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

Mr HIBBINS (Prahran) — I rise to speak on the Adoption Amendment (Adoption by Same-Sex Couples) Bill 2015. A month ago was a day of great pride, a cause for celebration and a positive day with many positive speeches. A month ago the adoption equality bill passed this house in full. It was a bill that meant so much to so many. It is with disappointment that a month later the adoption equality bill still has not passed this Parliament in full but is back in this house with an amendment that still allows for discrimination against same-sex couples. If passed, it will mean that adoption equality has not been achieved. This is because the Liberal-Nationals opposition broke its commitment to allowing a free vote. My understanding is that the vote on the amendment was not a free vote but a forced vote. This allowed faith-based organisations running adoption agencies to deny same-sex couples access to their services using this paper-thin argument that the bill was an attack on religious freedom.

This debate has been conducted in a respectful way and mainly without rancour, but it is time for some home truths.

Discrimination is discrimination, and it should stand condemned whether it happens in a religious setting or outside a religious setting. It seems from the comments of the Leader of the Opposition that coalition members are trying to absolve themselves from criticism of the position they took on this bill and that we should somehow be very conscious of the sensitivities of those who hold differing views. I simply point out that I do not think the LGBTI community would have made the hard-fought wins and gains they have made if they were overly concerned about the sensitivities of those who hold different views or had a fear of politicising this issue and thought that somehow we should be grateful for the steps that the opposition takes in the right direction.

The fact that today we still have religious organisations in Victoria that reject, discourage or do not accept gay, lesbian or transgender people and people in same-sex relationships is incredibly disappointing. It is something that we in this Parliament should be challenging, not simply blindly accepting as the unchanging status quo. This is not the view held by all religions or all religious people or all religious organisations, and the fact is that for many people who come to see me and who I meet in my role as LGBTI spokesperson we are seeing a very big shift in religious organisations towards being more accepting and more inclusive of LGBTI people. But, yes, we do have those religious organisations that are not accepting — and they are free to do so; they are free to hold their views. That is religious freedom. They are free to employ people to conduct and participate in their religious services who hold their views. That is religious freedom. But it should not go unchallenged.

The amendment before us says that we should allow these views to extend beyond the place of worship and manifest in the denying of services to the general public by giving an adoption agency the right to discriminate. The argument being put is that if a secular adoption agency was to deny services to a same-sex couple, then that would be wrong and against the law, but if a faith-based adoption agency does the same, that is okay. It is not okay.

Faith-based organisations have been involved in the delivery of adoption and other social services for a long time. They predate the welfare state. But times have changed. We have the welfare state. We have state-run, state-funded and state-regulated social services, and so we should. What this amendment does is allow a state-legislated, regulated and funded body to discriminate. It is an unacceptable intervention of church or religious doctrine in the state.

We have heard arguments from the opposition that this is okay because it is only one adoption agency that wants to discriminate and there are only a handful of stranger adoptions per year — that, in essence, a little bit of discrimination is okay. However, this law does not dictate how many adoption agencies there are or whether they are faith based or secular. We are making the laws under which agencies operate. If adoption agencies were to change — if a secular agency dropped out or a faith-based agency changed how it delivers services to same-sex couples — then we would have a very different story indeed.

We have heard that this is somehow an issue of human rights and that it is against the Victorian Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities and against the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights to compel faith-based adoption agencies to serve same-sex couples. This is absolute rubbish. It is because of human rights that these exemptions should be removed and the adoption equality bill passed in full.

We have heard that allowing adoption equality in full is an attack on religion and religious freedom and that it is the state getting involved in religious doctrine. There is the giveaway. Denying same-sex couples access to adoption services is a religious intervention in a state-regulated and state-funded service. Adoption services are not occurring within a church or any other religious setting. If the state of Victoria decides that same-sex couples should be allowed to adopt — that children are better off by having the widest range of prospective parents, including gay or lesbian parents, and that it is wrong, it is harmful and it is illegal for a secular adoption agency to deny a same-sex couple access to their services — then that should be the case for all adoption agencies. 

