ADOPTION AMENDMENT (SAME SEX COUPLES) BILL 2010 (NO. 2)
Agreement in Principle
Debate resumed from 1 September 2010.
Mr BARRY O'FARRELL
(Ku-ring-gai—Leader of the Opposition) [10.01 a.m.]: 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.
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 and make their decisions, free of any influence from 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 to 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 nurturing 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 to 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.
Mr GRANT McBRIDE
(The Entrance) [10.12 a.m.]: My position on the Adoption Amendment (Same Sex Couples) Bill 2010 (No. 2) and other legislation on which there is a conscience vote is based on my experiences during my journey to this Parliament. Following the March 1991 election the results were referred to the Court of Disputed Returns. In November 1991 the court ruled in favour of a by-election, and on 18 January 1992 I came to this place. The period of two years from when I first became a candidate until I was elected to this place in 1992 was incredibly difficult for me and my family. The pressure was enormous. We had a family meeting: my wife, Barbara, our older children, William, who was 18 at the time, Emma, 16, and Nick, 14, and the other younger members of the family sat around the table and had a discussion. I could not do this job without the total support of my family. There was no way I could have done the job with the number of children we had, our financial position and what we wanted for our children. Their only condition was that I always support the philosophy and values of our family, whatever the political consequences.
In Parliament, in caucus and in my party I have always stood up for those values and that commitment to my family, whatever the political consequences. And there have been political consequences. I have and always will stand up for the values we agreed on. The test for me always is to test the proposition against the philosophy we live by. Unfortunately, this proposition is against our philosophy. I am not saying that my philosophy is right or wrong; I am saying that that is my philosophy. I must live by that philosophy and I do so, and I will not do anything else while I am a member of Parliament. I understand that other people have different views. I am not in conflict with their views or philosophies. In this Parliament I stand by my philosophy, and in that situation I will be opposing this legislation.
Mrs JILLIAN SKINNER
(North Shore—Deputy Leader of the Opposition) [10.15 a.m.]: At the outset I indicate that I appreciated the practice of the Leader of the Opposition in keeping his opinion to himself before speaking in this place so as not to unduly influence others. That was a noble way to approach this issue. I say to the member for The Entrance that, because it is a conscience vote, I absolutely accept the right of all members in this place to have their point of view, to express it and to express it as strongly as they can, because all of us respect each other's right to have an opinion based on their philosophy, convictions and beliefs. That is how I have approached this issue. I acknowledge that this has been a difficult decision for many people, me included. I can see arguments on both sides. However, in considering this legislation I asked myself: What is in the best interests of the child? I believe most members have asked themselves the same question. It is interesting that, having approached the issue from that point of view, some of us have come to vastly different conclusions.
In a perfect world children should be nurtured in a caring family environment with a mum and a dad showering them with love. I am truly grateful that I was raised in such a family, and that is the situation in which my children were raised; my children are now raising their children in a similar environment. We are totally blessed because not every family is like that. Indeed, when my children were small I sometimes ranted and raved about the number of their friends who were sleeping on the couch in our house. There was never a serious intention not to allow it, because I understood that many of them were not living in a loving environment with mum and dad. Sometimes the families were totally dysfunctional; sometimes people just did not get on with each other. So to suggest that the only place for a child to be nurtured and cared for is in a house with a mum and a dad is not right.
We have heard evidence in this debate about children living in abusive situations, most frequently, sadly, involving families with heterosexual parents. So what is this legislation about and who will it affect? The 2006 census shows that more than 1,500 children were living in same-sex families in New South Wales. At June 2009 there were just over 1,500 children living in out-of-home care in this State—75 per cent of them over the age of five—with increasing numbers and a current shortage of foster carers. It is interesting to note, and it has been said by many speakers, that same-sex couples are permitted to foster children. The New South Wales Legislative Council's Standing Committee on Law and Justice report titled "Adoption by same-sex couples" states:
From 1 July 2007 to 30 June 2008, a total of 125 adoption orders were finalised in NSW. Of those adoptions, 73 were intercountry. Of the remaining 52 local adoptions, 15 were unknown and 37 were known adoptions. Known adoptions for this period were comprised of ten step-parent, 22 foster carer, three other relative and two special case adoptions. During this period, 19 children were placed for adoption in the local adoption program.
