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April 06, 2000 08:56am
AUS Senate Panel Pro-DP Pensions
Source: PlanetOut News & Politics

For many years one of the biggest concerns of Australian gays and lesbians has been that while they make the same contributions to pension funds as others, their partners are rarely able to collect benefits -- and those who do must pay substantially higher taxes on them. There seems to be a light at the end of the tunnel, though, as the national Senate Committee on Superannuation and Financial Regulation on April 6 gave majority approval to a report recommending recognition of same-gender couples in pension laws. Committee members from the Australian Labor and Australian Democratic Parties urged prompt passage of a private member's bill to that effect introduced by Member of Parliament Anthony Albanese (Federal Labor Party - Grayndler). That Superannuation (Entitlements of Same-Sex Couples) Bill will! b! e voted on in the Parliament.

The majority report further recommended an interdepartmental committee to review all federal legislation for discrimination against same-gender couples.

Gay Senator Brian Greig (Australian Democrat - West Australia) said that the way things now stand, "Having been compelled to contribute our personal funds to superannuation [old age pensions] ... we find that we are then directly and unashamedly discriminated against."

Australian Council for Lesbian and Gay Rights co-convenor Megan Jenner noted that, "Superannuation is the most significant financial investment most people ever have. Like everybody else, lesbians and gay men deserve certainty about where this money will go."

Albanese said, "We are talking about funds that have been contributed by individuals, so by the discrimination occurring you are actually taking away the savings of Australians." The bill, he said, "shouldn't be seen as a great radical change or threat to anybody. It should be seen as a necessary social reform."

However, contrary to the ruling coalition's promises before the 1996 elections, the Senate Committee's minority report from the Government failed to support pension reform. During the campaign, Tasmanian Senator John Watson led the push for equal treatment of same-gender couples in pension law -- but Watson himself is the author of the report against such changes. The Government altered its position to go along with the religious right, represented by such groups as the Australian Family Association and Festival of Light. Those groups cited the long-discredited "research" of defrocked U.S. psychologist Paul Cameron in arguing that gay men are promiscuous and have an average lifespan of only 42 years (the latter based on gay press obituaries at the height of the AIDS epidemic). Watson wrote that those groups had "good sociological, psychological and health reasons for governments to continue to discriminate in favor of those men and women who take the trouble to make a! l! asting, legally binding commitment to each other and their children through marriage" -- a privilege denied gays and lesbians.

According to Watson's minority report, enactment of the bill would contribute to "the gradual devaluation of the traditional family structure in the eyes of the law and society in general," wreaking "substantial social change" by putting "same-sex relationships on the same basis as heterosexual relationships." Warning that "traditional values" and families must be taken into account, Watson wrote for the Government that, "We do not consider superannuation should be the lead vehicle for the implementation of the significant social change envisaged in this bill. Government Senators do not agree that the bill as currently drafted should be passed because of its limitations and the need to consider this area of reform in a holistic way."

Albanese charged that the Government had caved in to moral extremists, saying, "That is why of the 1,300 submissions to the Committee only five argued against reform and all of these argued that heterosexual de facto [unmarried cohabiting] couples should be denied access to the superannuation benefits of their partners." Currently de facto heterosexual couples have equal standing with married couples for pension purposes. Albanese urged that, "This parliament must seize the opportunity which has had the support not just of gay and lesbian groups, not just the trade union movement, but also, most importantly, organizations such as the Society of Chartered Accountants, such as the Industry Funds Superannuation of Australia, such as the Association of Super[annuation] Funds of Australia" -- the professionals in the field.

Australian Council for Lesbian and Gay Rights co-convenor Rodney Croome picked up the same theme, calling on the Government to "face reality and accept the need for change" and to put the views of experts and the affected community -- gays and lesbians -- before those of the far right. He contrasted the expert support for reform with its opponents, "the usual suspects from the far right." He said, "If Government members are genuinely concerned about families they'd ignore the discredited views of a handful of haters, and act to support homosexual people living in devoted, loving relationships, sometimes with children. Hatred is not a traditional family value."

Gay and Lesbian Equality - West Australia convenor Damian Meyer said, "If groups like the Association of Certified Practicing Accountants can come out in support of this reform, then the Government should take note that the issue is now well and truly mainstream. The bill's opponents, such as the Festival of Light, based their arguments not on fact, but on morality and the so-called defense of the family. But this denies the cultural diversity of Australia in the new millennium... The Government needs to support all families."

Meyer also noted that "because of technical requirements in the Parliament, the [Albanese] bill doesn't cover public sector super[annuation] schemes. It is within the Government's power to fix this with multi-party support of a simple amendment. The Government also needs to deal with the taxation consequences of superannuation, and as such, the proposed review of all Commonwealth law for inequalities is long overdue."

The Committee had heard a similar call in mid-March testimony by Flinders University human rights law lecturer Wayne Morgan, who stressed that the bill should be amended to include government employees and military personnel.

Morgan was joined by the Tasmanian Lesbian and Gay Rights Group in calling for federal adoption of "flexible and inclusive models of relationship recognition" like those of the Australian Capital Territory and the state of New South Wales, which "recognize not just domestic sexual relationships, but all significant personal relationships," such as those between older companions, caregivers and those they care for, and between people in extended ethnic or aboriginal kinship groups.

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