Monday, 4 December 2017
Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017; Second Reading
I present the explanatory memorandum to this bill and move:
That this bill be now read a second time.
Mr Speaker, as I'm sure you are well aware, I've been a long-time advocate for changes in this area and initially I found the journey to be very lonely, but it was something that I was absolutely determined to do. In 2004, when the parliament changed the definition of 'marriage' to exclude LGBTI Australians, I stood in the Liberal party room and questioned the decision. I didn't understand why we needed to do this. Hadn't LGBTI Australians been through enough? Why did we have to kick them on the way out the door? To me, it didn't make any sense. Denying any Australian equal status and the same level of dignity is in my mind completely un-Australian.
For me it was really quite simple. I don't understand how one section of our community should be treated any differently to any other. Life is tough enough and sometimes very hard, and if you're lucky enough to find someone to join you in the good and the bad, well, in my mind it's fantastic. I strongly believe that couples seeking wedlock are strengthening the institution of marriage.
There has been a lot of commentary about the length of my advocacy and some very flattering remarks. In the media, I was labelled a 'fiercely heterosexual Far North Queensland crocodile-and bull-catching Liberal'.
However, the 12 or 13 years I have been raising this issue and seeking to remove legal and financial discrimination within the gay and transgender community, and also advocating for the right to marry for same-sex couples, has been relatively short compared to those Australians who have had to endure these inequalities for their entire life.
In 2007, I worked tirelessly to remove the financial and legal discrimination that gay and lesbian Australians faced.
In 2010, I came back from retirement because I felt that I had unfinished business. I hope that some of that business can be dealt with this week, because a clear majority of Australians back this because they believe in a fair go. They are sick of politicians playing games with real people and real lives.
In endorsing this legislation, I would like to dedicate my advocacy to a number of very special people who have come forward, shared their life stories with me and helped to reinforce my commitment to why these changes are so necessary.
The first person I'd like to dedicate this to is Alana—and Alana: you know who you are. When my interest in dealing with discrimination in the same-sex community was first reported in the mid-2000s, there were a number of news articles that focused on the motives behind my advocacy. One, by Glenn Milne, ran: 'MP Warren Entsch tells why he supports gay rights. "How my mate became a woman."' While I didn't actually participate in that interview, he clearly made assumptions and had an interesting description of me, and made reference to the friendship that I'd made many years before when I was living in western Queensland. Imagine my surprise when I received an email. I'd like to quote comments from that email:
I was humbled to hear your/our story in today's Sunday Mail.
Later in the email Alana states:
For the sake of those families that differ in composition to the Prime Minister's ideal I hope you are successful in your campaign. As you and I know, there is absolutely no family in the country that can assume it will be immune to having a child/grandchild/relative that is gay or transgender. There was certainly never a straighter family/community than the one I was born into. Hopefully, these families would then want that person to have the same rights in their relationships that other Australian's take for granted. In closing—
I will just give you an update on my life since we last saw each other. I went back to school and university, graduating from medicine at The University of Melbourne and am now working as a doctor in Victoria.
A great success. I have to say, Alana, it was very inspirational and moving for me, and many times when I felt pretty lonely on this journey in this place I would often pull out your email and read it, and that reinforced my commitment to what I was doing. I say thank you to Alana.
I'd like to also acknowledge two others, possibly the oldest gay couple in Australia, according to media reports—John Challis and Arthur Cheeseman. John was another of those who reached out to me in the early days to share his story with me. John and Arthur have been together for more than 50 years in a totally committed relationship. They reinforced the question in my mind—why shouldn't two people who have shared a life together in a strong and committed relationship have the right to choose how they express their commitment to each other? I want to thank John and Arthur for sharing their story and inspiring me, and I dedicate my advocacy to you both. I understand that wedding plans are on the way, possibly in January. John, you actually look like you're going to be married before your 90th birthday! My heartfelt congratulations to you both.
Finally, I dedicate my advocacy to another very special person, Kate Doak. Kate came to me as a journalist trying to understand my advocacy in this arena and over an extended period of time in my office she eventually shared with me her own personal story, a story that I had the privilege of being the first person to hear. Subsequently, both myself and my staff—in particular, Heather Beck in my office—have been there for Kate. I thank you, Kate, for your inspiration and again I dedicate my advocacy to you.
I'd also like to mention Rodney Croome and David Scammell. When the media articles first appeared about my advocacy, I received many responses from family and friends of the gay community saying they wanted to come out and support me as well. But Rodney Croome and David Scammell travelled to Canberra, sat down with me, and, for the first time in my life, provided me with an insight into the inequalities and discrimination that gay people faced. I thank them for the opportunity, because without their contribution I may never have been aware of the issues and I may not have started on this journey.
I'm not going to go into the technicalities of the bill, other than to say there has been a huge amount of effort put into it. The bill, which the Senate passed, is a robust bill. A whole range of religious protections are already in place. As Senator Dean Smith said when he was tabling it: this bill reflects the most fundamental liberal and conservative values which our party stands for: 'liberal' because it delivers freedoms for couples to marry and 'conservative' because it strengthens the social fabric and the vital institution of marriage. This bill is about marriage and only about marriage. Nothing in this bill takes away existing rights or freedoms; it doesn't create different classes of marriage. What it does is give same-sex couples the same legal rights as other couples.
We have made sure that we have removed any element of discrimination in this bill while ensuring that religious freedoms are protected. LGBTI couples will be free to marry the person that they love in a civil marriage; the freedom of ministers of religion and religious marriage celebrants to only perform religious marriages in accordance with their religious beliefs remains unchanged. There may be amendments proposed on free speech, discrimination law, education, charity law, tax law. These are all worthy causes and important debates, but they don't need to form part of this bill today. Australians are sick of excuses and they're sick of delays. The majority of Australians voted yes on same-sex couples being able to marry in front of friends and family who love them in this country that they call home. They did not vote for a new form of discrimination. Amendments about unrelated issues, amendments that seek to delay same-sex marriage for the 61.6 per cent of Australians who made their preferences clear or amendments that seek to unwind or remove any legal rights or discrimination protections will be opposed. Australians did not vote for fairness and equality only to see other legal protections peeled away in this bill.
I announced my intention to introduce a bill back in 2015, but, unfortunately, that didn't occur because of decisions that were made to commit the coalition to a plebiscite. I didn't agree with the plebiscite and I was disappointed that I didn't have the opportunity to introduce my bill to the floor of the parliament. However, rather than focusing on the process, I did everything I could to focus on an outcome. That plebiscite was taken to the 2016 election. It was during this period that there were a number of very special individuals who entered the parliament, providing an opportunity for us to work as a collective determined to get a vote on marriage equality in the 45th Parliament. I would like to acknowledge my good friend and colleague here beside me Trent Zimmerman. The last time I wore this rainbow tie was at Trent's maiden speech. He's the member for North Sydney. In front of me here I've got Tim Wilson, the member for Goldstein. And of course fellow Queenslander Trevor Evans, the member for Brisbane, is also here—all kindred spirits in this advocacy. Together we committed ourselves to making sure same-sex marriage was on the agenda and that we'd have the opportunity to vote for it in this place.
Special mention to my friend Senator Dean Smith, who was a member of the Senate Select Committee on the Exposure Draft of the Marriage Amendment (Same-Sex Marriage Bill). He did outstanding work in incorporating the findings of the consenting report from the committee into the bill that we are now debating, which has already passed the Senate. I have to say I was not happy with the postal survey, and I expressed that view, but I have to congratulate Peter Dutton for this initiative. When he approached me, I suggested to him that it would never work, and I honestly didn't think it would.
However, there's always—always!—a benefit in hindsight. It probably was the best thing that we did in so much as the participation rate was extraordinary: almost 80 per cent of registered Australian voters, and the fact we got a vote of almost 62 per cent shows that an absolute majority of Australians have come along with us on this journey. It certainly provides us with the opportunity to celebrate inclusion and diversity, and is one of the biggest political mandates in the history of our nation.
While there were great celebrations in Australia, when the result came through I was in New York. Let me assure you that this result wasn't just celebrated in Australia: it was celebrated around the world. I remember driving home after a function in lower Manhattan not long after the results were announced and seeing the Empire State Building lit up in rainbow colours to acknowledge this historic event.
I'd like to acknowledge the team from the Equality Campaign who've been invaluable in their assistance. I value their support and their friendship. They are Alex Greenwich, Tom Snow, Anna Brown, Janine Middleton, Tiernan Brady, Clint McGilvray, Lee Carnie, Corey Irlam and, last but not least, Claire Dawson. There were so many others, too numerous to mention, who made the 'yes' campaign such a success: I thank them for that.
In this place we all come here to make a difference, and we do in so many ways through our electorate work and in assisting national policy. However, it is rare that we have the opportunity to make a change such as we have achieved through this legislation and the profound, positive impact it will have on so many lives, not only those within the same-sex community but also on their family and their friends. We have a responsibility to the Australian people this week: we must do what we believe is right. Who is it to say that another person should be denied equal rights or that their love is in some way lesser because of who they love? This bill will take from no-one; it simply makes our nation a kinder and a fairer place.
Delaying equality for every Australian, whether they be from Bundaberg or Fremantle, simply is not good enough. At the end of day, life is too short: we must vote on this and get on with it. I know that there are many weddings planned in the near future, once this legislation is carried through. I wish all of those brides and all of those grooms the very, very best in their marriage in the future.
Leave granted for second reading debate to continue immediately.
It is with pride and joy that I second the motion. I rise to speak on the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017. On 15 November 2017, just past 10 am local time, celebration erupted on the streets of Brisbane as the Australian Statistician announced that the vast majority of Australians had said yes to allowing same-sex couples to marry. At a large gathering in Queen's Park in the CBD, and in cafes and workplaces across Brisbane, people clapped and cheered. They hugged complete strangers, and people cried with a mixture of relief and joy. My partner, Roger, and I shared in that emotion. The 'yes' vote in Brisbane was almost 80 per cent. It was 79.5 per cent, meaning that Brisbane recorded the highest support of any government seat across the country except for the Prime Minister's seat of Wentworth.
When the Statistician was giving his speech that day he also announced in passing that the ABS later that day would be releasing Australia's labour force statistics. Now, it is thought provoking to imagine a nation tuning in and erupting with the same level of celebration at the release of our employment statistics. They were pretty good job figures after all! But that comparison does reveal the importance of the postal survey results and the significance of marriage equality to so many Australians. It underlines the responsibility that this parliament now has in front of it to respect the clear will of the Australian people by passing this bill this week in a business-like fashion.
That comparison between the postal survey and other statistical releases reveals another serious point: that in the hustle and bustle of life there's possibly too few occasions when Australia stops and pays attention to the operations, the decisions and the news of government. When a national moment like this occurs, there are lessons to be learned for those of us who ponder things like the operation of our democracy, policy-making processes and concepts of good governance.
Why did it take so long for this reform to be achieved when public opinion had shown that the majority of Australians have supported marriage equality for almost a decade?
What precedent did the postal survey set for our parliamentary democracy? And what has the postal survey taught us about how Australians can engage with each other and our parliament?
I wouldn't be the first to observe that reform has been difficult for Australia in this decade. About a year ago, I was on my feet here speaking of my sadness and disappointment that yet another Australian parliament looked set to fail to achieve marriage equality. Despite these years of national debate, this government's plebiscite bill was actually the first time in history there was a government-endorsed bill sitting on that table in front of me. We were the first government ever elected with a mandate containing a path to achieving marriage equality, and we had our Prime Minister—the first in Australia to be consistently in favour of it. And yet, despite all those firsts, that bill was headed for defeat by the usual blockade in the Senate. And those who voted against it had no plan for what would happen next. Essentially, they were content to run the risk that this reform would stall for a long time—possibly, for many years. And of course that was after some of them had done nothing to achieve marriage equality when they had their chance in government. Now, history, not I, will be the judge of that.
As for me, I'm proud to stand up here today and say that I've played a small role in ending the stalemate on same-sex marriage. It was a path that contained some risks, and, for their strength and their courage on this topic, I want to pay tribute to some of my colleagues: to Senator Dean Smith; to the member for Goldstein, Tim Wilson; to the member for North Sydney, Trent Zimmerman; the member for La Trobe, Jason Wood; and to the irrepressible and legendary member for Leichhardt, fellow Queenslander Warren Entsch.
Those members I just named and I didn't come to this place to focus on same-sex marriage. I came here with a background in small business, with experience in economics and industry, to focus on many of the other important challenges and opportunities that lie ahead of us today. But sometimes one could have been forgiven for thinking otherwise. I can't count the number of times that news stories introduced me as 'the gay MP' before even referring to my seat or my party or my achievements or other attributes.
It's true that this topic does have a deeply personal aspect and I feel very, very strongly about it. But this isn't about me, and it's not about any of us in this parliament. This is about a million other people out there around Australia. For them, we have just created a national watershed moment. Every person out there who might have been questioning themselves or their value, or feeling isolated, lonely and vulnerable, knows now, without any doubt, that the majority of Australians support them and they want them to be equal. Equally, any person out there who might be inclined in the future to say something hurtful or offensive or derogatory to someone in the gay community also now knows that a majority of Australians do not support those views. That's what this means. Australia has just said yes to the inherent worth of every human being who shares our wide brown land. So every Australian who completed their postal survey, and all of us voting here, should know that their vote has contributed and is contributing to a national watershed moment. In this moment, our votes probably do more to beat stigma, homophobia and vulnerability in our society than any rally or any debate we could possibly have contributed to. That's the power of a vote.
I want to specifically thank all Australians—and, in particular, the people of Brisbane—for their strong support of this process. I couldn't be more humbled by or grateful for the support of Brisbane.
It's important to note—and it's a point I want to make very strongly—that the postal survey result was so comprehensive because Liberals and Nationals around the country voted yes. I've always maintained confidence that Australians would be responsible about exercising their freedom. And that faith in Australians was rewarded. I believe it's one of the salient lessons about our democracy to draw from this process. The vast majority of Australians wanted to have their say, clearly, yet it was a subject that only directly impacted a minority, and the majority of Australians wished to express their support for them. Almost all Australians did express their support. They engaged in debates and they discussed the topic of marriage in their workplaces and in their homes freely and constructively. And it was only a very small and atypical minority who didn't appreciate that their freedom of speech came with responsibilities and who crossed some lines with their individual conduct.
Our free speech doesn't force you to listen to other people or force other people to listen to you or agree with you. Freedom of speech isn't a shield from criticism and it's not a shield from other views. Reasonable people can disagree. And in this debate the power of liberal democracy and the disinfecting nature of transparency have proved once again their enduring strength.
Also, very importantly, democracy doesn't mean that we always get what we want. It means that we respect the result. I profess to holding mixed views about the process of the postal survey, yet I must admit that it surprised me along the way, and credit must be given to the ABS and to the Acting Special Minister of State, Mathias Cormann, for their management of the process. Many fears were not realised, and the result was beyond question. And I do look forward to a future opportunity to outline my thoughts on how a plebiscite or a postal process might sit alongside our parliamentary democratic traditions. I note Menzies's eloquent words on his views on parliamentary democracy in some of his less-well-read speeches that he gave in the 'forgotten people' series. In particular I think it's important for all of us to reflect on how such a mechanism might be used sparingly and in exceptional circumstances only into the future.