That is partly the current situation. We also have inconsistency in the law. The current Adoption Act does not prevent a single person, whether heterosexual or homosexual, from being considered as an adoptive parent. The current legislation does not therefore guarantee, as some may believe, that a child will be raised by a mother and a father. Many same-sex couples are foster carers. Indeed, same-sex couples have been actively recruited as foster carers for many years. Page 17 of the Standing Committee on Law and Justice report states:
Same-sex couples in the Australian Capital Territory and Western Australia have equal access to adoption with heterosexual couples. In Tasmania same-sex couples are permitted to adopt a child who is related to a member of the couple. In all other states and territories there is no provision for same-sex couples to adopt. In every jurisdiction same-sex couples and individuals are permitted to provide foster care.
As I said earlier, what does this mean for the child? That is really what has focused my mind. I was particularly moved by the Leader of the Opposition's comments in this place about the potential grief caused for the child who has been living very happily in a warm, same-sex couple environment if something happens to one of those parents. It is difficult to imagine the amount of grief the child would suffer having lost one of their parents, but for the child to then be cast aside and told they have no relationship with the remaining parent is just too difficult to contemplate.
A similar situation applies when it comes to people being injured. If one of the parents in a same-sex relationship is seriously ill and is rushed to hospital—indeed, if the child is rushed to hospital—the other partner has no rights in relation to being informed about what medical procedures are conducted; they simply have no right to know and no right to involvement. With regard to inheritance, children in the care of same-sex couples who are adopted would have automatic rights to inherit property and superannuation upon the death of their adoptive parents.
What do the experts and the public say? I have been fascinated by the response in my electorate. I acknowledge that a very large number of homosexual and lesbian people live in my electorate. Indeed, according to the census information provided by the New South Wales Parliamentary Library my electorate has the second largest number of homosexual and lesbian constituents of any electorate in the State. It is perhaps not surprising then that I have received more letters in support of this legislation than against it—although, I confess, not many more. Many other people have contacted me personally and via email, and they have all been in favour of the legislation; perhaps they are more passionate about the issue. I acknowledge that there are people from outside the electorate who have contacted me, as they have every member of this Parliament, and I have read and considered their views. However, I have to give weight in favour of those I represent.
I also acknowledge that some organisations are strongly opposed to the bill. Heads of the Anglican, Roman Catholic and Presbyterian churches and the Chief Executive Officer of Wesley Mission have written to all members of Parliament expressing grave concerns about the bill. As the organisations say in their letter, "Every child has the right to know and be raised by his or her natural parents, as far as possible." I agree. However, as I indicated earlier, sadly that is not always the case. Indeed, the church leaders acknowledge that fact in their letter. They say they do not question "the ability of a homosexual person to love and care for a child". I have considered their views carefully, along with many others, and in forming my view I have focused on the passage in their letter that reads:
The best interests of the child
The Adoption Act states that "the best interests of the child concerned, both in childhood and later life, must be the paramount consideration" in the matter of adoption.
Organisations that support the bill include the Benevolent Society, the Council of Social Service of New South Wales, the Association of Child Welfare Agencies, the Child Protection Society, the National Children and Youth Law Centre, Uniting Care, and Barnardos. I particularly note the comments in the letter from Barnardos, which is an organisation that frequently cares for children who have been the victims of abuse, and who are probably the most difficult children to place in foster care. The letter from Barnardos reads:
For many people adoption is a matter of caring for babies, however the average age of children adopted in Barnardos' permanent foster care programs is nine years. All of the children have suffered significant abuse and neglect, are permanently removed from their birth parents and all the children have strong healing relationships with their foster carers.
