Letter to Prime Minister Abbott re Intercountry Adoption by Same-Sex Couples Part 2

In early March I wrote to Prime Minister Abbott about the review, then being undertaken by his department, of Australia’s inter-country adoption arrangements. Specifically, I asked that same-sex couples be included in any potential reforms to be considered at the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) meeting scheduled for Friday 2 May (see original letter here: <https://alastairlawrie.net/2014/03/08/letter-to-prime-minister-abbott-re-inter-country-adoption-by-same-sex-couples/ )

I did not receive a response to my letter until after the COAG meeting (on Monday 5 May), although it was dated 1 May. The reply stated:

 

Dear Mr Lawrie

 

Thank you for your letter of 8 March 2014 to the Prime Minister regarding overseas adoption. I have been asked to reply on the Prime Minister’s behalf. I apologise for the delay in replying.

 

This is an issue that could benefit from attention at the highest levels of government. That’s what it will be getting between now and the next meeting of the Council of Australian Governments.

 

As you note, at present there is no consistency across Australia on whether same-sex couples can adopt a child. The requirements of foreign countries are also relevant, with most of Australia’s current partner countries not allowing adoption by same-sex couples.

 

The Commonwealth Government is committed to working with our state and territory colleagues and stakeholders in this area, including the non-government sector, to deliver reform.

 

Thank you for letting the Government know your views on this issue.

 

Yours sincerely

 

Name Withheld

Assistant Secretary

Which, it has said to be said, was a pretty underwhelming response, especially given the paucity of firm details or commitments. I also cracked a wry smile at the statement that the issue would be getting attention between now (ie the time of writing) and the next COAG meeting – which was held the following day.

In any event, the issue of inter-country adoption was discussed at COAG on Friday 2 May. The Prime Minister, and State Premiers and Territory Chief Ministers, agreed to the following in the official Communique:

Intercountry adoption of children

 

Adopting a child from overseas is an emotional and complex undertaking. Different requirements across Australia can create even more difficulty for families wanting to adopt a child from overseas.

 

COAG supports adoption conducted in the best interests of the child and consistent with the safeguards of the Hague Conventions.

 

COAG agreed in principle to the Commonwealth’s proposal to provide a new national intercountry adoption service for all Australians wanting to adopt a child from overseas.

 

Under the new service, the Commonwealth will fund either a new accredited non-government organisation or organisations, or a Commonwealth agency, to provide services for intercountry adoption by early 2015.

 

The Commonwealth and the States and Territories will work closely together to make sure there is a smooth transition to the new system.

So, some more detail (albeit only a little bit), but also some unanswered questions (including whether same-sex couples are to be included), as well as some new questions (if a non-government organisation contracted to provide inter-country adoption services was religious, could they refuse to provide those services to same-sex couples – but more on that particular issue later).

On the following Monday, 5 May, Prime Minister Abbott issued a Media Release, which revealed a little bit more:

REFORM AND ACTION ON INTERCOUNTRY ADOPTION

 

The Commonwealth Government is committed to adoption reform to enable more people to find families.

 

A new report has identified significant barriers facing Australian families wanting to adopt from overseas.  Inconsistent rules, costs and the lengthy wait to adopt currently deter many people from even starting the adoption process.

 

Last Friday, COAG agreed to a national system for intercountry adoption. The Commonwealth will work vigorously with the States and Territories to have a new system operating by early 2015.

 

The report into intercountry adoption also recommended establishing new country programmes to help more Australian families to adopt.  A new intercountry adoption programme between Australia and South Africa is now in place.

 

South Africa has a strong commitment to finding families within its borders to care for children in need. Where, for whatever reason, a South African family cannot be found, Australian families will be able to help provide permanent loving homes to South African children.  Many of these children will have health needs, and would benefit from the caring environment that Australian families can provide.

 

The Government will introduce amendments to the Australian Citizenship Act so that obtaining Australian citizenship can happen in a child’s country of origin. As well, we will fix the problems associated with the visa system. It is too complicated at the moment and processing times are too long.

 

For too long children who legitimately need a safe and loving home and Australians who dream of providing this home have been hindered by red tape and confusion. The Government is pleased to be able to undertake real action to bring families together.

