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—

Photo of Tim WilsonTim Wilson (Goldstein, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The Liberals fixed it.

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

Well, be the Liberals you once were, sir. Thirty years ago gay people were barred from serving in the Defence Force. We did not need a plebiscite to fix that. As recently as eight years ago same sex couples were still subject to more than 80 different forms of legal and financial discrimination. Labor fixed that, and the Liberals fixed over matters—inch by inch, clause by clause the laws have been overturned. Change has been hard-fought, had-argued and hard-won.

Change has come because on the floor of this parliament MPs from both sides summoned the courage and the basic human decency to extend equality and not diminish it, to end discrimination and not entrench it. Now, in this 45th Parliament, it is our turn. It is our turn to face up to the test that previous parliaments and previous political generations have answered. It is our turn to answer this question: can we respect the national mood and simply get on with a free vote on marriage equality? Can we prove that we are big enough? Can we prove that we are good enough? Can we prove that we are generous enough? Can we prove that we understand that families come in all shapes and sizes and that families do not need the judgement of conservative Liberal politicians or opinion polls? What they actually need is just to be allowed to get on with it, and that is what they expect from us—to get on with it!

Are we able to remove the last piece of discrimination against LGBTI people from our nation's laws? Our predecessors have done this without resort to plebiscite. When we have made so much progress, so hard-fought, why is this too hard for the parliament to do? Why did those who seek to have a plebiscite abdicate their responsibility? Why did they get elected if it is not to the job they were elected to do? Can we find it in ourselves to say to our brothers and sisters, our sons and daughters and our friends and neighbours that you deserve the right to marry a person you love?

All of us who are called to this place have a tremendous privilege, and I know all who are here understand that. The privileges is to serve the people of Australia as their representatives. In this chamber we rise to speak on their behalf. We can argue with each other about which laws suit people and which do not, but we are all motivated with our views about laws and votes that will benefit Australians. We owe Australian's not just our industry but our judgement.

We have before us now the opportunity to change a law that does not describe the generous, inclusive, egalitarian nation that we love. There will come a time, even if it is not right now, that when we pass a bill for marriage equality in this country people will ask after that why it took so long. And there will come a time in the future, much as we look back at discriminatory laws in the past, and ask why they did not change it then. Why did it take so long? But what we on our side will not do is squib the challenge. The parliament and the laws we want to have should be a reflection of what we want people who watch Australia understand to be our values.

Our laws should be a mirror in which we can teach our children the reflection of who we think we are as a country. We are lucky to have this opportunity to make Australia a more inclusive and more open and more generous nation. We are lucky to have this opportunity. Why on earth would people not want to take the opportunity to conduct ourselves in the manner in which parliaments have done in Australia for 100 years? Why not allow people a measure of happiness in the lives of a great number of our fellow Australians? Why not understand that marriage equality is not a responsibility that we should delegate? It is not a job we can contract out. You cannot contract out your conscience to an opinion poll. You cannot contract out our responsibility to our fellow Australians. That is the complete opposite of representative democracy. This argument that marriage equality is in a special category, that marriage laws are in a special category and therefore create special circumstances—we don't buy that.

We have amended the Marriage Act on 20 occasions. There was no need for a plebiscite on any one of those. And we have dealt with complex issues in this parliament which go to morality. I would have thought that a chance to serve the people, a chance for parliament to prove its worth, to fulfil its purpose, a chance to reflect the values of our people to make a country a better place, a free vote in the parliament which saves our taxpayers $200 million and saves our country from a divisive argument—all around the world citizens do not feel partners with their politicians in the democratic purpose. We have a chance to be partners with them—not to follow them, but to lead them, to listen to their voice, as we do. We have a chance to say to our fellow Australians that the democratic system is not broken, that we cannot make hard decisions in this place anymore. It is the failure of decision-making and the willingness to put a group of our fellow Australians down a path of lawmaking that we do not ask of anyone else. That is the failure here.

A free vote on marriage equality means that we could be attending the spring weddings of people who have waited long enough. A free vote is the cheapest, the fastest and the least-harmful way. That is why I move, as a second reading amendment:

That all the words after “That” be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:

“this bill be withdrawn and redrafted to legislate for marriage equality and that the House calls on the Government to afford all members of parliament a free vote.”

Let's just get on with it. Let's make marriage equality a reality.

Photo of Craig KellyCraig Kelly (Hughes, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Is the amendment seconded?

