House debates

Thursday, 20 October 2016


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

12:44 pm

Photo of Pat ConroyPat Conroy (Shortland, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

I am proud to make a contribution on the Plebiscite (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill 2016. I am proud to oppose the plebiscite bill, not because it is popular or unpopular in my constituency and not because it is popular or unpopular in Australia. I am proud to oppose it because it is the right thing to do. It is the right thing to do because the current definition of marriage in the Marriage Act constitutes legal discrimination, and it is our job to resolve that. It is our job to end that discrimination. It is not our job to outsource it. It is not our job to waste $200 million on a campaign process that will engender hate, division, fear and loathing in this country. It is our job as a representative democracy, as the guardians of that democracy and as representatives of the people to make a decision and vote conscience.

As I said, the current definition of marriage is discriminatory. It prohibits for a whole group of our fellow Australians the ability to make the decision to marry their partner that currently heterosexual Australians are free to make. In the case of the institution of marriage, LGBTI Australians do not enjoy access to the same rights and privileges that heterosexual Australians do. It is a fundamental right. People can talk about other forms of discrimination, whether it is access to parental leave or access to superannuation if there is a debt, and that is good and proper. That is really important. I am proud that the Labor government made 80 changes in its last term in government to resolve those forms of discrimination. But, as long as the institute of marriage discriminates against same-sex couples, that must be resolved as well.

There are strongly held views on both sides of this debate. It is appropriate that we have this debate in a sensitive and respectful manner. It is deeply disappointing that there have been deeply offensive contributions in the past by the radical right wing of the Liberal Party and certain other individuals. Ending discrimination should be bipartisan. It is beyond belief that we need to have a debate about ending discrimination, let alone a wasteful, non-binding opinion poll, which is what this plebiscite would be. I believe that good policy must be underpinned by the enduring values of equality, fairness and social justice. Therefore, I support marriage equality, as I believe that the current legal framework is discriminatory towards same-sex couples, and I look forward to voting in favour of marriage equality in this chamber at some point.

In 2016 it is not right that one group of people are denied a right that is available to another group. It is unjust, unfair and cruel that the definition of marriage in the act allows heterosexual Australians to marry but not LGBTI Australians. This must end. I am hopeful that this parliament will make the rational and decent decision to end this discrimination through its own processes rather than a plebiscite.

That is the most basic point about this entire debate. The plebiscite is completely unnecessary. In Australia marriage is defined in the Marriage Act. The High Court has ruled that it is a matter for this parliament to determine. We are abdicating our duty as legislators if we shirk this responsibility. I ask about the members of the government who have spoken in favour of this plebiscite: where were they when the Marriage Act was amended 20 times? Where were they in 2004 when Prime Minister John Howard altered the Marriage Act by definition? Where were they jumping up and down and saying, 'Prime Minister, we need to put this to a plebiscite to put this change through?' The case is that the Marriage Act has been amended to reflect the views of society or the views of members of this chamber 20 times, and in none of those instances has a plebiscite been necessary. Nor is it necessary now. I stand with the High Court in making it very clear that I regard it as our job to resolve this and no-one else's.

Let us be under no misapprehension that the Liberal-Nationals coalition has decided a plebiscite is necessary because of a point of principle. The plebiscite came forward because then Prime Minister Abbott wanted to avoid a damaging split in his party room. I remember that night when they had that six-hour debate within their party room. I remember that night when Prime Minister Abbott's leadership was tested. This plebiscite idea was not some sort of commandment from moral philosophers; it was a dirty political fix to avoid a split in the coalition party room. That is the truth. Anything else is window-dressing. Anything else is mendacious commentary. Anything else is not reality. The reality is that this was a dirty political fix to avoid a split in the Liberal-Nationals party room.

What has happened since then is that the new Prime Minister, after he knocked off the previous Prime Minister, has had to do certain deals. He has had to provide certain commitments to the right wing of the Liberal Party and the National Party that he will not move towards the centre on renewable energy, climate change and marriage equality. He gave those commitments to grasp the prime ministership. He sold out his morals for that, and we are a poorer nation for that.

The really important thing about this entire debate is that we are a representative democracy. We are not Switzerland where they have referenda. We are not California where they have regular citizen initiated referenda. We are a representative democracy where we, the members of this place, make decisions.

It is quite interesting to see, if I look back in the Hansard, that Edmund Burke has been quoted in this chamber over 200 times since Federation. I am willing to bet that almost every single time it was in an inaugural speech by a member of the Liberal-National party with this quote:

Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.

That is the Burkian representative democracy philosophy that those on the other side profess such deep, abiding love for. I would submit that they are betraying their constituencies by sacrificing their judgement to the supposed opinion of the Australian people. It demonstrates the hypocrisy of so many members on the other side when they do.

Ultimately, the question in this debate is no different from many other fundamental moral questions we have engaged with in this chamber. There was not a plebiscite when we allowed no-fault divorce. There was not a plebiscite when homosexuality was decriminalised in the various state parliaments. That was not a plebiscite when we instituted the Marriage Act to replace the horrible state acts which prevented Indigenous Australians marrying white Australians.

