The debate on equalising the age of consent for gay men moved out of the NSW upper house and into committee rooms this week, and won’t be heard before the 2003 state government elections.

Last week Labor MLC Jan Burnswoods called for changes to the Crimes Act, due for debate tomorrow, which would have brought laws for gay men into line with laws for straight men and all women. Instead, the upper house’s Social Issues Committee will prepare a report after attorney-general Bob Debus passed the matter over.

A spokesperson from Debus’s office said the decision to send the bill into committee was not designed to delay the matter until after the election. Rather, it was to give the committee a chance to deal with concerns some upper house members had about the proposal.

Bob supports this bill, and he’s been very open about that. He’s doing everything he can to see it gets through. We feel like if it went to a vote now, it wouldn’t get through. This way, the committee can sort out some of the concerns, the spokesman said.

Debus himself was less straightforward in his support of the bill: Although I personally support legislation to establish a non-discriminatory age of consent, there are genuine concerns about whether such a bill provides adequate safeguards for children. The Social Issues Committee is best placed to fully examine these issues, he said.

I am advised that at present the bill in its present form would be defeated. However, with some more consideration to the concerns of some members of the upper house, we may be able to bring NSW into step with other states and territories on this issue.

Debus has not been drawn into whether that consideration would include a uniform age of consent of 16 years for both homosexual and heterosexual men. The NSW Liberal Party is understood to be supportive of setting 17 as the age of consent regardless of sexual orientation.

Last week’s speech was Burnswoods’ third attempt at changing the Crimes Act -“ her second attempt to pass the changes through the Upper House was defeated by one vote in 1999. The changes would bring NSW into line with all other Australian states and territories.

New South Wales is now the only Australian state that has a discriminatory age of consent. In all other states arguments similar to those that have been raised in New South Wales were put forward. In all those states people predicted the sky would fall. In none of those states has that happened, Burnswoods said in her address to parliament.

Burnswoods called the current age of consent absolutely unfair, unequal and impossible to justify.

It makes criminals of young people -“ of homosexual men and boys -“ purely because of their sexuality.

On the delay, Burnswoods said she would have preferred to get the matter over and done with sooner rather than later.

My choice would have been to have the bill passed, of course. [But] going to the committee is certainly a lot better than having people develop cold feet and not support it, she said.

A spokesman for Democrats MLC Arthur Chesterfield-Evans, who also sits on the Social Issues Committee, called the proposal nothing but a tactic to delay debate and a cop-out. Chesterfield-Evans lodged a separate member’s bill in March calling for equal age of consent.

Would-be Bligh Liberal MP Shayne Mallard agreed, and told the Star he believed the government was running scared before the election.

We know what Country Labor did after John Brogden spoke out on equalising age of consent. They sent copies of the paper to country centres to stir up homophobic sentiments against the Liberals, he said.

Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby co-convenor Somali Ghosh said she and the Lobby were concerned about the delay, and disappointed the matter would not be voted on before the state election. Ghosh said moving the debate into committee would not slow down the lobbying for equal age of consent.

It would be wrong for anyone in parliament to think, -˜Well, we’ve done this and now they’re going to be quiet.’ We’re not. We’re still going to keep the pressure up -“ for us it’s a very big issue and we’re going to be pressing hard, she told the Star.

It’s a disappointing result [in that] we would have expected it to go through. But it’s better that it goes to a committee than gets voted down and has to go through the whole process again. It’s also the first time the state government has taken a stand on age of consent as a party.

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