The accompanying Report of the Interdepartmental Committee on Intercountry Adoption provided some additional information (see link to report here: <http://www.dpmc.gov.au/publications/docs/idc_report_intercountry_adoption.pdf ), although undoubtedly would have provided more had pages 41 onwards, which contained Options for Reform and Recommendations to Government, not been deliberately withheld from the public.

The table on page 30 of the section of the Report that was released at least acknowledged that in four Australian jurisdictions – NSW, Western Australia, Tasmania and the ACT – adoption by same-sex couples is already legal.

On page 32, Table 11: Country of Origin Requirements then spelled out all the different countries where agreements exist, but which deem same-sex couples to be ineligible. Sadly, none of the countries listed currently permit inter-country adoption that does not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation.

The discussion on page 31 helpfully (or should I say rather unhelpfully), noted that “[r]estrictions on same-sex couples adopting was raised by several submissions as a problem… [But] It seems that changes to these criteria would probably have limited impact on intercountry adoption given the country of origins’ criteria.”

Which is absolutely correct. But still does not answer the question of what would happen if Australia were to sign an inter-country agreement which did allow same-sex adoption (or even, as I suggested in my original letter, if Australia were to actively seek to include non-discrimination as a key clause in all of our inter-country agreements)?

And the media release, and accompanying IDC report, didn’t even address the most obvious question of all – given South Africa already allows same-sex couple adoption, and Prime Minister Abbott announced a new inter-country adoption program with South Africa, would Australian same-sex couples be able to adopt under that program?

The mainstream media didn’t appear to follow up on this question – although fortunately, Benjamin Riley of the Star Observer newspaper stepped into the breach to report the following:

SAME-SEX COUPLES INCLUDED IN OVERSEAS ADOPTION AGREEMENT FOR THE FIRST TIME

 

BEJAMIN RILEY – May 5, 2014

 

SAME-sex couples are included in Australia’s new agreement with South Africa on overseas adoption announced today by Prime Minister Tony Abbott, after being excluded from every previous intercountry adoption agreement between Australia and another country.

A spokesperson for the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet told the Star Observer the agreement with South Africa is the first such arrangement with a country that allows same-sex couples to adopt children.

 

Although there is currently inconsistency across Australian states and territories around same-sex adoption, same-sex couples can legally adopt in NSW, ACT, Tasmania and Western Australia. However, until now this has been irrelevant due to the explicit exclusion of same-sex couples from Australia’s intercountry adoption agreements.

 

The Prime Minister announced the agreement with South Africa today along with a range of reforms to streamline the overseas adoption process, allowing children to obtain Australian citizenship in their country of origin, and simplify visa processes. These reforms have come out of a new report by the Interdepartmental Committee on Intercountry Adoption.

 

The Prime Minister’s office confirmed the eligibility of same-sex couples to adopt under the new agreement with South Africa, and told the Star Observer these reforms will consider inconsistencies between the states and territories on same-sex couples adopting.

 

“Current eligibility requirements vary across Australia via states and territory requirements. We will most be certainly considering this issue — together with other eligibility criteria — as we finalise the new national approach to intercountry adoption,” press secretary Sally Branson said.

 

“This just isn’t an issue for the home country of the adoptive parents — the requirements of overseas countries are also relevant. The South Africa agreement will allow for same sex couples to adopt.”

 

A Council of Australian Governments (COAG) meeting on Friday also flagged the development of a new national service for intercountry adoption by early-2105. The service would be either a funded non-government organisation or a Commonwealth agency.

 

The announcement prompted calls by the NSW Gay and Lesbian Rights lobby to ensure a new national framework would operate with equality for LGBTI people looking to adopt, and said the same should be true for any organisations assisting in the adoption process.

 

The Prime Minister’s office told the Star Observer there is no detail yet around how the national service would operate, but said the Federal Government would “ensure non-discriminatory service is provided to all stakeholders, and work with all stakeholders in a the same manner”.

 

Rodney Chiang-Cruise from Gay Dads Australia said the streamlined citizenship and visa processes wouldn’t change a great deal for Australian same-sex couples looking to adopt from overseas, but was glad the issue was being discussed.