I want to make the point that thousands of young people around Australia enrolled to vote for the first time because of this postal survey. This was their first brush with democracy, and for some of them it might have been a confronting lesson. Yet I hope some younger people who haven't witnessed much of the alternative approaches to democracy around the world have had cause to pause and reflect about what this episode can teach us. It may have been a frustrating process for the time and the context that we find ourselves in, yet it was a process that unquestionably landed with the right outcome. I want to make a point for those young people who are growing up in a world where self-gratification is instant and we have iPhones, social media and credit cards to buy the latest fashion trends. Democracy is slow. Reform is sometimes frustrating. Democracy is a messy process. And yet, if you involve yourself in the process of democracy, as you have in this process, our democracy will be a stronger one.
This is a good bill, and I was pleased to contribute to its drafting alongside some of my colleagues and its principal architect, Senator Dean Smith. My signature has been on this bill since it was circulated to colleagues back in early August. This is a bill that started with an exposure draft prepared by our Attorney-General, Senator George Brandis, last year. It faithfully implements the findings of a Senate review and the unanimous findings by senators right across the political spectrum following the consultation they performed with the input and the agreement of a long list of religious and community organisations across Australia. This is a bill that finds a good balance between the need to protect important religious freedoms and still implement the clear will of the Australian people to change the Marriage Act to allow same-sex couples to marry.
This bill contains specific protections for religious organisations. It contains protections for individual ministers of religion even if they're acting outside the tenets of their organised religion. It contains protections for civil celebrants; for chaplains; and for businesses, organisations and other bodies if they're set up predominantly for a religious purpose. I accept that not all religious organisations agree with this bill and neither do all the gay advocacy groups, but this bill does have the blessing of many of the religious organisations and gay advocacy groups that are capable of reaching agreement on this matter. This bill has that support because it does not open any new forms of discrimination and, equally, it does not remove any religious freedoms or protections.
In conclusion, it's with pride, joy and love that I second this motion. It's a good bill. It strikes a good balance. And it enjoys wide support across our community. Now that the Brisbane community and the broader Australian community have voiced their strong support for same-sex marriage, it's time for us in this parliament to do our bit this week in a businesslike fashion.
Mr Speaker, leave is granted. Looking at the speakers list, we have in the order of 15 hours of debate ahead of us. There is an offer from the opposition to agree to additional sitting times—if at any point it is the wish of the House—in particular for tomorrow night, so we can finish the second reading debate speeches and vote on the second reading on Wednesday morning. And, secondly, the opposition is also willing to offer for speeches to be shortened to 10 minutes, rather than 15, to make sure we can get this legislation through this week. So that's put there as an offer. I've got a suspension of standing orders motion; it would be silly to move it now. Hopefully, we can reach accommodation within the chamber to make sure that we do get this done.
Today we have a straightforward task, and it is a great privilege. With this legislation, with our voices and our votes, we will make marriage equality a reality in Australia. This is a chance for our parliament to demonstrate that we are worthy of the people we serve. It's a chance to honour the courage of LBGTIQ Australians, to recognise their rights and to celebrate their love. It's a chance to atone for the inaction and failures of the past. After years of discrimination, disappointment and delay, it's a chance to write into law a truth that we know in our hearts: marriage is defined by love and loyalty, not gender.
And whilst this final legal change depends on the overdue vote of our parliament, today is not actually about the parliamentarians. For me, today is about the teenager in the country town who stood in front of his footy club and asked his teammates to support him for the person that he's always been. Today is about an office worker in the city who challenged her colleagues to put aside their old thoughtless prejudices and respect her right to equality. Today is about tens of thousands of loving same-sex couples who prove every day that they're wonderful parents and they're raising great kids. Today belongs to all the LBGTIQ Australians who have borne the burden of the long battle for equality—some of whom could deservedly be described as proud warriors who remember when their very existence was considered to be a criminal offence but always knew it was the law that needed to change, not their love.
The labour movement was born believing there can be no progress without struggle. The labour movement believes that equality is both natural and fundamental. But we understand that equality is never inevitable. To Australians for Marriage Equality, to all of the advocacy groups and campaigners, to the union movement and to the corporate leaders, to everyday Australians who live in the suburbs and in the country towns who knocked on doors, made phone calls, had conversations, rallied support, raised awareness and played their part in driving this overdue change, we say thank you. In particular, I want to acknowledge young Australians. Young Australians sometimes don't get the credit they deserve in our public discourse. Hundreds of thousands of young people corrected their enrolment addresses or enrolled. They spoke to their parents and their grandparents. When we vote for this bill, and when it is successful, we should recognise that young Australians have shown Australia the sort of nation we want to see in the mirror—a generous, inclusive and tolerant Australia. For that, our young Australians are demonstrating that they very much deserve to have the best future possible because they are gifting it to all of us.
In particular, though, I salute LGBTIQ Australians for all that you have done and for all that you have endured. Despite the strong polls and the confident predictions, I know that, on the eve of this survey result and in the morning when they woke up, many were consumed by anxiety—and it wasn't just the prospect of a 'no' vote and it wasn't the unpleasantness of features of the campaign; it was something deeper. I cannot imagine what it is like to submit your relationships and your identity to an opinion poll of strangers across the country. For many of my friends, they all of a sudden had to question how welcome they were in their own society. It was a reminder and a reawakening of old fears: the dread of coming out and being shunned by friends and family who just didn't get it, and the fear of being rejected, targeted and humiliated because of something as basic and natural and human as who you are and who you love. Even at the wonderful celebrations that Chloe and I attended in Lygon Street on the night of the 'yes' result, I spoke to so many couples whose joy was matched by relief. You saw the weight come off their shoulders. Unfortunately, the bitter truth of hard experience has taught the LGBTIQ community to sometimes have to expect the worst.
What a glorious day it was when the people of Australia did not let their friends and their families and their neighbours down. And now, the parliament will not let you down. I think this is an uplifting moment in our nation, but we need to be mindful to match our joy with our humility—the humility to acknowledge that, for too long on marriage equality, Australia has trailed the world and, for too long, this parliament has trailed the people of Australia; and the humility to seek forgiveness from LGBTIQ Australians. The forgiveness I speak of is for the long delay and for the injustices and the indignities, both great and small; forgiveness for subjecting you and your relationships to public judgement; and forgiveness for the hurt and harm that you and your families have suffered. We seek your forgiveness. We salute your courage. We thank you for including us in your historic moment.
Let me be clear, for me in voting for marriage equality, the campaigners for marriage equality have not just delivered equality for them; they have actually made the Australian identity better. The gift of this legislation is not just in allowing people to get married. The gift of this legislation is that it says that Australia can be a better place, a more inclusive place. To all those LGBTIQ Australians who found themselves in subsequent days examining the result, seeing it as some kind of reflection on them in percentage terms, let me declare this: you are not 61 per cent anything. You are 100 per cent equal, you are 100 per cent loved and you are 100 per cent right to live your life the way you want, and we are lucky to count each and every one of you as our fellow Australians.
This legislation will bear Senator Smith's signature, and that is a worthy tribute to his patience and hard work down the years. To his Liberal and conservative colleagues who stood up to be counted, you know who you are and you know the value of what you did and have accomplished. There are, of course, many members of all parties who fought long and hard for this change. From our side, I acknowledge the member for Sydney, Senator Louise Pratt, the member for Grayndler and the member for Whitlam, whose marriage equality legislation I was proud to be one of 42 in the House of Representatives to vote for in 2012. And I look forward to that number being far higher on this occasion.
I want to acknowledge all my colleagues who have offered me counsel on this question as leader. I'm proud of the decisions that we've made together. I'm proud we went to the last election promising a free vote within 100 days. I'm proud that we opposed the principle of a plebiscite, the idea of a lawmaking process for LGBTI Australians separate to all other Australians. And I'm proud of how energetically and effectively our party and our movement campaigned for the 'yes' case.
But in particular today I want to pay special tribute to Senator Penny Wong. Penny, yours has often been a lonely road and a hard road. It's the merging of the personal and political in ways that some of us who vote here will never have to contemplate. But I do know this: in 2011, your advocacy, along with others', changed our platform. And, whilst you're too modest to say it yourself, in years to come Sophie will be able to tell your children about the time that their mum helped change Australia.
Many more will make valuable contributions to this debate. I did want to address briefly religious freedom. The Labor Party believes in religious freedom. We understand it is central to our democracy and our society. It is a most important issue and one that we must all treat with respect. Australia is a remarkable country full of decent and generous people of good conscience drawn from all faiths and none. And the greatness of our nation is that every person is free to be proud of what they believe. We recognise that, for Australians of faith, religion is a base to build upon in public life even if it is also a destination for contemplation, solace and sustenance in private life. In our society, under our laws, whether we be Christians, Hindus, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists or atheists, we're all Australians and we're all equal—first, last and always equal under the law.
Respect for sincerely held views of people of faith and respect for the rights of religious institutions to practice according to their own tenets is proper. And it is right and proper for the parliament to take the time to consider what protections are required as a separate question to this legislation. We look forward to the recommendations put forward by Philip Ruddock's panel and we will consider them carefully in the new year.
And it is also important to note that nothing in this legislation limits the right of any person to lawfully worship, practice or observe, or teach according to their religion. This bill is about extending equality, not reducing liberty, because enhancing the rights of one group of people does not diminish the freedoms of another. Fairness is not a finite resource. Equality has never been a zero-sum game.
The whole history of Australia tells us the truth of this. Every time this nation expanded the definition of the fair go, we have all gained from its deeper meaning. Every time we have enlarged the circle of Australian fairness, we've all gained new allies in our national success and the telling of the Australian story. Every time we have faced the failures of our past, it has helped us build a better future. It is why marriage equality is not the trading away of our traditions; it is about living up to them. It is not about breaking with our values; it's building upon them. This law is not the end of the ancient institution of marriage; it is a new beginning for a more equal world.
I hope and imagine that, in a generation to come, Australians will look back to these days and this debate and most will wonder: what was the fuss all about? My children will attend the weddings of their friends and not give a moment's thought to whether they are gay or straight, whether it's in a church or a park. All that will matter is: does the couple love each other and want to spend the rest of their lives together? All that will matter is that they are people like us: our friends, our neighbours, our family members, our loved ones, our fellow Australians. This moment of this debate this week belongs to all those who have waited. This moment belongs to all those who have fought. It belongs to all those who did not live to see their dream realised. It belongs to all those who have felt that the inequality in the law has meant that they are unequal in our eyes. We have come too late to this moment, but we are here at last.
Today is an outstanding day. When we vote on this bill, it will be an outstanding moment. It will be, I predict, an uplifting moment. So it is with joy, with humility, with privilege, with love for our brothers and sisters and with hope in our future that I commend this bill to the House.
It is with great pleasure and a real sense of history that I rise to speak today. In 1999, when speaking in support of the superannuation entitlements bill of the member for Grayndler, I described that law as a law which:
… does not provide for special rights for gay and lesbian couples. It provides universal rights, equal rights, for those people.
And so is the case today. The bill before us is about universal rights, about human rights and about an inclusive and a fair Australia. During the 2004 debate, when the Howard government rushed through laws amending the Marriage Act, I said:
Some time in the not too distant future, people will look back on this desperate attempt at wedge politics and treat it with the contempt it deserves. Some time in the not too distant future, there will be formal recognition of same-sex couples, and the sky will not fall in, and we will not be destroyed … and life will continue. The main difference will be fewer violent or abusive attacks on gay men and lesbians, and fewer teenagers suiciding, because they will not be taught to feel shame about their sexuality as many are now.
How privileged I am, how proud I am, to be able to stand today and speak in support of this bill. My regret is that it has taken so many years to get here.
I wish that debate on a bill like this could have happened without an unnecessary, divisive and expensive postal survey. But Australians proved themselves better, braver and more decent than their government, and worlds away from the hate and the fear that was being pushed by some elements of the 'no' campaign. I wish that the Prime Minister had assisted in bringing this bill to the parliament without putting Australia through the expense and division of this survey. It required his leadership and the courage of his convictions, but these were sadly missing. Instead of the debate happening here, as it should've, it was pushed into, shoved into, lounge rooms across Australia, where children were asking their parents for support, for basic acknowledgement, and some parents were saying no. I don't know if any of us can imagine, really, what a hard thing it is to hear that from your own parents—that they wouldn't be voting to recognise you and your relationship. That could've been avoided if the debate had happened in here, as it is now.
I wish this parliament had done its job and legislated earlier. I'm proud of the fact that I was one of those 42 who voted in favour of the Jones bill in 2012. And I'm sorry it has taken until 2017 for this law to be in this place with the likelihood that it will pass this week. I'm sorry for all the pain that the LGBTIQ community has faced in having themselves and their relationships debated in this way in recent months—in having their relationships put on trial. But love won in the end, and the opponents of marriage equality could not defeat it.
The democratic tradition runs deep in our country. Even though many disagreed, as I did, with this postal survey, the democratic impulses of our people were strong, and about 80 per cent of voters turned out. And they overwhelmingly voted yes.
My electorate of Sydney shared the highest yes response in the country, with 83.7 per cent of my electorate voting yes. It's not surprising: in many ways, my electorate is the cultural heart of LGBTIQ Australia. It has a long history of activism and political engagement that emerged around Oxford Street, Darlinghurst and Kings Cross. While there are LGBTIQ Australians in every community, in every city, in every suburb and in every town right across Australia, so many have chosen to make their home in my electorate. It is a tolerant, safe, welcoming and diverse community and I'm proud to say that I've got two very special constituents here with me today, Izzy Perko and Collin Lyon, who exemplify for me this sort of activism and relationship. Izzy and Collin have been together for decades and just want to be treated like everybody else in my community—allowed to marry legally and share their commitment with their friends and family.
Earlier this year, after a detailed inquiry, a Senate committee agreed on draft marriage equality legislation. This legislation was backed by Labor, the Liberals, the Nationals, the Nick Xenophon Team and the Greens. This is the consensus bill that is before us today. It's very simple. Firstly, it allows same-sex couples to marry. Secondly, it protects religious freedom by allowing clergy and a new category of religious celebrants to choose who they will and will not marry. It isn't complicated and I'm disappointed that some are seeking to make it complicated. There is talk by the Prime Minister and others of substantive amendments to this bill on the grounds of protecting religious freedoms. As the Leader of the Opposition has said, Labor is absolutely committed to religious freedoms. We are absolutely supportive of Australians having the right not to be discriminated against on the basis of their religious practice or observance in this country.
But I would say to those people who are concerned that there is no attack on freedom of religion in this bill. Indeed, the bill strengthens religious protections; it does not weaken them. Of course, we have no difficulty with further discussion about religious protections—indeed, about protection of human rights right across the spectrum of human rights, including religious freedom—but that is best done next year, noting that the government's newly established panel, led by the Hon. Philip Ruddock, is yet to report. I'd also say that, just as there are those who are concerned that religious protections don't go far enough in this bill, there are others who are concerned that they go too far. This shows that this bill hits the right balance. There are some concerned that there shouldn't be a new category of religious celebrants, for example. So there is a time to discuss these issues of religious freedom, but we shouldn't complicate the bill that's before us today, which has already achieved a cross-party consensus.
