House debates

Thursday, 20 October 2016


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

9:57 am

Photo of Lucy WicksLucy Wicks (Robertson, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise in support of the Plebiscite (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill 2016 that is before the House—a bill I strongly believe ought to be supported by all members of this House.

Up until this point, the path that we have taken as a government on this issue has been straightforward and reasonable. Following a deeply respectful and consultative party room meeting, the coalition took a promise to the last election to resolve this issue of same-sex marriage through a vote by all Australians in a national plebiscite. This is not just a narrowly targeted opinion poll, as some have called it—we have plenty of those. It is a detailed, comprehensive chance for all Australians to have their say.

Soon after 2 July, the result was clear: the coalition retained government and a plebiscite was part of the suite of policies that were endorsed by the Australian people. Now we have honoured that commitment that we made, with the introduction of this plebiscite bill and the release of an exposure draft of the proposed legislative amendments to the Marriage Act.

As the secretary of the coalition's backbench committee on legal affairs, I have witnessed the consultative, respectful and thought-through process that has taken place in constructing both the bill we are debating today and the exposure draft to change the Marriage Act. This part of the process has been rightly straightforward. But, as many of us on both sides of this House are aware, the issue itself is certainly not straightforward. Despite attempts by advocates to take this issue hostage, there is a desperate need to have a conversation that goes well beyond the narrow scope that we have seen so far, to capture the full and far-reaching implications of changing the Marriage Act.

Changing the definition of marriage is not simple, because it alters what is possibly one of the most fundamental cornerstones of life as we know it. There are a number of deeply significant and foundational questions that still need to be socialised with the Australian people—questions that I will raise today and which I believe have not been publicly canvassed in a way that enables fulsome and proper debate on what marriage is or even what it should be.

Redefining marriage is not something we should just get on with and not a decision to take simply because other countries have done it or it is a 'gentle evolution of marriage'. Put simply, changing the definition of marriage would be to change the very nature of marriage itself. I acknowledge that there are people and organisations on all sides of this issue—for and against same-sex marriage, for and against a plebiscite—who are passionate and committed and who have deeply held personal views on both the substance of the debate and the process by which it will be decided. I respect those views. But, sadly, it is hard to respect the Labor Party's approach to this issue. By refusing to acknowledge the decency of the Australian people and their ability to have a respectful debate, Labor has cynically played politics with this most important issue by opposing the plebiscite bill. In doing so, Labor has rejected the wishes of the Australian people to resolve the issue by plebiscite and simply refused to deal with the government in good faith.

Standing up for fundamental principles is not entirely easy, especially when the debate has turned from the substance of the issue at hand—allowing same-sex couples to marry—to the process, namely a plebiscite to determine the outcome. That is what we are debating: an actual process. Having spoken with hundreds of people in my electorate, it is sad to see that even Labor representatives on the Central Coast, such as the Labor senator for New South Wales Deborah O'Neill, have failed to stand up for their convictions and principles on same-sex marriage. Back in 2011 the then Labor member for Robertson took a very strong view to the New South Wales Labor conference. The Sydney Morning Herald reported at the time that Ms O'Neill said people who were opposed to gay marriage, like herself, were unfairly maligned as bigoted, intolerant or homophobic. Ms O'Neill put on the record that the Marriage Act should only unite a man and woman.

Regardless of culture, time or place—

she said—

the organic nature of the family unit that is the natural consequence of the union of a man and a woman is a key social unit …

She said it is on this unit that 'the state of society is built'. Ms O'Neill said, as quoted in the Sydney Morning Herald:

It is a commonly held position in the broad Australian community.

Yet in an interview on ABC Central Coast radio last week the now Labor senator for New South Wales refused to stand on these principles and would not discuss her own view about this vital issue. Instead, she sharply criticised the government's plebiscite, which she described as an 'unnecessary conversation and a glorified opinion poll'. It is another clear example of Labor playing politics with this very serious issue. My question to Senator O'Neill and the Labor Party is: what is so unnecessary about having this important conversation? What is so unnecessary about a clear and democratic path to resolving the issue of same-sex marriage? Why is it wrong to allow the Australian people to be heard? Perhaps it is because Labor did nothing to progress same-sex marriage during their six years in government.

It is deeply concerning when we see somebody who took such a public and principled stand, as Senator O'Neill did just a few short years ago, back down and retreat to the cynical Labor talking points. In the same-sex marriage debate these talking points, like 'marriage equality' and 'love is love', tug at the heartstrings. They certainly tug at my heartstrings. They are designed to lead you down a path to what advocates say is the only logical and morally right conclusion. The result, of course, is an attempt to make the question so persuasive that there can only be a single answer—broadly, that same-sex marriage is all about love, equality and wedding bells. Alternative viewpoints have been shut out and disregarded as irrelevant before they have even been debated, tested and weighed.

But digging deeper into this issue reveals that changing the definition of marriage actually requires us to ask more questions. The way that the same-sex marriage debate has unfolded means we are left to tackle more and more slogans, in particular from the Labor Party, most recently that a plebiscite would be 'expensive and divisive'. I would like to suggest that the expense and the argument are potentially the price of democracy—the chance to hear the voice of the Australian people. It does cost money, yes, but I see this as an opportunity cost. As the Prime Minister said, what price do we place on democracy? We have the claims that a plebiscite will be divisive and will fuel hostility. With respect to members opposite, isn't the heat in this debate the very reason we should have a full and proper conversation before a decision is made? If there is more to say, what could be more necessary than a carefully considered structure to hear these views?

What if for a moment, as part of this debate, we dared to think through other possible implications of a fundamental change to the definition of marriage? What if it were about more than 'love'? What if it were also the question of a legacy for our children, our grandchildren and the generations that follow? What if we carefully thought through the implications of changing a social framework for families and the raising of children—our next generation? To take this further, what if we had a genuine conversation about the generational implications for the upbringing of children in changing the definition of marriage? What if we dared go even further and asked ourselves: 'Does this matter?' That is not 'Does this matter for ourselves?' of course, because the ones who want to make this decision are grown, consenting adults; it is: 'Does this matter for children—for our children and their children—beyond just the legal recognition of their parents' relationship?'

As we know, families today are not just nuclear families that reflect the so-called traditional marriage framework but also single-parent, same-sex and blended families living in towns and cities and on farms right around our country. Given this reality, is the current definition of marriage even relevant today?

I would argue that it absolutely is. Regardless of whether you are married, a de facto couple, a single parent or a same-sex couple, in my view the institution of marriage exists as a reference point for families.

I believe it works as a reference point or a framework that recognises that children, where possible, need a mother and father or a mother and father figure to help them best make sense of who they are as they grow. It is a framework that has existed for centuries now and a framework that works well, even in a society where marriage is no longer the only family structure where children are raised. That is because it actually means that regardless of what type of family you belong to, there still exists a reference point in law that states the significance of a male role model and a female role model for children. Does this no longer matter? Does gender in marriage—or degendering marriage—if you like, no longer matter? I think it does matter.

But even if I am wrong and even if gender and mother and father role models are no longer of any consequence, the current narrow definition that we have been hearing—that marriage is just about love and equality—provides little opportunity for us to be able to explore the full personal and social consequences of changing the Marriage Act. I read a recent article from Michael Pascoe in Fairfax Media online. He claimed in a so-called open letter to backbenchers that we could 'make our mark in history' by crossing the floor to vote to bring in same-sex marriage. My response to Mr Pascoe—and others who claim that we should just get on with our job—is that I would hope all of us in this government, regardless of whether we personally support same-sex marriage or not, consider support for the plebiscite as much as a matter of personal integrity as party policy.

In the name of deeply held Liberal views about true democracy, freedom and courage of our convictions, I believe we are, in fact, leaving a mark by being prepared to stand up for free speech and free thought and to be prepared to risk a outcome in order to encourage an open and democratic debate. If the Australian people vote yes in a plebiscite, marriage will be changed forever. But in doing so, the nation will have fully worked through the implications of such a fundamental change, rather than having this change foisted upon us because we were too frightened to broaden the debate in a respectful, considered way.

Paul Kelly highlighted many of these issues in The Australian. In November last year, Mr Kelly wrote that:

The consequences far transcend the definition of marriage itself. Same-sex marriage is provoking an upheaval about freedom of conscience, religious liberty and the norms that govern our democratic discourse.

He said:

For Australia and its alleged open spirit of debate, this is an unprecedented situation. It reveals an aggressive secularism dressed in the moral cause of anti-discrimination justice but with a long-run agenda that seeks to transform our values and, ultimately, drive religion into the shadows.

Reading these words made me consider that this debate on both the plebiscite and the issue of same-sex marriage will be a mark of our maturity as a nation. I commend the bill to the House, and urge the Labor Party to do the same.

10:11 am

Photo of Lisa ChestersLisa Chesters (Bendigo, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

This is quite a personal debate for a number of people. This is also a debate about our democracy. I would like to start with that argument first of all and with why I am opposed to the plebiscite and I support the amendment that has been moved. Contrary to the claims of the government that this plebiscite they have proposed is about free speech, we are already having a public debate about marriage equality. But the way that the government is going about it is not about free speech. It is about their party room. If the members of the government were serious about supporting our democracy and if they respected our Constitution, then we would not be having this debate. If we had a free vote of members of the 45th parliament and if we had support for a free vote in this parliament, then I believe that we would have marriage equality.

The democracy argument is something that the government is choosing to brush over, which I find quite odd because they are such champions—or believed to be such champions—of our Constitution, of the queen of this parliament. I talk to school groups and they say, 'Why don't we have marriage quality?' I say, 'It's a very good question that you have asked. You need to start lobbying members of the government.' Our Constitution is quite small. It is very hard to change as well. We have tried to change it a couple of times and we have really struggled. But one of the things it actually states very clearly about the role of this parliament is—under part V, powers of the parliament: legislative powers of the parliament—that this parliament has legislative powers in relation to marriage. From the very beginning of this democracy and the creation of the Australian government, the Constitution said that the people in this place have the power to legislate the Marriage Act.

We know that states have tried. They have tried to introduce their own Marriage Act, only to be smacked down by the High Court because it is this place that changes the Marriage Act. Pushing marriage equality off to a plebiscite is really misleading to the Australian people because unless you legislate that the plebiscite will be binding, it is not binding on the people in this place. You can understand why the community is outraged—absolutely outraged—about spending $200 million on a vote which is not binding. They want us to get on with the job that we were elected to do. They want us to respect to our role, to respect the Constitution and to debate the other bill that is before the House around marriage equality. It is time that we did our jobs.

This is nothing more than a very expensive opinion poll. There are two other times we have had plebiscites of this nature in our past. One was around the First World War and conscription. After Billy Hughes's—which to Labor people is not a name you mention—fraught attempts to have conscription, he ended up—

Mr Frydenberg interjecting

He was Labor, then he ended up in the Country Party. In fact, he ended up as the federal member for Bendigo for a period of time after leaving the Labor Party. The other time we had a plebiscite of this nature was around our national song—what our most popular song was and what was going to be our national song.

This issue is not like these issues. This issue is about marriage. It is about love. This issue is about rights. It is about respecting and acknowledging two individuals and giving them the opportunity that other people in our population have. If government members really respected our Constitution and this parliament they would allow there to be a free vote. They would not be using their numbers as a government to stop the debate.