Barnardos says it is strongly in favour of same-sex couples being allowed to adopt. Many of these organisations gave evidence or forwarded submissions to the New South Wales Parliament's Standing Committee on Law and Justice. In the foreword to the committee's report entitled "Adoption by same-sex couples" the chair of the committee wrote:
The Committee has determined that the Adoption Act 2000 should be amended to allow same-sex couples to adopt, but that an exemption from the application of the Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 be created for faith-based adoption agencies.
I note that the bill contains such an amendment, which I support, as I do the amendment foreshadowed by the member for Rockdale giving birth parents the right to have a say in this matter. The chair's foreword continues:
The Committee has concluded that reform to allow same-sex couples to adopt in NSW will protect children's rights and help to ensure children's best interests.
I do not intend to read onto the record the summary of the committee's recommendations, except to say that I believe they are worthy recommendations. I note that the report has not been endorsed by all members. As has been said, this is a conscience matter, where people will bring their faith and their family views into account, and I have done that. It is for that reason, and in the interests of the child, that I will support the bill.
Mr ROBERT COOMBS
(Swansea) [10.26 a.m.]: I lend my support to the Adoption Amendment (Same Sex Couples) Bill 2010 (No. 2). First and foremost I support the bill because I believe government should facilitate what is in the best interests of the child. And the bill is in the best interests of the child. It is not simply about removing discrimination for same-sex couples; it is also about removing discrimination for their children. Children have the right to a secure, stable and loving family—I am sure we all agree with that—and the bill will assist in providing this through law.
Children in New South Wales with same-sex parents are not currently offered the same rights as children of heterosexual couples: these children have only one legal parent. This means that if the legal parent's partner dies or is injured at work, that child does not have rights to access workers compensation or rights to an inheritance. If the child is injured and must go to hospital, one parent is not entitled to make any decisions about medical treatment. If a same-sex couple has fostered a child and they want to take the next step of adopting that child as a couple, they cannot. That point has been made time and again by previous speakers. Children can currently be adopted by gay and lesbian people; however, they are assessed only as individuals and not as part of a couple.
The bill levels the playing field and seeks to have same-sex couples assessed on their merits as a couple and on their ability to provide a good home for the child. Organisations that support the bill include the Benevolent Society, which said in a letter:
Our experience indicates that prospective adoptive parents should be assessed on the basis of their suitability as parents, not their sexual orientation ... By denying the right to adopt, we are denying these children a secure future.
UnitingCare NSW.ACT said:
The issue should be established on the best interests of the child and without discrimination in regard to the potential adoptive parents ... Uniting Care NSW ACT also supports this bill as it would remove discriminatory practices from the adoption process and would also increase the pool of potential parents available to agencies involved in adoption.
The Association of Children's Welfare Agency pointed out in its submission to the inquiry into this matter that:
The needs of the child are the predominant factors in adoption matters and, as such, an inclusive approach that equally considers same-sex applicants is needed.
The Adoption Act 2000 needs to be grounded in International Law and the principals before the law.
Research shows there is no connection between people's parenting abilities and their sexual orientation.
I understand that there are some religion-based agencies that do not wish to facilitate the process of adoption by same-sex couples. This bill also provides for them and they will not be forced to do so. This bill is the final piece of legislation that removes discrimination for gay and lesbian people in New South Wales, something I consider an excellent achievement for our Parliament, our State and our country. I strongly believe and recognise that all families deserve to be treated with equality. As a result of that principle I have not hesitation in commending this bill to the House.
Mrs DAWN FARDELL
(Dubbo) [10.30 a.m.]: I speak to the important Adoption Amendment (Same Sex Couples) Bill 2010 (No. 2) that is before this House. Many members of Parliament have spoken about many issues that I feel strongly about. I remind the House that 100 years ago women, once considered a minority group, were given the right to vote, yet today we are still debating the rights of citizens who many in the community consider a minority group. All members of this House have received correspondence from various groups and individuals for and against the bill. To date I have only received opinions from 16 of my constituents. I have read all of their comments together with concerns from other New South Wales residents. Representations were made from children whose natural mother was in a same-sex relationship; two males in my area in an established caring, stable relationship have raised one of the male's natural 12-year-old daughter from the age of three weeks; and from citizens in same-sex and heterosexual relationships.