There are so many people whose work needs to be acknowledged in the long fight for this next step in equality for LGBTIQ Australians. Of course, most of the big steps forward have occurred over the years under Labor governments, from Bill Hayden leading the charge on decriminalisation of homosexuality to Don Dunstan being the first Premier to legalise homosexuality 42 years ago; from Neville Wran banning discrimination on the grounds of sexuality to Kevin Rudd's government legislating to remove discrimination against same-sex couples from 85 federal laws in areas as diverse as tax, veterans affairs, social security and health.
I want to acknowledge the member for Maribyrnong and our Labor leader, Bill Shorten, who has pursued this issue as a priority and committed Labor to legislating for marriage equality within the first 100 days of a Shorten Labor government. I thank all of my colleagues who've been long-time advocates for LGBTI Australians and for marriage equality: my friend Senator Penny Wong, of course; my friend Senator Louise Pratt; the shadow Attorney-General, the member for Isaacs; the shadow minister for equality, the member for Griffith; the member for Grayndler, my neighbour in inner-city Sydney and a long-time ally of the LGBTIQ community in this place; my state colleague Penny Sharpe MLC; and of course those opposite. We've worked so cooperatively in recent times. Senator Dean Smith, I know that this has taken a personal toll on you, and I'm proud to be able to congratulate you today for your leadership. For those opposite who have spoken today and will speak later in this debate, I know that it is a brave thing to do to stand up in the face of not overwhelming support from your own side. It's gutsy, and it's appreciated.
I want to acknowledge Rainbow Labor. Rainbow Labor is a group of ordinary members of the Labor Party who have put their faith and their trust in Labor and have said that they know it will be Labor who can deliver on their aspirations. They have campaigned so hard for this win, and they have been part of changing history. I also want to acknowledge the many other campaigners who've devoted years of their lives to the pursuit of equality: all of those involved with the AME campaign—Anna Brown, Tom Snow, Brooke Horne, Alex Greenwich, Janine Middleton, Tim Gartrell, Paddy Batchelor and many, many more; the community groups who have been fighting for this equality for years, including the Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby, Twenty10, ACON, Wear it Purple, Community Action Against Homophobia, Inner City Legal Centre, Rainbow Families and so many, many others; and the union movement, who, once again in our nation's history, swung behind the fight for equality. I can tell you it makes such a difference having the human resources of those unions backing a campaign like this—people out on the streets early in the morning and late at night, phoning, door knocking, standing at train stations and convincing their colleagues, their friends and their family members to vote yes. Individuals like Magda Szubanski, Kerryn Phelps and Jackie Stricker-Phelps, Rodney Croome, Father Frank Brennan—so many have stood up and joined their voices to the chorus of calls for equality. Every person, every individual, who has had a difficult conversation with a friend or a family member or a complete strange at a train station in the morning, at a bus stop or during a door knock—this really would not have happened without this massive mobilisation of ordinary Australians committed to equality.
I know that many people over the course of this debate have actually changed their minds. They started out thinking that this wasn't an important issue or that marriage equality would somehow change our society in a bad way. Over the years, they've listened to their friends or family members or colleagues, and they've changed their minds. It takes a lot of bravery to change your mind. It takes intellectual openness and emotional openness to change your mind. It's a really big thing to do, and I particularly thank those people today.
There are so many people for whom this change means so much. I know the reason they stood up to speak out was not just for their own personal benefit but to help make the sort of country they want to live in. People like Eddie Blewett and his mums, Neroli Dickson and Claire Blewett, from Tathra on the New South Wales South Coast. Eddie is only 14 years old, but he is one of the bravest kids you could ever meet. It takes real guts for families like his, rainbow families, to have made this case and in the public eye. I think of the young Indigenous woman in Armidale who quietly took me aside when I was there last year to let me know the struggle she faces every day and to urge me not to give up. I say to her today, 'I didn't, and I'll never give up.' I think about the teenage boy I met in Bathurst this year who told me how hard it was to come out in the country town if your friends and family aren't supportive. I think about the teenagers I met at headspace in Sunshine, Melbourne, who told me how many young people were suffering because they were being made to feel second rate by their government. This change would not have been possible without the trailblazers in the community. This is a victory for my friends in Elizabeth Bay John Challis, 89, and Arthur Cheeseman, 85, who have fought for 50 years to have their relationship recognised and who will marry in January. Arthur said recently of seeing marriage equality become a reality:
It gives us a new dignity, a new status, a new place in society. We are the same as everyone else.
This is a victory for the 78ers who marched down Oxford Street into a wall of police brutality in the pursuit of equality. It is their struggle that this parliament honours today by passing this legislation.
I want to send a very special message to those people for whom this has been a decades-long struggle, people who lost relationships, lost connection with family and lost their jobs because they took a stand all those years ago. Important issues like this capture the public's imagination because they go to something fundamental within us: the kind of society that we want for each other and for our kids—fairer, kinder, less judgemental and more accepting, a society in which we live and let live and in which we recognise that love makes a marriage and love makes a family.
Today is a historic day. It is a day that this parliament is given a choice to end centuries of marginalisation of some Australians and make them full citizens for the first time. It is a day when we can choose to reaffirm the voluntary bond of marriage for the 21st century and encourage the commitment it provides to take individuals to form families as the foundation for community and nationhood. It is the day in this place when my party properly returns to its traditions and allows a free vote on a matter of conscience.
I will be supporting the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017, and I do so wholly acknowledging that the bill is not my first preference. My preference is, has been and always will be a bill that could only be delivered when those opposed recognised that public sentiment shifted against them over a decade ago and when those who advocated change respected that some people's views would never change, and both were accommodated in law. The former Prime Minister John Howard reminded me of my words from May 2014:
The primacy of the human right to freedom of worship should not be simply dismissed in pursuit of advancing the civil right to non-discrimination.
I still agree with that statement. It is one of the critical reasons the postal survey was not my first preference. Some took a 'stop change at all costs' approach, and the full costs now come with it. That was their choice, not that of those seeking change and not mine. My conscience is clear. The bill is a compromise on the political situation before us. My hope is that my party will reflect on this debate and learn from it. In an effort by some to prevent this parliament from confronting this issue, they have been prepared to discard numerous principles: parliamentary supremacy, representative democracy, our party's tradition of a free vote, fiscal prudence and free speech. I take great pride in being able to say that at every single occasion I stood up to defend our institutions, traditions and freedoms ahead of the politics of the day.
My focus has been and always will be on how we take our country forward together. Some of us are Liberals, real Liberals, living Menzies's address to his 1965 federal council that we are 'not the party of the past, not the conservative party dying hard on the last barricade', but one with 'a lively mind and a forward-looking heart'. We believe in conserving our culture and our institutions by shaping the future and bringing them forward to give life to one of our most important institutions and its relevance in the 21st century.
I take all people's freedoms seriously—very seriously. A free society does not seek to homogenise belief or conscience but instead affirms individuality and diversity and fosters tolerance and mutual respect. The choice that has always faced our country is whether we are a social democracy or a liberal democracy. Social democracies empower government and legislate permissible conduct. In a liberal democracy, we remove barriers to freedom, just as the bill before us today is doing. We are expanding the freedom to marry. The unlimited freedom of conscience is the freedom to hold and form opinions, religious or otherwise, and that is not inhibited by this bill. Freedom of speech is the freedom to express and communicate ideas and your conscience, and that is not inhibited by this bill. As all members know, I will always stand up against laws that make it unlawful to offend, when they arise. Religious freedom is the freedom to manifest your conscience. A person's faith does not end at the church door any more than sexual orientation ends at the bedroom door. They inform the fullness of a life, our character and our choices. Free speech and religious freedom have always been tempered by law to respect the rights and freedoms of others. They are not an unlimited licence. If you care about everyone's freedom, not just your own, the objective should be to enlarge the space for these freedoms—I always will and do.
The bill before us today is the answer to a simple question: should the law be changed to allow same-sex couples to marry? This bill honours those who fought harder before us for less and those today who've had to fight for their equal place at this nation's table. It represents the opportunities of generations to come—the mature and adolescents—without unnecessary doubt. People like Edward Crossland, who grew up in the Goldstein electorate, who wrote to me saying, 'The recent debate has really made me question my validity as a person.' Edward, question no longer. Hayley, Katie and Ada, from Sandringham, wrote, 'I know you will understand when I say it has been hard, but it was particularly heartening to know that an overwhelming majority of our neighbours support us.' Yes, they do, Hayley, Katie and Ada. Dale Hardy and Steve Humphreys were going to get married in March at the UK consulate in Melbourne, but now they can be married in the nation they love—congratulations. It also affects families. I was reminded of this when I popped into netball in Hampton last Saturday when Kris Pierce told me lovingly of her uncle Kevin and his partner of 44 years, John, and how much she was looking forward to the ending of the silence of their relationship—the silence will end.
There's no point pretending that this isn't deeply personal. It is a journey that I started when I was 12-years-old; it was referenced in my first speech. Like so many others at 18, I confronted the choice before me about whether I should live my life honestly or not at all. I still remember my thoughts at that crucial moment: if you give in, they win. That moment followed years of self-inspired haunting doubt that was externally reinforced by the legacy of social, cultural and legal stigmatisation. I suspect many people find understanding these journeys difficult. It's so paralysing because you can't seek help from others. The people you should be able to turn to are the ones you fear speaking to the most because the cost of rejection is so high. As the Attorney-General remarked in another place, it can sometimes overcome. This bill rams a stake into the heart of that stigma and its legacy. If I could go back and tell that scared 18-year-old kid he'd be speaking here—surrounded by Trevor Evans and Trent Zimmerman, and also representing the party of his values with his partner, Ryan, in the gallery—on this bill, he wouldn't have believed me.
Ryan, I still remember the day all those years ago when we rose before the sun to watch a new day on One Tree Hill on Hamilton Island and I gave you the ring on our left hand and said, 'I don't know what this ring represents or means, but will you take it as a sign of my commitment?' Thankfully, the answer was yes. I also remember the bittersweetness of the days that followed. Anyone who has been engaged will know that moment in life: the joy amplified by the mutual celebration of others. Our friends were happy for us and with us. Always with an eye to the future, the member for Kooyong and his wife, Amie, sent flowers. But, when we told others, many simply didn't know how to react. Many SMSs were not responded to. In conversation, some people politely changed the topic or fell silent entirely. For a while, Ryan kept pushing for an engagement party. The truth was, I kept delaying it, perhaps wrongly, because the strong message I took from so many people's silence was that no-one would come. On informing one person of our news, they responded, 'Why bother?' At the time I fell silent, and I've never had an answer to that question, but the Australian people have now answered it for me. Our society doesn't have a tradition that communicates the seriousness and commitment of a relationship, except for marriage. It is a commitment between two people and held together by the love and expectation of families, friends and community. It is the foundation of our nation. And as my dear friend Paul Ritchie wrote in his book Faith, Love & Australia:The Conservative Case for Same-Sex Marriage:
Marriage strengthens society, mutual responsibility strengthens the social fabric and interdependence is the core of every community, the law should support and affirm the most important of human relationships - the person we choose to share our life with.
And he's right. My uncle recently asked whether, without a bride, my parents would still have to chip in for the wedding. Look on the bright side, Mum and Dad; you get to start a new tradition.
To the people of Australia: this debate was always about the type of country we want to be, and you own this moment. To the second love of my life, the people of Goldstein: when you charged me with your trust, you knew we would solve this debate together. You delivered the highest per capita participation rate in the nation and delivered a 76.3 per cent 'yes' response. Thank you for your tolerance, because now we can move on, together. To Tiernan Brady, Anna Brown, Janine Middleton, Tom Snow, Clint McGilvray and the many others who have worked tirelessly: thank you so much. To those in it for the long haul, particularly the staffers who worked for the government through this difficult process, such as Ben Bartlett and Luke Barnes as well as many others; to the Liberals and Nationals For Yes team, led nationally by Andrew Bragg, fronted by my dear friends Christine Forster and Virginia Edwards, and organised in the great state of Victoria by Rory Grant and David Kitchen: thank you so much.
To the Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull: you found a pathway through the obstruction of those on both sides of this debate—and it was on both sides of this debate. This is a marker in your legacy, and that of the Attorney-General, the immigration minister and the finance minister: thank you. To my trusted confidante Alex Greenwich, who I'm very happy to see in the gallery today: Alex, we fought through and together on this debate when the public and so many of our contemporaries were against us, so no-one deserves more credit for this outcome than you—no-one.
I suspect the term was originally developed as a means to demonise, but the members for Brisbane, North Sydney and Leichhardt, who I'm very proud to have surround me today, as well as Senator Smith, can claim the title of 'rainbow rebel' as an exclusive moniker of courage and conviction. A heavy burden fell to us, and you have all lived lives of consequence, particularly you, Warren. Trev, Trent, Deano and I fought with our hearts because this debate chose us; you chose this debate because justice rests in your heart.
With the indulgence of the Speaker, the person I have to thank most is my partner, Ryan. You've had to tolerate more than most because you had to put up with me.
Government members interjecting—
Trust me! This debate has been the soundtrack to our relationship. We both know this issue isn't the reason we got involved in politics—give us tax reform any day—but in my first speech I defined our bond by the rings that sit on both of our left hands, and that they are the answer to the question we cannot ask. So there's only one thing left to do: Ryan Patrick Bolger, will you marry me?
A response having been received from the gallery—
We'll chuck that in the memoirs and Hansard.
I start with congratulations to the member for Goldstein.
Last week this House did not sit but I came to Canberra to support our senators in the historic work they were doing to pass the bill that is now before us. And pass it they did, with a thumping majority of 43 in favour to 12 against. I've now been a member of this parliament for 10 years. Last Wednesday, when the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017 passed the other place, it was one of the most momentous days I can remember in a decade of parliamentary work. In the third reading debate on this bill last Wednesday, Labor's leader in the Senate—a courageous and tireless advocate for marriage equality—declared:
Every day it is a great privilege to stand in this place, but there are some days which are of great moment, which change our country for the better. This is such a day.
This week, in this place, it is my sincere hope and intention that we will reaffirm the momentous decision taken by our Senate colleagues last week and pass this bill, unamended, to make marriage equality a reality.
It is easy to understand why so many Australians have found federal politics so difficult to engage with over recent years. The hyperpartisanship that has infected our national debate in so many areas is dispiriting for many Australians who do not want to see partisan scrapping but want to see the national parliament as a venue for a genuine contest of ideas, a place in which the elected members look at what needs to be done and then work out how to best bring that change about, a place in which we engage in debate with sincerity, authenticity and passion to determine how best to—as Senator Wong said—change our country for the better.
There's no doubt in my mind, or in my heart, that this bill will make our country better. It does this by ending a significant form of discrimination against a great many Australians and transforming what has been a source of ongoing pain into a source of joy for all those LGBTIQ Australians who want to express their love through the institution of marriage. Fundamentally, this bill is about expanding freedom in our nation by granting to all Australians the freedom to marry the person they love.
