is integral to the counselling process. Though the final decision is with the Director of Adoption Services, the birth parent's choice makes a heavy impact on the decision; there would have to be a clear, written reason for the director to override the parent's choice.

Mr President, all this would indicate that not only are the best interests of the child paramount, but wishes of the birth parent are also foremost. Does society have the right to deny the choice of a parent in the adoption process? Mr President, the overwhelming majority of adoptions in Tasmania are inter-country adoptions; there were only three local adoptions last year. The State Adoption Service says there has so far never been a case where a parent has chosen a single sex couple as parents for their child, or even asked if they could. All inter-country adoptions in Tasmania are carried out under the National Principles laid down in 1996, which are the same as those of the Hague Convention on inter-country adoption.

After meeting these requirements, an adoption application must then meet the requirements of the overseas country. All countries which Tasmania deals with for adoptions, except China, require a legal marriage. China requires a legal marriage, except for a 5 per cent quota for single people; China specifically rules out adoption by a homosexual person. So, Mr President, what are we talking about here - hardly a legislative change which would open the floodgates. Inter-country adoptions by same sex couples are presently ruled out and will continue to be if this Relationships Bill is passed. There were only three local adoptions in Tasmania last year, and there is hardly a queue of same-sex couples knocking on the door of the State Adoption Service.

A lot of the concerns about this bill seem to be misplaced. That is understandable; it is a complicated issue and an emotive one. Nevertheless, there are strong concerns. Mr President, I have the impression that the public and this House have not had enough time to fully analyse all the issues involved. The State Government has not seemed to have done much to educate the community about these proposed changes, and it has done very little to sell them to the public, hence the public concerns I have mentioned.

Mr President, the strongest reservation that I have picked up in my electorate relates to children conceived through in vitro fertilisation - that is, IVF or other forms of donor insemination. There is a strong fear in the community that this bill will allow gay women to register their relationships , go through the adoption process for the partner, and both be parents to an IVF child conceived by one of them. This is a contentious matter, and rightly or wrongly is of great concern. Some argue that donor insemination is well established in our society and all this bill would do is enable the child to have greater security with two parents of whatever sex instead of one. Others see this as threatening. I understand it is also a concern of some members of this House.

Mr President, if this House is to do its job properly, it needs to further scrutinise the bill which I believe should now be discussed in Committee. I therefore intend supporting the Relationships Bill 2003 at this time so that it will go to the Committee stage. More time and more discussion would help Legislative Councillors fulfil their roles in the interests of their constituents. Let us take this bill to Committee and come out with a positive framework for personal relationships, in this new millennium, in this new era of many forms of family.