Religions are free to have their own beliefs. Their followers are free to hold those beliefs. They are free to practise that religion, and if that involves not embracing or not including LGBTI people, as much as that is disappointing — and I feel it should be challenged — then the state cannot interfere. But when it comes to offering a service that is state regulated and state funded, then it is entirely appropriate that that organisation, faith-based or secular, should act in accordance with the laws of this state and the values and principles of equality that this state embraces. I absolutely reject this notion that getting rid of religious exemptions for adoption agencies is somehow an attack on religion, because that notion ignores the many religious people and religious organisations that are inclusive and are working to build more inclusive organisations within their own faith. I also reject the idea that this is somehow just a matter of a difference of opinion. This is a matter of discrimination and reflects the devastating effects that discrimination has on our community.

That is why shortly I will be putting out an exposure draft in relation to a private members bill for consultation with the wider community. That bill will propose to remove the blanket exemptions in the Equal Opportunity Act 2010 for faith-based organisations, schools and individuals, because students, teachers, staff, clients, service users and job applicants must be protected by the law from discrimination. There is a clear link between poorer mental health outcomes for LGBTI people and discrimination, and this Parliament must act to protect those affected.

This amendment is here because the Liberal-Nationals opposition broke its promise of a free vote and forced its members in the upper house to vote for this amendment. It simply cannot be trusted. It seems to be a very mixed message: yes, the opposition believes in equality, opposes LGBTI discrimination and wants a free vote, but when discrimination occurs by a faith-based organisation offering services such as adoption to the wider community, it is okay and it is going to compel its members to vote for that amendment in the other house. It is disappointing that the crossbench members of the upper house also voted for this amendment, and we have been given no indication that they are going to be changing their minds. In fact some of them voted against this entire bill, as did all Liberal members in this house.

To defeat this amendment would cause needless delay and see the bill essentially bouncing back and forth between the houses, causing needless angst to the many families and many children who stand to benefit from this legislation. I really hand it to all those groups that are working so hard — the Rainbow Families Council, the Victorian Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby and so many others — and fighting so hard. Each step in the right direction is a hard-fought win but with the knowledge that more has to be done. It is disappointing that adoption equality has not been achieved. It should have been achieved when this bill was before the upper house. So many families and children will benefit from the passing of this legislation. As I said, it should have been passed in full when it came before the upper house, but it is back here. We are not achieving full adoption equality; we are still allowing for discrimination.

If anything, this debate has brought attention to the religious exemptions that exist in the Equal Opportunity Act. We will be fighting to get rid of these exemptions, to end discrimination, to achieve LGBTI equality in full in Victoria and to achieve full adoption equality in Victoria.

Ms WARD (Eltham) — In getting started today I quote from an article written by Farrah Tomazin earlier this year, which says:

Religious freedom is a bedrock principle, but that doesn't mean some providers should have the right to discriminate, particularly when they receive taxpayer funds. After all, this isn't a debate about whether religious groups should marry same-sex couples or ordain gay priests; it's about ensuring that children are cared for in loving, nurturing homes. And that has nothing to do with sexual orientation.

Farrah Tomazin is absolutely right. You are not lesser parents because of your sexuality. You can be good parents. My views on this have been very clear, so I will turn my commentary to the Leader of the Opposition and his speech. It was interesting to hear the opposition leader on this issue earlier today, after painting himself as somebody who is quite a moderate and who is quite supportive of same-sex couples — I think he would like to put himself forward as very supportive. I was very surprised that he spent so much time in his speech critiquing the Minister for Equality. I cannot believe that the Leader of the Opposition, whom Josh Gordon has called 'thin-skinned', would, sitting in his glass house, throw so many stones.