Many religious organisations have also sent me their considerations against this bill with the common statement, "Every child has the right to know and be raised by his or her natural parents ..." and "… adopted children are entitled to the enriching human experiences of mothering and fathering, especially since their situation is already outside the family norm of most children". In 2010 the norm is: natural mother and father, married, raising children; natural mother and father, unmarried, raising children; mother and father, divorced, sharing the raising of children; divorced mother raising children; divorced father raising children; unmarried mother raising children; unmarried mother raising children, not necessarily having same father; uncles or aunties or grandmothers raising children from all of the above; and children being raised by step-parents.
We only raise one eyebrow at any of the above, which are now the majority. However, we raise two eyebrows if a child is being cared for in a same-sex household. Many children have been raised with good care in all of those environments and many children have not enjoyed their childhood as a result of conflict within the family norm—that is, with a natural mother and father constantly arguing. Is that a good environment for a child? I was raised with my natural parents, and there were arguments at times. However, some friends were not, and their situation was not affected. The Benevolent Society advises:
During our many years' experience working with children and families, we have seen clear evidence that an individual or couple's sexuality has no impact on their ability to provide high-quality care and a nurturing environment for a child.
Our experience indicates that prospective adoptive parents should be assessed on the basis of their suitability as parents, not their sexual orientation.
Same-sex foster families, step-parents, need adoption to ensure they also have equal rights and protection under the law. I believe this bill will act in the best interests of children and remove the discrimination in adoption law. The child will be given recognised parental authority, the right to inherit property and superannuation upon the death of their adoptive parents, and rights to child support and workers compensation if an adoptive parent is seriously injured at work—all those entitlements for a child being raised in heterosexual relationships. I have always been involved with children in my community—my own family, school community, sporting community, charity community and my beloved Police and Community Youth Club. The children are our future. We make decisions in this House not for us but for our children and those who have not yet been born. I commend the member for Sydney for introducing this bill, which I fully support.
Mr STEVE WHAN
(Monaro—Minister for Primary Industries, Minister for Emergency Services, and Minister for Rural Affairs) [10.35 a.m.]: I support this very important Adoption Amendment (Same Sex Couples) Bill 2010 (No. 2), and I will put onto the record why I support it. A number of people have said to me that as I am in a marginal regional seat I should not support this legislation. My reply is that an important principle for me is to vote in accordance with my beliefs on such matters regardless of whether it will have ramifications in my electorate. Most members have referred to the need for a child to grow up in a loving and nurturing environment. In my view that environment is not determined by whether a child is raised by heterosexual parents in the traditional nuclear family, by one parent or by a same-sex couple but by the attitudes of the parents and their ability to be parents.
As a local member, one of the saddest things I see is children who are not given the right opportunities in life because their carers are living in an abusive or violent relationship, there is too much alcohol in the house or they are not given the opportunity to properly learn to read and write because they are not read to or there are no books in the house. A whole range of matters can be detrimental to a child's upbringing but those things do not include the status of the parents or their sexual orientation. This bill and the Adoption Act make those judgements on adoption very carefully on what is in the best interests of the child and the abilities of those care givers to give a loving and nurturing environment to a child.
I have been impressed by most of the speeches made by members from both sides of the House in relation to this legislation. They have presented their genuine views, which is their right, and they should be admired. An argument that I do not accept from those who oppose the bill is that while ever there are enough heterosexual parents who want to adopt children we should not have a bill like this one. That attitude fails to recognise the fact that so many children are living with parents who may find their homosexuality after they have had a child, or even had a child and are now living in a relationship, or were living in that relationship when they had the child. They are the natural parents to those children and to deny the other partner the chance to take on the responsibilities and legal rights as a parent is discriminatory and very unfair on that child who is denied the opportunity to have a loving parent and, as members have pointed out, legal rights in relation to inheritance, property et cetera. Arguing that for those children as long as there is a heterosexual parent who is willing to take them they should not be given that right is just sticking your head in the sand. That is very disappointing.