I have no doubt that this government's marriage law survey was conceived as a delaying tactic by those opposed to marriage equality. But, as wasteful, divisive and destructive as that survey was, it has shown, indisputably, that the large majority of Australians, in every state and in every territory, support marriage equality. Our job now as members of this parliament is to deliver on the clearly expressed wish of the people.
So many bills introduced into this place are cooked up in secret and then dumped without warning into the parliament. In some egregious cases the government uses its numbers to rush through those bills without meaningful debate, without the people directly impacted by those laws or the wider Australian public having a chance to even read them. An example that leaps to mind for me are the changes to native title law, which were rammed through this House by the government against Labor opposition in February this year. Fortunately, the government does not control the Senate, so the opposition and the crossbench senators are often able to demand public consultation on laws that this government would rather pass without scrutiny.
This bill, which was introduced in the Senate on Wednesday, 15 November—but which was made public months earlier—is not such a bill; in fact it is the opposite. What this bill does is embody in law the unanimous recommendations of a Senate multiparty committee report on the appropriate form of legislation for marriage equality. That committee comprised members from the government, from Labor, from the Greens and from the crossbench. It consulted extensively with the Australian community over a number of months. And, then, the members of that committee worked hard to hammer out a unanimous, consensus position. Cross-party agreement on a contentious manner is a rare event in our politics, but that committee achieved it, and this bill honours that unanimous position. We should not fracture that rare consensus now. This bill is not perfect, but consensus is built through compromise. The point is that the compromises made in this bill are acceptable compromises. There are some who argued passionately against any kind of exemptions from our antidiscrimination laws. Those advocates argued, among other things, that to allow religious bodies and individuals to continue to discriminate against LGBTIQ Australians wanting to marry, despite the passage of laws for marriage equality, undermines the very principles of nondiscrimination that this bill is founded on. But they compromised. It was painful for many, but the majority of those advocates came to accept that a competing value, that of freedom of religion, would also have to be accommodated in giving effect to marriage equality.
On the other side, too, compromises were made. Many religious groups and individuals who subscribe to religious doctrines which hold that LGBTIQ people cannot marry came to accept that their religious faith was not affected by the fact that other people might have a different view of marriage. They did, however, insist that, given the deep spiritual significance of marriage ceremony, ministers and religious celebrants should not be obliged to solemnise marriages for LGBTIQ Australians if to do so was contrary to their religious beliefs. Protection for ministers of religion is provided for in explicit and extensive terms by this bill and will become law if this bill is passed. I will read the relevant part, section 47(3), because, from some of the commentary we have heard about this bill, you might think that it contained no protection for freedom of religion at all.
A minister of religion may refuse to solemnise a marriage despite anything in this Part, if any of the following applies:
(a) the refusal conforms to the doctrines, tenets or beliefs of the religion of the minister's religious body or religious organisation;
(b) the refusal is necessary to avoid injury to the religious susceptibilities of adherents to that religion;
(c) the minister's religious beliefs do not allow the minister to solemnise the marriage.
And then there's an additional subsection (4):
This section does not limit the grounds on which a minister of religion may refuse to solemnise a marriage.
The bill also provides comparable protections for the religious freedoms of an entirely new category of marriage celebrant—a religious marriage celebrant. This new category is created by the bill to cover marriage celebrants who are not ministers of a recognised religion but who nevertheless claim a religious objection to solemnising same-sex weddings. Again, to allow celebrants, who are empowered to solemnise marriages by the civil law of Australia, to be able to discriminate against LGBTIQ Australians, despite the passage of civil laws allowing for marriage equality, involved a major compromise on the part of many advocates of marriage equality. This is what section 47A of the bill states:
(1) A religious marriage celebrant may refuse to solemnise a marriage despite anything in this Part, if the celebrant's religious beliefs do not allow the celebrant to solemnise the marriage.
And I'll go on to mention section 47B, which provides further protection for religious bodies in these terms:
(1) A body established for religious purposes may refuse to make a facility available, or to provide goods or services, for the purposes of the solemnisation of a marriage, or for purposes reasonably incidental to the solemnisation of a marriage, if the refusal:
(a) conforms to the doctrines, tenets of beliefs of the religion of the body; or
(b) is necessary to avoid injury to the religious susceptibilities of adherents of that religion.
I've read out all these provisions because I want to make clear the extent to which this bill protects the freedom of those with religious views opposed to same-sex marriage. It protects them to enable them to continue to live their lives in accordance with those views. Labor supports religious freedom and Labor respects the fact that there are a range of views on the question of marriage equality and on how religious freedoms should be protected. This bill provides appropriate protections for freedom of religion in relation to marriage while also implementing the clearly expressed will of the Australian people to make marriage equality law. There is no need for further amendments.
The issue of how best to balance competing human rights is a perennial one and I, and my Labor colleagues, welcome debate on how best to protect religious freedoms in our nation while, at the same time, protecting other human rights such as the right to freedom from discrimination. But the debate on this bill is not the right time or place to engage in such a wide and far-ranging debate. Debates about how better to protect human rights, including freedom of religion, are vitally important for healthy democratic nations such as ours. It's precisely because of the importance of these debates that they should not be rushed but be open, considered debates that involve the entire Australian community.
In recognition of the complex nature of new legislative measures to protect religious freedoms, the Prime Minister has established an expert panel tasked with conducting a broader view of protections for religious freedom. The panel will be chaired by Philip Ruddock, a former Attorney-General, and includes Australian Human Rights Commission president Rosalind Croucher, former Federal Court judge Annabelle Bennett and Jesuit priest and human rights lawyer Frank Brennan. If people and organisations want to engage in a wider discussion about the protection of freedom of religion in our nation, that discussion should occur under the auspices of the Philip Ruddock panel.
In closing, I want to return to the historic significance of the bill now before us and to thank some of the many people who have been instrumental in fighting to make marriage equality a reality in our nation, a reality we are now on the cusp of delivering. The changes to our nation that will be made by this bill have been hard fought for over many years. A number of members of this parliament from all parties have worked tirelessly to bring us to this historic moment. Senator Penny Wong, Senator Louise Pratt, Senator Dean Smith and Senator Janet Rice have all played a vital role. In this House there are too many to name, but the leadership of the member for Maribyrnong, the Leader of the Opposition, and of the member for Sydney, the deputy leader, in the fight for marriage equality has been outstanding. And they have been enthusiastically supported by many members of our caucus, including, in particular, the member for Whitlam and the member for Griffith. Across the aisle I want to acknowledge the courageous stance of the member for Leichardt, the member for North Sydney, the member for Brisbane and the member for Goldstein, who have had to swim very hard indeed against the current in their own party.
But, of course, the greatest thanks must go to the many members of the Australian LGBTIQ community who, for years, have campaigned for this momentous change to our laws. I want to thank everyone in rainbow Labor. There are so many people I could name and thank for their involvement in this campaign, but a few of those I've worked closely with and whose contribution has been extraordinary, are Anna Brown and Lee Carnie from the Human Rights Law Centre, Rodney Croome, Corey Irlam, Tom Snow, Tim Gartrell recently, and Alex Greenwich throughout.
This is a great moment for our country. At long last, after too long a delay, we have a bill to achieve marriage equality before the House of Representatives—a bill which has already passed the Senate. It will be a greater moment when, as I sincerely hope, this bill passes this House and marriage equality is finally a reality. It will be a moment which makes Australia a better place.
Neville Wills celebrated his 98th birthday a few weeks ago. He's lived in his apartment in Greenwich, in my electorate, overlooking our glittering harbour for much of his life. During the course of those 98 years, Neville has borne witness to many of the events that have shaped our nation. He's lived through the terms of 23 prime ministers and the reign of four monarchs. The Great Depression, a world war and the Cold War, the construction of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, the advent of the computer age and the growth of Sydney to become one of the world's great multicultural cities have all been part of his life story. And, as someone who happened to be born gay, he has been part of the incredible transformation in the way in which our society has regarded homosexuality.
For two-thirds of Neville's life, simply being gay was effectively a crime in New South Wales. As a young man, it would have been beyond his wildest imagination to dream of an Australia in which his sexuality was accepted without shame or ostracisation, where his rights were protected and not prosecuted, an Australia that's parliament included openly gay members, including his own representative, and an Australia in which he could choose to marry the person he loves. Yet all of these things will be achieved in his lifetime.
Thirty-nine years ago—in fact, on an anniversary celebrated just yesterday—Neville met the person who was to become his lifelong partner. He and Ian Fenwicke have shared their lives together since that day. They have loved, honoured, comforted and protected each other and will do so as long as they both shall live. Yet, for those 39 years, they have not been able to proclaim and share their commitment in love in the same way as every other Australian. Our laws have treated them differently. This week, in this parliament and with the overwhelming support of our fellow Australians, we have the opportunity to change that. And, early next year, once we have done so, Neville and Ian will marry.
I reflect on their story because it encapsulates the reasons marriage equality is at long last being debated in this House and why I have been a co-signatory to the bill before it. Their hopes and aspirations reflect the importance of marriage in our society for so many people yet denied to some simply because of their sexuality. This legislation and the outcome of the postal survey which preceded it are an important part of our nation's journey towards acceptance and respect for those of us who are gay, lesbian, transgender or intersex. The significance of both cannot be understated, not just for members of the LBGTI community and their families and friends but for those millions of Australians who hold, as our birth right, the nation of a fair go, where our laws treat all Australians equally and fairly. These are principles that are not revolutionary. They are part and parcel of our liberal democracy and the promise that extends to all its citizens—the right to live their lives according to their own hopes, values, talents and ambitions. They are at the core of the belief structure which makes me a Liberal. Marriage equality is simply a logical extension of those ideals.
Despite our own progress, in so many parts of the world gay and lesbian people remain persecuted. We have seen, for example, gay men publicly flogged in the name of sharia law in one of our nearest neighbours. In the troubled Middle East, the mad men of ISIS have taken pleasure in executing homosexuals, often in the most barbaric of ways. In Chechnya, members of the gay and lesbian community have been systematically rounded up and arrested, tortured and often killed by their own government. In so many countries, being gay is still considered a crime. We as a nation, therefore, should be proud of our liberal democracy, our commitment to individual rights and all we have achieved. So, for me, marriage equality should be regarded not, as some have asserted, as a threat to the values of Western civilisation but as rather their triumph.
For much of human history, marriage has been a stabilising and important bedrock for relationships and for families. While not every Australian in a relationship will choose to marry, for many it remains a powerful affirmation of love, commitment and shared responsibility. It is an act of devotion sanctioned by the law and proclaimed through wedding ceremonies witnessed by families and friends. For many years, support for marriage as an institution took something of a battering. Yet, today, we have a part of our community knocking on the door and seeking to be admitted.
For me, as a Liberal, today's debate is about ensuring our law treats each other equally. For those who come to this debate from the conservative tradition, I want to say that marriage equality should be seen as a victory for this ancient institution. Who would have thought we would see the day when the Socialist Alliance and Lee Rhiannon would be marching on the streets for marriage? It will grow stronger and more popular as more have the opportunity to join its ranks. I know there are some who have typified this debate as fundamentally altering an institution which has been immutable since ancient times. This has certainly been the tenor of the correspondence of some of those who have emailed and written to me arguing against marriage equality. Yet the reality is that, like all strong and continuing institutions, marriage has changed and adapted over the centuries. It is simply wrong to say that marriage is the same today as it was 50 years, 100 years or even longer ago.
My friend Paul Ritchie chartered some of those changes in his outstanding book, Faith, Love and Australia: The Conservative Case for Same-Sex Marriage. In its long history, the concept that marriage is about two people who come together through love is a relatively new one. Paul Ritchie quoted in his book the significant 18th century jurist, Lord Blackstone, who said of marriage, 'By marriage, husband and wife are one person in law', and that person is the husband. That does not sound like a concept of marriage which would resonate in Australia today, thankfully. And for so long, interfaith and interracial marriages were regarded as taboo, often with the enforcement of the law, as Aboriginal Australians experienced in parts of our own nation as late as the mid-20th century.
No institution survives and flourishes without change, but the irony of this debate is that gay and lesbian Australians don't actually want to change marriage; they simply want to be allowed to join it. They want to marry to partake in the same benefits and happiness that other Australians enjoy and which the advocates of marriage so rightly extol.
During the course of the last 18 months, I've received some beautiful letters and emails from couples longing to marry and I want to quote one of those today, which to me summarises why gay and lesbian Australians have been fighting so hard for this week to come. The email came from a Western Australian who I do not personally know. He wrote:
We have been together for seven years. I am truly blessed to have him in my life. We are more in love today than ever before.
He is a saint in my eyes—he completes me and he makes me a better person. He is my rock, my best friend, my wisest counsel and my confidant.
So thank you for fighting for us to be recognised as being as good as anyone else, and thank you for fighting to affirm that our love—our great great love affair—is as valuable and worthy of being cherished and affirmed like anyone else's.
It is this love, this commitment and this union of minds that so many parents, brothers and sisters, friends, relatives and work colleagues see in the lives of gay people they know which led them to vote yes for marriage equality in such overwhelming numbers. This bill will deliver the marriage equality Australians voted for when they gave the parliament not just a mandate greater than any government has received in our nation's history, but, in effect, a direction to get it done. It has its genesis in the unanimous cross-party findings of the Senate select committee, and the bill was released by Senator Smith, the members for Leichhardt, Goldstone and Brisbane and I in August.
Importantly, the bill protects those religious freedoms we hold dear and which properly relate to the functions of the Marriage Act. This has been a key consideration for us, and in this bill we protect the rights of religious organisations and their ministers. We ensure that religious bodies may refuse to make facilities available or to provide goods and services for marriages that do not conform with their own religious beliefs and we offer similar protections to existing celebrants who choose to register as religious marriage celebrants. These will sit alongside existing Commonwealth laws which make clear that our schools can hire and teach according to their own religious values and that no person can be discriminated against in the workplace because of their religious beliefs.
Not one clause or one word of this bill will change the existing rights of any Australian in relation to their religious freedoms. And nowhere does this bill seek to restrict the right of any Australian or organisation to hold beliefs or present the case for a traditional marriage. This bill restricts itself to issues relating to marriage, not an unreasonable proposition for a bill that actually seeks to amend the Marriage Act.
But I know that many have argued the need for a broader discussion about religious freedoms in Australia and this is a call that I support. I welcome the Prime Minister's decision to bring together an expert panel led by our esteemed former Attorney-General Philip Ruddock to consider and report on these issues. Its deliberations will allow us to determine whether broader reforms are needed. The Marriage Act is not the legislation for achieving that goal, it's not the place for a partial bill of rights, it's not the place for the Commonwealth to assert new legislative powers over the states in relation to our schools and it's certainly not the place to respond to Australia's vote for a greater equality by winding back existing antidiscrimination laws. We have a good bill, now endorsed by the Senate, and I hope that this chamber will lend it its support.
