Time’s up, Mr Debus

Time’s up, Mr Debus

Continuing delay on law reform has meant that New South Wales will soon languish behind all other states and territories in the push for gay and lesbian equality, the Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby warned yesterday.

The Lobby is really concerned that gay and lesbian equality and law reform have stalled in NSW, Lobby co-convenor Anthony Schembri told Sydney Star Observer. He said the attorney-general, Bob Debus, had failed to move on a range of law reform areas that discriminate against lesbians and gay men, despite promises of action given to the Lobby at a meeting they had in August last year.

It’s been something like 150 days of words and no action, and time’s up in that sense, Schembri said. The frustrating and outrageous thing is that the commitments we’ve been given are not about new law reform, they’re not about new measures for equality, they’re about housekeeping and tidying up loose ends.

Schembri said that since the passage of the Property (Relationships) Legislation Amendment Act in May 1999, the Lobby had highlighted a number of laws that continued to discriminate against gay men and lesbians, including the Landlord Act and certain provisions of the Anti-Discrimination Act.

The commitments that we were given back in August were basically things that were cost-neutral, and had cross-bench support, he said. But we’ve had no time lines, no draft bills, no statement of reform and no action. We’ve got a policy, program and law reform vacuum in New South Wales.

The attorney-general was unavailable for comment yesterday. However, his spokes-person said that a Cabinet submission was being prepared which would address the commitments given to the Lobby. The spokesperson could not say when Cabinet would receive the submission.

One proposed area of law reform looks set to be especially contentious. With the upper house of the Western Australian parliament poised to vote in ground-breaking legislation in February, New South Wales will soon be the only state in Australia with a discriminatory age of consent for gay males. The current age of consent for heterosexual and lesbian sex is 16 but 18 for male homosexual sex.

Age of consent is not just a symbolic law reform measure, Schembri argued. Dis-criminatory age of consent laws have a real impact on young gay men’s lives. It prohibits their access to health and welfare services, and it promotes a negative self-esteem.

The Greens and the Aus-tralian Democrats had both signalled their intention to work with the Lobby on the reform of age of consent laws, Schembri said.

Yesterday, Australian Dem-ocrats MLC Arthur Chester-field-Evans revealed to the Star that he intended to introduce a private member’s bill into the upper house which sought to equalise the age of consent for male homosexual sex. Ches-terfield-Evans said his bill would be modelled on the private member’s bill of Labor MLC Jan Burnswoods, which was defeated by one vote in late 1999.

It’s still not impossible to achieve an equal age of consent this year, Chesterfield-Evans said. It’s worth a go.

However, a Chesterfield-Evans private member’s bill may never eventuate. When contacted by the Star, Jan Burnswoods explained that despite the failure of her bill, it remained on the parliamentary notice paper and a parliamentary provision prevented the introduction of multiple bills on the same subject.

Burnswoods said she was hopeful the government would move on the age of consent issue. In light of changes elsewhere on age of consent, New South Wales is looking more and more like it’s in the dark ages, she said.

Sources who spoke to the Star this week said it was doubtful the Carr government would move to equalise the age of consent this year, given the fact that both major parties would be in election mode right from the outset of the resumption of parliament in February. Age of consent is simply too hot an issue to be handled before a state election and may be more easily handled in the first year of a new government, some sources suggested.

Nevertheless, the Lobby will be pushing on with a community education campaign on the age of consent issue throughout 2002.

A key component of that community education campaign, Schembri said, would be the launch of a report produced by the School of Social Work at the University of New South Wales on the health, welfare and social implications of a discriminatory age of consent. The report, hailed by Schembri as one of the first reports of its kind in the world, is to be launched during the Mardi Gras season.

The report will be important in educating our community and parliamentarians, Schembri said. What the research shows is that there is no evidence or scientific link that a discriminatory age of consent helps or protects young people, but in fact the opposite, that it has quite significant health, welfare and social implications for young men, he said.

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