House debates

Tuesday, 11 October 2016


Plebiscite (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill 2016; Second Reading

6:38 pm

Photo of Bill ShortenBill Shorten (Maribyrnong, Australian Labor Party, Leader of the Opposition) Share this | Hansard source

Labor wants to achieve marriage equality in the fastest, least expensive, least harmful way possible. That is why Labor is calling for a free vote in parliament. That is why we will oppose this ill-conceived, ill-thought out plebiscite. Fundamentally, the inspiration of the proposed plebiscite by the government is, at its core, a delaying tactic, a divisive tactic, and Labor believes instead in immediate action.

This plebiscite is a gross abdication of responsibility and we believe parliament should simply do its job. The parliamentarians should do what they are paid to do, which is debate and vote on the laws of this country. In the past weeks and months my colleagues and I have taken the time to meet with community leaders, to listen to LGBTIQ Australians and their families as well as religious leaders. We have consulted with mental-health experts and social workers. What struck me, first and foremost, was how often the persons concerned, the advocates of marriage equality, how often these advocates' first concern was for others—the parents who are frustrated that the child they love as deeply as one of us, any of us, loves our son or daughter is still denied equality.

Proud dads, like Geoff Thomas—who the member for Sydney introduced me to—told us of how, when he found out that his son was gay, he said, 'The thing that hit me the most was that after having fought in Vietnam—my country sent me off to fight for a democracy that I believed in—I discovered that my son was not extended the same dignity, respect and equality before the law, in his own country, as other Australians.' The challenge that he laid down to all of us in this parliament is he just asked us to get on with it. He said, 'Do the right thing by my son and other people's sons and daughters. Do the job you are elected to do.' Well, Geoff, the Labor Party will do the job that we were elected to do. We want to get on with it. We will not let you down.

We heard from older Australians who are gay. They remember how tough it was for them growing up. They appreciate how hard it was dealing with previous generations' anti-gay homophobic attitudes, the penalties, the criminalisation. They said to me, very clearly, they do not wish to see a new generation bear the brunt of public judgement. It was a fantastic loving couple that had been together for 17 years. They said they would rather wait for parliament to do its job than inflict a 'no' campaign on gay teenagers.

Then, there are all those marvellous young LGBTI Australians. They are resilient, confident, intelligent people but cognisant and anxious of the prejudice that would be dredged up. We met with same-sex couples with children, wondering how they will protect their child from the harm and the hatred unleashed by the worst elements of the anti-marriage-equality advertising. One mum, Simone, baby on her knee, repeated some of the vicious, awful things that had been said to her and her partner in the past. As she was doing so, she put her hands over her child's ears. But if this legislation is passed, there are not enough hands to put over enough children's ears to save them from the dreadful debate which no conservative government can guarantee will not occur.

That is what we are doing here. We are going to make sure that the children in these relationships do not have to put up with the inevitable abuse, the heightened abuse, merely because the government will not go down the fastest, least expensive, least harmful path. Now it is true, in 2013, after I had already voted for marriage equality in the parliament, I told a Christian forum I was relaxed about a plebiscite. And the Prime Minister is desperate to use that as a distraction, with no sense of irony. My preferred position is to have a vote in parliament. But, unlike the Prime Minister, I have not changed my mind or firmed up my opinion because of some Faustian bargain or at the instruction of anti-marriage-equality advocates.

The people of Australia are the ones who have educated us and they have certainly reinforced my view. What do you say to people who will be targeted by a 'no' campaign? How do you seriously and rationally and reasonably explain to one group of our fellow citizens that they have to submit their relationship to a $200 million taxpayer funded opinion poll whose result members of the government have already confirmed that they will ignore? Why should some Australians' special relationships be subject to a new and separate legal process that has never been inflicted on any other group on any other question?

Why do gay Australians have to submit and metaphorically knock on the doors of 15 million of their fellow Australians to get permission to get married? No-one else has had to do that, so why on Earth are we asking some Australians to go through a more onerous process than that we ask of all Australians? How do we compel 15 million Australians to vote—and fine them if they do not vote—when members of the government will not be compelled to respect the outcome? I have to ask why, after so many backflips and backdowns, is this plebiscite the only election promise that the Prime Minister and the Liberal-National coalition are determined to keep?

Make no mistake: this plebiscite is not about marriage equality. It is about two things and two things only: Tony Abbott's ideology and Malcolm Turnbull's job security. Equality for minorities should not be conditional on the approval of majorities. You do not have an opinion poll on rights. That is why they are called rights. Imposing this plebiscite would not just be a waste of money or a failure of leadership; I think it would be a failure of basic decency. It is a glaring contradiction of our national ideal of a fair go for all.

When he introduced this legislation a few weeks ago, the Prime Minister said of its $200 million cost, 'What price democracy?' But the price of this plebiscite goes far beyond the time, the money and the resources to run a national opinion poll. It stretches further than the $7.5 million in the funding for the 'no' campaign—government money, the money of taxpayers, being spent to argue against the rights of Australians. It is worth remembering that in the 1967 referendum the Liberal government then did not provide any dollars to the 'no' case. This proposition of moral relativism—the assumption that 'yes' and 'no' are equally weighted arguments—belies the nature of the arguments against marriage equality.