In the coming week, we will bring to a close an issue which has been discussed in the Australian community for over a decade. We would not be able to do so without the leadership provided by many in this parliament, on both sides of the House, and in the broader community. In this chamber I want to acknowledge particularly the member for Leichardt, whose tenacity and leadership have just been extraordinary. Who would have thought a crocodile farmer from Far North Queensland would become a gay icon, although he does occasionally look like a member of the Village People!
I also recognise the members for Goldstein and Brisbane. As new members in this place, the last 12 months have, on occasion, taken their toll and tested our mettle. I don't think we have been found wanting in standing by our convictions.
To my friend in the Senate, Dean Smith, your determination and very senatorial attention to detail and process have brought us here today. We've known each other for 25 years, and it's fair to say that, when we first knew each other, there wasn't much love, because of the divide in the Young Liberals, but I'm glad that is no longer the case. I thank the Prime Minister and members of his cabinet for providing a pathway where none seemed possible. I thank the thousands of Liberal Party members and supporters who joined together under the banner of Libs and Nats for Yes, led so ably by Andrew Bragg and Luke Barnes and supported so eloquently by many others. I particularly acknowledge Christine Forster in this regard for her powerful advocacy, and I'm so pleased that she and Virginia will no longer require the British consulate for their own wedding early next year.
Outside this place I record my appreciation for the work of the Equality Campaign and people like Alex Greenwich; Tom Snow; Anna Brown; the mum from Mosman, Janine Middleton; and of course the face and voice of the 'yes' campaign, Tiernan Brady. How could anyone say no to that Irish lilt? I also acknowledge my own community in North Sydney, 72 per cent of whom voted yes. Almost every conversation I had with members of the community, both those voting yes and those voting no, was conducted respectfully and genuinely. I cannot describe how much it meant, during some of the darkest moments, when complete strangers would approach me and simply say, 'Good on you for standing up for what you believe.' Most importantly of all I thank Carlos, the man I love, for being the best example I could have as to why we all aspire to find the person who will unconditionally love us and be at our side.
Finally, I recognise the role of young Australians. The outcome of the postal survey was, more than anything else, a victory for the new generation of Australians who have grown up beside gay and lesbian friends or family members, who know their dreams and ordeals are no different to their own and who wondered why marriage equality should even be an issue at all. They enrolled to vote like never before, they formed the core of the campaign teams that fanned out across the nation, and they convinced so many of their parents and grandparents that it was time for change. At shopping centres and at train stations I saw their excitement and enthusiasm at the thought that they could make history and change Australia for the better. I say to them: 'You have done just that.'
Those young Australians, along with yes voters of all ages, have helped ensure that every loving relationship is valued and treated equally. They have sent the message that our community embraces each of its citizens, no matter what their sexuality. Too many Australians have lived a life of denial and too many of us have experienced that great debilitating shadow that comes from the fear of discovery or rejection. Many still do today, but Australians, through their vote, have helped bring about change. They have said every Australian should be able to be simply who they are. For that, I thank them. I commend the bill to the House.
I'm delighted to be here finally debating a marriage equality bill that has a chance of passing the Australian parliament. I'm even more delighted to be doing so in a week when we hope that we will be voting on the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017. I'm particularly delighted, because I have spent so much time working with the LBGTI community, both publicly and within the Labor Party, for marriage equality to be made a reality. The commitment that Labor has to marriage equality was demonstrated very well by the fact that Bill Shorten, the Leader of the Opposition, took to the 2016 federal election a commitment to legislate for marriage equality in the first 100 days of a Shorten Labor government in the event that we were elected. It's a shame that we as a parliament have taken so long to get to a point where we're even allowed to have a vote on marriage equality. Were it not for the work of Labor over many years, including the work of the member for Whitlam, Senator Louise Pratt, Senator Penny Wong and the members for Sydney and Maribyrnong, it's absolutely the case that we wouldn't be in a position to pass a marriage equality bill through this parliament. It is because of the work of Labor over many years that we now have a situation where it can be passed through the parliament.
In the midst our delight, gratitude and relief for the imminent passage of marriage equality, I think it is important to recognise that there's also distress. Harm has been caused not just by the fact that there has been so much delay in relation to marriage equality and not just by the fact that we have had a situation where we weren't even allowed to have a vote in the House of Representatives until now. It is the fifth year of this Liberal government. That is how long it has taken for us to even be allowed to vote on a bill to have a free vote on marriage equality. But it's not just about that delay; new and creative processes for delay were created—like the plebiscite, which was defeated, and then the postal survey, which couldn't be defeated because it was a creature of administrative government. It's not just those things; it's the hurt that was felt during that postal survey. I don't want to gloss over it. I've had enough of hearing from people about the hurt that they felt when their kids came home from school and talked about what had been said to them about whether their family was normal.
I heard from the Victorian AIDS Council about middle aged men who were feeling like they were being judged. I went to the candlelight vigil for World AIDS Day on Friday night in Brisbane. As I looked around me at the men in their 60s and 70s, and women, from the LGBTI community, it was impossible not to think about how the shame and stigma of the 1980s was being brought up for them again in this situation where we had a national opinion poll about their relationships, their families, their identities. In speaking on this bill, predominantly I want to celebrate it. But I can't brush past that, and nor should anyone else.
Every member of this House would have received information from the mental health group ReachOut, who said that they'd had a 40 per cent spike in demand for their mental health services from LGBTI people through the survey process. And they were particularly concerned about that because LGBTI people who use their service were shown by research to be 40 per cent more likely to be at risk of suicide. These are not minor issues. They're issues that should be acknowledged. I think it is important to say to my LGBTI friends who are in the gallery, or listening somewhere else, that I acknowledge the price that you have been asked to pay to have the same right to marry as everyone else. It's been a high price. But, as I said, I predominantly want to celebrate the fact that we look like we're on the cusp of achieving marriage equality in this country.
So many people have talked about the personal stories they've heard—whether it's from close friends, family members or complete strangers. As I said, I was at the World AIDS Day vigil on Friday night, and I ran into my friend Phil Carswell. I won't say his age because that would not be polite. He is now planning a wedding—between bouts of dialysis. I had a party on the weekend. Some friends of mine, John and John, came along—again, I won't say their ages but they're very distinguished gentlemen. And I thought: how long they have had to wait just for this acceptance of their relationship, this acknowledgement that their relationship is not any more or less equal than anyone else's.
We've heard the personal stories from our friends, from our families and from complete strangers. Those people deserve to know that this parliament will rectify the discrimination that is presently entrenched against them in our marriage laws. I want to congratulate everyone in this parliament who is doing that. To those who do not support this change in our marriage laws: I of course respect your right to disagree but I don't accept as legitimate those who sought to create fear in relation to marriage equality, those who sought to make us fear this change. If you are afraid of what the consequences might be—as much of my incoming correspondence from people who voted 'no' in this survey would suggest—I hope you will take heart not from me as a Labor Party member but from the compelling conservative case that has been made for marriage equality by many people. For example, it has been made in Cameron's Britain but also by my friend Senator Smith, who is a deeply conservative, genuine Liberal in the Senate. He has made a strong, conservative and compelling case for marriage equality. I think my politics could not be more different to Senator Smith's. I hope that those who voted no in good faith will take heart from the conservative case that has been made in respect of marriage equality.
I also want to acknowledge that this is not the bill that I would have wanted had I been able to wave a magic wand and change the law myself. I know it's got concessions in it, and they are significant concessions. I know that this bill creates a new class of religious marriage celebrant and that the bill grandfathers existing civil celebrants so that they can move into that class within a short period so that they can continue to discriminate if they wish to do so. I acknowledge that that is the creation of a new right to discriminate. That is an additional carve-out from our anti-discrimination legislation, above and beyond the existing carve-outs that already exist in anti-discrimination law.
I acknowledge also that this bill creates rights for others based on religious belief. Of course I acknowledge that it is hurtful that we will have a form of service provider who's entitled to discriminate against you because you're in a same-sex couple. I know it's a significant concession, and I hope that those who feel hurt by the concession will agree with us that this is an acceptable compromise—not the bill that we necessarily would have wanted but an acceptable compromise in the circumstances.
This bill will allow two people to marry. That's what it'll do. It won't detract from anyone's rights; it will increase people's rights. It will make us a more equal society. It will seek to remove discrimination to a large extent. It's something that should be celebrated. It's a bill that I think Senator Smith can, rightly, be very proud of. I acknowledge his colleagues who have worked so hard for it: the member for Goldstein—and congratulations on your engagement—the member for Brisbane; the member for North Sydney; the former member for Brisbane, Teresa Gambaro; and, of course, my very good friend the member for Leichhardt, who has done an excellent job, and it's a wonderful thing to see you back here today in the chamber.
Mr Snowdon interjecting—
It is—it's wonderful.
I also want to acknowledge the strong leadership that's been shown over many years on the Labor side of this House by the Leader of the Opposition; the Deputy Leader of the Opposition; the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate, who has borne a much more personal and heavy burden than anyone else with her leadership role; and the Shadow Attorney-General, who has undertaken a great deal of detailed technical work in respect of this bill and previous bills. Like many other speakers, I want to thank Rainbow Labor, including my friend Sean Leader from Queensland, who worked for so long to change our platform. I remember, just over six years ago, our national conference, where Sean, despite having some terrible things going at home with family members' health, still made it all the way to the conference, went to Sydney and argued for us to change our platform. It's because of the work of people like him, hundreds of rank and file members of the Labor Party, and the leadership of members of parliament that the platform was duly changed.
I want to thank my colleagues on the parliamentary 'yes committee'—there's a committee for you: Senator Louise Pratt, the member for Bruce and Senator Sam Dastyari. I also want to thank Penny Sharpe MLC, who did so much work coordinating volunteers to go and observe the postal survey process—an important part—but also for her leadership over many years in relation to marriage equality. I want to thank just.equal. I see that Rodney Croome is here. I'm not sure whether Ivan Hinton-Teoh has made it, but they have been excellent advocates. Shelley Argent from PFLAG is here—someone who has worked so hard over decades for marriage equality. I want to thank Sally Rugg from GetUp!, who is here—she has made it in. Sally has worked incredibly hard over a very long period of time. I also acknowledge A4E and AME, and all the people who have already been acknowledged who are in gallery. I feel like I could recite Tiernan Brady's stump speech to you, I've heard it that many times—but I couldn't do the accent!
But also I thank Shirleene Robinson, who is not here, and my local Queenslanders from AME and A4E; Pete Black; Nita Green, who ran such a hard and strong campaign; and, of course, Brisbane Pride and Deeje Hancock; and all of the local LGBTI campaigners and their families and friends, who just made thousands and thousands of telephone calls and who doorknocked, went to public events and held public events. I had amazing groups in my electorate, like the Bulimba marriage equality group who would be out on the roundabout with amazing colourful signs. It was really something special. I also want to thank Rainbow Families, and all parents who sought to protect their kids from being hurt when the nation was asked to pass judgement on their lives. I want to thank mental health organisations like drummond street, Qlife and Switchboard—excellent LGBTI-led organisations of the community that helped people through the difficult process—and, of course, mainstream organisations like Orygen, ReachOut and headspace. I thank The LGBTI Legal Service in Queensland, which bore a lot of the brunt of receiving information about some of the worst aspects of the public campaigning against a marriage equality 'yes' vote. And I particularly want to thank—and it's important that I do so—the assistant national secretary of the Australian Labor Party, Paul Erickson, and his team in our national secretariat.
Of course it was a very broad campaign, and people from across different parties were brought together to work together. I acknowledge the work of Andrew Bragg and Luke Barnes and Liberals and Nationals for Yes.
But when you want a massive grassroots campaign, you want the ALP national secretariat and the labour movement of this country behind you. And between Paul Erickson and his team and the work of all of those labour movement campaigners, they really mobilised a lot of people to make phone calls and knock on doors and produce materials; they really got a lot of grassroots campaigning done. If it had not been for all of those people, I think that we would not necessarily have seen the result that we did see.
So thank you to everyone: to everyone who has campaigned, and I mean not just in the survey but for years; to everyone who has worked; to everyone who has taken really annoying phone calls from me, demanding answers at short notice—Anna Brown is smiling at me! And thank you to everyone who has stood up and fought for a fairer nation, a nation with less discrimination and with greater access to human rights, and to everyone who has not necessarily been part of an organised campaign or up the front but who has stood up for marriage equality on every possible occasion. Thank you very much. You've done your nation proud. And there will be many, many weddings that you'll be attending in the near future, so I hope you've got a lot of money for gifts organised! Thanks very much. I commend the bill.
It's time for us to get on with it. The Australian people have said yes to marriage equality, yes to fairness, yes to commitment, yes to love. The time has now come to make that equality a reality.
This is momentous social reform, and the road to this day has been long and arduous. It is littered with injustice dealt out to men and women who dared to confess their love. Not so long ago, homosexuality was a crime in this country. Slowly—too slowly—parliaments and the people have changed their attitudes to gay men and women and extended basic rights. Homosexuality was decriminalised. Gay Australians were allowed to serve in the military. It was 47 years ago that Lucy's father, Attorney-General Tom Hughes, created a scandal which saw his preselection challenged in Berowra when he argued that homosexual acts should no longer be crimes. How times have changed.
Throughout my time in public life, whether in government or in opposition, I have sought to ensure that same-sex couples are not discriminated against and that their entitlements, be they in respect of medical benefits, taxation, superannuation or employment, are no different to those accorded to heterosexual couples. I remember in 2007 persuading John Howard's cabinet, on the eve of the election, that we should give partners in same-sex relationships rights to Commonwealth and Defence superannuation—the same rights as those in heterosexual relationships. I remember the Department of Finance had a few reservations, but they were purely financial. Then, in 2008, the HREOC reforms effectively eliminated all legal discrimination, at least at the federal level, but the issue of marriage remained.
The message today to every gay person in this nation is clear: we love you and we respect you. Your relationship is recognised by the Commonwealth as being as legitimate and honourable as anyone else's. You belong. I'm the first Prime Minister of Australia to be unequivocally and consistently in support of legalising same-sex marriage. It will be forever to the credit of the coalition that this momentous social change occurred with the overwhelming mandate of the Australian people under a coalition government.
I am very firmly of the view that families are the foundation of our society, and we would be a stronger society if more people were married—and by that I mean formally, legally married—and fewer were divorced. If consulted by friends about marital dramas, I always encourage the singles to marry, the married to stick together, the neglectful and wayward to renew their loving commitment and the wronged to forgive. I have to say that I'm utterly unpersuaded by the proposition that my marriage to Lucy or indeed any marriage is undermined by two gay men or women setting up house down the road, whether it is called a marriage or not.
Let's be honest with each other: the threat to traditional marriage is not from gay people; it is from a lack of loving commitment, whether it is found in the form of neglect, indifference, cruelty or adultery—to name just a few manifestations of that loveless desert in which too many marriages come to grief. If the threat to marriage today is lack of commitment, then surely other couples making and maintaining that commitment set a good example rather than a bad one. Are not gay people who seek the right to marry, to formalise their commitment to each other, holding up a mirror to heterosexuals who—regrettably, in my view at least—are marrying less frequently and divorcing more often? Commitment, loyalty, responsibility.
