Wednesday, 8 September 2010

NSW: Opposition Leader supports the change

NSW Opposition Leader Barry O'Farrell invoked the spirit of the Anzacs in supporting the NSW bill to allow same sex adoptions. He said:

I support this measure today not only for the sake of the children but also because I do not believe our society should exclude, because of gender, sexuality, faith, background or some other factor, people who have a contribution to make. That is not the free, open and confident society I seek. Nor do I think it is the type of future envisaged by those who fought to secure our freedoms. 

Here is his speech:

In line with usual practice Liberal-National party members of Parliament have a conscience vote on the Adoption Amendment (Same Sex Couples) Bill 2010 (No. 2) on the basis of their views and the assessment of their consideration of the issues involved. I have high regard for conscience votes on issues like this where personal beliefs, political philosophy and community mores intersect. It is important that all members of Parliament think long and hard before casting their votes. Another benefit of these types of votes is the fact that debates like this are also generally conducted with a maximum of reason and tolerance is.

As deeply as we hold our views, as much as we may disagree with each other, we must surely respect each member's right to his or her own conscientious views. That respect is the reason I have declined, until now, to indicate my position on this legislation. In accordance with my usual practice on conscience votes, I have left my colleagues to form their views, make their decisions, free of any influence of their party leader. And debates like this have been difficult, and this debate has been difficult. There are strongly held views for and against same-sex adoptions across the community; there are strongly held views within each of our electorates.

Issues—theoretical and real life—have been raised and of course what is at stake are the lives of children. This is a debate in which the interests of children should be the sole concern. This is not—and should not—be a gay rights debate. So it is disappointing to see the Sydney Morning Herald today give the caption of gay rights to its reporting of this bill. I note in passing that while the Sydney Morning Herald has yet to editorialise in relation to this matter, the Daily Telegraph has, and it has come down in favour of the legislation. The reason that this is not a gay rights debate but one about children is happily defined in section 8 of the Adoption Act, which makes it clear that "no adult has a right to adopt a child". That Act also makes clear that its purpose is:

      to emphasise that the best interests of the child concerned, both in childhood and later life, must be the paramount consideration in adoption law and practice.

Section 8 (2) sets out 11 principles to be considered in determining the best interests of individual children being adopted.

      These include any wishes expressed by the child—or his or her birth parents—and include the nature of any relationship with the proposed adoptive parents.

In submission to the Legislative Council inquiry, the Department of Community Services detailed the general criteria used to assess prospective adoptive parents. Those criteria are focused around child welfare. They are rigorous and they are applied firmly and fairly by those who seek to make these choices on behalf of those children for adoption. Those arguing for this legislation have made the point that what it simply seeks to do is allow same-sex couples to be considered under these rules and regulations. In one of the many letters I have received and read on this issue—from people arguing for and against this bill—solicitor Philippa Davis from the Hawkesbury Nepean Community Legal Centre wrote:

      While no one has the right to adopt, same sex couples should be assessed, like all other couples and individuals, according to objective criteria on their individual capacity to provide a loving and stable home to a child.

For me it is all about that loving and stable environment. Like many others speakers, I believe that the ideal setting to bring up children is a loving and stable family environment with both a mother and a father present. It is the environment in which most of us—but not all—in this place have been raised. There are many others from which young people emerge but it is the ideal and not the only family type that exists across our community. There are many others from which young people emerge confidently and capable of making their contribution to our community. But as welfare workers can attest and as the member for Goulburn has already raised in this debate, there are other families in which children regrettably do not get the care, love and nurture they deserve and need. Indeed, in some of these family situations terrible harm is caused to children; damage that can last a lifetime, deadly harm at times, as the Department of Community Services and grandparents can too readily attest—and these are straight or heterosexual families. These are families that look like the typical nuclear family but are environments in which explosions of violence and abuse rob children of their futures.

Let us be honest about something: it is not gay men who are abusing women and abandoning children, it is straight men. The question for those of us concerned with the interests of the child in this debate is why should certain couples—because of sexual preference—not be eligible to be assessed according to laws and regulations that by any measure place child wellbeing at the centre of decision-making? Consider this question against current legislation and current practice. Under current laws and practice there is no legal barrier to same-sex couples becoming foster carers. Last year's Legislative Council inquiry heard evidence from such couples and from welfare agencies about their experiences. I was unable to find any criticism or concerns expressed about the care foster children are receiving from same-sex families in New South Wales in this day and age.