A lot of people have contacted me about this issue since before I was a federal member. It is an issue in my electorate, which is a regional electorate, where the popular opinion to support marriage equality has existed for quite some time. We are now at a stage where the vast majority of Australians—over 70 per cent—support same-sex marriage, marriage equality. It has become a very personal debate for so many, because this issue is personal.

It is true that marriage has not always been about love. I grew up in a household where marriage was not a good thing. I grew up in a household where I had a very negative opinion of marriage. My parents were not happily married. When I was a child I thought that marriage was about control. I thought that marriage was entrapment. It was only when I became older that I discovered that it was my parents who had an unhappy marriage. It was only when I was older that I started to understand that two people can love each other and be together—but at the moment it is only if you are a man and a woman. That is why this needs to change.

Marriage, once upon a time, was about property transfers. Marriage, once upon a time, was about ownership. Today it is not. Marriage has changed as we as a society have changed. That is why we need the Marriage Act to reflect today's society, to reflect today's opinions. That is the role of being a representative. It is to understand. It is to listen to the people, before the people, and amend the Marriage Act to reflect what the people believe the Marriage Act should reflect.

I want to share a few personal examples. My former workplace is going through a baby boom. Everyone is having babies! It is beautiful to catch up with them. They are all talking about vomit. They are all talking about baby names. There are five couples who have had babies in the last few months. One of those couples is married. Two other couples have decided not to get married—one had a life celebration, a commitment to each other; they still had the party. One other couple is engaged but they cannot get married. And the other couple has chosen not to get married.

Why I bring that up is because all of them are going through the same conversations. Their families are similar. These children will grow up together. But of the five couples, two couples have been denied a right. This is just one workplace. This is modern Australia. This is modern workplaces. They are celebrating the birth of their babies. They are excited. They are all new parents together. Yet two of those families are denied a right, the right for parents to choose whether they wish to get married or not.

A number of people have written to me and I want to place on the record a couple of their comments, in relation to marriage equality and the plebiscite. Jakob, organiser of the queer community group Friends Alike Bendigo, in central Victoria, called for the plebiscite to be blocked. He said: 'We’ve already seen what lifting the lid on a plebiscite results in, the kind of language and comments, the way in which my community is attacked.' The government has failed to explain how this bill will support my community to achieve marriage equality. It is about delaying an opportunity for my community to have the same rights as others.

Harry wrote to me and said: 'The right to marry is significant to my partner and me because it allows our relationship to be as valid as any other relationship and it celebrates the dignity of the love that we share.' Harry is, actually, Irish and spent most of his life in Ireland but now calls Bendigo home. It was reported that the Irish LGBTI helpline had almost 77,000 people access information and support during their debate. 'As the Irish nation debated the referendum,' Harry said, 'many LGBTI people sought support from the helpline to help cope with the intensity of having their lives in the public debate or to deal with negative attitudes expressed by family members or friends.'

What the government forgets is there are people at the centre of this. This is such a personal and deep issue for so many people. When I was growing up in the eighties and nineties people did come out, but it was hard to come out then. It has always been hard for people who are same sex to come out. This debate, if we go to a plebiscite, will make it even harder for young people. We do not want to go back to those days.

Harry continues: 'My community has fought for its rights for hundreds of years; homophobia and transphobia is no stranger to us,' and it is hurtful, particularly 'when it comes from the very people who are meant to protect us.' He said: 'I want to call on our elected representatives to get this job done; its time Australia.' It is time, Prime Minister, for you to be on the right side of history. Harry is right.

Graeme, who lives in Kennington, said:

My rights shouldn't be decided by the general population. My rights should be the same as everyone else's. I wish this wasn't still an issue. Let's get it done and get it over and done with. My partner recently came out and already feels like an outcast because of his honesty; this would take some of that pressure off for him, and for all of us who just want our equality to be recognized.

He said, 'We want to be equal.' Ann-Maree from Bendigo said, 'Let's just get this done! Let the people speak what is in their hearts. Love is love. Love will triumph.'

Early in the last term the Bendigo Catholic College visited me here at Parliament House. They asked me this question: 'Lisa, why don't we have marriage equality yet?' I said: 'Because we haven't had a free vote.' And they said: 'Well, we're going to have a vote.' They put the question to themselves—'Who here supports marriage equality?'—and every hand went up. Since then our large Catholic community in Bendigo has embraced this and said: 'We want to see our children have the same rights.' You know the community has shifted when people stop you in the street and say: 'I have three children. They are all in loving relationships. I can attend the wedding of two but not the third.' We heard the new member for Longman talk about how one of her sons does not have the same rights as her other sons.

It is time the government started to listen to the people and just get on with it. People in our community are over this debate because they want to see the government do what parliamentarians are elected to do. They know this is about their party room. They know this is about trying to keep together the unhappy marriage of the Liberals and the Nationals. There is no mandate to push forward with the marriage equality/same-sex marriage plebiscite because the numbers just are not there.

I would remind people in this place and in the other place about our Constitution and about the fact that it is up to all of us here to define the Marriage Act. Society has shifted on this issue, as it has done on so many issues. Society will always set the agenda for this place. It does come down to power and how power is being exercised. Pick any issue going back to when the Constitution was created and we have always had a situation where conservative, white middle-aged men have tried to control social issues. Whether it be women's right to choose or marriage, we have always had to stand up and fight for change.

To the LGBTI community in Bendigo I just want to say: 'Let's continue to stand together. Let's continue to rally and call for change.' This is one of those issues where through grassroots action, standing together and telling personal stories we will create change. We have done so in the past and we will again in the future. Marriage equality is personal. It is a right that people are seeking that their relationship be recognised by others. The right to be able not just to say 'I love you' but to commit to somebody under the Marriage Act should be afforded to all adults regardless of gender. This is an issue about rights. This is an issue about equity before the law. This is about saying to a group of Australians: 'We won't discriminate against you anymore.' This is about saying to Ann-Maree, Graeme, Jacob and Harry from my community: 'We recognise your rights and your relationship.' This is about saying to all the United Voice bubs: 'Your parents are equal and will have equal rights.'

10:26 am

Photo of Julian LeeserJulian Leeser (Berowra, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to support the bill. At the 2016 federal election the Turnbull government campaigned on the policy of a plebiscite on same-sex marriage. The idea of a plebiscite was widely canvassed during the election and the Attorney-General and Special Minister of State have prepared a bill for this parliament to implement that promise. I support the traditional definition of marriage: that marriage is between a man and a woman. In the plebiscite, I will vote against changing the definition of marriage. However, like my friend the member for Warringah, in the event that the plebiscite is carried nationwide, I will vote to implement the result of the plebiscite.

I believe Australia can have a civilised conversation about marriage. Immediately prior to my election to this House, I was in charge of public policy at the Australian Catholic University. In that context, I organised two respectful conversations on marriage through the lens of the teaching of the Catholic church. Speakers included proponents of changing the definition of marriage such as former New South Wales Labor Premier Kristina Keneally and former Human Rights Commissioner, and now my esteemed colleague, Tim Wilson, the member for Goldstein. The forum also included advocates for traditional marriage such as Bishop Peter Comensoli and journalist Miranda Devine.

The editor-at-large of TheAustralian newspaper, Paul Kelly, was a participant in one of those conversations. He did not take a side but raised questions about some of the consequences for religious freedom of changing the definition of marriage that have not been properly ventilated through the parliamentary process. Paul Kelly noted that changing the definition of marriage means the law of the state and the law of the church would be at odds. He pointed out that, in the event of a change, activists would seek to bring both of these into line by challenging the law of the church. Importantly, Paul Kelly noted that, in the context of this debate, religious freedom means more than just protecting the right of religious celebrants to refuse to perform a same-sex marriage ceremony.

Both of these conversations can be seen online. I encourage Australians to view them to see that a civil conversation on this issue is possible and desirable. But this takes discernment, urbanity and tolerance on both sides of the debate. My former colleague Dr Michael Casey, now executive director of the PM Glynn Institute, said last week:

We need to re-discover the idea of life in common as a shared landscape, adjust the thresholds so that instead of seeing the person who disagrees with us as an enemy with a malign intent which must be unmasked, we see them as a friend with a different, deeply-held view of the right thing to do.

That is the approach I will take in any of my conduct in this debate and it is an approach I would encourage on all sides.

My view of marriage is a personally held view. One advantage of the plebiscite is that it gives all Australians the chance to have their own say on what is a deeply moral and personal issue. Another advantage of the plebiscite is that, because it is a vote of the Australian people, the result will carry a political weight much greater than a vote in the parliament. Whatever the result, following a plebiscite I think activists on both sides should regard the issue as being settled.

While the plebiscite is not a referendum to change the Constitution, this bill draws on provisions of the Referendum Machinery Provisions Act and the experience of the 1999 republic referendum. As in 1999, the bill envisages the establishment of a 'yes' committee and a 'no' committee, funded equally at $7.5 million, which will produce advertising campaigns to persuade voters to vote for or against same-sex marriage.

I want to speak about the issue of equal public funding of both the 'yes' and 'no' case and draw on my own experience as a member of the government 'no' committee for the 1999 republic referendum to help illustrate why public funding and, in particular, why equal public funding for a plebiscite or a referendum campaign is so important. I also want to make some comments on the abandoned 2013 local government referendum as an illustration of the undesirable practice of unequal and distorted public funding, which should never be repeated.

In the proposed plebiscite, much like a referendum, parliament is putting both the deliberative and the determinative powers over this issue into the hands of the Australian people. When people are to make a decision on an issue they need to be able to make a true choice and inform themselves of various alternatives. Unless they hear both arguments it is difficult to make a true choice.

It can be tempting for those of us engaged in the public debate to assume that the general public is as interested in government, political and policy matters as many of the active participants in the public debate are. But this is not necessarily the case. The republic debate provides a good case study in this regard.

Republicanism can trace its origins to 19th century radicals. It was revived by 1960s intellectuals and some on the Left after the Whitlam dismissal. Modern republicanism dates to the launch of the Australian Republican Movement in 1991. In 1993 the cause was taken up by Prime Minister Keating and in 1998 Prime Minister Howard held a partly-appointed, partly-elected constitutional convention to design a republic model for a referendum.

I am going into this history to illustrate that there had been a long, lively and intense public debate on whether Australia should be a republic. Despite this, the 1999 'yes' committee found that only four months out from the referendum 38 per cent of Australians were unaware of what the referendum they were due to vote on was about.

As honourable members know from our own experience in our own electorates there is always a percentage of people who do not know a federal election is coming or, even after the election campaign has commenced, what date it will be. A referendum or a plebiscite is no different. That is why it is necessary to have publicly funded advertising to create not only awareness of the vote but to enable people, in a deliberative democracy, to hear the arguments both for and against the proposals on which they will vote.

Members of this House will be aware of the difficulties in raising money for election campaigns. It is much more difficult to raise money for a referendum or a plebiscite on a single topic than for a general election. With limited funds it can be more difficult to explain the details of the proposal to members of the public. In a crowded and diffuse news-media landscape it is important to have the funds to provide information to the public. Equal public funding levels the playing field. It means that if one side of the debate is supported by well-funded supporters that side of the debate does not have an unfair advantage over the other side.

In 1999 the 'yes' campaign had a massive advantage over the 'no' campaign. The 'yes' campaign had a substantial business war chest. It had the advantage of the support of most of the media. Without equal public funding in 1999 Australians may only have heard one side. In a deliberative democracy this is unfair and unjust.