John Howard was most definitely not thinking of gay couples when he said in 1995 that 'a stable, functioning family provides the best welfare support system yet devised'. But the point is well made. Co-dependency is a good thing. If we believe two gay people are better off together than living alone comforted only by their respective cats, then why should we deprive that relationship of equal recognition? And, for those who see this as an ideological issue, recall British Prime Minister David Cameron, as he spoke for marriage equality six years ago:
And to anyone who has reservations, I say: Yes, it's about equality, but it's also about something else: commitment. Conservatives believe in the ties that bind us; that society is stronger when we make vows to each other and support each other. So I don't support gay marriage despite being a Conservative. I support gay marriage because I'm a Conservative.
As I said at the start of the marriage survey, this is an issue of fundamental fairness. A society which promotes freedom and equality under the law should accord gay men and women the right to marry. We now recognise same-sex couples in every other aspect of the law—financial, medical, adoption—but we have not yet given them the right to call their relationship a marriage. This distinction will end with the passage of this bill. And, of course, it ends with the emphatic endorsement of an enormous majority of Australians.
The postal survey was one of the most remarkable political events in my lifetime, and I believe in the lifetime of many Australians. It was a voluntary postal vote for an allegedly apathetic nation, where anyone under 40 apparently did not know what a letterbox was, let alone where it could be found. And of course it had no prospects in the High Court either. Well, we won seven-nil there, Mr Speaker. My prediction rate for High Court cases is down to fifty-fifty, so I don't want to lower the average any more, but we did very well there. All of those assumptions were shot to ribbons. The survey was brilliantly designed, managed and executed, and great credit is due to the ABS, to the AEC and of course to Senator Cormann, who was the Acting Special Minister of State. But, above all, the credit is due to the Australian people, 80 per cent of whom cast a vote. That was remarkable. Nobody predicted that or expected that. In a general election, where we actually fine you if you don't vote, the participation rate is only a little bit above 90 per cent. This was a remarkable turnout and it proved what we always said: that Australians wanted to have their say.
The survey had many opponents, most notably on the other side of this chamber. In fact, this moment would have come far sooner if the opposition had supported our original plebiscite proposal in this parliament. It was an exercise both in good planning and execution, and also in legal ingenuity, to find a way to deliver on our election promise to give everyone their say and do so without legislation, which of course the Senate had denied us.
So we delivered on our promise. We promised the Australian people their say. We said, 'If you say yes, then we will have a free vote in the parliament,' and that is precisely what we are delivering. It is, I must say, a matter of great regret that the Labor Party is denying its members a free vote on the amendments, both in the Senate and in this House.
The best thing about the result has been the tremendous affirmation of same-sex couples—indeed all gay Australians—in the result. In voting yes, Australians have thrown their arms around fellow Australians who are gay and said clearly, 'We accept you. We accept your relationship.' I hope that in that positive affirmation, the most positive you could have in a democracy, same-sex couples take comfort in the acceptance and the love of their fellow Australians.
There were many who voted against change, but I know that they will accept and respect the democratic outcome of the process. They voted no for many different reasons. Some believe homosexuality itself is sinful. Others simply wanted to keep the legal definition of marriage as it has been for thousands of years. I respect the vote of every Australian, both 'yes' and 'no'—we made sure they could be heard—and I recognise the fundamental importance of ensuring that freedom of religion and speech are protected. The bill has been designed, as Senator Smith said in the Senate when he moved it, to ensure religious freedom is protected. I do not believe that the bill threatens our cherished religious freedoms—there is nothing in the bill, for example, which prevents anyone from maintaining or adhering to the teaching of their church on marriage or morality—but we must not fail to recognise that there is sincere, heartfelt anxiety about the bill's impact on religious freedom. That is why I will support several amendments to the bill which will provide that additional reassurance in respect of these fundamental rights and freedoms.
This is a historic moment of inclusion, of recognition, of respect. It has been talked about for many years. Previous governments have failed to take it on. The Labor Party did nothing about it for six years in power. But now with this strong message from the Australian people, which my government enabled, the way is clear. We are united in our diversity. Our values of mutual respect have made Australia the most harmonious and the most successful multicultural society on the planet. Australians have shown by the enormous turnout that they're deeply engaged with this issue. They voted overwhelmingly for a country built on equality, where the law does not discriminate against you on the basis of your sexual orientation any more than on the basis of your race, religion or gender.
Today is a day of which every Australian should be proud, proud that we can conduct and did conduct—despite all the naysayers—a very civil debate and proud that, given the opportunity to vote, far from being apathetic as the naysayers predicted, we participated in such enormous numbers. This is a day to be especially proud that all of our friends, our colleagues, our neighbours, our brothers and our sisters can marry the people they love. For those who voted no and remain disappointed with the result, it is a day to be proud that your voices were heard and that you have a government that ensured your voices were heard, as you wanted. They were counted and, ultimately, as you acknowledged, the majority was decisive. The postal survey gave the ultimate democratic seal to this historic change.
I commend all the men and women who fought for decades to bring this reform about—so many of them, indeed, in my electorate of Wentworth. This is a cause I understand and have been close to for many years. It is a long list, but surely in this place at the head of the line of advocates stands perhaps the most unlikely but in many ways the most patiently persistent: the member for Leichhardt, Warren Entsch. Most of all, I say to same-sex couples in Australia: you are equal, you are respected, you are loved. I commend the bill to the House.
I also wish to make a contribution on the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017. When same-sex marriage was last debated in this place, in 2012, as the result of a private member's bill, I opposed the measure in support of retaining the traditional definition of marriage. From the outset, I should declare that I am a Catholic. I grew up in a religious household, which probably accounts for some measure of my social conservativism. I also felt it was better for children to grow up with a mother and father. However, as a longstanding member of parliament, I'm only too familiar with the levels of domestic violence, child abuse and neglect that are occurring in some of our nuclear families. I've certainly refined my views in this regard and now believe that children simply need unconditional love, care and support from parents, and to live in a safe environment.
Having said that, I consider the situation before the House today markedly different to when we last debated same-sex marriage in 2012. Given the efforts to establish a national consensus and now having the result of the nationwide survey, the question of same-sex marriage has effectively been taken out of the hands of parliamentarians. Therefore, as I see it, our obligation is to bring about the legislative measures necessary to give effect to the expressed will of the Australian people.
The simple fact is that the Australian people overwhelmingly decided in favour of marriage equality. Prior to the national survey I publicly stated that, despite my personal views in favour of the retention of the traditional definition of marriage, should the nationwide survey on same-sex marriage result in a 'yes' vote I would not frustrate or delay the passage of the legislation to give effect to the nation's decision. The same-sex marriage survey was commissioned as a national exercise to produce a national result. Now, while I voted no—as, I hasten to add, did the majority of my electorate—I believe it would be hypocritical and disingenuous to have participated in that democratic process and then not accept the outcome.
For me, the debate is no longer about whether the definition of marriage should be amended to allow same-sex marriage but rather the manner now in which we should move forward. We must ensure that the issue of same-sex marriage is dealt with effectively, whilst making provisions for appropriate safeguards. In saying that, I find the title of this bill a little misleading—particularly its reference to religious freedom. From my reading, that's certainly not the purpose or the actual design of the amendment to the federal Marriage Act. It is appropriate that we have a respectful discussion, first to identify the religious freedoms that may be impacted by the introduction of same-sex marriage and then to determine the level of protection required in the context of Australia's legal framework.
Echoing some common ground in this regard, Anna Brown, the Director of Legal Advocacy of the Human Rights Law Centre, and more recently spokeswoman for the Equality Campaign, indicated that she believed religious freedom should be protected in law. A similar view was also expressed by the United Nations Human Rights Committee, who, in their concluding observations on Australia, expressed concern about the lack of direct protection against discrimination on the basis of religion at a federal level.
I appreciate the fears held by various religious institutions that enacting same-sex marriage could impact on religious freedoms, particularly in respect of the teaching of doctrine and the functioning of various faith based organisations, including schools and aged care and those responsible for the provision of welfare. While the issue of same-sex marriage has placed a particular focus on religious liberty, we should be clear that this legislation before us is but one area of federal law that could impinge on religious freedom. Nevertheless, I regard these as legitimate concerns and matters that need to be addressed in order that our laws do not unintentionally act to violate one's genuinely held beliefs.
Unlike the United States, the United Kingdom, New Zealand and Canada, which have already recognised same-sex marriage, we do not have a bill of rights, which in those countries accords a measure of protection to the rights of freedom of belief, freedom of conscience and freedom of religion. Now, I'm certainly not advocating for a bill of rights, but I do consider it far from ideal that religious freedom in this country is solely protected by exemptions and exceptions in various state and federal antidiscrimination laws.
I note that freedom of religion is specifically provided for in article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The covenant is an international legal instrument to which Australia is a signatory and effectively defines many of those rights and privileges that reflect our democratic values. However, to date, we have not attempted to introduce the tenets of article 18 into Australia's domestic law. I do think this is an area that warrants some further consideration.
Nevertheless, it's important that any legislative protection for religious freedom only places limitations that are reasonable, necessary and proportionate. I'm convinced it would not be prudent to attempt to address the complex matters of religious freedom solely in the context of this bill, other than addressing those matters directly relating to the actual performance of marriage ceremonies. This bill should not be a legislative attempt to cover the field or an opportunity to use religious freedom as a means to frustrate the passage of this legislation. Father Frank Brennan, the CEO of Catholic Social Services and a prominent human rights lawyer, alluded to this when he said:
The Marriage Act amendments need to include adequate protection for freedom of religion in the conduct of marriage ceremonies. Other issues of religious freedom should be dealt with by the tweaking of existing legislation …
However, he did go on to say that we may need to specifically address issues of religious freedom in federal legislation and possibly reflect the protections that currently exist in both Victorian and ACT legislation.
I believe we will need to address the shortfalls in Australia's legal architecture to provide specific protection for religious freedom. However, this is a complex area requiring detailed consideration, and therefore I'm pleased with the establishment of the expert panel led by Philip Ruddock to examine the human right to religious freedom and to do that exercise independent of the marriage amendment bill. I would expect that those with a genuine interest in religious freedom, and not simply as a means to frustrate the passage of legislation, will engage with the expert panel during their deliberation. I note that the expert panel are required to report back on 31 March next year. Therefore, I think the responsible course is to await their recommendations before attempting to legislatively address the issue of religious freedom.
If we are to respect the will of the Australian people, I believe it is important that we separate the complex questions of religious freedom from the issue of marriage equality. Fiona McLeod, the President of the Law Council of Australia, emphasised this point when she said:
Australians were not asked to vote on the complex intersection between religious freedom and anti-discrimination protection, so it is appropriate that any major changes are not bundled with amendments to the … Bill.
Nevertheless, I remain committed to working positively with the Ambrose Centre for Religious Liberty and those who hold a genuine interest in protecting religious freedom in this country. However, for the reasons that I have outlined, I support the passage of this bill, confident that it reflects the views of the overwhelming majority of Australians.
The debate regarding same-sex marriage in Australia has been settled. Australians were rightly given an opportunity by this government to have their say. They have spoken, and it's time to get on with it. As one of the principal proponents of the original plebiscite, I wanted to ensure that, whatever the outcome was, the country would reconcile itself to it. I was among the 39 per cent who voted for the traditional view of marriage to be maintained. As a nation, we must now move forward in grace and in love, as my Christian faith teaches us. I will respect the democratic outcome of this Australian marriage survey, both nationally and in my own electorate, by not standing in the way of this bill. However, with the closure of one debate, a new debate does commence. This debate is not that new. It's not about opposing same-sex marriage at all or delaying the passage of this bill. It is about simply protecting religious freedoms in this country.
There are almost five million Australians who voted no in this survey who are now coming to terms with the fact that they are in the minority. That did not used to be the case in this country for most, if not all, of their lives. They have concerns that their broader views and beliefs are also now in the minority and therefore under threat. They are seeking assurances from this House and this parliament at this time—whether one agrees or disagrees and whether rightly or wrongly—that the things they hold dear are not under threat because of this change.
On the night of the first referendum to establish our Federation, in June 1898, Alfred Deakin prayed:
Thy blessing has rested upon us here yesterday and we pray that it may be the means of creating and fostering throughout all Australia a Christlike citizenship.
In an earlier speech campaigning for the Federation in Bendigo, quoting a local poet, he defined the true goal of Federation as being for us to 'arise united, penitent, and be one people, mighty, serving God'. Our Constitution went on to proclaim:
… the people of New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia, Queensland and Tasmania, humbling relying on the blessing of Almighty God, have agreed to unite in one indissoluble Federal Commonwealth … with the advice and consent of the Lords Spiritual and Temporal …
And, at section 116, our Constitution deliberately afforded the protection that 'the Commonwealth shall not make any law for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion'.
This is the religious inheritance of our Federation—our Constitution, from more than a century ago. If we ever act in dissonance with these founding principles, I believe it will be to our nation's great peril. This is not to say that Australia is a nation with an established state religion. Thankfully, it is not. We are, thankfully, free of such a restriction on our liberty. Such freedom should not be used, though, as a weapon against the importance of faith, belief and religion in our society or as a justification to drive faith and religion from our public square. At the same time, protection of religious freedoms cannot be used as a cloak for religious extremism that undermines our very freedoms.
We may be a secular state but we are not a godless people to whom faith, belief and religion are not important. Quite the contrary: it is deeply central to the lives of millions of Australians. In my own church, we refer to Australia as 'the great south land of the Holy Spirit'. Whether you raise your hands, bow to your knees, face the Holy City, light incense, light a candle or light the menorah, faith matters in this country—and we cannot allow its grace and peace to be diminished, muffled or again driven from the public square. Separation of church and state does not mean the inoculation of the influence of faith on the state. The state shouldn't run the church and the church shouldn't run the state. In fact, the separation of church and state was set up to protect the church from the state—not the other way around—to protect religious freedoms.
As I argued in my maiden speech in this place 10 years ago, secularism, secular humanism, is no more our established state religion than any other. It is one of the many free views held by Australians. It holds no special place of authority in our Commonwealth or in this place. For millions of Australians, faith is the unshakeable cornerstone of their lives. It informs their identity and provides a genuine sense of wellbeing. It is the reason why people can look beyond their own circumstances and see a greater purpose. For countless Australians, faith is life.
In my maiden speech I spoke of the two influences on my life—my faith and my family—and how my faith in Jesus Christ was inherently personal, not political. As Christians we do not lay claim to perfection or moral precedence; in fact it is the opposite: conscious of our own frailties and vanities, of our human condition, Christians should be more conscious of the same in those around us. That is why faith encourages social responsibility, the bedrock of faith in action. I quoted Abraham Lincoln in that speech, stating that our task is not to claim whether God is on our side, but to pray earnestly that we are on his. I pointed to my two heroes of faith, William Wilberforce and Desmond Tutu, the latter of whom supports same-sex marriage, men of courage and conviction who fought valiantly against the prevalent evils that had become a stain on society and who delivered immeasurable social gains: freedom from slavery, the unravelling of apartheid and the coming together of a deeply divided nation. Countless lives were saved or improved, because two men were compelled to act by their faith. As a guide and an empowerment, faith can change nations and the course of history.