7:02 pm

Photo of Tanya PlibersekTanya Plibersek (Sydney, Australian Labor Party, Deputy Leader of the Opposition) Share this | | Hansard source

I second the amendment and reserve my right to speak.

Photo of Craig KellyCraig Kelly (Hughes, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The original question was that this bill be now read a second time. To this the honourable Leader of the Opposition has moved as an amendment:

That all the words after “That” be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:

“this bill be withdrawn and redrafted to legislate for marriage equality and that the House calls on the Government to afford all members of parliament a free vote.”

If it suits the House, I will state the question in the form 'that the amendment be agreed to'. The question now is that the amendment be agreed to.

7:03 pm

Photo of Warren EntschWarren Entsch (Leichhardt, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

When we talk about divisive speeches—we just heard one in this place right now. Again, it raises serious concerns about the motives of the other side.

Back in my late 20s, when I was living in remote Queensland gulf country, a fellow I knew went to Sydney one Christmas and came back as a woman. Years later she wrote to me and thanked me for my acceptance, tolerance and support during that time. She said that contrary to the perception that the North is full of 'rednecks', it was, in her words:

… thanks to these people and 'ringers' like you, that I used to work and socialise with, I was able to work and live a 'normal' life that is so often not available to others in situations like mine.

As you and I know there is absolutely no family in the country that can assume it will be 'immune' to having a child/grandchild/relative that is gay or transgender... Hopefully, these families would want that person to have the same rights in their relationships that other Australians take for granted.

It was not until I received that email that I realised the strength of my actions in not being judgemental but simply accepting her for who she was. That has made a lasting impression on me and was the beginning of my journey as an advocate for gay and transgender Australians.

At this point I would like to acknowledge a very good friend of mine, Kate Doak, who has embarked on a journey over recent years. I am proud and privileged to have been able to share that journey with her and work through with her, and it is wonderful for her to be sitting in the gallery today, because this debate is as much about Kate as it is about all of our other gay and transgender Australians.

Today I rise to speak on a bill that provides for a national plebiscite to be held on whether the parliament should legislate to allow same-sex marriage. Voting on 27 February 2017 would be compulsory and the result determined by a simple majority of votes cast across Australia, 50 per cent plus one vote. Under the proposed legislation the definition of marriage would be changed to replace 'a man and a woman' with 'two people'. Conditions of a valid marriage would not change. Same-sex marriages would be recognised in Australia. Existing religious protections for ministers of religion would be retained and strengthened, as would protections for religious bodies or organisations that refused to provide facilities, goods or services. Marriage celebrants, including those who are not ministers of religion, would be able to refuse a marriage of same-sex couples on the grounds of conscientious or religious beliefs.

It has been a long road to get to this point, and I accept that there are those who are not happy with where we have ended up. The plebiscite certainly is not my preferred position either. I put up a cross-party bill back in 2015 in good faith, but it joined the other 17 unsuccessful bills that have gone before it. The proposal for a plebiscite was taken to 2016 election as a clear coalition policy, and we won that election.

For me personally, I have gained and lost a lot of votes on marriage equality alone. But conversations revealed that many people who supported the plebiscite were not opposed to gay marriage. There were certainly some, but the majority reasoned that they did not want the vote to be owned by the politicians; they wanted to be able to tell their gay friends or relatives that their vote had contributed to a significant social change—and that view should not be underestimated. That is what I tell members of the gay community when they ask me, 'Why should my neighbour have a say on whether I'm allowed to get married?' The fact is that many of their neighbours are very keen to be part of this change and they do not want it owned by a small group of politicians.

In the period since the election I have become convinced that, were this plebiscite to get up, we would certainly be able to achieve marriage equity. There is overwhelming support in the Australian public. You only need to look at the recent Newspoll figures—62 per cent in favour and only 32 per cent against. Conversely, if we were to force a parliamentary vote on this issue, anybody who thinks the results will be accepted is kidding themselves. There is too much interest and emotional investment in this issue now. If a vote in the parliament were unsuccessful, those supporting marriage equality and the broader public would challenge its validity because the decision was made by politicians. If a vote in the parliament was successful, the same goes. There is no way that those who oppose marriage equality would accept the result and walk away. The issue would continue to be unresolved indefinitely—and this is exactly what neither side wants.