John Howard's innovation of an equally funded 'yes' and 'no' committee to prepare an advertising campaign to put arguments to Australians before they cast their vote to change the Constitution was a positive development in helping to ensure Australians have heard the arguments for and against change. It should become a permanent feature of the referendum architecture in Australia, and I am pleased to see it appear here in the plebiscite bill.

While 1999 provides an example of good practice, an example of bad practice was the then Gillard Labor government's decision to provide unequal funding for the 'yes' and 'no' cases at a proposed referendum in 2013 to recognise local government in the Constitution. On that occasion Labor proposed to give the 'yes' case $10 million and the 'no' case $500,000.

The 'yes' campaign would also have been boosted by a bonus of $10 million of ratepayer money from the Australian Local Government Association and an $11.6 million national civics education campaign in support of the 'yes' case. That was a total of $31.6 million of public funding for the 'yes' case and $500,000 for the 'no' case.

Labor's actions at the local government referendum represent an attempt to rort the democratic process—a situation which should never be allowed to happen again. When the Australian people have to vote at a plebiscite, as in this case, they need to be able to hear the arguments for and against a proposal. That is why I am such a strong supporter of equal public funding for this plebiscite and for all referenda to alter the Constitution.

There has been some public commentary opposing equal public funding for the same-sex marriage plebiscite suggesting that there are no checks and balances on what could be said in a plebiscite campaign and that all of the arguments advanced by activists opposed to same-sex marriage will find their way into government advertising. I hope to show that the regulatory architecture established by this bill and the experience of the referendum in 1999 mean that this will not necessarily be the case.

In early 1999 I was appointed by Prime Minister Howard to serve as a member of a ten-person committee comprising delegates from the constitutional convention, at which I had been an elected delegate, to develop an advertising campaign to support the 'no' vote at the republic referendum to be held later that year.

Each committee was given $7½ million to conduct an advertising campaign. Guidelines for the expenditure of money were issued, including the need to abide by competitive tendering processes and the need to submit a budget to the Ministerial Committee on Government Communications—the MCGC.

Advertisements needed to be submitted to the MCGC for final approval to ensure they met the government's advertising guidelines. I recall several instances where our campaign team had to negotiate advertisements with the MCGC. I recall, in some instances, the language of the advertisements were modified as a result of the MCGC processes, and the exchanges on all these points were robust.

In addition to the MCGC oversight of the committee's work was undertaken by the Referendum Taskforce, the Federation of Australian Commercial Television Stations, the Australian Electoral Commission and, ultimately, the Federal Court. At one point or another all of these bodies were called upon to rule on elements of the campaign by one side or the other.

I make these points to illustrate that the official 'yes' and 'no' committees in 1999 were not a free-for-all. While there was a chance to put forward a wide range of arguments, there was no sense in which the committees conducted themselves in an atmosphere of completely unconstrained free speech. Similar mechanisms in the bill before the House and guidelines to be issued by the Special Minister of State will provide similar protections in a plebiscite.

I wish to make one final observation about something that was part of the architecture in the 1999 republic referendum—and, indeed, every referendum since 1912—but which has been left out of this proposal, and that is the publication of a yes/no booklet. As part of any proposal to alter the Constitution parliamentarians who have voted for or against the proposal are tasked with preparing a case of no more than 2,000 words for each side of the argument. Both cases appear in a booklet along with the text of the proposed alteration. That booklet is mailed to every elector within 14 days of the referendum.

I recall in 1999 that research undertaken for the No committee indicated that Australians took the Yes/No booklet very seriously. They took the chance to read and reflect on the arguments it contained. Since 1999, there has been an attack by some commentators, particularly in academic circles, on the Yes/No booklet. Some think it should be dispensed with. However, in an age when we are overburdened by electronic communications, receiving personally addressed printed material has a greater impact and perhaps underscores the seriousness of the decision to be made.

Again, at the time of the local government referendum, Labor changed the Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Act to weaken the effect of the Yes/No booklet so that the Yes/No booklet would be sent as unaddressed mail to every household, not to every elector. This meant that it had less chance of being read and more chance of being chucked out with the Coles catalogue.

I regret that the authors of this bill did not include a yes/no booklet in the suite of measures to enact the plebiscite. I note the cost of publishing the booklet but I also note that voters appreciate the chance to quietly analyse the arguments it contains.

In conclusion, the package of equal funding administered by a Yes and No committee should allow Australians sufficient information to make a true choice on the issue of same-sex marriage. I commend the bill to the House.

10:38 am

Photo of Warren SnowdonWarren Snowdon (Lingiari, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for External Territories) Share this | | Hansard source

It gives me great pleasure to contribute to this debate and once again reaffirm my support for same-sex marriage. I have voted in this place previously in support of this issue. I have been in this place a fair time and I do not think I have ever come across a proposition so ludicrous as the one that is confronting us in the Plebiscite (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill 2016—that we should go to a plebiscite on something that this parliament should decide on. We do not have plebiscites on whether we go to war. We do not have plebiscites on whether we need to change Medicare. We do not have plebiscites on education. We do not have plebiscites on any other issue which this parliament makes decisions about. Yet, we are being asked by the government to accept a proposition that we should, as a matter of course to test public opinion, have a plebiscite. We are elected into this place by the people of Australia to make laws. We are elected into this place as parliamentarians in a democracy to make decisions. What the government is doing here is quite the opposite. It is refusing to accept its responsibility to allow the parliament to make a decision that is enforceable about same-sex marriage and marriage equality.

In my community, there is a great deal of concern about the direction in which this debate has been heading. What is the point of forcing 15 million Australians to vote when Malcolm Turnbull, the Prime Minister, cannot even guarantee that the members of the government, the Liberal and National parties, would vote in support of the outcome of that plebiscite in this parliament? We already know how weak he is as a leader, and we saw that writ large yesterday—in fact, shockingly so—in Senate estimates when the Minister for Defence was asked: who is responsible in the Department of Defence; who is the senior minister? There does not appear to be one. Apparently, the Prime Minister is not able to arbitrate the responsibilities of the Minister for Defence, the Leader of the House or Minister Tehan in their respective portfolios. He cannot even do that, let alone have the courage and the spine to stand up to his party room, express his own personal opinion, tell them what it is and get their support.

He knows that the extreme right-wing elements of his party will not support him. It would not matter what decision was taken by the community at large, a number of them have determined that, regardless of the public opinion which might be expressed through a plebiscite, they have no intention, ever, of supporting the proposition of marriage equality. That says more about the Prime Minister and the coalition than it does about the Australian population. How can we have confidence in a government when the Prime Minister, whose own views are widely known about marriage equality, cannot even lead his own government to a position of support for the proposition in this parliament? That speaks volumes about the incapacity of the Prime Minister and his weakness as a leader.

I also think we need to be contemplating the impact of a potentially very divisive plebiscite—and I think it would be. There is no question in my mind about the hurt that will be perpetrated upon family members in the LGBTQI community. They will be offended. I have some correspondence from people I know well, who are partners and who have small child. I would like you to hear what they say. Kirsty writes:


Kirsty's partner—

and I have lived in the Darwin Rural area for 8 years and we have a 5 year old daughter.

The plebiscite concerns us greatly as we believe that in our daughters first week of primary school in 2017 she will be exposed to a campaign the shows her family to be lesser than all of her classmates.

We have already seen evidence that the "no" propaganda will be particular hateful and this material will be around and circulated during her primary school and formative years. We know that marriage has nothing to do with if / how we can raise a family, but unfortunately this is the debate this is already being had.

Our daughter Saige is gorgeous but very shy child with a big open heart.

I want to do everything, like every Mum would, to protect her from potential bullying and harassment from classmates, teachers who have a differing opinion on our family, other families and the media.

My concern is also with the mental health of my friends in the LGBTQ community, I've already seen firsthand the distress it is causing our friends.

The campaign on social media, the talkback radio and the ongoing belief that we need to justify our relationships is causing harm.

All of this is only the beginning of a hateful debate in our community.

I urge all our members of Parliament to abandon the plebiscite and have a free vote.

Hear, hear, I say! Hear, hear! The Prime Minister believes this. The Prime Minister wants this, but he is too gutless to enforce it. He does not have the leadership skills or the capacity in his own party room to carry the day. Such is his weakness. It is evidenced every day at the dispatch box. Every day he comes into this parliament, he gives further evidence to his weakness as a leader.

Another constituent of mine wrote to me and said:

I am in a same sex relationship of sixteen years, my wife and I are absolutely unequivocally prepared to be patient and wait for marriage equality in Australia if it means hate speech and slander are prevented from flourishing and prospering during a plebiscite campaign, and that the lives of our fellow Australians are spared significant harms that will be inflicted upon them.

This is a widespread view. It is not something which is made up. These are Australian families. There is a wide-eyed view held by some in the community—indeed, some who profess faith may have a legitimate view about their faith, and the faith based view that they have might be that they oppose marriage equality—but I ask this question: what are the common forms of relationship in this country?

My own relationship, for example, is regarded by some as illegitimate. My partner and I have been living together for 32 years. We have four children. Is there something wrong with that? There are some who would say there is, because they say that the only way you should have children is in a marriage. That, of course, is absurd, as most Australians would admit. It is just as absurd to deny the possibility of two people of the same sex having a relationship. It is a matter of fact. It is not a matter of contention. We know this is happening, yet some, in their wisdom and perhaps delusion, say to us that it is not appropriate that they should have the same rights as other Australians to cohabit and that, really, it is unseemly or inappropriate for members of the same sex to bring up children or be married. In the case of my partner, Elizabeth, and I, we chose not to be married. We took a choice. I am not opposed to marriage—fill your boots, I say—but we have taken a decision, just as there will be members of the LGBTQ community who may take a similar decision, but what they want is the right to be married. That is all. And, if they choose to be married as a result of that right being given to them, good on them. They too can fill their boots. But it is not right to say that they, among all other Australians, should be excluded the right or the possibility of being married.

No-one seeks to compel a church, or any person really, but particularly a church or church based organisations, to carry out services they do not believe in—no-one; least of all me—but I absolutely believe in the right of people to have that choice. When you think about where we are at this time of our history, so much change has taken place over the last 200 years. Belief systems have differed, the role of churches has changed, the moral leadership in the community has moved, the discussion and the debate has changed, and people who were pilloried and jailed for being gay are now accepted as equals in the community, as they should be. Why then can't we accept that they have an equal right to make a choice about being married? It is a very simple question. And why does the government want to insist that the decision on the merits or otherwise of those relationships, and their right to be married and to raise children, should be put in the hands of those who do not believe in them? Why should we? It is a discriminatory action to say that one set of Australians, such as these, should be treated so differently from another.

One of my constituents who wrote to me, in a very well thought out and, indeed, very cogent response to this issue, was Peta Phelan. She does not mind me using her name. She wrote:

The momentous social and economic burdens of such an action—

that is, the plebiscite—

cannot be ignored. Consider the financial costs of running a non-binding, unnecessary and irrelevant national opinion poll, at approximately 200 million dollars—

more or less—

The social, financial and economic burdens that have not been discussed are the following:

and she makes four points—

          I ask the Prime Minister: when you are at home at night and you are contemplating what is right and wrong, do you actually think about these issues? Do you have it on your conscience—the impact of the decisions we take in this parliament and the possibilities of how the decisions you make might affect these people or the rest of the Australian community, or the cost involved? How can you, as the leader of this country, stand up here and say, as you are doing, that these things are irrelevant and inconsequential; they do not matter; what matters is the right to give every Australian the responsibility to have a vote on something that will be non-binding and irrelevant? I think it is despicable that we go through this charade of having a debate about something which the government does not believe in.