Similarly, denying a child who is in a loving relationship with parents who are looking after that child through the work of the Department of Community Services or any other agency the opportunity to be the official legal parent to that child is also, I think, being very unfair to that child's interests. Recently I heard the incredible argument that the bill is promoting abortions. That is just too ludicrous to respond to—in many ways. It is very clear that the legislation takes into account the views of the natural parents of a child when decisions on adoption are made. I want my community to be very clear that those views are taken into account when adoption decisions are made. The most important issue for agencies when considering potential parents for a child is the best interests of the child. A range of issues are considered, including the views of the natural parents, but most important is the quality of the parents the child will go to.
The bill gives us the opportunity to end discrimination. Importantly, it allows children living in relationships with same-sex couples, who are providing them with a nurturing environment, to be legally recognised and to enjoy the associated benefits. All members contributing to the debate share the view that we want children to live in a loving and nurturing environment. This bill helps to achieve that. I will take great pride in supporting the bill when it comes to the vote. The exemption for faith-based agencies is also pleasing. I acknowledge those with faith issues that oppose this bill. I do not share those views and in this conscience vote I have the right to express that. I thank the Premier for allowing us a conscience vote. I admired her speech yesterday in support of this bill. I also admired the speech made by the member for Orange, who has taken a very principled position in this matter, and I congratulate him as I congratulate all participants in this debate. I commend the bill to the House.
Mr DARYL MAGUIRE
(Wagga Wagga) [10.40 a.m.]: I begin by acknowledging the very powerful contributions that have been made by all members in this place. I wish that all debates could be like this one. Members have approached the issues very professionally. This debate has shown how parliaments can operate. I have struggled with this bill since it was introduced by the member for Sydney. I have given it a great deal of thought. Like all members, I have spoken to family and friends to ascertain their views, but in the end it is my responsibility to cast my vote according to my conscience and not what is politically popular, as the member for Monaro has commented. In recent interviews I have said that I will do what I think is right for the child. I have always held the belief that the best environment for a child is with a mother and father but, as we know, those relationships are not always perfect. As local members we see examples of dysfunction within families every day. Families of all types exist, function and provide a loving environment to children, and in this day and age we need to recognise that children in all types of environments need support.
I have read the bill from top to bottom. I am pleased the member for Sydney withdrew the original bill because I could not have supported it. I am more comfortable with the bill now because it contains exemptions. I am pleased that the member for Rockdale has foreshadowed an amendment, which I will support. That amendment will give greater strength to the bill. I will support the bill and the amendment but I reserve the right to change my mind if the amendment does not succeed. The amendment foreshadowed by the member for Rockdale is a very positive one, which will strengthen the bill.
In my time as a member of this Parliament this House has dealt with a number of bills such as this. It is the responsibility of members to legislate, not to judge people on their sexuality or relationships. That is not my job. I will never do that. We have to deal with legislation to provide better futures for children and I believe this bill will help to do that. I have received correspondence from constituents and peak bodies, and all of them have put forward arguments both for and against. The opinions of others can sometimes be expressed in overenthusiastic ways or be overzealous, but that has not occurred in this place. The debate has been very measured and powerful. As I said, I have enjoyed it. I do not know what the outcome of the vote will be but no matter what occurs I hope we can continue the depth of input and dialogue that has occurred. I hope our parties will continue to allow us a conscience vote when issues such as this come before the House. I thank the Leader of the Opposition for allowing us the opportunity to cast a conscience vote and for the way in which he has withheld his position to not influence members—I purposely have done that as well. I have considered and listened to the debate and formed my opinion, which has changed on a number of occasions from listening to other speakers. I have decided to support the bill and the amendment.