The Leader of the Opposition's speech barely mentioned the Adoption Amendment (Adoption by Same-Sex Couples) Bill 2015, and I call on him to show his commitment to the LGBTI community. He barely mentioned this legislation at all. It was all about the Minister for Equality. I am sure the Minister for Equality was quite flattered by the attention, but the core issue here is that of equality — and the Leader of the Opposition barely mentioned it. I am not even sure that he spoke on this bill when it was first introduced. Did he get distracted? Did his anger at the Minister for Equality get in his way of the support he has said he has for this bill? After all, we have been told by the media that the Leader of the Opposition needs to 'calm down, keep his temper in check, and adopt a more balanced tone' and that he has a 'tendency to shoot from the hip and fly off the handle'.

It is interesting to see him now trying to recast himself as a moderate and trying to reflect what is a part of the Victorian community — a moderate and absolutely progressive community. That is why it elected this Labor government. I will read another quote:

Matthew Guy is set to give coalition MPs a conscience vote on the issue and he is personally supportive of same-sex adoption.

So why did he not talk about it today? Why instead did he talk about the Minister for Equality? Why was that the focus of his conversation? Why was he unable to talk about his unequivocal support for same-sex couples?

Managing his temperament is something the opposition leader has acknowledged he needs to do. He has been quoted as saying that 'now in opposition being sweet tempered and tolerant will be the order of the day'. It will be a great day when we get to see that.

Mr Morris — On a point of order, Acting Speaker, while certainly the member for Eltham earlier in her contribution was responding to comments made by the Leader of the Opposition, it is now turning into a character assessment. It is in fact a critique of the opposition leader's contribution, but this is a very narrow debate about whether we agree with an amendment proposed by the Legislative Council. I ask you to bring the member for Eltham back to that subject.

The ACTING SPEAKER (Ms Kilkenny) — Order! The member will come back to the debate.

Ms WARD — In contributing to the debate on this legislation it is important to talk about the things that have been said today and what I agree and do not agree with. What I agree with is somebody standing in their own truth and demonstrating their absolute commitment to what they say. It is absolutely wrong when someone pretends to have that commitment or seems to illustrate that commitment but cannot actually articulate what that commitment is, why they have that commitment and what it is that they are so passionate about and care about. When that cannot be articulated by somebody — especially when that somebody is the Leader of the Opposition, such an important position — and when they cannot articulate what it is that they really believe and care about, I am going to comment on that in this place.

It is also interesting to note during this debate and this conversation that both sides of Parliament are having about this issue that we saw a very interesting scenario in the last vote: the majority of The Nationals members voted in favour of this legislation, but members of the Liberal Party, which was supposed to have a conscience vote, did not. Liberal members either abstained or they stayed in their seats. This is part of what the media has commented on, and I quote:

Another challenge for Guy will be managing his own ideologically divided party. He needs to recapture the middle ground, and in Victoria that will involve offering a modern and progressive agenda.

I fail to see that agenda materialising. I fail to see the Liberal Party standing in its truth and speaking for progressive, modern Victorians.

Mr MORRIS (Mornington) — I am pleased to make some comments on the Adoption Amendment (Adoption by Same-Sex Couples) Bill 2015 with regard to the amendment from the Legislative Council. As hard as it will be to demonstrate, I actually am on the same side of this debate as the member for Eltham. I am certainly not on the same side of this debate as the member for Prahran, though I commend him on the way in which his remarks were presented. The debate on this motion today has unfortunately been one marked by venom and vitriol.

The Minister for Equality, whom I acknowledge is still at the table and has been here for the duration of the debate, was certainly forthright. I thought he was far more aggressive than was necessary under the circumstances, the member for Yan Yean particularly so and the member for Dandenong not so much. But there was plenty of venom and plenty of vitriol.

I was not in the chamber for all of the minister's speech, but I heard most of it via the audio. He spent much of his time speaking, in effect, against the amendment. He concluded, of course, by supporting it, but much of the debate and much of Hansard will indicate that he was speaking against the amendment — not, I hasten to add, without indicating clearly that he intended to subvert the will of the Parliament, either by regulation or by some other device, in order to achieve the outcome that was originally intended by the government but has been removed from this bill by the Legislative Council.