          10:53 am

          Photo of Tony PasinTony Pasin (Barker, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

          I rise to speak on the Plebiscite (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill 2016. I do not intend to dwell on the substantive question of same-sex marriage at any length. Those in my electorate know well that I made my position clear both before I was preselected in 2012, again before the general election in 2013 and, of course, subsequently, in the lead-up to the most recent election in 2016.

          This is a matter on which decent people can differ. Just like the former Prime Minister and his sister have different views on this question, so too do I and my sister. Indeed, my sister has told me that if the plebiscite gets up she will forcefully campaign on behalf of the yes case. I suppose that is the point: through this mechanism we are seeking to provide an opportunity for decent people with different views to argue their case.

          I think this parliament does its best work when it brings Australians together. The counter is not true: we do our worst work when we seek to divide Australians, when we take action which is divisive. So what has saddened me most deeply about this debate is that we have before us an opportunity to unite Australians on a very difficult question. We have an opportunity to unite Australians and to come to an outcome on which the 24 million Australians take some ownership.

          I will unpack that a little. If we are to have a parliamentary free vote, which those opposite so vehemently argue for—I will mention that I am concerned about their motivation in that regard; I think it is born of base political advantage—but if we are to have that vote, I am very concerned that we will end up with a situation where very many Australians will not accept the legitimacy of that outcome. That has me concerned. On the other hand, if we have a national plebiscite vote where 24 million Australians are engaged in the political process—not 226 privileged politicians—then there will be a sense of ownership of the national outcome.

          Those opposite are very quick to suggest that this is a non-binding process which will not bind those in this place. I say this: having asked the Australian people to cast their vote on this question, it would be folly for anyone in this place not to respect it. That is clear. So what we would have if we proceeded with this plebiscite is a process of ownership of this question by the Australian people.

          If I could play it out: if we go through a plebiscite and the Australian people support a change and it is subsequently legislated in this place and across the way, then I am confident that those people who share my view—that is, that there is no need to change the definition of marriage in the Marriage Act—would accept that outcome, as they do every three years or so when those that support my particular brand of politics either win or lose in an election. It is accepted. There has been a exercise in democracy and there will be that sense of ownership. I am very concerned because we had created an architecture for a community vote which would have the effect of bringing our nation together on this very difficult question.

          That is the first thing which has saddened me about this course. It is a massive lost opportunity to unite Australians on this difficult social question. The second thing that has saddened me—and it has saddened and hurt me most deeply—is the suggestion that we cannot have this debate because, by the nature of the debate itself, we will harm our fellow Australians. During the course of the recent election the candidates in my seat from the Xenophon team, the Greens and the Labor Party were very strong in suggesting that we simply cannot have this debate—Australians would not respect the nature of the debate and would participate in a debate which would ultimately be hurtful and harmful. On every occasion that I got the chance, I would indicate to my opponents that I had greater faith in the Australian people than they did. I thought that in this great country of ours we could have a debate like this in a respectful way. I would be the first person to shout down anyone arguing the no case who argued it from a position of discrimination or of making a hurtful attack on a fellow Australian. I would expect those opposite to do exactly the same with respect to anyone advocating the yes case in an inappropriate way.

          What concerns me about the position we find ourselves in is that there is a suggestion now in the Australian discourse that, if the question is difficult—if there is the risk of harm in a debate—we simply should not have the debate. I think that is the first time I have heard this argument raised. A former Prime Minister would often say to us that the answer to a very bad argument is, of course, a very good one. The answer to a hurtful argument is, of course, a careful and respectful one. Others have made this connection, but I make this point: if we cannot have a debate on this question, which I began by saying is a difficult question on which decent people can differ, how are we going to have a national debate about the recognition of Australia's Indigenous peoples in the Australian Constitution? There will be people in this country who espouse racism and hate during that debate and it will be incumbent on every single Australian to shout down those arguments. But, if we are going to close down a debate because there is the risk of harm to Australians during the course of the debate, I think we will have closed off a whole section of civil political discourse that we can ever have in this country.

          That brings me back to why that argument is used. That argument is used because those opposite do not want this question put to the Australian people right here, right now. They do not want it put to the Australian people because they are concerned about what the Australian people will say when they deliver their verdict on this question—and we should never run from democracy and we should take every opportunity to empower the Australian people, not disempower them. Either those opposite are scared of what the verdict might be or they see a political advantage in continuing this debate. If we are talking about harm to those in the LGBTIQ community, I think there is a lot more harm in dragging this debate out.

          There is an advocate in my community on this question who is very high profile and very forthright. I met with her before we had adopted a policy of a plebiscite and said that I would support in the party room the idea of her casting a vote that would equal the value of my vote. She could cast her vote on 11 February next year. She and her long-time domestic partner could be married by March. But those opposite do not want that to happen. They see a political advantage in dragging this question out. They see an opportunity for Bill Shorten to enter the Lodge on the back of this question—on the back of the hurt that they are going to occasion the likes of my constituent over the next while, instead of the marriage that she could have in March were the question answered in the affirmative.

          I think this is a really sad day for this place. It is a sad day for the democracy of this nation. We should all reflect on the fact that, with respect, none of our political careers are worth occasioning harm to people in our community.

          11:04 am

          Photo of Andrew WilkieAndrew Wilkie (Denison, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

          Mr Deputy Speaker, as I am sure you are aware, I have long been a strong advocate for marriage equality—and I think it is just that: a matter of equality. I do find that the current situation, where the Marriage Act explicitly demands that marriage can only be between a man and woman, is legislated discrimination. We have indeed come a very long way to deal with legislated discrimination in this country, but the Marriage Act still stands out as a glaring example and one that this parliament could fix and fix very quickly.

          Mr Deputy Speaker, I am sure you would also be aware that I have long been very critical of a plebiscite and in particular of the way this plebiscite has been proposed, as a non-binding opinion poll. I think it is the case that a plebiscite would be a very divisive moment in our nation's history, and it would be very costly. I have heard figures of up to $200 million. I would have only supported a plebiscite if it had genuinely been the only pathway to marriage equality, but, of course, we have another pathway available to us right now, and that is a parliamentary vote. So long as we have that other pathway to marriage equality, that is where I will put my support.

          I am respectful of those people who would disagree with me. There are many Australians who do not want the Marriage Act changed. There are many Australians who passionately believe—they have a heartfelt belief—that marriage must remain only between a man and a woman. I respect that and I respect what they have to say, but I disagree with them. I disagree with the opponents of marriage equality in a number of ways. It is simply not the case that a public debate would be respectful. Unfortunately, there are what I will characterise as people with perhaps overly strong, even extreme, views on both sides of the argument who would cross the line and act in ways or say things which would be improper. Because I am a strong advocate for marriage equality, I suppose that is why I am on the receiving end of some of that commentary from people who oppose marriage equality. There has been a lot of correspondence to my office—a lot of emails, letters and phone calls from people who would say things like, 'Homosexuals are deviants,' or, 'Bringing in marriage equality would put us on a slippery slope to bestiality,' and all sorts of other bizarre arguments are made.

          It is simply not the case that we can have any confidence that a public debate would be respectful. It is simply not the case that marriage has always been between a man and a woman. We seem to have forgotten in this debate that the Marriage Act was only changed as recently as 2004 during the period of Prime Minister John Howard. So, in other words, up until 2004 the federal Marriage Act did not explicitly require that marriage be between a man and a woman. So to say that the Marriage Act has always been the way it is is just not right. It is just incorrect, because in 2004, not with a plebiscite but with a simple bill through this place, the Marriage Act was changed.

          It is simply not the case that we are like Ireland and that, like Ireland, it needs to be decided by the people. The fact is: because of Ireland's constitutional framework, genuinely the only pathway to marriage equality was indeed a popular vote by the people. But in our case it is not something that is addressed by the Constitution. It is something which is only covered in the Marriage Act, which is the work of this parliament—to make such an act, to amend that act as it did in 2004 and to amend it again, as it might do in 2016.

          It is simply not the case that to not have a plebiscite would be undemocratic. While I respect the argument that is made by people who say that, I disagree with them. I think they are wrong. The fact is we are a representative democracy, not a participatory democracy. In other words, it is our job. When we are elected it is our job to come into this place and to represent our community. That is the way our democratic system works in this country. It is simply not a part of our system that we would routinely—or very often at all—go back to the public to find out what they think, because they have already told us what they think by electing us to come to Canberra and to represent them. We do not have a plebiscite before we declare war. We did not have a plebiscite in 2004 to change the Marriage Act. It is a very, very rare thing. That is because it is simply not part of our democratic system. We are, as I say, a representative democracy; we are not a participatory democracy.

          It is not the case that the government must do nothing if it cannot deliver on its election promise of a plebiscite. The fact is political parties and candidates make all sorts of promises before an election—hopefully, in good faith; I certainly do. There is no doubt that the members of the Liberal and National parties promised in good faith that there would be a plebiscite. But if you cannot deliver on an election promise for a legitimate reason, then it is our job to find another pathway. For example, with superannuation reform, the members of the Liberal and National parties in good faith went to the election and promised there would be a particular set of changes to superannuation in this country. But the parliament formed; the numbers were clear, both within the government and between the government, the opposition and the crossbench, and it was clear that that reform could not be delivered as promised. So another pathway was chosen. So, too, in this case. The government made that promise in good faith, but it will not be able to deliver on that promise, it seems, so it needs to find another pathway. Politics is about the art of the possible. It is not about running into a roadblock and stopping dead in your tracks. It is about finding a way around the roadblock—finding a another pathway. Of course, a vote in this place this year is that obvious other pathway.

          It is simply not the case that this matter is about children. I have noticed that the opponents of marriage equality are, more and more, bringing their part of the debate back to children. They are creating this impression that, if we have marriage equality, gays and lesbians will start caring for children and having children, and that would be bad for children. What the whole line of argument completely and utterly misses is that in this country currently there are thousands upon thousands of children being brought up in same-sex families. Indeed, when I look at the 2011 Census figures there were 6,300 children of same-sex couples. That was five years ago. Interestingly, that figure in 2011 was much greater than the Census before that. We can, I think, quite reasonably make the judgement that the figure is growing strongly and that this year's Census will show an even much greater figure. When you consider that this is one of those sorts of things which would tend to be underreported, I would go so far as to say that the number of children of same-sex couples in this country now is multiple that 6,300 that were identified five years ago. In other words, regardless of whether or not we change the Marriage Act, there are already many thousands of children of same-sex couples and there will continue to be many thousands of children of same-sex couples. So the debate about the plebiscite, the debate about whether or not to change the Marriage Act, has nothing to do with children—nothing at all.

          I refute in the strongest possible terms this argument that is sometimes made that gays and lesbians are bad parents, or would be bad parents. That is just simply not the case. Unless children come through previous relationships, if a gay or lesbian couple want to have a child it is, obviously, not something that can happen by accident. It is something that they have to put a large amount of thought and effort into to make it happen. In my experience, gays and lesbians generally make very good parents. In fact, a woman I know who I would even go so far as to say is the best mother I know is in a lesbian relationship.