Mr GERARD MARTIN
(Bathurst) [10.45 a.m.]: I support the Adoption Amendment (Same Sex Couples) Bill 2010 (No. 2). Amendments to the bill have been foreshadowed and although we are not fully aware of their content we have a reasonable idea. Other amendments may be forthcoming that we are not aware of. Notwithstanding that, I cannot perceive any amendment that would sway me from supporting the bill as presented by the member for Sydney. I particularly congratulate the Minister for Community Services, who is at the table, on her contribution to the debate yesterday. She outlined the position with adeptness, a great deal of compassion and intelligence. Many members have said they have wrestled with this bill. I have not had that problem because the proposition we are discussing here is pretty simple.
The bill will amend the definitions of "couple" and "spouse" in the Act to include reference to a de facto partner as defined in the Interpretation Act 1987, which does not specify whether a person is of the same or of a different sex. It will also provide consequential amendments to the Adoption Regulation 2003 and the Births, Deaths and Marriages Regulation 2006 to enable the recording of information about the adoption of children by couples of the same sex. That is pretty much a procedural matter. We are not dealing with complex legislation; we are dealing with something that spreads equality and fairness to people adopting children.
One of the arguments of those opposing this bill is that children have an inalienable right to a mother and a father. I am not sure that claim would stand scrutiny. We all come from different circumstances. I was brought up in a single-parent family. My father deserted my family very early and I was raised by my mother and a network of very loving aunties and uncles. Whilst I probably wish I had had a father throughout my life, I do not think not having one greatly disadvantaged me. Even in the past 10 or 15 years when we have had a much more liberal attitude to people of the same sexual persuasion forming relationships there have been all sorts of issues within families. The criterion is always the environment within those families, not the sexual persuasion of the parents: Is it a loving and caring environment where the children are nurtured, looked after and given every opportunity?
In the past I have heard of no great objection to homosexual people being foster parents—and being wonderful foster parents—yet we baulk at the last hurdle and say they cannot be legal parents. It is nonsense! If there were an issue relating to children not having a mother and a father it would have become known during the years that homosexual people have been able to be foster parents. Indeed, a single homosexual person can adopt a child, so why not a couple living in a loving de facto relationship?
What also needs to be stressed is that the Adoption Act is the predominant legislation in this field, so no matter what the orientation or circumstances of the parents they must pass the strict scrutiny of the adoption legislation. We are talking about a very small program—20-plus children per year—which requests that the views of the children's birth parents be taken into account in the placement of a child for adoption. That is not going to change. Birth parents are offered the opportunity to choose from a number of couples assessed as suitable to parent their child. Experience shows that birth parents tend to favour married couples who will provide the child with a traditional family upbringing which they feel single parents are unable to offer. Those people, particularly those from the far Right, who see this as the end of normal nuclear families would do well to take that on board.
We have heard argument about the normal nuclear family with a mother and father being the only way that a child can get a proper upbringing. The adoption agencies—Barnardos and company, which have a fantastic reputation in this area and have been providing the service for years—see no issue with this. The Catholic Church, of which I am a member, and the Anglican Church take a different view. Probably the most controversial aspect of the legislation is that they have been given the option to opt out if they wish. It appears to me that all parties have had their positions covered. As a Catholic I had a different view on some of the stem cell issues that came before this House, but on this matter I do not see any conflict with my Catholic faith. I think the Premier really gave chapter and verse on this yesterday in what was a pretty intellectual speech. There would not be too many people in this House who have a better understanding of the scriptures, the Bible
and the teachings of the church than the Premier, because it is part of her vocation in life. I think she made a fairly strong argument.
To a certain extent we try to reflect what the people of our electorates feel. The Bathurst electorate is a fairly conservative electorate. We have both Anglican and Catholic dioceses, with two wonderful bishops. There has been very little opposition—probably 10 or 12—to this legislation in my electorate. There have been scores of people supporting it. At the end of the day it is a decision we have to make with our conscience. The issue is one of fairness and equality. The overriding issue in the legislation brought forward by the member for Sydney is that all children available for adoption should have exactly the same privileges and rights. For that reason I cannot see how I could do anything but support the legislation.
