House debates

Thursday, 20 October 2016


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

12:29 pm

Photo of David GillespieDavid Gillespie (Lyne, National Party, Assistant Minister for Rural Health) Share this | Hansard source

The Plebiscite (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill 2016 will deliver a plebiscite to give the Australian voting population a say on whether to change the definition of marriage under the Marriage Act. Having a plebiscite as soon as practical on this issue has been coalition policy for some time under the former Abbott government and then, under the Turnbull-Joyce coalition government, it was declared as our policy in the recent federal election. It was not fine print policy; it was front and centre of the last federal election. In that, the coalition were a mandate to proceed with the plebiscite. We are delivering on that promise. I am, like many on the side of that House, therefore more than extremely disappointed that the opposition are now opposing what they themselves were proposing just a few years ago, not in the last election but for the years proceeding.

Now why is a plebiscite important? What is proposed in the same sex marriage bill is to change the definition of a foundational institution of our society and all societies before it. Shock-horror, it is controversial out there in the general public. A lot has been said about the overwhelming support for same-sex marriage or marriage equality but this is a bill about changing the definition of what constitutes the institution of marriage. When anything is that controversial, a plebiscite where everyone gets a voice, not just communication-savvy activists or people that make the loudest noise, is by its very essence a very democratic process. Those that deny the broader population a say, I think, are being antidemocratic.

Australia is a sophisticated society. We can have a sensible conversation about a really important topic like this. That it will lead to self-harm or other injuries, I think, is an overstatement. Obviously some people will be upset talking about an issue that is so personal but to implicate or infer or even state outright that there is going to be mass self-harm or depression as a result of a community wide discussion about an important social institution, I think, is way overstated. But if we do not give the whole of Australia a say, it will also mean that the outcome will not have legitimacy. So I think it would be beneficial for all concerned, for both sides of the argument if the whole population has a say. You may find that your opinion is out of step with the broader Australian public. You might find individual electorates are exactly disposed towards this decision in the way that you think they are.

I have just a few words about the institution of marriage. A lot has been said about religion in this issue. My concern is that this is not just a religious or belief-driven definition. All societies, from primitive hunter gatherer societies through to advanced First World economies—First World, second world, Third World—in the east, west, north and south, all races, all creeds have had marriage as an institution. For the procreation of the next generation, for the defence of women and children, it has been a societal institution. Many religions also have been involved in it because religious belief and the various iterations of it preceded government in many cases. So historically, religious institutions in all these societies, like I said, from primitive societies to advanced societies—all races, all creeds, all religions—have had an institution of marriage. It is defined by biology and by anatomy, not by the current social sentiment. There is an existential reality that seems to be have been lost in the conversation. Marriage was a union between a man and a woman.

For those nations in the recent past that have, by legislative edict of the government, brought change in the definition of marriage, there has not been universal acceptance. You have only got to look at Europe. Go to France, were I have travelled many times. In 2013, there was a rally in Paris with 1½ million people in the streets objecting to it. To me, that was massive. One of the candidates for the presidency, Mr Sarkozy, has actually said he would consider repealing that act. It is not a done deal across the world, which is what many of the advocates make out. In Italy just the other day in 2016, there were hundreds of thousands of people that came out in a similar rally against changing the definition of marriage.

The other thing that needs to be put on record is in amongst the campaigners for changing the definition of marriage, the driver of their support is to redress discrimination against same sex couples. But what most people do not realise is a lot of those discriminatory legal issues were addressed in the early 2000s starting in the late 90s. We are not the same as Ireland, where lots of these legal discriminatory issues had not been addressed. In Australia, a same-sex couple, if it meets certain criteria, has the same recognition as a de facto heterosexual couple. The Human Rights Commission put forward many recommendations about changing multiple pieces of legislation in both state and federal parliament that have achieved equivalence in the eyes of the law, including rights to property, property and maintenance, superannuation, intestacy and succession. There were 20 pieces of legislation in New South Wales property acts that were changed, for instance. The Family Law Amendment (De Facto Financial Matters and Other Measures) Bill 2008 cleared up all these issues. A lot of people came to me and said, 'Look, I think gay couples should be able to inherit their partner's superannuation and property if they die.' I said, 'They do now. If you are in a genuine same-sex relationship and you qualify for de facto status, well, it is there already.'

