Wednesday, 14 September 2016
Plebiscite (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill 2016; Second Reading
That this bill be now read a second time.
I present to the House today the commitment that we made in the election campaign to put the question of whether same-sex couples will be allowed to marry under Australian law to the Australia people in a plebiscite.
We believe that that commitment is one that all members of this parliament should support and respect. It is thoroughly democratic. It is thoroughly democratic. Every Australian will have their say and, if the opposition support the plebiscite in the Senate, the plebiscite can be held on 11 February, which is the soonest practicable date.
There has been over the years, relatively recent years, a very rapid change in attitudes to same-sex marriage—to same-sex couples, indeed. All of us have seen the way in which discrimination or disadvantage for same-sex couples was removed, whether initially in respect of social welfare legislation or pensions legislation. I remember very well the debate within the Howard government in its last year about whether same-sex couples should have equal rights in respect of Commonwealth and Defence superannuation. To John Howard's great credit, he supported that change and took it to the 2007 election.
So there have been a series of changes over time, and the one issue that has not been addressed is the issue of marriage. Indeed, I remember discussing this point with President Bush many years ago, at the time of APEC in 2007, when we were discussing what were the big moral issues in Australian politics. We talked about this issue of equal access to superannuation, and I remember the president said: 'Well, those are all issues of financial fairness. The big moral issue is the one about marriage.' And we have to respect that it is a very big moral issue. It is an issue of conscience. It is an issue of conscience for millions of Australians who have different views on it—and sincerely held views. It is vital that we respect all of those views in this debate.
I would say to all honourable members: it is utterly wrong, and it shows dreadful leadership on the part of parliamentarians, to characterise those people who do not believe the parliament should change the Marriage Act to allow same-sex couples to be married as being homophobic, as hating homosexuals. This is so often being injected into the narrative at the moment. It is profoundly disrespectful. Some of the remarks the Leader of the Opposition has made—I will not repeat them—to which great exception has been taken, he should not repeat. We have to respect there are sincerely held views on this issue. They are views very often informed by deeply felt conscience; informed by religious commitment, very often; informed by faith. We have to respect, we must respect—and I can say the government respects—the diversity of views on this issue.
As it happens, as honourable members are aware, my view and that of my wife, Lucy, is that the law should be changed to allow same-sex couples to marry. We have been married for over 36 years and we do not believe that if same-sex couples are allowed to have their union recognised as marriage that will undermine our relationship of long standing. I believe there are great threats to marriage in our society and I say from the bottom of my heart that our society would be stronger if more people were married and there were fewer divorces. If there was something we could do to make families happier it would be a wonderful thing. We know that the breakdown of the family unit is one of the great causes of hardship, of poverty, of so many of our social ills. So we are a government—and I am sure the opposition joins with us on this—we are a parliament committed to marriage, and we are committed to people supporting each other and sticking together, working hard, supporting their children and their families and enabling their dreams. And that is why I support same-sex marriage. David Cameron summed it up very well some years ago when he said, 'I support same-sex marriage not despite being a conservative but because I am a conservative, because we value commitment.'
So, that is where I stand; that is where Lucy stands. When the plebiscite is held, we will be voting yes. But there are many other Australians who are equally filled with love, equally respectful of gay couples, equally respectful of the families of gay couples, of same-sex couples, who will in thoroughly good conscience vote no, and they will do so not because they disrespect gay couples, not because they disrespect the couple who were in the House yesterday with their little boy; they will do so because of a deeply felt conscience. It is a matter of conscience and we should respect it.
The passage of change in our society has been one where—and this is where it has differed from the progress in some other jurisdictions; it is an important point to make—one after another of, if you like, the discriminations or the disadvantages affecting same-sex couples were removed. Some were removed during the Howard government and previous governments; more were removed under the Rudd government. That process has been ongoing and it has reflected a very strong social change. As I noted in the lecture I gave, the Michael Kirby Lecture, in 2012, I had always regarded—and I think I can speak for a number of my colleagues here today in saying this—the marriage issue as, if anything, an obstacle to removing these disadvantages. In other jurisdictions—for example, in the United States—the motivation to recognise same-sex marriage was driven, as much as anything else, to remove certain disadvantages, whether it was in social welfare, or tax, or superannuation and all of those areas that had hitherto been addressed in Australia. So we have progressed in Australia, I would say, in a characteristically Australian pragmatic way. We dealt with the issues. The HREOC issues that were addressed in the early years of the Rudd government were a good example of that—a long list of matters that were dealt with and were supported in a bipartisan way. We come now to this issue of marriage. It is a very, very heartfelt one, it is a matter of conscience, it is a matter of faith for many people, and it is one we must respect.
Let me deal with the arguments that have been addressed against the plebiscite—and there have been different views held on the plebiscite by many people. The Leader of the Opposition expressed support of one some years ago. He has got a different view now. Fair enough. We do not criticise him unduly for that. He is entitled to change his mind. But the fact is this: the two arguments that I think have weight against a plebiscite are, firstly, that it is not part of our traditional parliamentary process. That is certainly true, and that is why many conservatives would say it is too much of a novelty—it is too much of an innovation, if you like. Of course, we are in the age of innovation, as I have said before, so that should not be a disqualification. The other one is the cost—and that is substantial—but then you have to ask yourself: what price democracy? So those are two arguments that are valid. We have dealt with them, we have considered them and we have decided to proceed to the plebiscite.