Mr RAY WILLIAMS
(Hawkesbury) [10.53 a.m.]: In this day and age not to appreciate or respect the fact that there are many different make-ups of families, many different make-ups of relationships, all raising children, would be incorrect and naive. However, I am charged with the responsibility, as an elected member of this Parliament, to make a decision in relation to the bill before me, and I make that decision not based on any deep religious thoughts and certainly not on any discrimination towards same-sex couples but based personally on my experience as the son of a mother and a father, having been raised in a wonderful loving environment, and also as the father of two children whom I hope I have raised in the same manner—who are now of an age as adults where they will be going forward and hopefully providing their father with some grandchildren in the very near future.
I will be opposing the bill as it is at this point in time, and I do so on the basis that I am charged with the responsibility of making a decision in the best interests of a child who has been put forward for adoption. I mean no disrespect to same-sex couples, who I certainly believe are capable of raising children—they are, they do and they will well into the future. But at this time we have a small pool of babies put forward for adoption and a large pool of people in heterosexual relationships, prospective mums and dads, who are quite capable of raising children, and if I have to make a decision on what is in the best interests of a baby that decision is to have that child raised by a mother and father. To suggest that every mother and father or every marriage is absolutely perfect would be wrong. It would be wrong to think that all adopted children will be raised in the very best environment. However, I am unable to base this judgement on anything other than my experience of being raised by a mother and father and raising my children in the same way. I believe it is in the best interests of a baby to be raised with the compassion, care, kindness, love and role models of both a mother and father to give the baby the best and soundest environment in which to grow into a responsible person in the years ahead.
I respect the words of all members in this House. As has already been put, it is a pity that there are not more debates in this Chamber where people can speak from the heart and state what they truly believe. It has been a pleasure to sit back and listen. This has not been a difficult decision for me to make—I made my decision some time ago—but I have listened to many of the thoughts that have been put forward and I respect and appreciate all of them. I also appreciate the thoughts expressed in the torrent of correspondence that has come to my office from both sides of this debate. I also appreciate the democracy of this House with everybody making a decision and then having a conscience vote.
Mr GEOFF CORRIGAN
(Camden) [10.56 a.m.]: I had not intended to speak on the Adoption Amendment (Same Sex Couples) Bill (No. 2) but, like the member for Bathurst, I did not struggle with this matter at all; I support the bill. I have been listening intently to the views put forward and I congratulate everyone. All the speakers have put forward heartfelt and cogent arguments. Like the member for Monaro, I come from what is viewed largely as a conservative electorate. People have said to me, "You might lose votes by doing this." What I say is that the people of Camden expect me to do what I feel is right, and I think that this is the right way to go.
The reason I believe it is right is that there are two primary considerations for me in the bill. The first and overriding consideration is the welfare of the child: what is best for the child. Nothing in this bill has changed that at all. I urge people to read the Adoption Act carefully. I know that every member of Parliament has now read it. It will be seen that the primary focus of the Act is to take care of the welfare of the child. This bill does not change that. For me, it also removes the last bit of discrimination amongst the various bills in the New South Wales Parliament. This was very clearly outlined by the Leader of the Opposition as he went through the list of wrongs that have been righted, injustices that have been made right, in the New South Wales Parliament over past years—and I congratulate him on that. I commend the bill to the House.
Mr PETER BESSELING
(Port Macquarie) [10.58 a.m.]: I speak briefly to the Adoption Amendment (Same Sex Couples) Bill (No. 2). The overriding consideration of members of Parliament in relation to this bill is whether or not the amendments proposed today are in line with the objectives of the current legislation, and particularly whether or not the best interests of a child that is the subject of an adoption order are maintained or advanced. In considering this bill many in this Parliament have been forced to challenge our beliefs and practices and to understand how those beliefs and practices relate to the bill that is before us. My personal commitment to my family, my wife and two children has weighed heavily in my consideration of this issue. I have also sought counsel and opinion from a wide variety of sources.
