Monday, 6 September 2010

NSW same sex adoption: shadow minister in support of change

The shadow minister for community services, former sex discrimination commissioner and John Howard biographer Pru Goward  spoke in favour  of same sex adoption. She spoke of the sense of entitlement of parents, as opposed to the long and arduous adoption process, and the view of parents to certain rights over children, as opposed to those caring for children having responsibilities.

Ms Goward made it plain that heterosexual parenting is not necessarily better than homosexual parenting:

There are 16,000 children living in New South Wales who have been removed from the care of their parents because of neglect or abuse. In my limited experience as shadow Minister in the dozens of cases brought to my attention I have not encountered one case in which a child has been removed from a same-sex household. That certainly does not mean that homosexual households are better places to raise children but it means that heterosexuality has no monopoly on better parenting.

Here is the whole speech: 

I support the Adoption Amendment (Same Sex Couples) Bill 2010 (No. 2) in principle and look forward to addressing the amendments that I understand will be proposed at the Committee stage. I support the bill, but with mixed feelings. On one hand, there is the determination to protect the rights of the child and, on the other hand, there is some disappointment at the nature of the debate and the political cloud that has enveloped it. It is disappointing that a bill to legalise same-sex adoption has been presented as a homosexual or same-sex rights bill when, in my view, it has almost nothing to do with same-sex rights and everything to do with the rights of the child—a point to which I will return.

This has placed the debate over this bill in a highly charged environment, with members of the public believing that to oppose it is unfair to homosexuals or same-sex couples and that, conversely, to support the bill is immoral, undermines Christian values and, in my case, would damage me politically as I represent a so-called conservative regional electorate. I am a practising Christian who has been highly involved in the activities of my church and I believe I speak from those same Christian values that have driven others to oppose the bill. Such is the role of values.

It is my view that the people of New South Wales understand the role of the conscience vote. Historically it has been used in only a limited fashion and has been confined to matters of social or religious values. The electorate appreciates that it is not possible for their elected representative to agree with all views simultaneously, and when they elect their parliamentary representative they elect that person understanding that there will from time to time be occasions when the elected member's conscience does not agree with theirs. Electors vote for or against us appreciating that our personal values and capacity for judgement will need to be exercised from time to time and, as is the Australian way, I believe that personal differences can be understood and respected in our communities. On this issue I have neither polled nor focus group-tested my communities in the Goulburn electorate. I am confident that they believe I will do what I think is right, as will all others in this House.

It would be a great deal easier to oppose this bill; the status quo rarely needs defending to the same degree as change, and in any case I strongly support the notion that children are theoretically entitled to be brought up by both a mother and a father. In the best of all possible worlds, a man and a woman united in love and care for each other with the common purpose of giving their children the best childhood and opportunities in life is an ideal. I appreciate that there is some research to the contrary, as the Minister opined. But in my experience children thrive where the family has both a man and a woman as parents and where there is the opportunity for male and female role-modelling and mentoring. A diversity of experiences for the child to draw upon, much like diversity in the workplace, uncontroversially is considered to provide better outcomes. That is why we have Father's Day as well as Mother's Day—to celebrate, apart from anything else, the different things our parents do for us.

Same-sex families where the other biological parent is also regularly involved in the child's life is a mature way of recognising this absence and is increasingly common. But the truth is there are a number of very obvious reasons why we no longer live in a world where father and mother families are the only option. In New South Wales, homosexuals can already adopt a child and do. Single parent families are increasingly common. Open adoption often means a child has a relationship with both its adoptive and natural parents. Homosexual foster parents are part of almost all out-of-home-care agencies, including faith-based agencies. In other words, we have long since accepted that the interests of the child come first and that if a homosexual person or couple is best placed to give a child the love and protection they need, then that must be the overwhelming principle that drives the decision to allow them to adopt. I have had, as has the Minister and I suspect others in the place, very moving correspondence from children raised in same-sex households who believe they were raised happily, safely and to their benefit.