The true cost of this plebiscite cannot be counted on a spreadsheet alone; it is a toll that will be borne by same-sex couples being told that their precious children are members of a new stolen generation. I have met and heard from—as have all my colleagues gathered here—literally thousands of parents who are worried about people who will not be able to advocate for themselves: children watching government funded ads which reject their parents' love and tell them that it is not normal and that the family they live in is not wanted or valued. Inevitably these same hateful slogans will be thrown back at them in the schoolyard or slapped across their Facebook. Why do some Australian children have to watch their parents' relationship voted on by everyone else? It is about gay teenagers yet to come out, fearful of rejection, being told that there is something wrong with who they are and how they feel.

The cost of this plebiscite is measured in the arrogance of the coded language that implies that some families are more equal than others, that some kinds of love count for more than others. Every MP should be honest and report to the House the vile homophobia they have received in their emails—the crazy arguments treating some Australians as different from others. We all know it, and every MP receives this material, signed or unsigned. What I cannot understand is why government MPs, having received this material, pretend that this is a debate without consequences—that this is a debate and an opinion poll without victims and without the potential for great harm.

I absolutely respect freedom of worship and freedom of religious expression. I understand that some good people of sincere faith do not support marriage equality as they see it as conflicting with their faith. Do I think everyone who is opposed to marriage equality is homophobic? No, of course not. But do I believe that homophobic hate will be more widespread as a result of this debate? Yes, I do. No-one truly believes that this debate will be civil. The Prime Minister understands this. Despite his best intentions and the best intentions of some people arguing for the plebiscite, they cannot give a guarantee that this will be a civil debate, and they know that it will not be. I do not understand the nature of a leadership which says that the harm to some people is a price worth paying for a political deal in the Liberal party room.

When that updated bill and information—which was more about carving out exemptions to please the hard Right than achieving equality under the law—was released at 11 pm last night, we saw that they cannot guarantee this respect. We know that when you release that sort of information at 11 pm the night before this bill is due to come back on, it smells like a deal with the hard Right. So when the Prime Minister asks us 'What price democracy?' demonising loving couples, victimising the children of loving couples and inflicting emotional torment on young and not-so-young people is not a price that Labor is willing to pay on behalf of the coalition.

I have been criticised by some for drawing the link between this plebiscite and the concerns about the mental health of LGBTI Australians. I say to those members, some of whom are here in the chamber, I make no apologies for bringing attention to this most serious issue, especially when the evidence is so overwhelming. A recent study conducted by the Young and Well institute found that 16 per cent of young Australians who are gay had attempted suicide; a third had harmed themselves; and more than four in 10 had thought about self-harm or suicide, a rate six times greater than that of heterosexual Australians of the same age.

Up to two out of every three of these young Australians have been bullied at school, at work or on the sporting field about their sexual orientation.

Last week, the member for the Sydney and I met with Professor Patrick McGorry and other mental health experts to discuss the mental health consequences of a plebiscite. He told us that LGBTIQ people have a five-times increased risk of suicide, and, as he said, this is caused by discrimination and homophobia. He went on to say that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with people in the LGBTIQ community in terms of mental health or mental illness, but their experiences cause this increased risk. The reason Professor McGorry, like so many other mental health experts, opposes the plebiscite is that, as he said:

We know when these campaigns are held in the public domain like in the US and in Ireland, the risk goes up.

What is it about the voice of practitioners and experts that the government refuses to hear? What is it about the evidence that this government chooses to ignore? What is it about this plebiscite that means any price is worth paying, according to the government?

Members of the church also understand that the plebiscite will be a deeply divisive experience. The Anglican Bishop of Wangaratta, John Parkes, wrote to the Prime Minister and I last month warning:

… there are those who will engage in harmful, derogatory and damaging discourse, dividing communities and causing deep pain to our LGBTI brothers and sisters.

Indeed, following the Irish referendum, when there was no alternative to a national vote—please do not give us the Irish referendum as the justification for the plebiscite. There was no choice in Ireland; there is a choice here. And, of course, in Ireland, though marriage equality succeeded and our TV screens were full of all of those remarkable images, a recent survey has found that just 23 per cent of LGBTI Irish people would be prepared to endure that vote again—only 23 per cent would want to have that experience again.

What is it about the evidence, the experience, that this government wilfully ignores in favour of a suboptimal, painful approach. The most powerful argument against the Prime Minister's plebiscite is found in the streets of the suburbs and towns of Australia. The most powerful argument against this plebiscite is LGBTI Australians living their lives, raising children, paying taxes, building communities, caring for our elderly, teaching in our schools, serving in our defence forces and sitting in this parliament—fellow Australians who do everything this nation asks of them.

Generation by generation they have worked to overturn the discrimination that their own country levelled against them. Fifty years ago homosexuality was a criminal offence in every Australian state and territory. We did not need a plebiscite to recognise that. Thirty years ago—


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