Every issue has its time in the sun when the national conversation is at its peak but, when that moment passes, it can be years before momentum again reaches the point of change. Marriage equality is no different. There is a huge risk of issue fatigue the longer this is dragged out. We are in a position now where we can achieve the outcome we have been moving towards for so long. So I urge people not to dismiss the opportunity because they do not like the process. Also, those in the community who are taking a 'willing to wait' stance are doing so based on two very flawed assumptions: firstly, that the Labor Party will win the 2019 election; and, secondly, that the policy position supporting gay marriage that was imposed on Labor politicians at their national conference will continue past 2019. The issue is white hot right now and, if not resolved on 11 February, I suspect many people will feel that they have given their best shot and walk away and focus on other issues.

The exposure draft legislation has now been released and people have the opportunity to comment on it until 6 December. After this, the legislation will be finalised, ready to be enacted immediately in the case of a 'yes' vote. We have already debunked the argument of a plebiscite not being binding with a cast-iron commitment that the parliament will respect the will of the people. If there are half a dozen who decide that they want to go against the will of the people, that is entirely up to them and they will have to adjust that to the will of the people. The reality is that, if there are 150 people in here—and if what we hear from the other side is true and they are committed to making it happen—there is no way that such a vote, if it was 'yes', would not get through this place. So any suggestion that it would not is absolute nonsense from the other side. As I said, in the case of a 'yes' vote, there might be a handful who will vote against it or abstain.

Overwhelmingly, Australians already know how they are going to vote. This issue has been discussed for well over a decade. So advertising material will only target the single-digit proportion of people—six per cent according to Newspoll—who are undecided.    While I question the allocation of funds to the 'yes' and 'no' campaigns, I accept that funds need to be spent, whether through the Electoral Commission or the two parliamentary committees that would be established. This process will see government produced material scrutinised through the cabinet process to ensure language is appropriate, respectful and decent.

It is this respectfulness and decentness which absolutely must be carried through into the national dialogue, as we have seen in the experience of other countries.    Tiernan Brady headed the 'yes' campaign in the Irish referendum, and I have met with him several times to discuss Australia's path to marriage equality. In a recent article in The Australian, Tiernan disputed the Leader of the Opposition's depiction of the Irish experience as 'ugly division'. Tiernan accepted that the lead-up to the vote was mentally taxing for LGBT people but said the campaign 'brought people together instead of tearing them apart' and the vote itself was 'an astounding and unifying moment' for his country.    I see no reason why it would be any different here in Australia. Tiernan went on to say that the 'ugly conversations' were not the result of the process itself, said:

... the approach of people in the campaign decides what the tone is and I think that is a critical point...

We have to set the tone that is respectful. There will be other voices and that is always the way it is and, sadly, we have to endure those voices.

Tiernan's sentiments were echoed in a very good book recently released by Paul Ritchie, titled Faith Love and Australia—The Conservative Case for Same-Sex Marriage. Ritchie tells us to 'embrace all conversations' about same-sex marriage, writing:

The opponents of same-sex marriage know they will lose a plebiscite that is about the merits of legalizing same-sex marriage, but they can win a plebiscite if they make the public debate about something else.

That 'something else' is of course the issue of freedom.

Whether or not the plebiscite legislation is passed, supporters of same-sex marriage must not employ the American political tactic of simply shutting down opponents' messages, whether through banning TV ads, calling on hotels to refuse to hold meetings for same-sex marriage opponents or attacking corporate entities for not publicly endorsing the campaign for same-sex marriage. The case for marriage equality is a strong and logical one in itself, while people opposed to marriage equality may have deeply held, personal convictions on the issue. We must allow all conversations to be heard and, yes, there may be public statements that are distasteful or offensive. But, as Ritchie says, 'We must let the unfair attacks sit in the public square as proof of why there must be change.' I also dispute the assumption that all the negativity is coming just from the 'no' campaign. As a result of my efforts to make a plebiscite work, some of the communications coming to me from marriage equality supporters on the extreme side have been intimidating and incredibly offensive. So far I do not think either side can claim the high moral ground on this one. I am only one voice but I will continue to pursue this with dignity and respect and I urge everyone commenting on this issue to do the same.

This is a battle that has been going on for decades now. And, while I am not challenging the intention of some individuals across politics in championing this cause or those within the marriage equality movement, I am concerned that people are losing sight of the end game. For them, it is more about the battle than the outcome.

