Tuesday, 5 December 2017
Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017; Second Reading
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I've had the privilege of serving the people of Fisher and, more broadly, the Australian people for only 18 months. It's been the greatest privilege of my life, but with every privilege comes responsibility, and it is now my responsibility as the member for Fisher to speak on the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017 and to vote in accordance with my conscience. I thank the Prime Minister for affording me that opportunity. I think it is fair to surmise that few bills will generate as much controversy and consternation amongst the Australian people as the one which is the subject of this debate. As a barrister, I acted as counsel assisting the coroner in respect of a number of road deaths north of the Sunshine Coast. The coroner, Maxine Baldwin, would often remark that, in her role, she needed 'the patience of Job and the wisdom of Solomon'. I find myself wishing today, as I often do, that I, too, had Solomon's wisdom as I prosecute my responsibilities as a parliamentarian. I closed my maiden speech in this place with a prayer written by Reinhold Niebuhr, a prayer which I should like to open this speech with today:
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
courage to change the things I can,
and wisdom to know the difference.
The issue of same-sex marriage is a deeply personal one for many Australians and for many more Australian families. Many of us have a story to tell about same-sex marriage, and these stories illustrate and illuminate the complexity of the legislative challenge before us. Like many colleagues, in contributing to this debate I'd like to tell the House about my own experience and the experience of my family, which has brought me to my position today. This issue has perplexed me for a number of years. I'm a practising, committed Catholic. I do my best to go to church every Sunday. In fact, in my late teens, I joined a monastery, willing to give my life to God through the service of others. The teachings of the Catholic Church on the issue on marriage are very clear. The church teaches that marriage is between a man and a woman, to the exclusion of all others, for life. There is no ambiguity in that stance. It is a stance which I shared for most of my adult life.
My daughter, Caroline, struggled through much of her teenage years with mental illness. She suffered from an insidious disease, an eating disorder, most notably anorexia and bulimia. My wife and I watched our beautiful daughter—our girls, their sister—fight her demons as she slowly became nothing more than skin and bone, in and out of hospital for long stretches of time over a number of years. She would wax and wane between sheer determination to regain her health and utter desperation, sinking into the abyss of feeling that there was no hope of an end to this internal conflict. As a dad, I'm very pleased and proud to say that my daughter is now in a much healthier and happier place. She has a terrific job and a wonderful partner who our family love very much.
What does this story have to do with same-sex marriage, you may ask? About three years ago, our daughter told my wife and me that she was attracted to women and that she had a girlfriend. My wife and I were shocked, probably more me than my wife. I didn't know what to say. Homosexuality went against what I had been taught to believe for many years. How could this be happening? How could this be happening to me and to our family? Whilst she'd had boyfriends, she has since told me that it never felt quite right, and that she felt that she couldn't tell us as we would not approve. She said she had always secretly been attracted to women, and I'm sure that this internal conflict would have, in some part at least, exacerbated her mental state. My daughter said something to me which was very prophetic in that initial discussion. She said, 'Dad, in the years to come, my generation will look back and judge your generation about how you deal with the issue of homosexuality in the same way that your generation considered your parents' generation in the way that they dealt with our Indigenous people.'
In this country, we do not discriminate against someone because of the colour of their skin, their religion or their place of birth. In law, we are all created equally, and so we ought not in law discriminate against a person by virtue of their sexual preference. In this lies the value of the distinction between church and state. It reminds us of our constitutional forefathers' foresight in ensuring that no faith should be recognised by the state as a sanctioned religion. The tenants of the Roman Catholic Church, or any church or religion for that matter, ought not and must never be permitted to override our civil laws.
When I stood for preselection for the seat of Fisher in April 2016, it was Liberal Party policy that we would take the issue of same-sex marriage to the people by way of holding a plebiscite. That was a policy introduced by the then Prime Minister, the member for Warringah, and a policy which the current Prime Minister, the member for Wentworth, rightly continued. Nonetheless, the issue of same-sex marriage remained the subject of passionate debate within the rank and file of our party. I ran my preselection on the basis that I would support the will of the Australian people, as expressed in a plebiscite. I have maintained that position ever since. The plebiscite came in for a great deal of public ridicule from the left side of politics. Labor and the Greens sought to block it at every step of the way, including all the way to the High Court of Australia. In my view, from the beginning, they fought the plebiscite not because of some philanthropic motive; I believe that this was unfortunately yet another example of the Leader of the Opposition playing rank divisive politics.
