Almost 20 years since the decriminalisation of homosexuality in New South Wales, the stage is set for the equalising of the age of consent.

Attorney-general Bob Debus gave notice of a new age of consent bill in parliament on Tuesday and formally introduced it yesterday. The new bill calls for a uniform age of consent of 16.

Although the new bill is a government-sponsored bill rather than a private member’s bill, Labor MPs have been granted a conscience vote over it -“ a move which some activists fear could spoil the bill’s chances of becoming law.

This is not a radical proposal, Debus told state parliament. This Bill allows NSW to catch up with the rest of the country.

There is no discernible benefit in maintaining an unequal age of consent, he said. There is, however, a substantial social cost in allowing this inequity to be perpetuated. Studies show that young gay men are 300 percent more likely to commit suicide than their heterosexual counterparts.

Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby co-convenors Somali Cerise and Rob McGrory welcomed the bill’s introduction but questioned Labor’s caution in making it subject to a conscience vote. (One government source told the Star a conscience vote has not been applied to a government bill since 1984.)

The fact that it’s a conscience vote means that we still have a lot of work to do, McGrory said. We need as many numbers as we can in the lower house. We’re working hard to get the message out there that there’s nothing radical about this. All of the other states have an equal age of consent and the world hasn’t ended. And less than a year after Western Australia equalised the age of consent, over 75 percent of voters said they were in support of the change. It’s not controversial at all; it simply brings NSW in step with everyone else.

It’s absurd that they’re allowing a conscience vote, and it shows a poor understanding of the issue, Cerise said. This is clearly not an issue of conscience, it’s an issue of equality, health and welfare.

Similar comments came from AIDS Council of NSW president, Adrian Lovney.

[An] equal age of consent will help reduce barriers for young gay men accessing sexual health services including information about HIV/AIDS and safe-sex resources, he said.

The Lobby has put out a call for community members and concerned organisations to contact their local MP and seek their assurance that they will vote for the Debus bill.

The Lobby co-convenors will also be approaching the offices of premier Bob Carr and opposition leader John Brogden with a request that they personally speak in favour of the bill when it comes up for debate: a move which they hope could sway MPs who might otherwise be inclined to vote against the bill.

We think it’s important that Bob Carr shows leadership on this issue, given that he’s supported this in the past, McGrory said.

Cerise said the Lobby would be looking for a similar commitment from Brogden.

Something that marked his leadership when he became leader [of the Liberal Party] was his stance on this issue, Cerise said. We’re expecting him to bring his party with him.

However, Nationals leader Andrew Stoner has already indicated he would not vote for the Debus bill, and senior Liberal Barry O’Farrell has previously stated that he would not support any move to equalise the age of consent.

But the proposed bill has the support of a number of senior Labor figures, including deputy premier Andrew Refshauge, who said his support of an equal age of consent had not changed since 1983.

Labor MLC Jan Burnswoods, who has championed the age of consent cause for a number of years, said she was delighted by Debus’s action in introducing the new bill.

I’m quite proud that I’ve kept up the pressure; I’m confident that I’ve done my bit, she said, adding that Debus’s bill was more comprehensive in terms of its clauses relating to child protection.

The Debus bill removes a reasonable mistake of age defence currently available and contains two new aggravated offences that will incur tougher penalties. The first of these deals with child sexual assault by persons in positions of trust, and the second deals with child sexual assault in which the victim is under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

The child sexual assault clauses -“ included as a way to make the bill attractive for the more conservative MPs within the Labor caucus -“ do not have the endorsement of the Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby.

The Lobby recognises the motivation of the government in doing that, McGrory said. But we don’t think those things needed to be changed and it’s not something we’d say we are supportive of, but we recognise why the government is taking that approach.

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