          It is not about whether children are in a family with heterosexual parents or a family with same-sex parents; it is about whether or not it is a loving family and whether or not all their needs are being met. That is what matters. We have many excellent heterosexual parents and some dreadful heterosexual parents. We have many wonderful gay and lesbian parents and some dreadful gay and lesbian parents. It is not about whether the parents are heterosexual, gay or lesbian. It is about whether they are good parents, whether they love their children, whether they create a loving environment for their children, whether all the needs of their children are met. That is what matters.

          I would go further and say a parent does not even have to be part of a couple. There are some wonderful single mums out there who are doing a great job. There are some dreadful single mums out there doing a terrible job. There are some wonderful single dads out there doing a great job, and there are some dreadful dads out there doing a lousy job. It is not about the relationship. It is not about whether they are heterosexual parents, gay parents, lesbian parents or single parents. It is about whether or not they love their children. That is the only thing that matters. And I make the point again: there are already gay and lesbian parents and there will continue to be gay and lesbian parents. That has nothing to do with whether or not the Marriage Act is changed.

          I will talk raw politics for a moment. The pathway that I keep referring back to is obviously one of the private member's bills that are before the House. The Labor Party, to their credit—and I do not think it is politics by the Labor Party; I think it is well intentioned—have a private member's bill, and there is a crossbench private member's bill. When this plebiscite is dead and buried, for the life of me, I will not be able to understand why at least a few government members would not cross the floor and support that crossbench private member's bill to suspend standing orders to bring that bill on for debate, to put the question and decide the matter this year. Now, sure, while the coalition party are still pursuing a plebiscite, let them continue to pursue the plebiscite. I do not begrudge them that. But, when the plebiscite is dead and buried and there is only one pathway open to the government, I would suggest to honourable members of the government that at least a few of you do the right thing and support the bill and bring it on.

          If you are in this place for policy outcomes, if you are in this place in the pursuit of the public interest, then that is what you will do. If you are in this place just because you are another party hack who got elected because you are party hack, and you come in here and are happy to take the gold coin but, at the end of the day, only care about your self-interest or your political party's interests, then so be it—but you are letting the public down. But I do not think that will be the case. I think there are enough good men and women, people of good heart, in the government who, when the plebiscite is over, or when the matter of the plebiscite is finished, will see the sense in supporting us on the crossbench and dealing with the matter.

          Some people say that, if they do that, that will bring about the destruction of the Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull. It will not bring about the destruction of the Prime Minister. In fact, it could be the saving of the Prime Minister because the Prime Minister, to his credit, is sticking to his election promise. I do not agree with it. But, to his credit, the Prime Minister is sticking to his election promise. When he cannot deliver on his election promise, if a few of his party cross the floor and help us bring on a private member's bill, he will still have been true to his word. We will get the reform in the public interest, and then the matter will be finished and we can all move on. It may well be the saving of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. It is at least the least bad course of action that he might confront.

          Deputy Speaker Mitchell, thanks for letting me have my say. I will obviously not support this plebiscite. I will continue to prosecute the case for a vote in this parliament and I will continue to lobby members of the government to support the Labor bill or perhaps, more likely, the crossbench private member's bill.

          11:19 am

          Photo of John AlexanderJohn Alexander (Bennelong, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

          I am very happy to speak on this bill, the Plebiscite (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill 2016, today. This issue is one of the more pressing on our social conscience. It has been prominent in the political world for months and will be until resolved.

          In my role as a local representative, last year I conducted a survey of my local electorate on a number of issues. Every home and business in the electorate received a paper copy of the form, and it was also available online. The purpose was to get a complete snapshot of the views of local residents. We received a response from 10 per cent of all homes.

          Perhaps unsurprisingly, of the 50 questions, the one on same-sex marriage raised the most comments. Of these thousands of responses on the question on marriage equality, those for and against came out at 50 to 50—to be precise, 49.53 to 50.47. This is a clear statement of where we are now. No doubt 20 or 30 years ago the result would have been very different.

          What is also clear is that, on this issue, the poles are far apart. A large proportion of the supporters of marriage equality view its opponents as troglodytes who are stuck in the 19th century, have no sense of fairness and cannot apply the concepts of equality and nondiscrimination to the right to marry, while the opponents of same-sex marriage see its supporters as leftie troublemakers with no sense of decency, out to destroy millennia of the family unit.

          As our former prime minister Tony Abbott has said, there are good and decent people on both sides of the debate, and neither should be thought less of when the decision is finally made. Regardless of the outcome of this debate, throughout our society it is essential that both sides recognise the strength and validity of their opponents' principles. Respect is crucial. This is a moral issue that goes to the belief systems that people have cherished for their entire lives. Such views are held for a particular reason—be it personal, religious or cultural—and are very hard to change. Whatever one's individual view, we must recognise the strength of the views of the other side. Seeking to demean the opposition is wrong. I understand that strongly held views, devout perspectives, live deeply within our psyche where emotions live. It is important that emotions do not cloud this debate. That said, I would like to focus my attention on one particular argument that has been around religious opposition to same-sex marriage. In my electorate I have had a lot of representations from people with religious backgrounds, who hold deep concerns about how same-sex marriage will affect their church. This is a vital issue. The separation of church and state is essential. This is a two-way street. Our politics is based on this notion, as are our current marriage laws. Churches currently have the right to place stipulations on those they choose to marry, and these are adhered to without calls of discrimination. In the event of marriage equality being successful in Australia, this distinction should remain. No church or institution should be forced to perform same-sex marriages, and any debate regarding individual religions' attitude to gay marriage should be confined to a discussion within that religion. This chamber is no place for a debate on the social decisions of individual religious groups.

          This model was adopted in the UK, where they passed a similar law in 2013. Some churches jumped at the opportunity of growing their flock and immediately opened their doors to same-sex unions—for example, the Anglican Church, after a period of deep consideration, then decided to conduct same-sex services. Meanwhile, the Catholic Church decided to stay with their doctrine.

          The opposite of this acceptance and celebration, unfortunately, was on display in my electorate recently. Election literature was handed out at Eastwood polling booth which carried a host of insults and doomsday predictions should certain parties who support gay marriage be voted in. It described homosexuality as a 'death curse' and suggested the election of some political parties would lead to rape in women's toilets. It recommended voting for the Christian Democratic Party, although the Christian Democratic Party have denied any knowledge of the leaflets and they carried no authorisation. Regardless of your stance on the issues at hand, these opinions are simply not welcome—not in Bennelong and not anywhere in Australia. I was very proud to run a positive campaign and had good relations with every one of my fellow candidates. As a result, the election was largely friendly, good natured and good to be a part of. Comments like these leave a bad taste in our mouths and undermine all the good work that has been done.

          Part of the government's role is to provide the conditions for a society where everyone is equal and no-one feels discriminated against. These two central tenets of our society must be maintained through this debate and afterwards as well. We must respect each other though we disagree, and people must accept the decision once we have a final decision.

          I would like to leave this debate with one thought. Our government has always aspired to be the guardians of equality in this country. However, what has been viewed as equality in one generation has not always been seen in the same light subsequently. Many shameful moments in our history have been accepted at the time with blinkered views of equality, and other shameful moments have come about because previous policies have not been updated to stay in step with the views of the day. Change to these laws is inevitable. This debate 30 years ago would not have been contentious. In comparison, the changing of the law in 2004 raised a discussion, but not one as all pervasive as the one we find ourselves in now. It is only a matter of time for equality and the elimination of discrimination that will welcome all people to the right to marry.

          11:26 am

          Photo of Susan TemplemanSusan Templeman (Macquarie, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

          It is a privilege to be able to speak on this matter and, after many years of discussions within my community, to now be able to bring those thoughts to the chamber. In theory, having a public, mass vote on something is a nice idea. I can understand why people have been attracted to it. It sounds democratic. It sounds logical to give one vote one value—something New South Wales Liberals still seem to be struggling with! But it does sound sensible until you think about the months of campaigning that it would trigger. When you think about that, you realise that the concerns about the impact the debate will have on members of the LGBTQI community, their families and their friends—in other words, all of us—you have to say no to a plebiscite.

          In my inaugural speech, like many others on my side and just as many on the other side, I spoke of the need for this parliament to tackle mental health issues. That, for me, becomes a really fundamental issue when thinking about a plebiscite. Let us look first at what children who live in same-sex parent families have said. The message they have been giving me is, 'Don't make us feel different.' Growing up is already a struggle. Having one more thing that singles you out as being in some way different from the majority can be really tough. Like many Labor MPs, I met Eddie when his family came to visit parliament a few weeks ago, as part of the Rainbow Families connection. He explained to me that—having experienced bullying previously, having changed schools and now being really happy in a new school—he did not think he deserved to be made to feel different or have extra attention put onto his two mums. Eddie's story is obviously very compelling, and I congratulate him for speaking out and coming and meeting with us.

          My visitors that day also included Blue Mountains same-sex families. While in my electorate we live in a very harmonious community, these families are always aware of the dangers for their children in being singled out. And that is the thing—it only takes a tiny minority of people to do shocking harm and psychological damage to others. Clearly, there have been comments about children being raised in same-sex marriage in this chamber. For me, it is really important that every child has the best chance to be in a loving, secure family situation. I am very pleased we were able to listen to those who were most impacted, and I would like to think that Eddie's words have been heard. I should add that I am bit uncomfortable standing here as any sort of judge on the way anyone else raises their children. It is one of the most difficult things to do and to do well, and I think most of us do the very best we can.

          If people could read some of the emails that my office has received and I have personally read and responded to—although there are some where I have chosen not to respond, and it is not a majority and not many of them come from my own electorate—they would have a better understanding of the reservations and fears that we have, not just about having a debate but about funding that debate. I listened to the member for Denison as he quoted some of the hurtful things that have already been said about same-sex marriage and same-sex families, and I commend him for putting those on the record. I will choose not to repeat those things. I am reluctant to repeat them, because they are so hurtful.

          I know not everyone has the same view on marriage equality or on the plebiscite. Recently, at the Bilpin flower show, I met a cross-section of my electorate's LGBTQI community. It is a very small community in Bilpin, only around 2,000 people. Among them is Miranda Fair, a drag queen whose floral headdress is a feature of the opening of this community flower show. I met Miranda and several other individuals and couples who wanted to speak with me about the plebiscite. Not everyone asked me to oppose the plebiscite. I said to them all what I have written and said to many of my constituents: the dangers of the damage that a debate about same-sex marriage could bring outweigh any other arguments in favour of it.

          Ken and Tony are residents of the upper Blue Mountains and they have previously been mentioned in this place by the Leader of the Opposition. They have a long, committed relationship and they want the chance to marry. When Ken urgently needed a kidney transplant, his partner was able to give him one, but he cannot have his partner's hand in marriage. They do not see a plebiscite, though, as the best way forward. Again, this is a couple living in a very harmonious and accepting community, but they fear the consequences of a plebiscite.

          We have heard a lot about how well the Irish plebiscite went, so I was particularly grateful for the research that was partly funded by Parents, Family and Friends of Lesbians and Gays Australia, which gave us some tangible data on what actually happened in Ireland. It is very hard for us, from a distance, to judge what it is like on the ground there. I was interested to note that the survey of more than 1,600 Irish LGBTI people found that only a minority of the respondents would have been prepared to face the referendum again if they did not know it would achieve a successful outcome.

          The impacts are actually scarier than that. As the first study of the negative social and psychological impacts of the 'no' campaign in Ireland, it found that 75 per cent of participants often or always felt angry when they were exposed to campaign messages from the 'no' campaign before the referendum. It found that 80 per cent felt upset by the 'no' campaign materials and two-thirds felt anxious or distressed. You have to wonder why, knowing the sorts of impacts that the referendum had, we would deliberately choose to go down a path that would create more anxiety and distress for people. Even more telling, younger LGBTI people scored lower on psychological wellbeing compared with older people, including feeling anxious and afraid.