There is also legal recognition of relationships or couples, both heterosexual and same sex, through relationship registers that have been set up in all the states in Australia. In Tasmania the Relationships Act 2003 established just that: just as there is a marriage registry there is a relationship registry. In Victoria the Relationships Act 2008 set up a similar situation. In New South Wales, as long as one of the members of the partnership resides in New South Wales they can be put on a relationships register. That commenced in 2010. In Queensland the Civil Partnerships Act 2011 and in the ACT the Domestic Relationships Act gave formal legal recognition of such partnerships. They are all legal proof of de facto relationship, whether heterosexual or same sex.

Admittedly, the registers are not portable. If you are registered in one state and move to another state, say from New South Wales to Queensland, you have to re-register your relationship to get all the legal benefits. In the ACT, the Civil Unions Act 2012 permits a greater level of formal ceremonial and symbolic registration. That still stands. The ACT did bring in legislation subsequently that was knocked down by the High Court, but in essence in the ACT a civil union—although by definition it is different from a marriage—is treated under law in the same way as marriage.

I do not think that anyone who opposes changing the definition of marriage is homophobic. The stock standard answer that people roll out is: 'I know lots of gay people.' They may, but that is not the issue. You do not need to know someone to be legitimately empathic with what they are trying to do. What I am saying is that we are debating a change in the definition of a foundational institution of all societies, not just Australian society. The fact that there has been a push in other countries to change the definition does not mean we have to do it. A plebiscite is the best way to get from the broader population information about what they really feel. A lot of people in my electorate have come to me and said, 'David, we're relying on you to be our voice. We think the plebiscite is a good idea because it will give us a chance to say what we really think.' Some people have put it to me that polling suggests that the popularly promoted idea of overwhelming support for gay marriage is not actually there. The cynic in me thinks that maybe the change in the opposition, to push against a plebiscite, is because the broad wave of support that is meant to be out in the population is not as broad as it is made out to be.

The other thing about marriage equality is the biological nature of the institution of marriage. For something to be equivalent it has to be the same. As I have said, with the existential reality of biology, anatomy, physiology and reproduction, traditional and same-sex marriage are not the same. You cannot make something equivalent just because in a First World country you are able to get advanced surrogacy and all those other added-on things to create a family without the biological union of a man and a woman.

If we do change the definition of marriage there will be consequences. A similar, or related, agenda running in Australia at the moment is the degenderisation of society. I think that is a wacky idea and is based on a false premise in order to satisfy some people who have issues about their gender identity. I think that while all compassion and support should be given to those individuals, you don't turn the whole basis of traditional society on its head forever. That will weaken an institution that needs strengthening.

One of the problems for Australia, and the western world in general, is that we are witnessing a breakdown in the traditional strength of the family as a unit of society. Changing that definition will have consequences. The proposed bill has some clauses that ensure that religious people are not compromised on the essential beliefs of their religion, but it will have consequences for religious institutions that differentiate, which is their right. A religious order or organisation has the right to differentiate in employment or engagement in employment on the basis of religious beliefs. It is like saying, 'I want to play in a soccer team but I don't want to play soccer. I want to play rugby league.' Organisations and bodies do differentiate and organise their members or the people they educate on the basis of their beliefs. It is not homophobia just because you do not agree with the other side.

A plebiscite is the way for Australia as a nation to get all the arguments, for and against, on the table. I support that. It will take the steam out of the argument of fanatics on both sides and will lead to a rational landing point. Admittedly, legislation will then have to come forward, but we went to the election on this plebiscite. It was not a fine print bit of policy. It was front and centre at the last election. We have a mandate to do it. For all those reasons, we should just get on and pass this legislation. Senators should respect the mandate that the coalition government was given at the last election and pass this bill there as well.


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