The arguments that are addressed most vocally today by the opponents of the plebiscite are ones that we must reject, because basically the argument against the plebiscite that we hear today is that Australians cannot be trusted to have a civil conversation, that the Australian public are so immature, so unbridled, so reckless that they cannot be trusted to have a debate and make a decision on this issue. That insults the Australian people. It disrespects the Australian people. If ever there was an issue to be put to a plebiscite, this is one that can be and should be, because it is a very straightforward question. It does not have the same kind of implications—far-reaching, often unknowable implications—of, for example, voting on Brexit, as the British did recently. It is a very straightforward question—in many respects more straightforward than a number of the questions that we have addressed in constitutional referenda—so it is perfectly suited for that.
The real reason, I think, many people oppose the plebiscite is because they believe that if there were to be a free vote in the parliament same-sex marriage would be supported, and so they do not want to run the risk of the Australian people giving them the wrong answer. For our part, we put our faith in the Australian people and we know that their answer, whether it is yes or no, will be the right answer, because it is theirs. This is an institution, thousands of years old, that we are talking now about making a fundamental change to. I believe the time has come to do that. Many others in utterly good faith and good conscience do not. And they want to have their say. I would ask the members of the opposition this: cast your mind back to the Gillard government. Remember when Julia Gillard said, 'I believe in our society with our traditions, marriage has a special place and special definition, marriage will be defined as between a man and a woman. The Marriage Act will stay the way it is so that marriage is defined as a man and a woman.' These were her many statements on that subject; that was the position of the Labor Party then. Was she denounced by her colleagues as homophobic? What would have happened if the Labor Party had said, 'Let's have a plebiscite'? Of course, the supporters of same-sex marriage would have welcomed it.
Mr Dreyfus interjecting—
They would have welcomed it because at that time there certainly were not the numbers in the parliament for it to be passed.
So what we have to recognise is that this is a commitment we took to the election. It is a commitment we will honour and we are honouring now. It is a commitment that respects the will of the Australian people. It respects their intelligence, their civility, their capacity to make a decision and, above all, it respects the fact that each and every one of them can have a say. Our side, our government, our side of politics, among whom we have different views on this, nonetheless say, 'We respect the Australian people. We want to let them have their say.'
We have offered the opposition a role in the process. We are happy to work with them. We have offered them places on the committees that will supervise the spending of the public funding, which is thoroughly fair and thoroughly based on precedent. We have offered them every opportunity to be involved, and they should take it up. They should absolutely take it up and be part of this process, because the best way to ensure same-sex couples can marry is to support the plebiscite. It will be held on 11 February, and if the Australian people support same-sex marriage, as I believe they will—and certainly I will be voting for it—then this parliament will swiftly, when it returns in 2017, legislate to change the Marriage Act. We put our faith in the people.
I turn now to the specific details of the bill. This bill sets out the framework for a national plebiscite to ask the Australian people whether the Marriage Act 1961 should be amended to allow same-sex couples to marry. It has been designed to be as fair and transparent as possible—scrupulously fair, just as we would expect of our elections and referenda.
The legislation specifies the exact wording of the plebiscite question to be put to the Australian people: 'Should the law be changed to allow same-sex couples to marry?' This is a simple question. It does not presuppose any particular view. The bill prescribes the date for the vote, Saturday, 11 February 2017. The date fulfils the government's commitment to hold a plebiscite as soon as practicable. The bill authorises and provides funding for the Australian Electoral Commission to conduct the plebiscite. This will be in the amount of $170 million. That funding will include $15 million to be divided equally between official yes and no campaigns. These will be run by committees composed of parliamentarians and citizens, appointed by the Attorney-General and the Special Minister of State. Each committee will include up to five Commonwealth parliamentarians and up to five members of the public. The committees will each prepare material for the respective sides of the debate. As I noted earlier, the opposition will be invited to nominate two of the five members.
In addition, organisations will have reasonable opportunities to pay to broadcast material about the plebiscite. Broadcasting rules and the Broadcasting Services Act and the Special Broadcasting Service Act will be extended to apply to conduct relating to the plebiscite. These rules will also stipulate a blackout period in which broadcasters will be prohibited from broadcasting advertisements about the plebiscite. This, too, is utterly consistent with the framework for federal elections. As for federal elections, voting will be compulsory and in person, with the usual absentee, postal, declaration and pre-polling opportunities. The bill applies provisions for a number of acts, including the Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Act 1984 and the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918, to ensure this. Voters will be able to cast a valid vote by writing 'Yes' or 'No' in the space provided on the ballot paper. The bill provides that the outcome of the plebiscite will be determined by a simple national majority. The simple majority will be achieved when either the yes or no vote receives more than 50 per cent of the votes cast, disregarding informal ballot papers.
This plebiscite gives all Australians a say. Advocates on either side of the debate will have the opportunity to put their views fully and freely to the public, to make their case to the Australian people. It is thoroughly democratic. Now, I recognise that there are a range of views in the community on this issue, as I have discussed. And as Prime Minister, I will be encouraging a considered and respectful discussion from all sides. The plebiscite will allow our nation to make a decision on this fundamental important issue of same-sex marriage. Then, as a nation, we will respect the outcome. If the plebiscite passes, the parliament will legislate to amend the Marriage Act to enable same-sex couples to marry.
In closing, I remind the House, the parliament, that Australians expect this issue to be resolved in the manner they endorsed at the election. We took this to the election and we won the election. There was no doubt about our policy. There was no doubt about our platform. This was prominently debated every day of the election campaign. Every Australian who took any interest in the election knew that that was our policy. We have a mandate for it, and the opposition should respect it.
I ask the opposition today, I ask the Leader of the Opposition today, to support this plebiscite. This plebiscite will give the Australian people the say on this. I ask Labor to respect the people they represent, to respect the Australian people they claim to support and defend. Respect their intelligence. Respect their civility. Respect their ability to have a discussion about this important matter and resolve it in a manner that is fair and that is democratic. At the end of the day, whoever wins, it will be regarded as a just determination of this important issue. I commend the bill to the House.