Further, under the Children and Young Persons (Care and Protection) Act same-sex couples can be and are being awarded long-term parental responsibility for children in their care. Again this is happening in New South Wales today. In New South Wales, individuals are also currently able to adopt children—including individuals who are gay or lesbian. Most of these gay or lesbian individuals are, in fact, in same-sex relationships. They are subjected to the same rigorous checks from State adoption agencies that apply to other families, including the stability and the commitment in the home environment. But as the law currently stands in New South Wales only one person in such a relationship is legally able to adopt the child.

It is a situation that raises a number of issues about the interests of those children. Think about this: if my partner or I died, the surviving partner would remain the legal guardian and carer of our two boys—an obvious and necessary certainty in a time of grief and distress, but not obvious or certain for a family in which one gay or lesbian individual has adopted a child and that person dies. Imagine the uncertainty, imagine the added grief—and then try and explain the logic of our existing laws. That is the situation in New South Wales today. How does such a situation reflect the best interests of a child?

In 1996 the New South Wales Status of Children Act recognised female same-sex de facto couples who conceived through assisted reproductive technology as the parents of their child. In 1999 the New South Wales Property (Relationships) Amendment Bill included same-sex couples within the definition of "de facto". The Adoption Act is the only remaining piece of New South Wales legislation in which the definition of "de facto couple" does not include same-sex couples. Yet under Federal legislation—the Family Law Act—same-sex families are recognised for the purposes of child-related custody and property matters. Today's bill is not creating a new class of family; same-sex families with children are a reality of life already and it is estimated that around 1,300 children live within such families across New South Wales. This bill simply gives stable, committed couples, regardless of their sexuality, who want to adopt a child equal access to a process that will not treat them equally, a process that in seeking to protect the best interests of the child will comprehensively review and test the competency, background and environment of all those who apply to adopt, a process that will result in a decision on each case that will discriminate and show preference but will do so in favour of the interests of the child concerned, irrespective of the sexuality of the couple involved.

A number of amendments to this legislation have been foreshadowed. I support the right of faith-based adoption agencies to be able to reflect their teachings. The bill before us has been amended to ensure that it will not be unlawful for such agencies to refuse adoption services to same-sex couples. I also indicate my in-principle support for the amendment foreshadowed by the member for Rockdale. I believe it is beneficial and positive to reflect the right of consent of birth parents in the State's adoption legislation; it is a positive. I note comments on the matter by Anglicare in today's media. This would ensure that those giving up their children for adoption could, perhaps because of cultural, faith or other background reasons, indicate a preference for the child to be raised in a similar family environment.

I propose to support this legislation with those amendments. I do so out of a concern for the best interests of those children who are being adopted. I do so to eradicate uncertainties under current arrangements involving children in same-sex families. I do so, recognising that the ideal of a loving and present father and mother is often not realised. I do so because I do not believe we should prevent adoption by same-sex couples who may offer a love and stability that is absent from too many homes at present. Recently I attended a commemoration for those who fought and died for this country. Like so many other commemorations we attend, it was meaningful and moving, and it was well attended by ageing veterans and their children. The guest speaker was the child of a decorated veteran, a parent and gay.

We listened, as members of Parliament often do, to a talk about the extraordinary efforts that ordinary Australians had made during both world wars; how, despite the horrors and deprivations they suffered, these men, and the women, the nurses, who supported them, did so willingly and valiantly. As I sat listening my thoughts turned again to the motivation of those service personnel. They fought that we might be free. They were prepared to die—and too many did—so that we could enjoy the freedom to determine our own futures and paths in life. They wanted us, the generations that have followed, to enjoy the best possible lives. So I support this measure today not only for the sake of the children but also because I do not believe our society should exclude, because of gender, sexuality, faith, background or some other factor, people who have a contribution to make. That is not the free, open and confident society I seek. Nor do I think it is the type of future envisaged by those who fought to secure our freedoms.

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