Tuesday, 11 October 2016
Plebiscite (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill 2016; Second Reading
In 2004 I received a letter from a man called John Challis. The letter was about superannuation, and it called on the then Howard government to give same-sex couples the same legal rights to inherit superannuation as married couples and de facto heterosexual couples. John was concerned that if he died his part partner, Arthur, would not be able to inherit his superannuation. John and I lobbied the Howard government for years for change; of course, our calls fell largely on deaf ears. It was not until 2007, when Labor was elected, that changes around superannuation, taxation, family law, Medicare, pharmaceuticals, immigration and more than 80 pieces of discriminatory legislation were changed for same-sex couples and their children.
A couple of weeks ago I caught up with John in Sydney for a cup of coffee. He is now 88 years old and his partner, Arthur, is 84. They have been together for 49 years. More than a decade after John first wrote to me about equal rights for him and for his partner, Arthur, we talked about this campaign for one last great change. One piece of unfinished business—marriage equality. But, while John and Arthur have waited nearly half a century to have their relationship properly recognised by the community that they have given so much to, they said that they could not support a plebiscite. They are so concerned about the harm that a divisive plebiscite would do to the gay and lesbian community, to same-sex couples, and to same-sex parents and their children, that they were prepared to wait. John was also deeply concerned about how a plebiscite subverts our usual democratic processes. Frankly, it tells you all you need to know about how serious the damage a plebiscite on marriage equality would be that a same-sex couple in their 80s who have waited almost half a century are saying that they would rather wait than take this path.
For John and for Arthur: I will not and Labor will not support this plebiscite. For the same-sex couples that would hear that their relationships are second-rate: I will not and Labor will not support the plebiscite. For the children of same-sex couples who will hear that there is something wrong with their family: I will not and Labor will not support this plebiscite. For young gay and lesbian people who might be struggling with their sexuality or who are just thinking about coming out: I will not and Labor will not support this plebiscite. That is why I am proud to have seconded the Leader of the Opposition's amendment that this bill be withdrawn and re-drafted to legislate now, today, in this parliament for marriage equality. That would see a free vote. That would see this parliament do its job.
For 14 months since Tony Abbott and the right-wing of the Liberal Party first proposed the plebiscite as a way of indefinitely delaying marriage equality, we have been debating this proposal. To be fair, we have not been debating the latest legislation—we have only just seen that. But the more closely we have examined the proposal the worse it has looked. I have received literally thousands of emails and letters about marriage equality and I have spoken to many, many people deeply concerned about this plebiscite. I have heard from Leighton, who was deeply affected by homophobic hate speech as a young person and who turned to substance abuse and self-harm. He says:
Children struggling with their identity… need to be protected and spared the hateful debate that this plebiscite will incite.
I have heard from Roberta, who fears for her 19-year-old granddaughter and the impact that a publicly financed 'no' campaign will have on her. I have heard from Damien, who asks why the LGBTIQ community needs to have this unprecedented approach. He says, 'It's as if we must reach a certain quota of suffering as a community before we are granted this fundamental right—one last humiliating hurdle.' I have heard from Shauna, who is heterosexual but finds the concept of 'giving permission' to equal access to the law to be disgusting.
Last week the Leader of the Opposition and I met with marriage equality advocates in Sydney. The Leader of the Opposition has been doing a terrific job of consulting on this, as has the shadow Attorney-General, as has the member for Griffith, as has the member for Franklin, who has been working very hard with mental health organisations—as have all members on this side. We have heard again and again from advocates: 'Not this way.' Geoff Thomas from Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays last week told the Leader of the Opposition and I that as a Vietnam veteran who fought for democracy because his country asked him to he could not understand why his son should not expect the same legal rights and obligations as any other Australian. He said: 'That's not the democracy and freedom I fought for.' That is the question at the heart of this debate. Why should some Australians face discrimination or even vilification because of who they are or who they love?
Every day it becomes more apparent that this plebiscite is a delaying tactic, a tactic designed by the opponents of marriage equality in the hope that they can take the majority support that unquestionably exists in the Australian community, as the previous speaker said, and twist and obfuscate this issue in the same way they did when it came to the republic debate and frighten people off voting for it. There is a simple way to settle this. The Marriage Act could be changed by parliament this week. The Liberals are advancing the simplistic argument that somehow it is more democratic to have a plebiscite than for the parliament to vote, yet Michael Kirby, a very distinguished jurist, has pointed out that three Prime Ministers—Menzies, Whitlam and Howard—who loved and respected this parliament and its processes did not choose to settle difficult social questions by using plebiscites. Kirby recalls that Gough Whitlam always upheld the idea that parliament itself should be a great institution of equality. Whitlam said:
Parliament has been our great liberating force … There is no freedom without equality. To redistribute and equalise liberty has been one of the principal functions of Parliament.
John Howard did not have a plebiscite when he changed the Marriage Act last time, nor incidentally when he overturned the Northern Territory voluntary euthanasia legislation—to my mind, a more controversial proposition than the one that is before us.
It is our day job. It is what we do in this parliament. It is what we are paid to do. Unless it is constitutionally required, these matters should be resolved through the usual channels of a responsible parliamentary democracy, particularly when the High Court has already said it is the job of this parliament to legislate. The member for Goldstein was in here earlier. As a former Human Rights Commissioner he provided exactly this evidence to the Senate Legal and Constitutional Legislation Committee in 2015. In his advice he said that a plebiscite is not an appropriate method for addressing matters relating to marriage and will do nothing to resolve in a substantive way this issue. In fact, Solicitor-General Justin Gleeson probably could have told the government that for free if they had bothered to ask him. No doubt he would have had some very instructive views about the novelty of such an approach.
It is also why Aboriginal leaders are advising the Prime Minister to abandon the plebiscite. They are convinced that an ugly campaign will actually set back the real referendum before us at the moment—the proper updating of our Constitution to recognise our First Australians. Marcia Langton said that a divisive campaign against marriage equality could 'unleash the dogs' on Aboriginal Australia. We will have a referendum on Indigenous constitutional recognition because the Constitution requires us to update it in this proper way, not because Cory Bernardi tells Malcolm Turnbull, 'Your job depends on it.'