Perhaps the least attractive part of this most unattractive debate has been the way in which government members have conducted themselves. That is unfortunate. With your indulgence, Acting Speaker, I am probably going to go a little bit beyond the scope of the amendment before the house, but I am responding to matters that were raised earlier when the member for Broadmeadows was in the chair. I made the observation in the second-reading debate that the approach of the government under Premier John Brumby to these sometimes difficult social issues was very different to the approach taken by the current government under the stewardship of the current Premier. The vitriol that was hurled across the chamber today demonstrated clearly, I thought, that this is a government that operates by very different standards to those of the government of the 56th Parliament, standards that some might say — and I felt this way this morning — are lower than a snake's belly. It is not good stuff. It is not a day to be proud of the conduct of this Parliament.

As I said, compared to the 56th Parliament, we were dealing with a bunch of very different individuals. However, I do understand the anger. While this bill has been packaged up, particularly in terms of the amendments proposed, as being about equality, respect and diversity — and I said at the time and I repeat that I strongly support the substantive amendments to eligibility in the adoption process proposed by the bill — that is not the way in which the debate has been conducted. As the member for Euroa observed earlier today, right from the start, from the day the bill was first read, this has been a blatant and brazen attempt to wedge the opposition — not to deal with the issue in a sensitive manner but to wedge the opposition.

One of the great distinguishing features of the Liberal Party and our coalition colleagues is that on every question we have the capacity to vote as our conscience demands. In this case the party room chose to have a free vote, but as a member of the Liberal Party I have the capacity to vote as my conscience demands on every question, not just when there is a free vote.

Indeed in this very room over a century ago former Prime Minister Alfred Deakin made an observation. The language he used was certainly well before the days of gender equity, but he observed that you should never submit the voter or his representative to the indignity of taking away the only thing that makes them a man — and I would add to that; or a woman' — their judgement or their conscience. Yet many government members — and, as the member for Euroa observed, the member for Pascoe Vale particularly — have been required by the Premier and required by the tyranny of the caucus to put aside their judgement and to put aside their conscience. In contrast all members of the Liberal Party and The Nationals are exercising a free vote. I for one am proud to belong to a political party that encourages free and open debate on these critical social issues.

The practical outcome of this legislation will be a great step forward in the cause of equality. It is a very good outcome, particularly with this odious clause removed. This is about respect for all members of the community, not just those who agree with you. It is about respect for the views of all members of the community. That would not have been the outcome of the original bill, but it is an outcome that I am certainly delighted to support. I think it is a matter of great regret that the government chose to play politics earlier in the debate, to misrepresent, to distort and to claim particular views were those of the opposition. I am sure, however, that it will be an attempt that will have little effect. It was an attempt to rewrite history and it will not succeed. The government will not succeed in this. I am proud to support the legislation before the house, and I am proud to be a member of a political party that allows me to independently express my views on these matters.

Mr SOUTHWICK (Caulfield) — I rise to make some comments in support of the amendment to remove clause 17 of the Adoption Amendment (Adoption by Same Sex Couples) Bill 2015. I was one of those in this chamber who chose to deliberately abstain from this vote. I did that after a lot of deliberation. It was a very difficult thing for me to do, because I felt that the integrity behind allowing same-sex couples to adopt was a crucial and important part of what we were trying to do with this bill.

But then on the other side, as we have heard today, some of the attempts at wedge politics to prevent religious freedoms being incorporated in the bill made it very hard for me to deal with those two issues concurrently.

