Adoption Amendment (Adoption by Same-Sex Couples) Bill 2015

Mr HIBBINS (Prahran) — I rise to speak on the Adoption Amendment (Adoption by Same-Sex Couples) Bill 2015. This is a long overdue landmark bill which the Victorian Greens wholeheartedly support. It is a bill that will strengthen families of all kinds across Victoria by giving children of same-sex couples the same protections under the law that others enjoy by ending discrimination against same-sex couples who wish to adopt.

The bill is also at the heart of a wider issue of ending discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people. Ending discrimination against LGBTI people is happening across the world and this bill will make significant progress to take Victoria from being a lagger to a leader.

A great many have fought long for these changes. I commend those activists who have worked so hard to bring this issue to the fore. I let them know that the Victorian Greens have been standing with them every step of the way.

This bill amends the Adoption Act 1984 to enable the adoption of children by same-sex couples. It amends the Equal Opportunity Act 2010 to remove the exemption to the prohibition to discriminate in relation to religious bodies providing adoption services. I know this bill does not enjoy the support of all members of Parliament and that a conscience vote has been declared on the opposition side of the house. Many might still be making up their minds on this issue. However, this is a bill that, if passed, will have a positive effect on so many — on families, on children and on the broader community.

I will now outline my reasons that it should be supported. There are currently thousands of same-sex couples with children in Victoria. The statistics show that around 33 per cent of lesbian women and 11 per cent of gay men have children. This can be where one parent is the biological parent, who is the only one recognised by law as the parent, leaving the other parent with no legal parenting rights and a child whose relationship with one of their parents is not legally recognised. This leaves them in a legally disadvantaged circumstance, which would particularly come to the fore if something terrible were to befall their biological parent.

Some are seeking to adopt children that they have raised or fostered over many years. We know that foster care agencies like Berry Street actively seek out same-sex parents to ensure that vulnerable children are placed in caring and suitable families, but once the child turns 18 they will not be afforded the same legal rights of having their guardians recognised as legal parents. It is in the best interests of the child that, when appropriate, they are able to be adopted by the family that has cared for them. Some are mixed families, where there are children from previous relationships and a broad range of parenting arrangements. These families and children are living with fewer rights than the children of heterosexual couples, and the shadow of discrimination hangs over them.

The legal recognition of parents cannot be underestimated. It relates to a range of issues — inheritance, medical treatment, where a child can live and other legal rights and responsibilities. Not only does the law set out rights for children and parents but in many circumstances it also sets out the responsibilities of parents and of course the issue of stigma and discrimination against children and families by not recognising them equally with heterosexual couples.

There is an overwhelming need to end the discrimination against people based on their sexuality. The LGBTI movement, which has for so long been fighting so hard, is an extension of the civil rights movement, where minorities and women who have been discriminated against for so long work to gain rights that others have enjoyed that have long been denied to them. We accept now that there should be no discrimination in laws against people on the basis of their ethnicity, religion or gender and that they have no place in today's society, and so it should be with laws for people on the basis of their sexuality or gender status. There is much work to be done, both legislatively and out in our community.

The issue of stranger adoption that has been opened up by this bill, which will allow same-sex couples to adopt children through adoption agencies just like heterosexual couples, will end discrimination against same-sex couples, and that will be in the best interests of the children involved. We have heard arguments that it is in the best interests of a child to be raised by a mother and a father, but this is just discrimination in the, making of a value judgement against homosexuality through another means. There is nothing to suggest that children of same-sex couples are in any way worse off. Studies have shown that the children of same-sex couples do just as well emotionally, socially and educationally as children of heterosexual couples. The only negative factors are the bullying and discrimination they face, and that is something we can stamp out by supporting equality in our schools and in our communities.

As is outlined in the Victorian Law Reform Commission final report on assisted reproductive technology and adoption:

It is in the best interests of children to have the maximum range of prospective parents available …

That includes same-sex parents. We need to move beyond this idea that there is a natural or traditional type of family that is best. Much goes into raising children and a good family — love, commitment, communication and support — but gender and sexuality are not factors. It is perfectly natural for there to be same-sex couples with children and for there to be various parenting arrangements.