In the formative stages of the Free Mandela campaign, Bishop Tutu told the BBC that Mandela would be Prime Minister within five to 10 years. The reporter mocked this pronouncement as hopelessly optimistic. His response highlighted the anchor on which his faith was based:
Brother, the Christian faith is hopelessly optimistic because it's based on the faith of a guy who died on a Friday and everybody said it was utterly and completely hopeless–ignominious defeat. And Sunday He rose.
The fragrance of faith has washed over our society for centuries and helped to shape and mould it for the better. Our own nation was founded, built, and undeniably shaped by Christian values, morals and traditions that helped to unite a fledgling country—a nation blessed by and formed on Christian conviction. These issues of faith are gifted to us not only by our Federation fathers but also by the many generations of Australians who have come to us since, including those from non-Christian faiths and experiences, who share the deep-seated conviction and positive influence of faith in their lives.
A few years ago I had the honour of visiting Lebanon for the ordination of our Maronite bishop in Australia, Antoine Tarabay. There, in the striking Maronite patriarchate above the bay of Jounieh, this generous and kind-hearted Sydney bishop committed himself to the sacrifice of ministry as the leader of his Australian flock. It was a deeply moving experience, in surreal surroundings, that resonated within me the importance of a life lived in the pursuit of God and the service of others. But it was the tour later, with my dear friend, Joseph Assaf, of the Holy Valley and the ancient villages in the north of the country, such as Hardine, Bsharri, Ehden, Hasroun, Kousba and concluding in Tannourine, the bishop's home village, where we had the final service to commemorate his ordination—a very special time—that truly reinforced to me once again the potency, persistence and importance of faith in society and our individual lives. These villages had been ravaged for centuries by one bitter war after the next, a constant cycle of upheaval, violence and heartache, but there was one thing that could never be stripped away through the millennia of struggles, one thing that sustained these stoic communities. It wasn't the governments that came and went with the wind and it wasn't the leaders that so promised peace; it was their faith, a faith that routinely stared adversity in the face and prevailed, a faith that held families together. When everything else was a struggle, their faith stood strong.
Hundreds of thousands of Lebanese Maronite Australians brought that faith with them to Australia from as early as the 1860s, but so too did many Greek Orthodox migrants, Coptic Christians from Egypt still being persecuted to this day in their home country because of their faith, Syrian Christians from both Orthodox and Catholic faiths, Armenians, and many Chinese, Korean and Filipino Australians of Catholic, Baptist, Anglican, Presbyterian and Pentecostal faiths. Some brought their faith with them; some found their faith here in Australia. When most of the migrants came to Australia, it was not the government they turned to to assist them to adjust to their new life in Australia. It was their local church; it was their local parish priest; it was their imam; it was whoever in their faith community to whom they turned to support them and their family—it was their religious community.
If you want to understand the strong opposition in Western Sydney and elsewhere to changing the Marriage Act, you must understand the central nature of faith and community to the lives of these and so many other Australians. Nine out of ten of the electorates that voted no are indeed represented by members opposite. They comprise the vibrant faith communities I've just spoken of. I urge all members in this place, but particularly those opposite, to be freed up, to be released from any possible constraint that would enable them to stand with their constituents now in supporting amendments that deliver the protections of religious freedoms that are not currently present in this bill. To pretend this bill is whole and satisfies their concerns is to confirm a lack of understanding and empathy for those who hold them. These Australians are looking for acknowledgement and understanding from this parliament and their representatives. They are seeking assurance that changes being made to our marriage laws will not undermine the stability and freedom of their faith and religious expression, what they teach their children, what their children are taught in our schools, and the values they share and foster with their families and community and within and without the walls of their churches. This is a reasonable request that should be supported by members.
I commend the Prime Minister for initiating the Ruddock review into protecting religious freedoms. Few people understand these communities, and their concerns and the issues and the risks, as well as our former Attorney, the former Father of the House. But that process is not, nor was it designed to be, a substitute for sensible action now in passing amendments to this bill. To fail to make improvements to this bill now would demonstrate a failure to appreciate not only the underpinnings of our very liberal democracy and federation but the nature of modern multicultural Australia.
I commend my colleagues both in the Senate and in this House for standing firm on their convictions and beliefs, and I stand with them—both representing their faith and those in their communities that share those beliefs and values. I will be joining many of my colleagues in supporting amendments to be moved by the members for Deakin, Mitchell, Canning and Mallee, and I'll be joining them in moving amendments also to ensure that no organisation can have their public funding or charitable status threatened as a result of holding views that are consistent with the traditional definition of marriage between a man and a woman. The test of faith is the fruit that it produces. That is what Jesus taught in his parable of the fig tree. The fruit of faith based organisations has been extraordinary in this country: Mission Australia, Wesley Mission, Caritas, Angliss, Anglicare, BaptistCare, our religious schools, and the many Christian organisations involved in providing pastoral support under that excellent program. Their funding through grants and other programs and support through our tax system through deductible gift status must continue to be about what they achieve, not what they consider to be the definition of marriage, and nor should they be discriminated against for holding those views. We need to ensure these protections are put in place in this bill. It is now time to pass a truly inclusive bill, one that recognises the views of 100 per cent of Australians, not just 61 per cent. I urge the House to not miss that opportunity.
It gives me great pleasure to be participating in this debate on the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017 and to once more, as I will, vote for marriage equality in this country, as I did in September 2012, when this matter last came to be voted on in this chamber. I, along with 41 colleagues, supported a similar bill then and I assuredly will be voting for this bill today. I indicated well before the marriage survey was undertaken by the Australian Bureau of Statistics that I would be voting that way in this chamber, should we be given the opportunity. I have not changed my view and I will be voting for this legislation.
I want to make a few comments and I'll just, in short, express my disappointment at some of the ways in which the Prime Minister characterised this debate, as if it were somehow or another a creature of the government. It is not a creature of the government. It is a creature of the parliament. I think the Prime Minister and the way he expressed himself about this being a force from the coalition, effectively, was very ungracious. I don't think it properly accounted for the way in which this parliament is seeking to deal with this legislation.
I want to commend my mate sitting over there—gruff old bugger that he is, the member for Leichhardt—for steadfastly advocating for this position for many years against the forces within his own party. And it's not because of the party; it's because of him and others like him in his party and people across the parliament with similar views that we have this legislation. This is a cross-parliamentary piece of legislation. It does not reside with the government. So I say to the Prime Minister: think again about the way you're portraying this debate. It is not fair, it is not reasonable and it's unacceptable.
And I would say to those who have, as the member for Cook has just done, spoken to us about people of faith and how, in his description of people of faith, they need to be supported by seeking amendments to this legislation to ensure religious freedom: there are many people of faith in this parliament who oppose that view. I am one of them. I'm a Catholic. I was raised a Catholic. I still go to church—not as regularly as I perhaps should but often. And I accept the proposition that it's okay to have different views. I note the words that have been in the public domain by Frank Brennan, referred to earlier by the member for Fowler. It is possible to see this as an issue of equality, not faith. It is a matter of equality, not faith. It's a matter of recognising the rights of every single person to share the same rights as every other person regardless of whether they are straight or a member of the LGBTIQ community.
This has been a tortuous discussion which has taken many years to arrive at this point. And I was actually encouraged yesterday. I shouldn't do it as often as I do, really, but I was flicking through my emails yesterday and I noticed an email from the Anglican bishop for Wangaratta, in Victoria, the Right Reverend A John Parkes AM, who authored a letter co-signed by six other Anglican bishops from across Australia in which they pointed out why it was important for us to support this legislation. If you'll bear with me, I want to read just two paragraphs of this letter. It was addressed to the Prime Minister. 'Given the magnitude of this task in the wake of the marriage proposal survey result, we commend the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017 to the parliament for the following reasons. First, it has been available for many months, providing opportunity for scrutiny by all those concerned. Second, it responds directly to a detailed cross-party Senate report from February 2017. We observe that the Senate committee received extensive submissions from all stakeholders. Third, the bill has strong cross-party support. This is vitally important after a testing public debate. Fourth, the bill was passed by the Senate with an overwhelming majority.'
The next paragraph reads: 'The bill also confirms substantive benefits. It preserves the fabric of our antidiscrimination laws, which have been developed over half a century. These give expression to democratic values of equality and fairness. It also accords fulsome recognition of the religious rights and freedoms that underpin a democratic, plural and multicultural society.' Hear, hear! That is why, when it comes to proposing the motions to amend this legislation, I can't put it any better than those Anglican bishops. And that is why, when it comes to voting on amendments to this legislation, I'll be opposing those amendments and I encourage others with a similar view to do likewise. As those bishops have reminded us, this bill is about equality and fairness.
Another element of this is the survey. I'm on the record as being opposed to the survey from the get-go. I still think it was a very flawed process and I'll explain why in a moment. But the Prime Minister said, 'If we'd gone down the government's route of a proposed plebiscite, we would have had this all done and dusted.' Well, if the government had the guts to bring the legislation to the parliament straight after the last election and if we had done our job as we are paid to do, it would well and truly have been done and dusted without any plebiscite or public survey. We are paid to be here representing the people of this country, debating legislation every day. We don't send other pieces of legislation out as public surveys to find out what people think. We take it upon ourselves to accept the responsibility of having those debates in this parliament, expressing a view and then voting one way or the other—and that's what we should have done here.
Nevertheless, the survey was undertaken and, by all accounts, a large number of people participated—but, I have to say, not in my electorate. I made the point prior to this survey being carried out that there would be great difficulty in my electorate. Lingiari is 1.34 million square kilometres and covers all of the Northern Territory except Darwin and most of Palmerston. It includes a large number of Aboriginal communities. Not one of those communities in the bush has household mail delivery. Not one. Most have a mail collection centre. If they're lucky, they might actually get their mail at some point. That assumes, once they get it, that they can read it and understand what's in it. But, of course, we know that a very large number of Aboriginal people in my electorate have English as a second or third language and have a great deal of difficulty reading documents of the type that we would expect them to read in this sort of survey. It's no surprise that the participation rate in Lingiari was only 50.1 per cent.
We've heard a lot across the parliament about young Australians participating in this survey. In my own electorate, the participation rate of 20- to 24-year-olds was only 39.3 per cent. What does that tell you? Does it tell you that they were engaged? Of course not. Does it tell you that they understood what was happening? Of course not. Did they even know what was happening? Probably not. So I don't think this is a fair assessment of the views of my community. Those views might have contradicted my own, but that is not the point here. This survey was supposed to elicit responses from all Australians. We've heard about the high levels of the response rate nationally. But, when I pointed out these concerns well before the survey took place, I was just pooh-poohed—'No, that's not going to happen.' Well, we know what happened. We know that in some places there are allegations of people not understanding what the ballot papers were for and not understanding the nature of the debate. In some local communities, I understand from reports, surveys were burned due to a lack of understanding about what was being asked. We also know of one significant report—and I believe this happened—of one family member going to the postal receipt centre and, in front of the postal workers, filling out large numbers of forms for their family members without authorisation. I made those points at the time and I won't say much more about them, but this was not something which was useful to the people of my communities. Of course, there were a number of videos sent out by the bureau in 13 different languages in my electorate—well, there are about 100 different languages spoken in my electorate, so 13 videos are not going to help much. I am very concerned that this was a $122 million price that we needn't have paid in the first place, but, having done it, we've now got what I think is a very good result, considering that so many people have voted yes. I'm pleased that they have done so, and I know it accords with the majority view across this parliament.
I want to thank those many members of my communities who have engaged themselves in this debate. In particular, I thank one of my own staff for the work she did and what she and her partner had to put up with. There were very negative aspects to some of this campaigning. There was graffiti saying, 'Gay is not okay,' written on large signs along the Stuart Highway not far from my electorate office. This message hits rainbow families—the loving rainbow families who have young children—and vulnerable LGBTIQ people in our community hard. My electorate officer Kirsty Hunt and her partner of 18 years, Amber Sayers, needed to explain to their six-year-old daughter on the way to school that, in fact, it's okay to be gay. That was unnecessary. I also understand the absolute commitment and love that so many gay couples around this country have for one another that will now be recognised in law, as a result of this. It will allow them to do what every other Australian has got the right to do, should they choose to do it, and that's get married. By the way, I'm not married, but I've been in the same relationship for nearly 34 years and we've got four wonderful children. I've got the right to marry, but we've chosen not to. I want every Australian to have the right that I've got, and that is, if they so choose, to marry.
I extend my thanks to the 'yes' campaigners in Lingiari and in the small communities across the Territory, particularly Andrew Addie and Maya Newell in Alice Springs, Pat Honan in the Top End, the gay pride committee and the organisers of the inaugural Darwin gay pride march. I also want to thank two people who I know will see great virtue in, and celebrate, the day we pass this legislation: two Nhulunbuy women, Carley Scott and her partner, Pep Phelan. I've spoken to Carley, and I know how wonderfully important this is to her, as it is to so many people I know and people I have known over generations. They are wonderful people who have gay partners, who are members of the LGBTIQ community and who want to participate and have a loving relationship and be recognised in the law. They should be allowed to do so. This bill will do it. I commend it to the House.
I should begin by acknowledging the tireless efforts of the member for Leichhardt to bring about the change that we debate today. I should also note the passion and the commitment of the members for Brisbane, Goldstein and North Sydney and, indeed, of Senator Smith in the other place. I admire the commitment that they have brought to this long campaign and I accept that what they have fought for for so long should now come about.
Yet almost five million Australians voted no in the recent plebiscite and their voices should be heard in this chamber, and their views should also be respected. They are not bigots. They are simply people who are respectful of traditions handed down from time immemorial and slow to change them. It's no secret that I haven't been a supporter of same-sex marriage. I won't be opposing this bill, though, because I respect the verdict of the Australian people as expressed in the postal plebiscite.
When it comes to same-sex marriage, some countries have introduced it via the courts, some via the parliament, and others, Ireland and now Australia, by vote of the people—and that is the best way because it resolves this matter beyond doubt or quibble. To have a plebiscite was in fact an Abbott government decision. We opened the door to change but ensured that change would not lightly be made. I'm pleased that the plebiscite has been continued by the Turnbull government, and I'm also pleased that eventually all sides of this parliament participated fully in it.
There were strong views expressed in the course of the campaign. Some of those strong views were mine. I'm proud of my fellow 'no' campaigners because they gave marriage the good defence that it deserved, but I do congratulate the 'yes' campaign on their victory. There was a lot said beforehand about how divisive this debate would be, but, from where I stood, there was little rancour, no hysteria and no abuse. Certainly there was none from the 'no' campaign.
The overwhelming support for same-sex marriage that the plebiscite showed is a sign of the warm acceptance that Australians have for gay people. There may indeed be a few homophobic individuals lurking amongst us, but no-one should ever again claim that Australia is a bigoted or intolerant country. As the plebiscite abundantly demonstrated, we are as easygoing as any country on Earth, and, whatever your race, your creed, your gender or your sexuality, to be an Australian is well and truly to have won the lottery of life. And, if indeed same-sex marriage does turn out to mean that there are more stable and more lasting relationships in this country, gay as well as straight, then it will have strengthened our social fabric and become something that, once established, a conservative won't just accept but will actually support. So gay people, their parents, their siblings, their children, their wider families and their friends should savour this success, and again I congratulate the 'yes' campaign for its victory.