          I had a conversation at the Bilpin flower show with one gentleman who just wants marriage equality. It does not matter to him what has to happen to get there. But, as I said to him, he and I are not young; we are probably able to have a robust discussion and not have any consequences as a result of it. I asked him to think about himself as a teenager or a young man trying to work out his sexuality and struggling with coming out: would it have been as easy for him back in those days?

          The importance of this survey is that we do have data. When asked if they were prepared to face a referendum campaign again, 30 per cent of people gave positive answers, 15 per cent were undecided and the majority, 54.5 per cent, responded negatively. In fact, the largest single group, 36 per cent, said they would be 'not at all happy' to have to go through a campaign again.

          In terms of the fear that people have about the consequences of a funded damaging debate, this argument cuts both ways. I spoke to the mother of a young man who is studying to be a minister. She is equally concerned about the divisive debate. Her concern is: what will people say about her son, who has his own views about marriage equality? Will he also be vilified in some way? I think we always have to talk about what might happen as a result of the minority but might affect the majority.

          At this point I would like to make clear that I do believe in marriage and I certainly believe in same-sex marriage. For me, it is very simple. I have two children, both in their 20s, neither married. I wish for them the long-term, stable relationship that I have had—I have been married for nearly 30 years. They have seen the importance of that marriage; that the civil bond helps bring our society some stability. No, it is not for everybody. I am equally respectful of people who can maintain long relationships without the bonds of marriage. But I want my children to have a choice. Should they decide to marry someone of the same sex—should that be the person they fall in love with—I want them to have the same sort of long-term relationship that so many of us do. I do not think it matters which sex they choose to marry. What matters is that they find someone they want to be committed to. For me it is very simple. I put my 'mum' hat on and say: what do I want for my children? I am not sure why it is so hard for some people to see it that way but I do respect that there are a range of views. In particular I respect that for some people their position is tied to their religion. That is why I completely agree that, on the issue of marriage equality, churches should be able to make their own decisions about whether they marry same-sex couples within their church.

          Let us return to the issue of the plebiscite. There are so many practical reasons why we do not need a plebiscite. John Howard did not have one when he change the Marriage Act in 2004. It is hard to see why, when you have changed the original piece of legislation, a change back should require a different sort of process. No other form of discrimination has required a plebiscite. We have not needed one when we were changing legislation to ensure that women could not be discriminated against, to ensure that old people could not be discriminated against and to ensure that people of other nationalities could not be discriminated against, so I do not see why we need one here. This is a human rights issue.

          Another practical reason why we do not need a plebiscite is that polls have already shown that people do want marriage equality. That is really all this is: a great big opinion poll. Why do we need another opinion poll, particularly one that is going to have the price tag that this one does and particularly when the outcome will not be binding on anybody? We have already heard that there are a number of people who have said they will not be swayed by the findings of a plebiscite and that they will perhaps be more interested in what happens in their own electorates than what happens at the national level or more interested in what happens in one state than what happens in another. It is very hard to argue the need for a $200 million hit to the budget for a plebiscite that no-one has to be bound by.

          More importantly, we are a representative democracy and we simply do not need a plebiscite legislatively. We actually need to do the job that we are paid to do, which is to make decisions and legislate. That is why we should be having a vote in this chamber. The issue of marriage equality and the issue of the plebiscite were very well explored in the lead-up to the most recent election, but we have only just been elected. I think we, as local members, are incredibly informed about how our community feels. In my electorate in particular, the Blue Mountains Regional Business Chamber is very supportive of marriage equality. They see that this is actually an opportunity for them and have established a pink chapter. They hope that marriage equality becomes law soon so that the Blue Mountains can become a place not just for opposite-sex couples to get married but for same-sex couples to get married. It has to be one of the most beautiful places to have your wedding.

          In Mental Health Month, we really need to ask ourselves why we would consider deliberately spending money to do damage to people for something that simply does not need to happen. I can think of some pretty obvious places for that $200 million to go. Interestingly, $200 million is the same amount of funding that is used to keep 100 headspace sites operational for a couple of years. They are sites that are designed to help young people who are feeling anxiety, depression or some other form of mental ill health. It is a place where they can go and get help. That would be a much better place to be spending this money than on a plebiscite.

          11:41 am

          Photo of Sarah HendersonSarah Henderson (Corangamite, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

          It is my great pleasure to rise and speak on the Plebiscite (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill 2016. I would like to start my contribution by acknowledging that for many, many Australians this is a deeply personal issue. The institution of marriage is a bedrock of our society. I, like so many Australians, believe deeply in marriage and consider it to be the ultimate form of commitment which two people can make to one another—for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part. That is not to diminish the partnerships, the commitment and the love of those who choose not to marry of their own free will and not to diminish those who choose to have children, to raise a family but not to marry. Here is one of the cornerstones of this debate: gay and lesbian Australians and the broader LGBTQI community do not have that choice.

          In June 2015, after much consultation in my community, I made my position on this issue clear. I confirmed that I supported both marriage equality and a free vote for coalition MPs. I believe our nation should follow the lead of countries such as the UK, New Zealand, Canada, Ireland and most parts of the United States by legalising same-sex marriage. Support for marriage equality is consistent with fundamental Liberal values which embrace freedom of the individual and stable, long-term relationships. If two people love each other and wish to commit to a life together, they should have the option to be recognised equally under the law as a married couple. It is incredibly important to reiterate that this in issue on which decent people will differ, and respect in this debate is fundamental.

          On our side of the House, we recognise that changing the Marriage Act is a very substantial change to one of the most fundamental institutions in our community and in our nation. That is why we decided last year that this issue should be resolved through a plebiscite that gives every Australian the opportunity to have his or her say. Our government has committed that a decision on same-sex marriage will be made by all Australians via a plebiscite on 11 February 2017. The question posed to Australians will be, 'Should the law be changed to allow same-sex couples to marry?'

          This is an issue of democracy. At the election 15 million Australians voted. We prevailed in the election and we have the mandate to proceed with a plebiscite. If the yes vote prevails in the plebiscite, legislation to amend the Marriage Act will be introduced into the parliament. Under such circumstances, and consistent with our government's commitment, I will be supporting a change in the law to allow same-sex couples to marry.

          I am very concerned that Labor's attempts to derail our plebiscite will put this issue on the backburner. This is not good for democracy. This is not good for gay and lesbian Australians. This is not good for the many Australians who care deeply about this issue. If parliamentarians in this place and in the other place are genuine about their desire for same-sex marriage they will support a plebiscite and pass this bill. We do believe it is thoroughly democratic to ask the Australian people whether the Marriage Act should be amended to allow for same-sex marriage, provided there are appropriate safeguards in place to protect religious freedom.

          The Attorney-General has released a proposed draft legislation, by way of an exposure draft, for discussion in our community, which should give every Australian the confidence that it is the government's intention that any change in the Marriage Act will continue to give churches, religious institutions and marriage celebrants the freedom to conduct a marriage as they see fit. It is also very important to make the point, in this debate, that a plebiscite is an approach that was previously supported by Labor.

          Just before the 2013 election Bill Shorten told religious leaders and Christian voters he was 'completely relaxed about having some form of plebiscite' on same-sex marriage, as reported in the Australian on 29 June 2016. It is very disappointing—but not surprising—that Labor has chosen to so politicise this issue. In fact, what is not widely understood about Labor's position is that in 2019 the Labor Party will change its policy and will deny its members and senators a conscience vote on this issue. The party platform will be that the Marriage Act will be changed to permit same-sex marriage.

          I believe, deeply, that this is a matter of conscience for every member of parliament in this place. That is one of the benefits of a non-binding plebiscite. I do acknowledge and I do appreciate that there are many people in the LGBTQI community who vehemently oppose the plebiscite, and I respect their views and their deep concerns. I do believe that most Australians—the vast majority of Australians—are capable of having a respectful debate about this issue. For those who are not and who say vile and offensive things, they should be properly condemned; their position, if that is the way they choose to engage in this debate, reflects only on themselves.

          I consider that a plebiscite has the capacity to bring Australians together. I note the position of the member for Warringah, who is well known as opposing same-sex marriage. He has made it clear that if a yes vote prevails in a plebiscite he will vote yes in the parliament to change the Marriage Act—which, I think, will bring great joy to his sister, Christine, who is a well-known campaigner for same-sex marriage. I believe that many other members of parliament—including Labor members of parliament who oppose same-sex marriage but, because of Labor's politicisation of this issue, find it very hard to speak up in contrast to the majority view of Labor members of parliament—will also have the confidence and the conviction to vote yes if a yes vote in the plebiscite prevails. Based on the polling that we have seen in the last 12 months or so it is looking like a yes vote will prevail.

          I would ask Labor MPs and senators, such as those in the Nick Xenophon Team, to reconsider their position. This is an issue of democracy but it is an important pathway forward. I know that for many this is not a perfect pathway but if a yes vote does prevail in the plebiscite we could have legislation, in this place, to amend the Marriage Act soon after February 2017. It is for these reasons that I commend this bill to the House.

          11:50 am

          Photo of Sharon ClaydonSharon Claydon (Newcastle, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

          I have spoken, in this chamber, in support of marriage equality on a number of occasions now and am very happy to do so again today. Last March I was visiting Dubbo and caught up with a very close friend of mine, Tom, and his partner, James. Tom and I have been friends since our first year at uni and that friendship has developed, over the last three decades, through the great times and the ups and downs of life. We have often talked about and reflected on the concept of marriage and the importance of relationships being recognised not just in our community but also in having that legal recognition and what that means for partners.

          Tom made an announcement. He said to me, 'James and I are getting married,' which should always be a joyous and happy occasion. Like most people when they hear such news, I was incredibly thrilled for them both. But that news gave me very mixed emotions. As it sank in, I realised that that wedding was not going to be in Australia. That wedding was not going to be an occasion in which all of the important people in the lives of both those men would be present. As Tom explained to me, 'We have waited 15 years, Sharon. We are not awaiting any more. We are sick of the fact that you guys can't get your act together in parliament and get this business done.'

          So they went to Copenhagen and, as I understand it, they made their vows before a very conservative member of the Copenhagen establishment and are now married. Fortunately, they both come from incredibly supportive farming families who acknowledge their relationship and, indeed, feel blessed by the love that these two men have for each other. Whilst some of their very close family were able to be there, recognition is still a very real issue for those men. For anybody who is married overseas, it is about the recognition of their marriage back in Australia. But I am so saddened that they were forced into that position in the first place. Had they had the opportunity to take their vows before all the people they loved—their friends and the people who are important in their lives—it would have been a different kind of occasion for them both. The fact that they were married overseas does not mean that there love means less, but it is a deep shame that that could not happen here in Australia.

