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My contribution to the debate on the same sex adoption bill

Mr DAVIS (Southern Metropolitan) — I rise with pleasure to speak on the Adoption Amendment (Adoption by Same-Sex Couples) Bill 2015. This is a bill brought to the house by the government, and I believe the bill has come about in a timely way. It is time in my view that same-sex couples were in a position to adopt children. This is an important bill for our community and in essence the bill’s objective is one that I support. I make the point that there are clauses in this bill, and one particular clause which I will deal with later, which the opposition does not support. But I also want to be clear that there has been widespread consultation on this bill, and in a moment I will put on the record my thanks to a number of individuals for the work and consultation they have undertaken.

The decision by the government to put a clear position in clause 17, one which has elicited a broad negative response in many parts of the community, is a difficult one. The government has sought to shackle two issues together in a way that is both unhelpful and unfair. The opposition has taken the decision that for our Liberals and Nationals members of Parliament there will be a free vote on this bill, and I put that on the record at this point in the debate. The opposition — the Liberals and Nationals members — has also made a decision that clause 17 is a clause that it will oppose and its members will work as a group in opposition to that clause. But consistent with the views that have been enunciated here, the rest of the bill will be subject to a free vote, and I am very happy to put on the record my support for the rest of the bill.

The bill amends the Adoption Act 1984 to enable the adoption of children by same-sex couples. It also seeks, as I said, to amend the Equal Opportunity Act 2010 to remove the exception to the prohibition against discrimination in relation to religious bodies providing adoption services, and provides for other purposes. This is one of those occasions where there is a clash of genuine values that relate to the treatment of people in a fair and even-handed way, and that is a very important value that I personally strongly support. At the same time there is the matter of religious belief and matters around an international covenant on religious beliefs. It is a longstanding practice and there are longstanding views in the community that people ought to be free so far as is possible and reasonable to practise their religion and to put in place steps and live by a code where their religion is honoured. That is not an absolute thing — absolutely not — but it is an important value nonetheless.

I make the point that the Adoption Act currently discriminates against same-sex couples based on their marital status and sexual orientation by only permitting couples in heterosexual relationships to make joint applications to adopt. It also discriminates against couples in which either party does not identify as a specific gender. The Adoption Act discriminates against children in same-sex families based on the gender identity, marital status and sexual orientation of their family members by preventing them being adopted by those family members. I make the point that single people of whatever sexual orientation can adopt, so it is incongruous that married people of whatever gender and whatever arrangement cannot adopt. In those circumstances I strongly support the essential principle in this bill.

One key purpose of the bill is to remove discrimination against same-sex couples in relation to adoption. Clause 7 of the bill amends section 11 of the Adoption Act to allow partners in domestic relationships, regardless of the sex or gender identity of the partners, to have adoption orders made in their favour. As I said, clause 17 of the bill inserts a new section 82(3) into part 5 of the Equal Opportunity Act to remove the exception to the prohibition to discriminate in relation to religious bodies providing adoption services. The Adoption Act rules and conditions as they exist apply to all couples seeking an adoption order, and there are no other changes to the Adoption Act or Equal Opportunity Act other than those that I have set out.

There are a number of points to make here. There has been broad consultation with organisations, including the Rainbow Families Council; the Human Rights Law Centre; a number of in-vitro fertilisation providers; a number of church-based groups, including Anglicare, the Anglican Church, the Uniting Church, Jewish church groups and a range of other churches; the Victorian Assisted Reproductive Treatment Authority; the Victorian Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby, and I pay tribute to some of the important material that group has presented to me and to a number of Liberal and Nationals backbenchers; the Australian Christian Lobby; the Catholic Church; CatholicCare Melbourne; the Islamic Council of Victoria; and Jewish Care Victoria.

My point in listing these many groups is to show that the opposition has undertaken very broad consultation with a significant range of groups. I want to particularly put on record my thanks to Corey Irwin and Anne Brown and others who have provided significant information to the opposition. Their good grace, enthusiasm and determination to ensure that a good bill comes through is met.

I also want to put on record the advocacy of my friend Peter de Groot, Kevin Ekendahl and others who have been strong advocates. They are good people who are focused on achieving a good outcome. The issues contained in this bill go right across community. They cross our parties, they cross our religious groups and they cross our different community organisations, and that is as it should be. I know a number of individual coalition MPs have significant faith-based objections to aspects of the bill, and in this area it is incredibly important to respect the genuine views — religious, humanist or other — of people on these matters and to begin from a position where we attach goodwill to all who may speak on this bill or who may wish to make a comment.

I also note the significant work by Eamonn Moran. Many of us in this chamber know Eamonn well as a former chief parliamentary counsel, and I note the work that he has done for the government on these issues. I commend to members his document Adoption by Same-Sex Couples Legislative Review as a very useful guide in this area.

I place on record my thanks to the department and indeed to the minister for the briefings that were provided. In those discussions with the department it became clear that there are of course relatively few adoptions in Victoria these days. There was a time when there were many adoptions, but there are in fact relatively few that occur now. There were about 48 adoptions last year, most of them are what are called ‘known adoptions’. About 20 are so-called stranger adoptions but the majority are known adoptions.

It is my understanding, certainly through talking to many people about this bill, that there is likely to be an increase in known adoptions because of those in situations with same-sex couples where one of the couple has children who are parented by both partners. In those circumstances known adoptions will occur and should occur, because in those circumstances, subject to the proper checks, as they are with heterosexual couples, the best interests of the children should be the determinant of the way forward. That is the guiding principle that has been a central one for me and for many others looking at this bill.

I know many people who are in same-sex relationships and have children who are parented by both partners in that relationship, and it is important that we acknowledge the angst and the sadness that comes with not being able to have a proper adoption arrangement and the potentially sad outcomes for some children when one partner might perhaps die and the other partner, who has effectively been a parent, is not able to adopt in a straightforward manner, or where medical care is sought or other parenting issues arise and the effective parent is not able to legally act as the actual parent in that sense. This is wrong, and this bill will right that wrong in many cases. That is an important point. I know many of those couples and I know many of those children, and I welcome the opportunity for those known adoptions to occur in a properly structured way as with heterosexual couples.

There are around 20 stranger adoptions a year, and I note that those adoptions will occur in the way that would occur with heterosexual couples as well.

I know that the Catholic archbishop and the Catholic Church, the archdiocese, has expressed a formal position, and they have expressed that to me and to others in the coalition. I am respectful of their religious views. I understand that they have sincere religious views. That has weighed on the position of members of the opposition and on their view that genuine religious views are reflected.

I make the point that stranger adoptions and known adoptions can occur through other agencies, and those other agencies have indicated to me and other members of the opposition that they will undertake those adoptions. Services in that sense are able to be provided. I believe, as does the opposition, that the exemptions that exist in the Equal Opportunity Act 1995 should remain. A similar exemption was inserted in the New South Wales act by a Labor minister, and it is important to put that on the record here today. The opposition has the view that Victoria need not be out of step with other states, and in that sense it is time to ensure that these same-sex adoptions can occur and that there are sufficient organisations in place to provide those services in the interests of the couples, but particularly the children.

I also want to put on record that the opposition is intending to oppose clause 17 and will do so in the committee stage. I know that there is a diverse range of views within the opposition and the government and in the community, but I think there is enormous goodwill. There is also enormous determination to see that these arrangements are put in place in a fair way that sees the set of arrangements that exist in the Adoption Act 1984 modernised and brought forward.