NSW Attorney-General Bob Debus announced broad changes to NSW law yesterday afternoon that will end most remaining areas of discrimination against same-sex couples in the state.
A frustrating delay on same-sex law reform has in recent months seen NSW lag behind other Australian states and territories in granting comprehensive rights to same-sex couples.
During yesterday’s announcement outside state parliament, Debus said it was becoming increasingly unreasonable that large numbers of people in our society who are following acceptable norms to them should be discriminated against by everyday acts of parliament.
However, Debus would not be drawn on a number of key controversial issues relating to gay and lesbian rights including age of consent, adoption rights and gaps in the Anti-Discrimination Act that still allow discrimination on the basis of marital status.
Debus has promised to amend 23 statutes to bring them in line with the definition of de facto currently adopted by the Property Relationship Amendment Act (1999). These amendments will redress much of the inequality currently faced by gay and lesbian de facto couples in the areas of court, work entitlements and financial security.
Debus said the amendments will definitely be introduced in the next parliamentary sitting in September or October, but may be introduced during the next fortnight if time allows.
Until now, those living in de facto relationships have been denied a great many rights, including access to payments and benefits arising from the death of a partner, Debus said.
At a time when these people are dealing with a major loss, they are also refused fundamental financial support the rest of the community takes for granted.
Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby (GLRL) co-convenor Anthony Schembri yesterday described the changes as a great step for the gay and lesbian community, but his enthusiasm was tempered by the key omissions of controversial areas of gay and lesbian law reform, including adoption rights and age of consent.
Debus said he did not want to comment on the issue of adoption rights because it is not a part of his portfolio, but said the issue involves considerable controversy in our society and it is one that [the government] will have to look into in the future.
This is a standard cop-out, Schembri told Sydney Star Observer. I think it is quite correct that adoption rights don’t fall into [Debus’s] portfolio, but the reality is that the Com-munity Services minister has no interest whatsoever in gay and lesbian equality.
On the issue of equal age of consent, Debus said that he sides with Premier Bob Carr in asserting that there is no compelling reason to have ages of consent that are different according to the gender of those involved.
Despite this, Debus said the matter is still under consideration.
-¦ I myself as attorney-general won’t be making any particular propositions until we have investigated the many matters surrounding the general question of age of consent and the various sorts of crime that affect young people in sexual matters, Debus said.
Debus’s stance drew a mixed response from Schembri.
It’s encouraging that he is looking into this issue. This is really the first public statement that we’ve had from the attorney-general that has shown any interest in providing for equality on age of consent, Schembri said.
But the fundamental fact remains that all the evidence does not support that there is any issue with age of consent -¦ all the recent research and literature says there’s no justification for a discriminatory age of consent.
Other key areas of discrimination still facing same-sex couples involve gaps in the current Anti-Discrimination Act that relate to marital status, including the fact that gay and lesbian partners do not receive any entitlements if their partner has to relocate for work reasons.
Debus flatly refused to address the issue, only saying that the situation was being analysed by the government.
Despite these omissions, Schembri said the GLRL was excited by the reforms.
This is the first commitment to law reform that we have seen from the government in a number of years, he said.
We’re quietly confident the [NSW parliament] will adopt these reforms. Similar laws were passed in 1999 and there’s no reason not to adopt this second wave. There’s been no backlash since 1999 -“ the sky hasn’t fallen in.