It also has to be said that there are many heterosexual families where the children are abused and neglected. There are 16,000 children living in New South Wales who have been removed from the care of their parents because of neglect or abuse. In my limited experience as shadow Minister in the dozens of cases brought to my attention I have not encountered one case in which a child has been removed from a same-sex household. That certainly does not mean that homosexual households are better places to raise children but it means that heterosexuality has no monopoly on better parenting. Surely a child is better off in the home of two people who love the child and each other than with a couple who beat and mistreat the child or each other. That is certainly the direction given to the courts by governments of both persuasions over the years, and in that sense the sexual preferences of the couple are a secondary consideration in adoption matters. In my electorate I know several same-sex couples who are outstanding foster carers, especially since these children very often have high needs.

One of the challenges I constantly confront as shadow Minister for Community Services is the sense of entitlement among parents and step-parents that because they are the birth mother, the stepfather or the birth father they are entitled to spend the family allowance specifically provided for their children on gambling, drugs or alcohol, or to abuse and neglect a child without reprimand or accountability because the child is theirs. Even in families without child protection histories there is frequent evidence that parents believe they have a right to treat their children as they see fit, unfettered by responsibilities. Of course, as the legally competent person they are entitled and required to make decisions on behalf of the child, to expect standards of behaviour and even to impose their values and culture upon a child as part of that child's upbringing.

In a loving family environment, whether it be same-sex or heterosexual, parental responsibilities, including responsibility for the provision of care, education and other gifts, but also responsibility for imposing discipline, limits and rules, merge with the adult's rights, such as private property rights, cultural and religious rights and rights of personal taste, to form a safe and predictable family framework. Each family's framework is inevitably different. In these circumstances the functioning family is essentially beyond the reach of the courts and of the State—love, care and commitment being the electromagnetic bonds within a family that combine to produce safe and happy children and resilient and functioning adults of the next generation.

Our children struggle from our bodies into the world fragile, unasked and unprotected; and it is we, their parents, who have no rights to that parenthood but instead have an enormous responsibility which we must constantly earn—and most of us do. Conversely, the newborn child has a number of rights and absolutely no responsibilities. Teaching responsibility occurs throughout childhood and is an essential part of bringing up a child to adulthood. It is one of the most frustrating aspects of this debate that the rights of the child to a safe and happy upbringing are conflated with the rights of homosexual couples to be parents. In my view people have no rights at all to be parents. It is a great privilege and enormous responsibility, but it is not a right, except in the narrowest sense that people are primarily born with the physiological capacity to form offspring.

I do not see this debate as at all linked with the homosexual or same-sex rights debate. In this I differ with my colleagues the member for Balmain and the member for Canterbury who have argued that this bill is about removing a form of discrimination against gay people. It is not because I see parenthood not as a right but as a great responsibility and honour. Adoption is not a right for parents. As the long and arduous adoption process demonstrates, it must be earned and proven to be appropriate. Nor do I believe that homosexual or same-sex adoption will inevitably lead to the legalisation of same-sex marriage, again because same-sex adoption is not about the rights of same-sex people and thus cannot be connected with the marriage debate. Indeed, were a same-sex marriage bill to be introduced in this place—of course, the Marriage Act is a Federal Act—I believe a number of us would indicate in our voting preference exactly where we stood on the same-sex marriage issue and its connection with same-sex adoption.

What we might all and must agree is that this bill is about the rights of a child to have parents who love them and, even more importantly, care for them and to bring them up. We are talking about people who are prepared to put themselves through the adoption process, which involves the ceaseless examination of criminal records, financial support, psychological soundness and so on, to prove themselves fit to be the legal parent of a child. In opposing the bill before us we would then deny children the full enjoyment of that right to live in a loving and stable home with two parents whether they be of the same sex or heterosexual. We know from all the research that almost always these children are the biological offspring of one of the partners in a same-sex relationship.