          I think this parliament will live to regret it if we cannot come to an accommodation where this parliament is able to take a free vote on a piece of legislation in the same way that we vote on any other pieces of legislation dealing with discriminatory laws and practices that are on our books. I find myself in furious agreement with the Honourable Justice Kirby in this respect that a plebiscite vote is an alien concept to our representative democracy. Indeed, it is a threat to that mode of representative democracy. Imagine the mess we would be leaving this nation if we outsourced our responsibility to deal with laws on a range of controversial issues that come before the parliament. It would be unforgivable. Imagine if in 1902, when women suffragists championed the cause of getting the vote for women, the Australian Parliament had said: 'Hit the pause button there. We can't possibly contemplate giving Australian women a vote. Let's give a plebiscite to those who already have the privileged position of being able to vote in the first place and outsource that responsibility.' How would we have dealt with Indigenous rights and the rights of people with disabilities? These are things the parliament should rightly address and should in fact lead.

          It is the responsibility of each of us, as community leaders, to have these kinds of debates within our communities, and I am sure there are many colleagues who have been doing that. I have listened to many contributions in the House around this issue where people have sought to have genuine consultations with the community at large. Yes, there may be some mixed views from time to time. But it is my firm view that this parliament is ducking its historic duty to protect and, indeed, further the rights of our citizens. That is the role of this parliament.

          My constituents in Newcastle are gobsmacked that we continue to have this discussion in the parliament. Most people who come to talk to me around this issue say: 'For goodness sake, have you guys not done this yet?' It is not just that people want this issue done and dusted, although there may be an element of that now; it is unimaginable to the vast majority of Australians that we would outsource our obligation to protect and advance citizenship rights in Australia. As I said, it is a matter that many people in my community of Newcastle have spoken to me about over the years. Before I was elected to the parliament in 2013, I made sure that my view was very clearly articulated to my community. I wrote opinion pieces around the fact that I have spent my whole life fighting discrimination in various guises. That is the lens through which I examine the issue of marriage equality; for me, it is a fundamental human right.

          I applaud previous Labor governments for the removal of discriminatory practices and laws from 85 different pieces of legislation that were on our statute books. I think we should always acknowledge those who came before us and the tremendous work that has happened. This is the one remaining piece of unfinished business for the parliament. The parliament was able to get its act together and eradicate discrimination from 85 pieces of legislation. Why can't we do it for that one final piece of legislation, the Marriage Act? John Howard himself changed that act without going to a plebiscite. If we did not have to go to the Australian people in order to change the Marriage Act in the first place and confine marriage to the union of a man and a woman, how can the conservatives argue today that we must go to a plebiscite in order to undo the change that their conservative hero John Howard made without any consultation with the Australian people back in 2004?

          That seems to be a fundamental flaw in the conservative argument on this issue, and it is one that is often raised with me in my conversations with people in Newcastle on this issue.

          I have been contacted by literally hundreds of people from Newcastle on this matter. Of those, 300 or more are constituent contacts. There have been six who have asked me to proceed in support of a plebiscite. I respectfully responded to each of those six people—indeed, all of the hundreds of others as well—to say that I acknowledge and respect their point of view here.

          But I made clear, as I said, from day one as a candidate, before people voted for me for the first time and, again, the second time, what my position is and where my conscience stands on this issue. So I say to those who have asked me to proceed in support of a plebiscite that I respect our point of difference—and I believe that their articulation of their point of view is an important part of the political process.

          But if this plebiscite does not proceed, which I strongly believe it should not, then what will be the course to eventually recognise marriage equality in Australia? That is, I think, an issue that weighs heavily on everybody who is articulating the 'no' vote on the plebiscite. But my decision-making is made so much easier by the fact that, without exception, of those hundreds and hundreds of people who have contacted me on this issue and who are from the LGBTI community, not one person wants me to vote in favour of that plebiscite—not one.

          It seems to me that we have a profound obligation to listen carefully to those people who will feel the brunt of the divisive nature of the discussion and discourse around marriage equality. We have a very strong obligation to protect those citizens who feel most vulnerable in this debate, when it is those who come forward to you and say: 'Since when is it okay to outsource our human rights as a minority group to a popular opinion poll of the majority?' I have reflected deeply on that, and the fact is that it is never okay to subject the most vulnerable in your community to an onslaught of division, hate and trauma.

          I say 'trauma' because a number of my constituents have contacted me of late and have revealed some of the most personal aspects of their lives that I would not even begin to repeat in this parliament. Just the discussion of the possibility of having this plebiscite and what that has already opened up in the community and is subjecting some of these people to is reopening trauma in the lives of these men and women. We should be doing everything we can to ensure that they are protected from that kind of abuse and despicable behaviour. Nobody in this parliament would condone some of the behaviour that I have heard about of the lived experience of some of my constituents.

          In closing I do want to acknowledge that one of the very bright spots, however, of this otherwise traumatic debate around the plebiscite that is happening in the community is the strength of advocacy that has been shown by the parents and friends of the lesbian and gay community. In particular, I want to acknowledge PFLAG in my region and Michelle Lancey, who heads up the PFLAG group in the Hunter.

          Michelle is a friend of mine. I have known her for many years now. Although she feels a little weary and a little battle fatigued from time to time, this has been a deeply personal issue for her. She describes herself as a straight, Christian woman with three amazing, beautiful kids, one of whom happens to be gay. She wants him to have the same rights as her other two children. I think that that is a perfectly reasonable aspiration for any parent to have and one that this parliament should be doing everything to support. I beg members opposite to revisit this issue, allow a free vote— (Time expired)

          Photo of Russell BroadbentRussell Broadbent (McMillan, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

          I thank the member for her input and call the Minister for Infrastructure and Transport.

          12:05 pm

          Photo of Darren ChesterDarren Chester (Gippsland, National Party, Deputy Leader of the House) Share this | | Hansard source

          I rise to speak on this important issue. I do so more out of disappointment and frustration than anger, and that disappointment and frustration is directed towards the decision by the Australian Labor Party to oppose the Plebiscite (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill 2016.

          I fear that, for those of us who have a view in support of same-sex marriage, as I do—albeit a view that I only reached in the last 12 months—I see no other pathway that is likely to succeed in this term of parliament other than a plebiscite to be put to the Australian people and a compelling vote at that time. So it is disappointing and frustrating that the Labor Party has chosen not to support the plebiscite bill.

          I would just like to reflect briefly on my own personal journey in relation to this issue. It is one that is illustrative of perhaps many in this place and perhaps in the broader community. When I was first elected in 2008 I was asked the question by a journalist in my electorate as to whether I would vote in support of same-sex marriage. Having assessed at that time that there was what I believed to have been a majority view in my community of Gippsland opposed to such a change to the Marriage Act, I indicated that, no, I would not support any such change and voted accordingly during my first two terms here in the federal parliament.

          My view changed over time through discussions within my electorate, through meetings with people who were the families and friends of same-sex attracted couples and through meetings with couples themselves. Over the course of perhaps three or four years, I detected what I believe was quite a significant change in attitude within the community as the discussion was being held in Gippsland. The change in attitude was to such an extent that I believed that my electorate was actually supportive of change and that I myself was comfortable with voting in support of that change. So, last year, I perhaps surprised some people within my own grassroots party structure in Gippsland when I announced publicly that I intended to support same-sex marriage if a vote came to parliament in the future.

          The reason I raise my own personal experience is to reflect on the fact that I think the nation itself is on a journey on this issue. We may not all reach the same destination but I think the nation is on a journey on this issue. If you had put this issue to the Australian people in a plebiscite even as recently as five or 10 years ago, I think there would have been a resounding no. I am not one to try to predict the future but I would have thought if there were to be a plebiscite next year then there would be a strong case and a strong vote for yes. As someone who has changed their own position, I am disappointed the Australian people are not going to get that chance, as it stands here today.

          People often ask me why I changed my view. It is not an easy question to answer. Mr Deputy Speaker Broadbent, you have many conversations in your role in your own electorate. You have many conversations with people who raise issues where you can feel compassion and empathy for them but not necessarily the need to change your own personal opinion on a topic. For me, it was more about providing for more acceptance in the community of same-sex attracted young people, particularly in regional communities. My concern came from reports of young people self-harming and reports of young people committing suicide, particularly in rural and regional areas where the support services were not necessarily there. These young people felt the need to suppress their sexuality. Sometimes they did not feel accepted within their own family, and certainly they did not always feel accepted within the broader community. Whether or not this was justified or warranted, their personal sense of wellbeing, their sense of self-worth and their sense of self-esteem was undermined by the fact that they did not feel that they were accepted in the community. As much as they have appreciated the changes in legislation, which have given all legal rights to same-sex couples in a whole range of other areas, the issue of having access to the great tradition of marriage was one that was holding them back in feeling fully accepted within the community.

          I have participated in this debate many times over the past eight years, and at all times I have tried to be calm, moderate and respectful of different points of view. That is why it disappoints me, I guess, more than anything else that the Labor Party are basically saying that they do not believe the Australian people are capable of having a calm, moderate and respectful debate on this issue. I freely acknowledge that there are people on either side of this debate—there are extreme elements on either side of this debate—who have put points of view which I find repugnant and offensive, but that is not the vast majority of Australians. I happen to strongly believe in the goodwill of the Australian people. I believe the Australian people would be able to conduct this debate in a respectful, calm and moderate manner. I am disappointed in the way that the Leader of the Opposition has chosen to play this more as a political issue than one of important public discussion.

          The challenge we have more broadly on the topic is that the coalition took a position to the Australian people that we would support a plebiscite. Having won that vote, we are duty bound to bring that legislation to the parliament and pursue it through a thoroughly democratic, fair and transparent process. It is not up to the opposition to decide which promises the government is allowed to keep and which ones the government is allowed to break. We have a contract with the Australian people, and that contract to form government was based around the Prime Minister canvassing very strongly during the whole election campaign that we were supportive of a plebiscite and we would give the Australian people a chance to have their say. If the Leader of the Opposition is serious about resolving this issue, if he is serious about his support of same-sex marriage and same-sex attracted couples, he would convince his Labor Party colleagues to support the plebiscite.

          There is really only one reason or one plausible justification for opposing this bill, and that is the cost. I would freely acknowledge that the cost is something of no little substance. But to suggest the Australian people are not capable of having a debate on a difficult issue says more about the Leader of the Opposition than it says about anyone else. We have the capacity to have this debate. We need to have this debate because, quite frankly, the parliament itself has not been able to deal with it. For the whole time I have been here, it has been hanging around as an issue. We have had votes on this issue, and it is still here. It is unresolved. While plebiscites should be rare, I think in this particular case, when it is on a topic of such great social importance to our nation, it is appropriate that we do in fact hold the plebiscite and that we simply wear the cost involved.

          My general outlook on the Australian people is, I would have to say, for more positive and optimistic than that of the Leader of the Opposition and the Labor Party more generally. This is about fairness. As much as possible, the government has endeavoured to make the process as fair as possible. In resolving to provide public funding of equal amounts for both a yes case and a no case, the Prime Minister has acted with complete honour and integrity and tried to ensure that the process is as fair as possible. In the construction of the question itself, again, the Prime Minister and the cabinet have endeavoured to act with complete openness and integrity in trying to put forward a question which is as fair as possible. As I said, the parliament has not been able to deal with this issue conclusively, and it is only fair that we take it to the Australian people and give them a chance to have their say.

          I fear that there is only one credible pathway to legalising same-sex marriage in the 45th Parliament, and that is through this proposed plebiscite. As I indicated previously, as someone who does support changes to the Marriage Act, I believe this is the course we should be taking. We need to end all doubt in relation to this issue. One of the compelling reasons for holding a plebiscite is that in the community there is a lack of trust in the opinion polls or the surveys—whatever you like to call them—and in the findings from them. We would actually end all doubt if we held a plebiscite. It would add extra strength to the argument of those who support same-sex marriage, and the weighted numbers would, I believe, be compelling. I am not saying that people need legitimacy to their relationships, but the plebiscite would add legitimacy to their argument that the majority of Australians support a change to the Marriage Act and, in fact, support same-sex marriage.