If nothing else, this legislation has forced many in our community to analyse their current relationships and how they relate to their feelings about other relationships that are different to their own. People have also gained a much broader understanding of the adoption process and perhaps even a new-found respect for the wonderful gift of parenting that many in our community provide to children other than their own. Adoptions within Australia are divided into two categories: unknown and known adoptions. In unknown adoptions the child concerned generally has not had any prior contact with the adoptive parents. This usually occurs when the child has been relinquished by his or her birth parents and is available for adoption by suitable applicants. Known adoptions are where a child has an existing relationship with the prospective adoptive parents, such as relatives, step-parents and carers, including foster carers. In the case of known adoptions, the child is usually not available for adoption by other people.
The Standing Committee on Law and Justice report entitled "Adoption by same-sex couples" notes that from 1 July 2007 to 30 June 2008 a total of 125 adoption orders were finalised in New South Wales. Of those adoptions, 73 were intercountry. Of the remaining 52 local adoptions, 15 were unknown and 37 were known adoptions. Known adoptions for this period comprised 10 step-parent, 22 foster carer, three other relative and two special case adoptions. During this period 19 children were placed for adoption in the local adoption program.
Therefore, using these statistics as a guide to local adoptions, known adoptions outnumber unknown adoptions by a factor of more than two to one. In the local adoption program run by Community Services a rigorous assessment process by accredited adoption agencies is undertaken to determine suitability to adopt, following which prospective parents enter a pool and have a profile prepared for consideration by the birth parents. There is no waiting list or date priority system. The birth parents have an opportunity to consider a full range of criteria that they may deem most suitable for the upbringing of their child. Consideration of the child's physical and emotional needs, and age and maturity are such examples.
Under the proposed legislation this opportunity would remain to consider the nature of the prospective parents' relationship. Single, married, heterosexual, homosexual or de facto can all be taken into account. There is no evidence in relation to unknown adoptions that this bill will weaken the current objective of the Adoption Act to act in the best interests of the child concerned. It is also important to recognise that under current legislation homosexual individuals can and do adopt children in New South Wales. It is therefore beyond the comprehension of a reasonable person to submit that an individual in a safe, loving relationship can provide a better environment than the same couple working together in a safe, loving relationship.
In relation to known adoptions, there are certainly inconsistent approaches to the way society deals with same-sex couples and, in particular, to their roles as parents. Same-sex couples are currently entitled to be foster parents to children in need, fulfilling a much-needed and valuable community service. The role that same-sex couples play as foster parents goes far beyond mere tokenism and can be judged by the fact that they are actively sought through targeted advertising programs. What does it say about our society that we deem same-sex couples as good enough and suitable enough to be parents for both short-term and long-term care, yet we are unwilling to allow the bonds of family to be legally recognised through adoption based solely on the fact that they are homosexual? This bill under consideration would allow these same couples to establish a more permanent, legally recognised relationship with their foster children should they be deemed appropriate through the adoption process.
If the support for same-sex foster parenting shows that our community deems same-sex couples as worthy of consideration as parents, then it follows that adoption should be available to those same couples. Surely the eligibility requirements for foster parents should reflect as closely as possible those of adoptive parents. I note the comments from both UnitingCare and the Benevolent Society. In a letter dated 18 August 2010 Reverend Harry J. Herbert, Executive Director of UnitingCare, New South Wales and Australian Capital Territory, notes:
The key issue for us is the best interests of the child. In our view, the same approach should apply in regard to adoption as we apply in foster care, that is, the issues should be established on the basis of the best interests of the child and without discrimination in regard to the potential adoptive parents.
Richard Spencer, Chief Executive Officer of the Benevolent Society, notes:
During our many years experience working with children and families we have seen clear evidence that an individual or couple's sexuality has no impact on their ability to provide high-quality care and a nurturing environment for a child.
This Parliament acts in the best interests of all members of our society, including those who may not be able to speak up for themselves. I believe that the objects of this bill will advance the cause of children by allowing long-term loving relationships with their parents to be recognised legally, thus providing a more secure future for those children. I therefore support the bill.