I listened to the opposition leader's contribution on this bill. Why didn't he make the changes between 2007 and 2013, when he was in government? He had the ability to do it, but he made no effort, because he had a different view on it then. He was opposed at that stage. He is all over the place. At an Australian Christian Lobby candidates forum prior to the 2013 election, the current opposition leader said that he was:

… completely relaxed about having some form of plebiscite.

He said:

I would rather that the people of Australia could make their view clear on this than leaving this issue to 150 people.

Only in August last year the Leader of the Greens and Senators Xenophon, Lambie, and Leyonhjelm fronted of the cameras to announce that they were putting forward a bill to bring on a plebiscite no later than the 2016 election. Senator Di Natale told the Financial Review and other media:

One thing we all agree on is that we need to deal with this issue and deal with it quickly … and it must be the parliament that owns the plebiscite and drafts the question.

Senator Xenophon added:

If all MPs and senators can't have a conscience vote then there needs to be a conscious vote of all Australians through a plebiscite.

But for goodness sakes let's get this done, let's have a vote as soon as possible rather than just being put off to the never-never …

Well, Senator Xenophon and others, this is the never-never unless we start to deal with this issue right now. So stand up for what you committed to only 12 months ago.

By all means, as new information comes forward politicians should be able to change their minds on an issue without being accused of backflipping. But the Leader of the Opposition, in citing his reasons for change—and I find this quite concerning—has entered dangerous territory in directly connecting gay marriage to youth suicide. We know that young LGBTI people are particularly vulnerable to negative commentary, but they will be exposed to it, whether it is through a plebiscite, a parliamentary vote, or another three years or more in a dragged-out debate. We can prepare for and minimise this risk by committing additional funding to headspace, in line with the Irish model, where extra funding for mental health services was fully utilised. There is no reason why we cannot do the same here and shorten the whole process.

Labor is the one playing wedge politics on this issue by fuelling divisiveness, ignoring the fact that there is a cost to democracy and trying to undermine the government, which has a mandate for a plebiscite, as voted by the Australian people. We must put aside partisan objections and focus on what we want to achieve. If Labor and the Greens really support gay marriage and want it to be legalised as soon as possible, they should be supporting this plebiscite. This is the best possible chance we have had in a decade, but if the legislation fails I will be one of millions of Australians who will be profoundly frustrated and disappointed with the Labor Party's hypocrisy. Let us not allow this opportunity to be squandered. I certainly commend this build the House.

7:17 pm

Photo of Tanya PlibersekTanya Plibersek (Sydney, Australian Labor Party, Deputy Leader of the Opposition) Share this | | Hansard source

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.'

Photo of Tony SmithTony Smith (Speaker) Share this | | Hansard source

The member for Sydney will refer to people by their correct titles.

Photo of Tanya PlibersekTanya Plibersek (Sydney, Australian Labor Party, Deputy Leader of the Opposition) Share this | | Hansard source

We know that this pointless plebiscite will be fantastically expensive—$200 million, by the government's own estimate. You would really think that the people who said we had a debt and deficit disaster would worry about that. When we had a projected deficit of $4.7 billion for the 2015-16 year that was a debt and deficit disaster. Under this mob that has blown out eightfold—this is why I was doing this gesture in question time today. It is almost $40 billion but they cannot think of something better to do with $200 million—maybe pay down debt, maybe properly fund our schools, maybe properly fund our hospitals, maybe build some transport infrastructure. Do the Liberals really think that running this plebiscite is more important and more valuable than properly funding aged care or properly funding child care? Yes, apparently they do.

But the most compelling argument is the harm that this debate will do to the LGBTIQ communities, their families and supporters. As the Leader of the Opposition has said, mental health experts, including Professor Patrick McGorry and Frank Quinlan, and suicide prevention expert Dr Jo Robinson have all said that the potential for harm here is real. We know that it will happen. Two weeks ago I visited—not for the first time—Twenty10, a gay and lesbian youth counselling service in my electorate. They have already seen an increase in demand for their services. Gay and lesbian rights advocates have told me about physical confrontations and even death threats that they have already experienced because they have been speaking out in favour of marriage equality. Rainbow families, close and loving families, have had to explain to their children why people—

Photo of Tony SmithTony Smith (Speaker) Share this | | Hansard source

It being 7.30 pm, the debate is interrupted. The member for Sydney will have leave to conclude her remarks at a later hour.