If one thought that that was not the case or the intention of the government, then one only needs to have listened to the debate we have had on this amendment, because rather than tackling the issues, it has been a deliberate attempt to try to attack Liberals and to paint Liberals as the ones who are intolerant, who are not inclusive and who do not stand up for our LGBTI community. We know that is absolutely wrong, and to many of us sitting on this side of the chamber it is offensive. I would go further and say that many of my friends from the LGBTI community would be very supportive of what we have done in terms of this amendment and would not want politics to be played with this bill. The fact that those opposite are trying to do that in their contributions shows that they are not acting in the spirit of what was intended by this bill at all.

With all due respect to the Minister for Equality, the member for Albert Park, to suggest that he will be reminding members of the LGBTI community wherever he goes about the way Liberals behave on these sorts of things is, I find, offensive, because I and many of my colleagues who sit on this side of the house are absolutely side by side with those in the LGBTI community in terms of their freedoms and their move for equality and respect. The same thing applies for religious freedoms as well, and many of us sit side by side with those in the religious community who also want to have their opportunity. This amendment allows both. As the member for Mornington quite rightly pointed out, it is absolutely equality at its best because it allows same-sex adoptions, as it should, and it allows proper recognition for same-sex couples, as it should, but it also allows those who have a religious belief to continue to operate in their manner as well. For those opposite to try to drive a wedge on this is not in the spirit of what is intended today.

As the Leader of the Opposition has said quite rightly, this should be a good day. This should be a day when we are celebrating these sorts of bills and these changes in the house. I commend the initial integrity of what the government is trying to do, but I question the politics it has tried to bring into it. The idea of bringing these sorts of bills before the house is in the right spirit but we should not be playing politics when it comes to these sorts of issues. We should not play politics with particular communities, whether it be the Jewish community that I often stand up here for or the LGBTI community.

We should be standing together. We should be inclusive, and we should be supporting these sorts of things. We should be allowing individuals to express their rights and their beliefs as well, not attacking them because of their beliefs. That is offensive within itself, and I am proud, as others have said, to be part of a party that allows us to speak as we do and vote in accordance with our conscience and not just line up as a group whose members do something because we are told to do it. Rather, we do things because we believe in what we do, and I commend the amendment to the house.

Mr WAKELING (Ferntree Gully) — I rise to make a brief contribution on this motion to accept the Council's amendment to the Adoption Amendment (Adoption by Same-Sex Couples) Bill 2015, and I do so on the basis that I listened to the contributions that were made by the minister at the table, the Minister for Equality, and the members for Yan Yean and Dandenong. As my colleagues the members for Caulfield and Mornington pointed out, those contributions were hypocritical in the extreme. Firstly, they were a sustained attack on this side of politics on this issue, and the hypocrisy of the whole argument is that the government took the opportunity to berate members on this side of the house when it is supporting the removal of clause 17. Government members attack the opposition for the removal of the clause but stand in the house saying that they are going to support the removal of the clause from this bill.

I place on the record that if government members actually stand by their convictions, it is highly critical of them to come in here and attack the opposition. I listened to the second-reading debate when the bill was originally brought into this house, and people on the government side spoke very passionately about the reason the Catholic Church was not being exempted from the bill. If they actually stood by that conviction, they should be standing in this house saying that they will not support a bill that has that clause removed, but they are not doing that. What they are doing is attacking us and then turning around and saying, 'But we're going to vote in favour of the change anyway'. It is highly hypocritical.

I am very pleased to see that the bill has now been amended to meet the terms of this side of the house — or the terms of many on this side of the house because it was a free vote. I am not speaking for all my colleagues but for myself. I agree with the changes for same-sex couples to be able to adopt. I agree with the proposals. But I also agree with the fact that if you are going to allow freedom for same-sex couples to adopt, you cannot then restrict freedoms for another group as a consequence. That is the hypocrisy. As a consequence of the amendment that has been made we now see a bill before the house that meets the concerns I had, which related to the Catholic Church not being exempted, but also allows adoption by same-sex couples.

Again, I say to the minister at the table that if he wants to berate this side of the house, he should not support the change, but he is clearly not going to do that. He is going to be voting in favour of it, and all I can say is that that is hypocritical of those opposite.