Let's pause on that moment for a second. In 1961 when the Marriage Act was put in place in federal law, one of the driving forces was to get rid of a horrific discrimination where state governments had the ability to stop marriages between Indigenous Australians and white Australians. That was a fundamentally moral decision around discrimination, and no plebiscite was necessary.

I find many other issues we debate in this chamber are fundamentally about morals. Universal access to health care is, for me, a moral issue about, 'Are all Australians equal?' We did not need a plebiscite for legislating that. We did our job. We did our job as a representative democracy to make the decisions and to use our judgement in the best interests of this nation.

Another argument in this debate is around family and children. Many speakers on the other side have made the point that marriage is about child-rearing. In fact, Mr Deputy Speaker Goodenough, your contribution included that point. While I respect this deeply held view, it is fundamentally flawed. There is no current law which dictates that children must be raised by a mother and a father. Indeed, there is no legal prohibition on children being raised by two women, two men or a single parent. I believe that children do best when they are raised in a loving family, and it does not matter whether there is one mother and one father, two fathers, two mothers or one parent; the key is love and care.

I think all sides of politics can agree on the importance of the institution of marriage to society and as the bedrock of our families to some extent. However, the argument that this institution should be restricted to heterosexuals is deeply flawed. Surely people who want to commit to spending their lives together, to loving and looking after each other and maybe having a family as well, will greatly strengthen the fabric of our society. I have no doubt that making every citizen equal will strengthen this vital institution for all existing and future marriages. We do not prevent older Australians who are beyond the age of child-bearing from marriage. If marriage were solely about child-bearing, we would say that anyone who is incapable of bearing children should not be allowed to marry. They are completely separate issues.

Another issue that has come up many times in this debate is religion. Many people also oppose marriage equality on the basis of religious beliefs, and I respect that. Some are concerned that religions will be forced to recognise marriage equality. They have nothing to fear, as any change will ensure that the Marriage Act does not impose an obligation on a minister of religion to solemnise any same-sex marriage. This is not about religion. I was married to my wife by a civil celebrant. I do not believe a homosexual couple should be denied this right. The fact that I was married by a civil celebrant does not diminish the power of marriages solemnised with religious ceremonies and nor will marriage equality.

I want those of my constituents who oppose marriage equality on the basis of their deeply held beliefs to know that I hear their voice and I respect their view, but I cannot in good faith continue to support legal discrimination against my fellow Australians. One of my best friends is a Catholic. He was raised in the Catholic Church and received a Catholic education. When I asked him his view on this issue, he told me very plainly that he supports marriage equality because of his Catholicism and not in spite of it. He told me that the most fundamental tenet of the Catholic faith is the equality of everyone before God, and he also stressed how love, inclusion and compassion are such important values taught by his church and are a strong part of his own deeply held religious beliefs. The point I am making here is that many people who adhere to a religious faith also support marriage equality. But, even if they do not, we cannot make laws in this country and in this chamber based on religious beliefs. We have moved a long way from having a union of religion and the Crown. We have moved a long way from having an official state religion that dictates the morals and laws of this country. Any way of using religious beliefs to prevent marriage equality, I fear, impinges on and blurs the line in the separation of church and state.

I have many constituents who have conveyed their views of marriage equality in a positive way, who want marriage equality in this country and are opposed to a divisive plebiscite that will divide this country. That is the truth of this. Wasting $200 million on a plebiscite will divide this country. Giving $7½ million of taxpayers' money to the for and against campaigns will license hate speech in this country. I stand with Professor McGorry in saying it will impinge on the mental health of many Australians. That is of deep concern and it is one of the many reasons I oppose this plebiscite.

From a purely fiscal point of view, having a $200 million plebiscite that is not binding on a single parliamentarian is an enormous waste of money. This is the most expensive opinion poll in the history of this country, and it will not bind a single parliamentarian. There have been many members of the Liberal-National coalition who have made it very clear that, even if the plebiscite goes ahead and there is a resounding yes, they will still vote no to marriage equality in this parliament, which makes a mockery of the entire process, not to mention the waste of $200 million—$200 million that could be invested in education or health; $200 million that could fix up the crumbling infrastructure in my region of the Hunter Valley and the Central Coast. These are the many reasons that I oppose a marriage equality plebiscite.

I am so proud to be a member of a political party that has a commitment to marriage equality in its policy platform. This issue should be above politics, but I want to pay tribute to a couple of my colleagues who have so led the charge in this area. Senator Penny Wong has done a brilliant job in arguing for this case. The member for Grayndler was one of the first members of this place to introduce legislation to end discrimination against same-sex couples, and the Deputy Leader of the Opposition has played an instrumental role. I want to applaud them and say that I proudly stand with the Labor Party in opposing this wasteful, divisive plebiscite which prevents us from doing our job as MPs.

The proudest day of my life, besides the birth of my children, was when I got married to my wife. That feeling is probably one of the most common amongst human beings, and it is a feeling that should not be denied to LGBTI Australians. This parliament should do its job as a representative democracy and vote to end legalised discrimination against LGBTI Australians. This parliament should do its job, as it has done for the last century, in resolving issues of fundamental moral questions to this country, instead of pandering to the worst elements of society. I stand for doing the job of this parliament. I stand up and say we should have marriage equality right now. We should end this and oppose this wasteful and divisive plebiscite.


No comments