Monday, 27 February 2012
Marriage Amendment Bill 2012; Second Reading
Today I am pleased to provide the second reading of the Marriage Amendment Bill 2012, a bill for an act to amend the Marriage Act 1961 to establish marriage equality for same-sex couples and for related purposes.
The bill is short and to the point. Its focus is on making an amendment to the definition of marriage that is now set out in section 5 of the Marriage Act 1961.
The provisions of this bill
Item 1 of schedule 1 of the bill will amend the definition of marriage that is currently in section 5 of the Marriage Act to read:
Marriage means the union of two people, regardless of their sex, to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life.
The bill also amends section 46(1) of the Marriage Act to reflect this new definition of marriage.
Freedom of religion
In Australia, the separation of church and state extends to the law of marriage.
Our laws of marriage primarily exist to regulate a legal contract in which the parties to marriage enter into this contract willingly. They are both free to enter into this contract and they comply with the laws regarding marriage so that this civil arrangement is legally valid.
Our laws also recognise and respect the role of religious organisations to practise their faith, including their practices concerning marriage.
Because Australia's proud tradition of religious freedom is such a fundamental tenet we subscribe to, the bill before the House today inserts a new subsection into section 47 of the act, to reinforce the existing provisions that ensure a minister of religion is under no obligation to solemnise a marriage where the parties to that marriage are of the same sex. This provision will absolutely ensure that the principle of religious freedom is maintained when it comes to the laws of marriage in Australia.
This Marriage Act became Commonwealth law after Sir Garfield Barwick introduced the bill into this parliament in 1960 to provide for uniform marriage laws across Australia. In his second reading speech, Sir Garfield made the following observation:
…it will be observed that there is no attempt to define marriage in this bill. None of the marriage laws to which I have referred contains any such definition. But insistence of its monogamous quality is indicated by…the provisions of the Matrimonial Causes Act which render a marriage void where one of the parties is already married and by a provision in this bill making bigamy an offence.
As many of those in this place would well know, the definition of marriage in the Commonwealth Marriage Act is a relatively recent inclusion.
Indeed, it was not until the Marriage Legislation Amendment Act 2004, introduced in this place by the then Attorney-General and current member for Berowra, that the Marriage Act included the current definition.
In his second reading speech to the bill, the then Attorney set out the following reasons for inclusion of a definition of marriage:
Including this definition will remove any lingering concerns that people may have that the legal definition of marriage may become eroded by time.
Far from representing an erosion, this bill extends the right of marriage to same-sex couples. Far from eroding it, it recognises that marriage equality is now something that the majority of Australians are comfortable with and accept.
While marriage is an old institution, it is not immutable.
Practices and understanding of marriage have changed in accordance with societal norms and they will continue to do so. I believe this is reflected in the fact that the Commonwealth laws with regard to marriage have been amended by every single government in this place since their inception.
Why this b ill?
At the end of 2011 the Australian Labor Party voted to change its policy to allow for equal access to marriage for all adult couples, irrespective of sex, who have a mutual commitment to a shared life.
The ALP also voted to allow a conscience vote on any legislation due to give effect to this.
The bill that I bring before the House today reflects that change in policy.
The aim of this bill is to end discrimination against same-sex couples who wish to have their relationship recognised by the state.
In practical terms it will give same-sex couples the same rights and obligations in their marriage as I have in mine.
It also sends a powerful message that our belief in equality and a fair go is not limited by a person's sexuality.
I commend the bill to the House.