Now, I would like this to be a unifying moment for our country, and the best way to make this a unifying moment for our country would be to acknowledge the continuing concerns that many decent Australians have about freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, freedom of religion and parental rights. The best way to make this a unifying moment for our country would be to ensure that the antigay prejudice of the past is not replaced by a new politically correct bigotry. We certainly don't want new forms of division to replace old ones. And we did see, on the fringes of this recent campaign, some worrying signs of a new intolerance. There was the attempted prosecution of the Archbishop of Hobart for a booklet on the traditional Christian teaching. There was the sacking of a Canberra teenager for supporting marriage on her Facebook page, and there was the persecution of Coopers Brewery merely for hosting a Bible Society debate on the nature of marriage.
More thought should have been given prior to the plebiscite to protecting rights, and that's why I'll be moving the amendment that's been circulated, not to stop this bill but to assert the principle that people should never be discriminated against because of their conscientious views about the nature of marriage. That's why there should be further amendments in the committee stage to protect freedom of conscience, freedom of speech, freedom of religion and parental rights, and I'm pleased that the Prime Minister has indicated that he will support moves to better protect these rights. I hope these amendments will be supported, because surely these are rights and freedoms that all of us in this place believe in. And it should happen now, in the course of passing the same-sex marriage bill, because there should be no gaps in the protections of our fundamental freedoms. And I believe that the passage of the bill, as amended, will enable our country to go forward together, united in decency and in respect for the rights of all.
Now I certainly don't pretend to be an overnight convert supporting same-sex marriage, but I am pledged to respect and to facilitate the verdict of the Australian people. Same-sex marriage should now be recognised. It will now be recognised. There should be a clear distinction between marriage as understood by the church and marriage as recognised by the state. On that basis, I am looking forward to attending the marriage of my sister, Christine, to her partner, Virginia, sometime early in the new year. I move:
That all the words after "That" be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:
"whilst not declining to give the bill a second reading, the House notes that it is vital that individuals and entities are not disadvantaged nor suffer any adverse effects as a result of conscientiously holding a particular view of the nature of marriage".
I'm proud to stand in support of the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017 moved by the member for Leichhardt in this parliament today.
In June 1990, my courageous friend Paul O'Grady, a member of the New South Wales Legislative Council, came out as a gay man. He was most certainly not the first gay man elected to the New South Wales parliament, but it took until 1990 for someone to have the confidence to declare their sexuality openly. When I discussed this move with Paul, he said very clearly, 'I am who I am.' It was an act of courage that made it much easier for other people in the same circumstance as Paul to openly declare their sexuality. In 1993, three years later, he and his partner, Murray, were attacked and harassed on William Street. Paul O'Grady, a member of the Legislative Council, dialled triple 0. He tried to convince the person on the other end of the phone that he was being threatened by a gang of youths in what was known colloquially as 'poofter bashing', which occurred then and still occurs today. He was hung up on, a member of the Legislative Council.
When we talk about discrimination and the fear in society created by intolerance and hatred, it is important today to recognise the courage of those gay men and lesbian women over decades in which debate was far different to what it is today. People like Paul, I think, couldn't have imagined us having a debate in the parliament with such broad support for marriage equality across the political spectrum. So today I begin by paying tribute to people like Paul; to people like Craig Johnston, a Sydney city councillor; to people like Lex Watson, the academic; to people like Julie McCrossin; to all those people who marched in 1978 in the first Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. They marched not in a parade that was being cheered and shown on national television; they marched in a parade towards a confrontation with police, who locked them up, who assaulted them and who abused them.
Part of the reason that today is so important is that today, in supporting this legislation, we are saying that we are a tolerant nation, that we are a respectful nation and that we are a nation that is stronger because of our diversity. I think it is unfortunate that we will be one of the last advanced industrialised nations to recognise marriage equality when this legislation is passed. Nonetheless, catching up with the rest of the world is a good thing. I pay tribute to all those who did the hard yards—the really hard yards—to get us to this place.
In 1996, in my first speech in this chamber, I mentioned removing discrimination on the basis of sexuality. In my first term of parliament, after consultation with the gay and lesbian community, I moved the Superannuation (Entitlements of same sex couples) Bill in this chamber. It says something about where the debate was then compared with now that we couldn't even get a debate on that issue; that legislation wasn't even supported by every member of my own party. But what it did was lay some groundwork for a debate within my party about the need to tackle discrimination. And, of course, eventually, under the first term of the Rudd Labor government, we removed some 84 pieces of discrimination that were in legislation. This was discrimination not just in areas like superannuation, but in social security, immigration and health care.
When I was first elected, there were very real circumstances of partners of loved ones being denied access to their partners when they were in hospital. There were issues whereby couples who shared houses were thrown out of the house that they had lived in with their partner because of non-acceptance by the family of that partner. The scourge, of course, of HIV-AIDS was still having a massive impact—including, of course, taking the life of Paul O'Grady, who showed his courage once again in openly declaring that he was HIV-positive and therefore being able to lead a campaign for the care that was required. Of course, Neal Blewett, as health minister in the Labor government, led the world in responding to the HIV-AIDS epidemic, literally resulting in thousands of lives being saved.
So, today, this is unfinished business on that march towards equality, in the march towards respect for each other. It is a reminder that society does move forward, although not always in a straight line. Opponents of progress do fight for the status quo. Reactionaries do seek to turn back the gains of the past. But here in this parliament progress is moving forward. Human rights are moving forward. Parliament is not leading in this case, of course; we're following. We are following the voluntary postal ballot that was held.
I am very proud to support this legislation, and I won't be supporting amendments to this legislation. This has been through the process of a Senate committee. This itself is a compromise to this legislation. It's one that will not have an impact on religious freedom. I'm a strong supporter of religious liberty. People would be aware that, unlike many of my colleagues, at ALP national conferences I have strongly argued, even when I've been in a minority, for these issues to be dealt with as a conscience vote. I firmly believe that that's the case. I've consistently argued that on the ALP national executive regardless of what people who I normally agree with have to say on those matters and I will continue to do so.
But the fact is that people's religious freedom will not be impacted by this legislation just as marriage won't be undermined by this legislation. Indeed, the institution of marriage will be strengthened by this legislation by more people being able to participate in it. During the postal ballot campaign, with people I had respectful discussions with, I indicated that I would support the Dean Smith bill, that it was the model that was there. Those who insisted on having a postal ballot should, I believe, accept the result. We asked Australians for their views, and they gave us their answer. As a result of this legislation, not much will change. All that will happen is that one group of Australians who currently don't have the same rights that I had to marry my life partner, my wife, and other people have to marry their partner of the opposite sex will have the same right to celebrate their lifelong commitment to their partner in front of their family and friends. Weddings are joyful occasions when people come together to witness the affirmation of love, and won't it be a good thing when more people can participate in it?
The issue of religious liberty is one that I take seriously, and I look forward to the deliberations of the committee that has been established under Philip Ruddock and will be reporting next year. I certainly have always been respectful of people who disagree with my position on marriage equality. That is why I've argued for a conscience vote to be the way that this issue and other issues such as this are determined. I don't believe that people should ever be in a circumstance of having to choose between their allegiance to their political party and to their spirituality and their faith. I strongly believe that that's the case. But this legislation will not have any such consequences. Indeed, once this legislation is carried, people will wonder what the fuss was all about, because it won't undermine anyone's existing relationships; it will just strengthen the relationships of people who choose to have their relationships solemnised in a marriage who are in same-sex relationships.
I do want to say this about some of this debate though. Some have sought to speak about how every child in the world needs a mother and a father. We've got a bit of a debate at the moment about citizenship in this parliament as well. People would be aware that I was raised by a single mother and in circumstances whereby, every time I hear that, what I hear is intolerance. What I hear is that somehow some families are better than others. What is truthful is that what matters in a family is love and care. I was in a two-person family and I got from my mother all the love in the world that I—that anyone—could have asked for. People in same-sex relationships with children of same-sex relationships are parents who have gone out of their way to have children and to care for them and love them, and what matters in a family is love. It's as simple as that. No family structure is better than any other, and I really believe that one of the important things about the legislation before us today is that that will be formalised by the parliament.
In conclusion, can I say that this legislation is a good moment in this parliament. Some of the best moments since I've been here, whether I've been on the majority or minority side, have been conscience votes. I think we should have more of them, not less, frankly, whereby parliamentarians can make their contribution. I want to say that it's particularly good to be with people like the member for Sydney, the member for Melbourne Ports and the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate, Penny Wong, in particular, who has shown such courage over a long period of time, in internal and external debates, to get us to the position we're in today. The member for Leichhardt has also shown great courage in advancing this issue within his party, and I pay tribute to him and others who have been prepared to really push this issue and ensure this reform happens.
It is, however, of course, the Australian people who have led the parliament on this issue. I've been convinced for some time that a majority of Australians had shifted their view to favour marriage equality some time ago. I hear many Australians say: 'I didn't used to support marriage equality. I do now.' I don't know of anyone who has said it to me the other way around—who has changed their mind from 'yes' to 'no'. Australians want us to live and let live. They've decided that as individuals we have no right to cast judgements on love as it is felt by others. I commend the bill to the House. (Time expired)
Back in 2004 when I was first elected to parliament, I was strongly opposed to same-sex marriage. I did not agree with it, would not support it, and never believed that it would occur in Australia. My views were very much based on my religious views that marriage is simply between a man and a woman. Over the years, right up to 2015, I continued to hold that strong view, and I brushed aside the abusive emails, the phone calls and even the protests outside my office and stood very proudly in firm opposition. I even ignored the views of my former police colleagues that I had to move on with the times, and they regarded me as a dinosaur. This is very interesting, because when I was first a police officer, there were offences for loitering for the purpose of homosexuality, and all police members I knew were firmly opposed to same-sex marriage.
There were three events which occurred which changed my view. The first was a chance meeting with Chris Tanti, the former CEO of headspace, a foundation that is dedicated to improving the mental health and wellbeing of young Australians. We met in the foyer of parliament, where we were having a discussion about the sad loss of lives in La Trobe due to youth suicide. As part of the conversation, Chris pointed out to me that far more young homosexual males take their own lives than any other demographic group. When I asked why, he told me it was about acceptance. If they felt that they were not accepted, this often led to depression, drugs and finally the loss of life, as they believed they could no longer go on. Very sad indeed.
The second was a brief conversation over the phone with a long-term friend, Claire Rimmer, who lives with her partner, Anna. When I casually mentioned that I had another wedding to go to, Claire quietly said—and this was on the phone—'I would love to get married.' She did not ask me to change the law, she did not try to pursue the matter, but just left it at that. However, I was a bit shocked, so I asked her why. Claire simply said, 'I love Anna and want to marry her.' They will be celebrating the 10th anniversary of their relationship in April next year and fervently hope to marry on that date. That was the end of the conversation, but it started to make me think, 'Why shouldn't same-sex couples be allowed to marry?' However, I kept on going back to my original thought that marriage is between a man and a woman.
Finally, when I was out and about in my electorate of La Trobe, I found I was meeting not just same-sex couples but also their families. Sometimes parents of people in same-sex relationships would come into the office and meet with me, telling me about their son or daughter without their knowledge. They would bring photos of their child and their child's same-sex partner. For the first time I started to see that my views of same-sex marriage were causing great sadness to others—not only people in same-sex relationships but also their parents, who, like parents everywhere, want their children to be happy and have fulfilling lives. I then realised it was time for me to seriously rethink this issue, which I did. Following that, I decided I would now support same-sex marriage.
After I announced my change of position in my electorate, I caught up with good friends Jayson McNaughton, a local dentist, and his partner, Stephen Walden, who have been in a relationship for seven years and whom I've known for six. They've always respected our friendship and, again, have never pressured me to change my views on same-sex marriage, despite their belief that they and other same-sex couples experience discrimination because they cannot marry. They would like one day soon to be able to declare their love to the world through marriage. So, when they heard I had revised my view, they were both incredibly happy and excited.
In 2015, I made another decision, which was to ask my electorate for their views on the issue. I decided to run a survey and that, whatever the outcome, I would honour my role as a representative of parliament and follow the wishes of my electorate. As I had changed my own view, I must admit I was hoping for a 'yes' outcome, and the result was that, out of 5,168 constituents who voted, 3,011 voted yes, 2,036 voted no and there were 121 'undecided' responses. So a significant majority of La Trobe residents who responded were in favour of same-sex marriage. The survey brought forth some surprises because it demonstrated how many people from the community supported same-sex marriage—members of the local CFA and football clubs, and a variety of businesspeople. I was even quietly told by some churchgoers and teachers at religiously based schools that the time had come for change.
This sentiment in my electorate was reinforced with the recent national postal vote, with 67.5 per cent of La Trobe's voters signalling that they are in favour of same-sex marriage, which, of course, is noticeably greater than the overall national statistic of 61.6 per cent. I would like to congratulate Minister Peter Dutton, as the postal vote was his idea. I also congratulate and thank Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull for his support in the postal vote. I also congratulate and thank Warren Entsch. When he first raised this in the party room, back in the Howard days, everyone would just look at him and think, 'What are you on about, Warren?' But he is dedicated to making his vision a reality. This national figure of 61.6 per cent support for same-sex marriage brings Australia into close alignment with a number of other nations, such as Canada, which showed support of 70 per cent; France, at 67 per cent; Ireland, with its plebiscite at 64 per cent; the Netherlands, at 64 per cent; New Zealand at 57 per cent; and the UK at 66 per cent.
However, it should also be remembered that not everyone supports same-sex marriage, and in La Trobe 32.5 per cent voted no. The views of those 32.5 per cent are views of the minority now, but they still deserve to have their voices and concerns listened to when it comes to religious freedoms. So here I must point out that I do care about religious freedoms and I do not believe that a celebrant or priest should be forced by law to perform a same-sex marriage if they are against that because of their religious belief. I also respect the right of religiously based schools to select staff with the same values and beliefs as those being taught at their school, and I support the protection of parents. In addition to schools and parents, charities must not be discriminated against because of their firmly-held beliefs. I also believe that the issues not addressed in the same-sex marriage bill must be addressed by the panel chaired by Philip Ruddock that will review protections for religious freedoms.
But ultimately I would like to keep away from all the moral and religious arguments around the issue of same-sex marriage and continue to concentrate on this issue from the point of view of people's health. This takes me to the issue of suicide. Can I say: this was not the main reason for changing my decision to support same-sex marriage, but it was the start of my journey for change as gay people told me about the great stress they were under as they believed they were not accepted in society and that the biggest stumbling block was their inability to marry. A 2013 briefing paper released by National LGBTI Health Alliance—
Order! The debate is interrupted in accordance with standing order 43. The debate may be resumed at a later hour, and the member for La Trobe will be given an opportunity at that time to conclude his contribution.