In March 2002, the West Australian Parliament passed the Acts Amendment (Lesbian and Gay Law Reform) Bill. The legislation gave same sex couples equal rights in transfer of property, medical treatment and inheritance – measures that had broad bi-partisan support. However, when it came to four other areas – lowering the age of consent for gay males from 21 to 16, adding sexual diversity education to school curriculums, IVF access for lesbians, and gay adoption – the debate became considerably fiercer.

After marathon debates, including one 16-hour sitting, the bill passed the lower house on December 12, 2001. In the upper house, the bill made it through by a single vote on March 21, 2002. With the bill’s passage, Western Australia became one of the most progressive states with regard to GLBT rights laws.

Out In Perth reporter Megan Smith revisits the debate surrounding Western Australia’s gay law reform and asks those involved about how it has changed the state for its same-sex attracted population.

The Opponents

‘The whole tenor of this report, and of the approach of the Labor Government, is to promote equality as such.  I support equality as a principle but it is not the only principle. The issue about what is right or wrong must first be addressed.  The Opposition will be looking at what is right or wrong in terms of the age of consent or access to in vitro fertilisation technologies.’ –Hon. Colin Barnett, MLA for Cottesloe, Leader of the Opposition in the Lower House, Liberal

‘Lies surround this legislation. I wonder why the Government has done that. It was not necessary. It was not called for. It hardly helps anybody, least of all the gay and lesbian community, which has ended up being blamed for this. It is being blamed for the Government’s inept and incompetent handling of this legislation. If the Government thinks that this will lead to a better relationship between gay and lesbian people and the rest of the community, it is wrong. The rest of the community will attribute to the gay and lesbian community the poor handling, arrogant behaviour and failure to consult of this Government. It will be tarred with the Government’s intolerant behaviour and the way in which it has dealt with this legislation.’ –Hon. Peter Foss, then Leader of the Opposition in the Upper House, Liberal

‘What is the Government’s priority? Sodomites committing sodomy!… It is absolutely disgraceful! The people of Western Australia think it is utterly disgraceful. While we are on the subject of priorities, whose priority is this legislation? It is the priority of the Attorney General… The Attorney General is the hero of the homosexuals, the leader of the lesbians, the bloke sitting side saddle on the horse at the front of Mardi Gras receiving rapturous applause from the masses… This Government is about to do irreparable damage to the family unit. History will treat it very harshly, as will the people of Western Australia.’ –Mr. Matthew Birney, MLA for Kalgoorlie, Liberal

The Supporters

The plight of gay men and lesbians – their experiences of discrimination and exclusion and invisibility in legislation – has to date been the subject of many reports and inquiries.  The Government and I believe that it is now time to change the law in Western Australia to recognise lesbians and gay men as human beings who are a part of Western Australian society. –Hon. Jim McGinty, Attorney-General, Labor

I do not denigrate the people who oppose this legislation, but by supporting it, we are doing something important and beneficial for the State of Western Australia and the people who live here now and in the future. If we achieve nothing else than this little bit, it will, in my mind, make our entire political careers worthwhile… I will be able to say that I was a part of the process that improved the State of Western Australia by making a fundamental change – removing discrimination against people on the basis of their sexuality. –Hon. Alan Carpenter, then Minister of Education, current Premier, Labor

Demand for equality for lesbians and gays has had a long history – almost 30 years. In my books, it is not a rushed debate. The majority of fair-minded Western Australians support equality for gays and lesbians. They do not see what the fuss is about and they cannot understand why we have had to wait so long. –Giz Watson, MLC for North Metropolitan Region, Greens

Five Years On…

I would say overall the legislation has succeeded. It’s been well received and rightly well received in the community. While there are particular parts of it that I don’t concur with. I think overall the reform was overdue and has been well accepted… In some of the other areas, such as marriage, adoption, they are broader social issues. They are not to me issues of discrimination or unequal rights. Let me put it this way, I don’t have any difficulty at all with two men standing in a church exchanging commitments to each other. I don’t have a problem with it or with it being recognized legally through civil unions, but to me, marriage is actually a male-female relationship. I don’t see it as discrimination, I see it as different. –Hon. Colin Barnett

I go to something like Fairday and I see young gays and lesbians looking happy, confident… You get a sense that for young people it’s so much clearer, it’s so much easier than it was. I’m not suggesting that it’s easy, just easier than it was 10 years ago, and I think the law reform has had a significant part in that. Every time I felt that this is distressing and exhausting and painful and horrible things are being said about us by people I have to work with every day, I thought if it prevents young people with questions about their sexuality having to go through the sort of difficulties that a lot of us did, then it’s worth it. –Giz Watson

Five years on, I still believe it was a significant reform to pass through Parliament – by removing discrimination against people on the basis of their sexual preference. At the time, I said it was one of those policy debates which made me very glad that I was a member of Parliament. –Hon. Alan Carpenter

From Out in Perth – www.outinperth.com

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