In my view, many Australians wanted the opportunity to have their say. The fact that almost 80 per cent of Australians took part in a voluntary survey is testament to that fact. We were warned that a plebiscite or a postal survey would lead to ugly scenes of vilification. We were warned that this would be a demonstration of Australians at their worst. I'm very pleased and proud to say that those opposite could not have been more wrong about Australians. Australians are a generous, tolerant, respectful and open-minded lot. We are egalitarian. We have no social class structures. We intrinsically know the difference between right and wrong. We are a decent, harmonious, multicultural society who believe in giving our mates a fair go.
Australians supported marriage equality in strength and in numbers that surprised me. Over 61.6 per cent of Australians supported same-sex marriage nationwide and even more in my seat of Fisher, with 62.8 per cent support. I promised the Australian people that I would respect and support their decision and I intend to honour that commitment. However, I firmly believe that there are a number of amendments that should be made to the bill in order to protect religious freedoms. I will have more to say about those protections when I speak on those amendments later during the week. Suffice to say, I believe very strongly in the right to practice one's religion; the right of freedom of expression ought not be trampled by the majority. Almost five million Australians who voted no to same-sex marriage deserve to have a voice in this parliament and they deserve to have their rights enshrined in legislation. We need to put beyond doubt in this bill that their views are equally as important as those who supported this change.
This bill recognises that there is a distinction between a religious or church wedding and a marriage recognised by the laws of the Commonwealth. Churches of all faiths and religious ministers of all faiths will be permitted to lawfully decline to marry same-sex couples and decline to provide services and facilities such as church halls for same-sex couples' ceremonies and receptions. This, in my view, is right and proper. But the bill should provide greater protections, and I look forward to speaking about those in the debates concerning those amendments.
I am honoured and proud to rise in this House today to support this Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017, but I want to make it very clear I will not be supporting any amendments. This bill is about the definition of 'marriage'. Marriage equality is fundamentally about equality and human rights. This is a very emotional time for me personally, for my husband, our family and in particular for our youngest daughter, Louise, who is here in this place today. I want to pay my respects to the elders of the LGBTIQ community, the men and women who never gave up and who paved the way for this legislation, the men and women who suffered dreadful discrimination, hate and violence, simply because they belonged to LGBTIQ communities and believed in equality. I am not normally an openly emotional person but, when the results of the survey were announced, I was overcome with emotion because my youngest daughter could now get married like her siblings.
I am so proud to represent the electorate of Herbert. Thank you to 62.8 per cent of the Herbert electorate who delivered an emphatic yes in support of marriage equality. In Herbert, 48,110 people stood up and did what the Turnbull government did not have the guts to do in parliament. My community have stood up for the minority and I am honoured to deliver this speech supporting their resounding 'yes' vote.
LGBTIQ communities around this nation have suffered through 22 amendments of the Marriage Act 1961, all of which did nothing to support their communities. And of those 22 amendments, the one moved on 16 August 2004 was the worst because this was when Prime Minister John Howard shamefully changed the definition of marriage to mean:
… the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life.
But today, we are here to right that wrong. Nothing will give me more pleasure and satisfaction than knowing that my grandchildren and future great grandchildren will know that I stood in this place on the right side of history supporting marriage equality.
My community and I did not want this $122 million of taxpayers' money spent on a divisive national survey. We knew the destruction it would cause and the distress and hurt that it would cause so many people. The LGBTIQ community were forced to have this survey and throughout this process they remained positive and determined and, as a result of their strong and committed campaigning efforts, they achieved a resounding 'yes' victory. There are so many faces, advocates and stories from the people of Herbert whose actions have collectively led to this momentous occasion, and I would like to share a few of these stories with the House.