Now I want to deal with the issue of religious exemptions. The opposition has circulated an amendment that we will not be supporting. The idea that religious agencies should be able to exclude same-sex couples from adoption through their agencies goes to the wider issue beyond adoption agencies where lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people can be legally discriminated against by religious organisations that run services such as schools, health services, aged-care services and other services. This bill makes changes to the Equal Opportunity Act that allows for religious organisations to discriminate not only on the basis of sexuality and gender status but also marital status, pregnancy and others. I make this point about why this is not appropriate. When a religious organisation is offering services to the wider community, whether it is adoption services, whether it is social services, whether it is aged-care services or whether it is education services, they should operate within the laws that everyone else operates under. We should not have a dual service delivery model where some agencies can operate under different rules from others and discriminate against same-sex families or LGBTI Victorians.

When I worked in the community sector, there was saying that there should be no wrong door for clients to enter. There should be no wrong door when it comes to any service offered in Victoria where potentially there is discrimination behind it. We have heard the argument that not allowing exemptions impinges on religious freedom. When did running a service for the wider community and discriminating against gay and lesbian people become an expression of religious freedom? When did this become ground zero for the argument on religious freedom? Why should a service provider be able to refuse access on the grounds of sexuality to services that it would happily provide to others?

I absolutely challenge the idea that discrimination against LGBTI Victorians is inexorably linked to religious freedom. I say this because so many religious agencies have already said they do not need to discriminate. We have heard from Anglicare that:

The bottom line for us isn't about gender, race, religion or sexual preference. It's about the ability to provide a loving and caring home for the child …

Groups like the Australian Christian Lobby purport to speak for the entire Christian faith or other religious organisations, but it is simply not the case. From meeting with religious schools, religious organisations or religious people who embrace diversity, I know this is not the case. We have freedom of religion. People are free to follow any religion, but when it is a case of offering services to the wider community and potentially receiving government funding, then it is not a case of religious freedom but rather a case of there being no wrong door and their operating under the same standards that are expected of any agency and any organisation. We have seen this removed in aged-care services, where exemptions to discriminate have been removed, and so it should be with adoption agencies and other agencies.

I am on the record as wanting to scrap the provisions for exemptions in the Equal Opportunity Act altogether, and this is a good first step because those exemptions that legalise discrimination in this state are inappropriate and getting rid of them is at the heart of the duty of care we have to people. We know the damage discrimination does, and we know it is linked to increased instances of mental health issues and suicide amongst the LGBTI population. Therefore no Victorian, whether they are a student at school realising their sexuality, a person accessing health services or a family wanting to adopt through an adoption agency, should face discrimination, particularly when there is no requirement for any agency that wishes to discriminate to state that they will use the provisions in the Equal Opportunity Act.

I welcome the commitment from the government to implement the recommendations in the report into this legislation to deal with the regulations to ensure that adoptive parents are fully and appropriately recognised on the child's birth certificate. I would add that with the implementation of this bill there will need to be support for the agencies and community groups that are on the front line to ensure that they understand these changes, they understand their rights and responsibilities and they have assistance to navigate the adoption process. We need to make sure that community groups, which are often very poorly funded and operating on the smell of an oily rag, as has been noted, are adequately resourced. It is important that they have support to back up this significant legislative change.

I conclude by saying that this bill means so much to so many. It will have a profound effect on the lives of families across Victoria and on the wider community. It will protect children, strengthen families and recognise that all families are equal. Ending state-sanctioned discrimination of the LGBTI community in Victoria is something we should all be aiming for. This is a landmark bill that this Parliament should pass. It is a bill on which so many have worked so hard to get to this point, and I honour all those who have campaigned and worked on this issue. I commend the government on its work and for bringing the bill before this house. I commend this bill to the house and urge all members to support the bill in full.