 

“The Federal Government has not done anything on overseas adoption for decades… It sounds like a positive move, and hopefully it’s an indication of further moves in regards to what is a complex and difficult area,” Chiang-Cruise told the Star Observer [emphasis added, abridged]. Link to original article here: <http://www.starobserver.com.au/news/local-news/same-sex-couples-included-in-overseas-adoption-agreement-for-the-first-time/122370

As the article reports, this is a potentially significant breakthrough in terms of LGBTI equality – provided this agreement is implemented in line with state and territory requirements, for the first time ever, same-sex couples in NSW, WA, Tasmania and ACT will be treated equally in terms of overseas adoption.

However, the notes of caution expressed by Mr Chiang-Cruise also seem to be appropriate. After all, that still leaves LGBTI-inclusive couples in four Australian jurisdictions (Victoria, Queensland, South Australia and the Northern Territory) out in the cold.

And, as described earlier, there is genuine concern that, should a religious organisation be awarded the contract to deliver inter-country adoption services, they might discriminate against same-sex couples and then use the (incredibly broad) religious exemptions offered under the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 to essentially ‘get away with’ such discrimination.

Which means, while some questions have been resolved – and the South African agreement is indeed a big step forward for same-sex couple adoption in Australia – there are still plenty of issues to be worked through in coming months. It also means there was certainly plenty of material to write a follow-up letter to Prime Minister Abbott on this subject. As always, I will post any reply that I receive.

The Hon Tony Abbott MP

Prime Minister

PO Box 6022

House of Representatives

Parliament House

CANBERRA ACT 2600

Thursday 29 May 2014

Dear Prime Minister

INTER-COUNTRY ADOPTION BY SAME-SEX COUPLES

Thank you for the reply, from your Department, to my letter of 8 March, concerning the issue of inter-country adoption by same-sex couples.

Unfortunately, some of the issues raised in my letter were not answered. Additional issues have also arisen from the Communique of the COAG meeting on Friday 2 May, and from your media release on Monday 5 May, which was accompanied by the release of some sections of the Report of the Interdepartmental Committee on Intercountry Adoption.

First of all, however, I wish to congratulate you on your commitment, as expressed by your office to the Star Observer newspaper on Monday 5 May, that same-sex couples will be eligible to adopt under the newly-finalised agreement with South Africa. This is a major step forward for the equal treatment of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex-inclusive families.

Nevertheless, as highlighted in my original letter, and confirmed in the Report of the Interdepartmental Committee, it is highly unlikely that, due to differing legislation, same-sex couples in Victoria, Queensland, South Australia and the Northern Territory will be able to take advantage of this new agreement.

This is obviously an unsatisfactory outcome – that arrangements entered into by the Commonwealth will only provide benefit to couples in Sydney, not Melbourne, Perth not Brisbane, and Hobart but not Adelaide.

I therefore reiterate my call that you should use the process of establishing new inter-country arrangements over the coming year to urge those states and territories that have not yet made adoption non-discriminatory on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status to finally do so.

Second, I wish to ask you about the proposal being considered that a non-government organisation may be funded to provide inter-country adoption services on behalf of the Commonwealth and states and territories. Specifically, if this organisation is itself, or is run by, a religious body, will you guarantee that they will not be able to deny these services to same-sex couples?

Again, it would be a deeply unsatisfactory outcome if, despite the successful inclusion of same-sex couples in formal arrangements between Australia and South Africa, these were undermined in practice because of the exemptions offered to religious organisations under the Sex Discrimination Act 1984.

Please ensure that whichever non-government organisation is funded to provide inter-country adoptions services on behalf of the Australian Government, and therefore the Australian people, they are legally bound not to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status.

Third, and finally, I return to a point made in my initial correspondence and that is that I believe the Australian Government should be actively seeking to include non-discrimination clauses in all future inter-country adoption agreements. This stance should apply irrespective of whether the country is like South Africa, and itself already recognises same-sex adoption, or another country that does not.

I acknowledge that it may not be possible to secure the inclusion of such a clause in every single signed agreement – because it is dependent on the response of the other country – but I can see no reason why Australia should not be directly and firmly putting forward the principle that all couples are able to be loving and nurturing parents, irrespective of their sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status.

Congratulations again on the inclusion of same-sex couples in the inter-country adoption agreement with South Africa.

I look forward to your response to the other matters raised in this correspondence.

Sincerely

Alastair Lawrie

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