I'd like to talk about Luke Cashion-Lozell. Luke and his partner, James, met over a decade ago. In that time, they have lived together, started businesses together and, short of starting a family together, the one thing that they wanted most was to be married in Australia, their birthplace and their home. They wanted their relationship validated in the eyes of the law and the community. Luke and James have campaigned fiercely to make marriage equality a reality since Australia was forced down the unfortunate, unnecessary and expensive route of a non-binding postal survey, and they were absolutely elated with the outcome. Luke said: 'If the marriage amendment bill passes through this place, it will mean that we can get married, we will be equal and our love will be recognised to be legitimate. In the event that the marriage amendment bill does not pass successfully through this place, our fight will not have been for nothing, because we will not stop fighting for equality, as those who have gone before us have done so strongly and bravely. We will continue to fight for what is right and what is just.'
Then there's Krys Fischer. In 2007, Krys met the woman who she knew she wanted to spend the rest of her life with. It saddened Krys to know that they did not have the choice to get married like heterosexual couples. When Krys had bad health concerns, her greatest fear was that, if something were to happen to her, her partner was not protected under the law. Krys was fearful that her parents could overturn her partner's decisions and remove her partner from her side. Her partner was the very woman who knew her every wish, and to have her replaced by people who had no idea of her wishes was very distressing. Krys said: 'The passing of this legislation is much more than one day, much more than the wedding itself. This legislation means that we are protected and have the same rights as my sister and her husband. This legislation means my love for the woman who I have loved for 10 years and continue to love will be seen as equal. I thank every person who has had the conversation and fought for equality.'
Then there's Jake Farrell. Jake always wanted to settle down in an old Queenslander, get married and have kids, but it always seemed like an impossible dream. In 2009, Jake was a year 9 student and knew he was gay. He spent most of his high school life afraid to accept who he was. He hid it from his family and friends because he feared rejection from those he cared about the most. He became an anxious and depressed young man because he was not like everyone else. However, when he went to university, he finally accepted who he was and began dating. Jake said: 'I did not feel it was wrong. I did not feel ashamed. I felt happy. I felt normal, like everyone else. My relationship felt like everyone else's. We laugh, fight, cry and love. It's about having someone who you love sharing the journey through the ups and downs.' The toughest thing that Jake had to do was come out to his mother. He struggled to tell her for months, unsure of how to bring it up, but, when he did tell her, she simply said, 'It does not change anything, as you are my son, and all I want is to see you happy.' Jake said: 'On the day that 61 per cent of Australians voted, I was proud, because I finally felt that being gay was okay and normal to the vast majority of Australians. Marriage equality means more than just marriage to me; it is acceptance and a feeling that I belong, just like when I first told my mum. It also means that my dream of having a family is one step closer, and one day I'll be able to marry my long-term partner.'
Finally, I come to our beautiful daughter, Louise. Louise was quite young when she realised that she was gay, but she did not act on her feelings until her early twenties for fear of rejection. She did not talk about it. Like so many teenagers, she kept it to herself and struggled on. As a teenager, Louise suffered with bouts of anxiety and depression, but she masked it very well. I will never forget the day that Louise told me she was gay. It was late in the afternoon. I was in the kitchen tidying the bench and she was hovering around, making small talk—which she normally doesn't—and finally she said that she had something she wanted to tell me. I have a very bad habit of doing many things at once, so I kept working and said, 'Okay, what's up?' She simply said, 'I'm dating someone, and it's a girl.' Well, I certainly stopped what I was doing, and I think I said, 'Are you sure?' And as the words left my mouth, I thought, 'What a dumb thing to say!' But I remember giving her a big hug and saying: 'Louise, you are my daughter, and all I want is for you to be happy. You know that your father, brother, sister and I love you regardless of your sexuality, because it makes absolutely no difference to us at all.'
She has always been a very determined, individual young woman, but I know that she has had her struggles and challenges on her journey. Louise has a wonderful partner, Kat, and they are engaged and were to have a commitment ceremony on 14 July next year. Now this can be a wedding. She will be surrounded by family and friends. As a mother, all I have ever wanted for all of my children is for them to be happy, to belong and to be accepted for who they are. Those who know me well know that the only way to really upset me is to attack my children or any member of my family.