          In conclusion, I simply say that I believe the only fair way to decide this issue is to give every Australian a chance to have their say. The people of Gippsland who honoured me with their vote at the last election—who actually honoured me with an increase in my primary vote, despite the suggestions that my decision to support same-sex marriage would cost me in an electoral sense—expect me to vote in support of a plebiscite, because that is what I said I would do in the lead-up to the election. Yes, it is expensive, but I am very confident we can have a calm, moderate and respectful debate. Whatever the result of the plebiscite, if in fact it is held, I would respect the view of the Australian people, just as I am sure the vast majority of members of parliament would.

          My job, as a local member of parliament and as a member of cabinet, is to deliver a process which is fair to both sides of this argument. I said at the outset that I am disappointed and frustrated that the Leader of the Opposition has a different view of the Australian people. I think he has a very mean-spirited view of the Australian people. I think he is being mean-spirited in the sense that he does not believe we can have a civilised debate on an issue where people have had strongly-held views. We are capable of doing this as a nation. I have always participated in this debate in a very respectful manner and will continue to do so, and I am confident that the people in my community, the community of Gippsland, would like the opportunity to do so as well.

          We have had plebiscites and referenda before on very difficult issues and we have been up to the job as a nation. I cannot believe that the modern Australian Labor Party believe that the Australian community in 2016 is somehow less capable than communities of years gone by—that they are not able to have a tough discussion on an issue of some level of division in the community. As I said earlier, I think this is the only fair way to resolve this issue—an issue which parliament has not been able to deal with conclusively during the eight years that I have been the member for Gippsland. The result would be decided by a simple majority of votes, which is 50 per cent plus one. I believe that the Labor Party need to reflect on what they are actually saying to the Australian people on this issue. They are simply saying that you are not up to this; you are not capable of making a tough decision. I would urge those opposite to reconsider that view. If they do not reconsider that view, if we do not hold the plebiscite, I do not see a credible pathway towards changes to the Marriage Act in the 45th Parliament. With those few words, I again urge the Leader of the Opposition to reconsider his position.

          I find it staggering that the Leader of the Opposition is seriously trying to suggest that, with the support of the Labor Party, with the support of the Prime Minister and the support of the Leader of the Greens, plus at least two National Party cabinet ministers, Australia cannot have a rational and respectful debate on this issue. If the plebiscite vote were to go ahead, some of the loudest voices in this federal parliament would be on the side of change. It would have the Leader of the Liberal Party, the Leader of the Labor Party, the Leader of the Greens and at least two National Party cabinet ministers speaking in support of same-sex marriage, yet the Leader of the Opposition believes we would not be able to have that debate in a calm, respectful and moderate manner.

          The only final point I would make is in relation to the media's role on this topic. I have a view that the media have an important role to play in this debate. The media can choose how much airtime they provide to people who have more extreme, offensive or repugnant views on the topic. I am not saying they need to censor themselves, but they need to acknowledge that there are people participating in this debate in a way which is intended to be inflammatory and is intended to undermine the calm, respectful and moderate debate that I referred to. So I would simply say that, if you had the Leader of the Liberal Party, the Leader of the Labor Party, the Leader of the Greens and at least two National Party cabinet ministers all speaking with one voice on this topic, the case for change would be compelling. I support the bill before the House and I urge those opposite to reconsider their position.

          Photo of Russell BroadbentRussell Broadbent (McMillan, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

          I thank the minister. Just so that everybody knows where we are at, this is the Plebiscite (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill 2016. The original question was that this bill be now read a second time. To this, the honourable Leader of the Opposition, Mr Shorten, has moved an amendment that all 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'. The question is now that the amendment be agreed to.

          12:19 pm

          Photo of Matt KeoghMatt Keogh (Burt, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

          I rise today as a person who went through high school where the word 'gay' was used as a term of insult and where boys were bullied for displaying feminine qualities. Indeed, as it turned out, some of the people bullied did come out after we had all left school. I look back now and think about how they were treated and I hang my head in shame, not necessarily for anything I did, but definitely for what I did not do or was unable to stop. I could say that this is what happened in another time, another era, but let's be fair: this was only in the mid- to late 90s; it was not that long ago.

          It is in this context, then, that I do heed the grave concerns of the LGBTI community that this plebiscite will be damaging and harmful to their health and wellbeing. A survey of more than 5,000 LGBTI Australians conducted by the Parents and Friends of Lesbian and Gays Australia earlier this year found that 85 per cent of LGBTI people oppose the plebiscite. The two most common reasons for opposing a plebiscite were: anxiety over hate campaigns and the belief that minority rights should not be put to a majority vote.

          One of my constituents from the suburb of Camillo, Chris, emailed me after the 2016 election. He has been with his male partner for seven years, yet during the 2015 Canning by-election he received a flyer from an anti-same-sex marriage organisation. In Chris's words:

          I don't think this was directed at my home specifically, but nonetheless it was a very weird and invasive experience to receive anonymous political literature on what is—for me—a very private and personal subject.

          If a plebiscite is held I think this experience will be repeated constantly for many weeks or months and I don't look forward to it.

          The Australian public backs the LGBTI community. In September, Newspoll found 48 per cent of respondents favoured a vote in this place on marriage equality, while just 39 per cent backed a plebiscite. An Essential poll from just this Tuesday showed that 55 per cent of respondents believe that the government should now hold a vote in the parliament on allowing marriage equality. There is a wider issue here of whether the majority should have the overriding say on the rights of a minority.

          As I said in my first speech, it is the role of our parliament to protect minorities from the tyranny of the majority. For better or worse, we do not have a Bill of Rights in this country. Instead, we have inherited a tradition that it is our sovereign parliament that is responsible for the protection of human rights and making fundamental decisions between competing rights.

          But there is no competition between rights here in the debate about marriage equality. While many have tried to argue that the introduction of marriage equality will infringe on the rights of those that believe that marriage is only between a man and a woman, this is a complete misunderstanding of the real issues. Indeed, as I have participated in discussions and fora on this topic, I am beginning to believe that there is a degree of deliberate misinformation being promulgated on this issue.

          The issue to be determined is whether a minority group in this country should have the same recognition and treatment under the law of this country, along with the social recognition that comes with that, as the majority of people in this country. As such, the proposal to hold a plebiscite on this issue sets a terrible precedent for our democracy and the way in which we govern ourselves. In fact, WA Liberal Senator Dean Smith has said he cannot support throwing out one of the key principles of our democracy for the sake of political expediency. He thinks parliamentarians absconding from their duty to vote as elected representatives in parliament is wrong.

          Parliament has voted on tough issues in the past. Parliament has made changes to the Marriage Act in the past. Parliament has introduced conscription, voted on euthanasia and considered abortion medication in the past. The Parliament has even legislated on traditional land ownership and native title recognition, going to the fundamentals of land ownership and conquest at the time of European settlement, without going to a public vote. We are elected here as members of our parliament to do the job of representing our electorates and to vote on the laws that apply in this country. We cannot and should not outsource that work or responsibility.

          To top it off, the proposed plebiscite will not even be binding on members of parliament. We will go to all the trouble of forcing every Australian to vote on this issue, then conservative coalition members and senators will ignore the result anyway. For a government that bangs on about having to fix debt and deficit—a problem that they have made astronomically worse—this is a pretty wild waste of taxpayers' money.

          We have also heard in this place, as well as read elsewhere, the view being put about of marriage as a 'pre-political' institution. It has concerned me that this myth has not been properly confronted. I do not have time today to take the member for Canning through chapter and verse on this; however, suffice it to say that the High Court considered precisely this type of argument when considering the ACT's 2013 marriage equality laws. In doing so, the High Court considered all the evidence on the nature of marriage over history and explicitly stated that marriage is not immovable or locked to the social institutions as they stood at federation. To quote from the High Court judgement:

          The status of marriage, the social institution which that status reflects, and the rights and obligations which attach to that status never have been, and are not now, immutable … One obvious change in the social institution of marriage which had occurred before federation is … that the union be "the voluntary union for life of one man and one woman to the exclusion of all others."

          The High Court goes on to note that even at the time of federation marriage could be dissolved by the civil courts.

          This also highlights the difficulty with the member for Moore's contribution that:

          Marriage is not a romantic notion; it is an important social institution that deals with progeny.

          Actually, historically, marriage was a legal contract that determined who inherited property. We have clearly moved on from this being the primary notion of marriage a long time ago. I think this is very important, because it goes to demonstrate that for a long time the nature of marriage has not been something constrained by the view of a particular belief structure. More importantly, it is not even something determined by one or a group of belief structures. We have divorce and we have civil marriages—not religious marriages—in this country.

          I am a practicing Catholic, and for me this point is very important. Just as Catholics have fought for centuries against the imposition of Protestantism, and other religious groups have suffered persecution at the hands of various Christian groups, we should not now revert—nay, regress—to becoming a nation that determines its laws based on specific religious views. To do so cuts across the fundamental nature of our pluralist, multicultural society.

          But of course religious freedoms are also important in this context, and it is for this reason that the Marriage Act expressly states and will continue to state that there is no obligation on a minister of religion to solemnise any marriage. Rightly, it is the churches and religions that decide who, within their beliefs, may marry within the sacraments of those churches and religions. The Act even provides a mechanism for groups to become recognised denominations under the Marriage Act. These protections would remain.

          In this context I relay my great excitement at learning the news late last year that one of my best mates, Drew, would be marrying his partner, Liam, earlier this year. You see, Drew and Liam are lucky, because Liam holds a British passport, so they were able to be married at the UK High Commission in Sydney. This was followed by a lovely ceremony and party, which both their families and many friends attended. Alas, their UK marriage is not recognised here in Australia. Not only is this discriminatory and unfair—it is frankly absurd! We are the last English speaking nation to make this change.

          The people want a change, and I want my friends Drew and Liam, Stephen and Dennis and many, many others around Australia to have their loving relationships recognised and acknowledged by the state and our society, just as they recognise that of my wife Annabel and me.

          And finally, this is not just me, it is not just my Labor colleagues, or Labor and the cross bench. We are presently playing out an absurd farce in this place—a tyranny of a minority within a majority. A majority of the members of this House, as well as a majority of those in the Senate, want to vote to make marriage equality a reality. And yet, in the institution that should not just embody and represent our democratic ideals but also live and breathe them, we cannot have a vote to make marriage equality law because the Prime Minister is too gutless to stand up for what he actually believes in and allow the one thing that apparently defines the Liberal Party to occur—a free vote. We have a Prime Minister that is scared of his party room and scared of our democratic institutions and so is prepared to deny equality to LGBTI Australia. Shame, Prime Minister, shame!

          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.

          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.

          12:59 pm

          Photo of Christopher PyneChristopher Pyne (Sturt, Liberal Party, Leader of the House) Share this | | Hansard source

          I move:

          That the motion be put.

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

          The question is that the motion be agreed to.

          1:08 pm

          Photo of Tony SmithTony Smith (Speaker) 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 words after 'That' be omitted with a view to substituting other words. The immediate question now is that the amendment be agreed to.

          1:17 pm

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

          The question is that the bill be now read a second time.

          Bill read a second time.

          Message from the Governor-General recommending appropriation announced.