This legislation is about enabling the non-natural parent to assume the legal responsibilities, not the legal rights, available to the natural parent. It means that the non-birth parent is also responsible when things go wrong, that the child has the right to stay, see or even live with that parent should the parental relationship break up, and a legal responsibility to provide for the child in their estate after death and during the child's upbringing. These are not always easy responsibilities and I see no notion of right being attached to any of them. Even the so-called right to visit a child in hospital is really the responsibility to visit the child that one cares for and the child's right to expect that its parents will both be able to attend them.

I understand that many foster parents seek to adopt their children and that this process currently takes a number of years. During those years the views of the natural parents are sought and the record of the foster parents in caring for the children is closely considered by the court. It has been said that natural parents might not give their children up for adoption if they believe the child would be adopted by same-sex parents. We are talking in this instance of that very small number of adoptions where the adoptive parents and child are not known to each other. That consideration might also apply to natural parents who would prefer their child to be adopted by others of the same race, religion or even disability as themselves.

For this reason, I understand an amendment to the anti-discrimination legislation has been proposed that would enable faith-based adoption agencies to exercise these same discriminatory judgements and has been incorporated in this bill. I welcome that change. In any event, by exempting faith-based adoption agencies from this bill, there is already the capacity for natural parents to seek to process their adoption through an agency with a similar view to their own about same-sex or heterosexual family preferences and, indeed, about ethnicity or religion.

I understand also that there is the possibility of an amendment that would limit this bill to adoptions where there is a biological link with one of the adoptive parents, as is the case in Tasmania. Although that would limit the impact of the bill considerably, I believe it would also make it much more acceptable to those many members of this House who are concerned that stranger adoptions would give heterosexual couples equal footing with homosexual couples when there is a strong view in the community that, all things being equal, heterosexual families are preferable. I see this as an academic debating point because all things are never in reality equal. However, I await the amendment with interest.

I support this bill as a social conservative. I believe in parental commitment, in particular as a means of underpinning the rights of children to a happy and safe childhood of hope and promise. I do not believe that the thin edge of the wedge argument necessarily applies here because it is always up to the good judgement of the Parliament of the day. That is why, for example, the legality of a homosexual individual being able to adopt should not be seen as the thin edge of the wedge for same-sex couple adoption. The importance of children being adopted by those who will primarily love and care for them makes their own sexual preferences very much a secondary consideration, as the courts well know.

What adults choose to do with their relationships is, these days, pretty much up to them. In an age when women are able to enjoy financial and legal independence, commitment in relationships is a personal choice and no longer a legal necessity for the protection of the weaker party. However, for children, so frail and so very vulnerable, it is different. For them I strongly believe that growing up within a committed environment, where both, not one, of their parents is legally as well as notionally committed to protecting, rearing, encouraging and developing them throughout their childhood, is what will make the difference through the legal confirmation of those parental responsibilities. It is true that de facto heterosexual couples enjoy similar parental responsibilities to married parents. However, that is precisely because de facto couples may be married. Because same-sex couples cannot marry they therefore cannot have de facto parental obligations conferred upon them. ...

Indeed, enabling same-sex adoption removes one very powerful argument for same-sex marriage; that is, the need to protect the rights of the children who are part of that relationship. We all know the difference commitment makes to a relationship and how, in the case of adoption, that commitment must be even harder fought for than it is for those of us lucky enough to bear our children or to be their biological parent. Children may nor may not do better in families with same-sex parents than in heterosexual households. That is clearly open to debate. However, in my view as a social conservative, children will do better in families where both parents are committed to those children. For biological parents, culture, history and deep instincts make that easier. For those who are not so connected, the commitment of legal parentage through adoption will go a long way towards strengthening those bonds.

This is certainly not to say that there are not same-sex couples where both are equally committed to the children, whoever is the biological parent. However, a bit like heterosexual parentage, the relationship of itself is no guarantee of that. A formalising of the bond between each parent and the child does in my view make the difference. I commend the bill and look forward to considering the amendments that will be proposed. We must put the happiness and wellbeing of our children first. Modern life, especially modern family life, is too varied, too complex and too different to justify restricting parenthood. Instead, we must promote parenting that gives each child the same right to love, care and commitment. This is indeed the right thing.

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