Louise also has told me that working in the health industry has made her very aware of the legal implications of her relationship not being seen as legally legitimate. Since the results of the survey, Louise said it has made a huge difference to be able to walk down the street holding Kat's hand, knowing that her relationship is seen as equal to that of her brother and sister, who are both married and have children. Louise and Kat feel as though their life has been on hold while they have been waiting and hoping for marriage equality to become a reality, like so many others in the LGBTIQ community. Louise and Kat have attended weddings of three of their friends in the last year, and each time watching each couple declare their love for each other, they had to listen to that one line, 'between a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others'. They found this to be a bittersweet moment each time, because they were so happy for their friends, but also could not help the sadness in their heart, knowing that they were excluded from the same celebration of love. Louise says that it has been difficult living in a loving relationship that has not been acknowledged as equal, because equality is a basic human right.
On behalf of my family and the LGBTIQ community, I want to thank the people of Herbert for your support. We banded together and fought very hard to get this great result. I would particularly like to thank the tireless efforts of Peter and Steve, the owners of the Sovereign Hotel, a place that has been a refuge for the LGBTIQ community in Townsville for many years. I thank you both for creating a safe place for my daughter to socialise in Townsville when she was younger. I acknowledge the hard work done by Peter Black from Australian Marriage Equality. I thank Cliffo and Loggy from Hit FM, hosts of the morning breakfast show, whose efforts through the media really helped to get the message out to vote yes to support our LGBTI community.
I thank the Leader of the Opposition, Bill Shorten, and opposition leader in the Senate, Penny Wong, and all of my colleagues in this place who have supported this bill. I also thank Senator Dean Smith and Warren Entsch, the member for Leichhardt, and his colleagues, who supported this bill under what at times would have been very difficult circumstances.
When the vote was announced on 15 October 2017, I thought of my friend, Peter Patterson, an incredibly talented man who was severely bashed in a vicious hate crime just because he was gay. The impact of that event sadly ended his life way too early. I thought of long-term friends like Robert and Bill, who have been together for decades, who experienced unjust vandalism on their home simply because they were gay. I remember the bombing of the HIV office in Townsville in the late nineties. But I could also say to myself that Herbert has voted yes. Queensland has voted yes. The nation has voted yes.
As I stand here in this place, I call for unity to support this bill. Now is the time for the hatred to end. Now is the time for the division to end. Now is the time to put aside our differences and accept each other for who we are, because in reality there is much more that we have in common than we have that separates us. It is our differences that make us who we are, and it is the strength through diversity that makes Australia a truly great nation. It's time for this nation to come together to support human rights and equality. It's well overdue. It's time for marriage equality in Australia. It's time to stop treating minorities as second-class citizens. It's time to stop telling the LGBTIQ and gender-diverse community that they're not important and that their needs are less. It's time to legislate for marriage equality for all loving and consensual couples, and it's time for this to happen now. Equality is a fundamental human right.
In concluding, I would like to put the Turnbull government on notice because in my community, when we achieve marriage equality, we will put all of our passion and energy into the continued fight to achieve equality for our first-nations people.
I rise to offer my words on the private member's bill to change the Marriage Act from marriage being defined as a union between a man and a woman to a union between two persons, basically to give legal and equal recognition to same-sex marriage. I represent the electorate of Mallee, a geographical third of the state of Victoria with a fantastic group of fair-minded, hardworking, compassionate Australians. Changing the Marriage Act is a significant question for Australia. It should not be done lightly, as families—indeed, strong families—are the pillar of a strong society. People are right to hold strong convictions, and representing truthfully the values of 100,000 people in the electorate of Mallee is difficult, as is interacting those values with my values, beliefs and considered judgement.
My considered judgement is that the government of Australia should at most times stay out of the homes of Australians except in the interest of protecting from violence or offence against individual family members such as abuse of children or violence against a partner. But, apart from that, what happens in your home is your business. This is a fundamental freedom. I think most of the Wimmera Mallee would hold to the view 'live and let live'. It is for this reason that I held to the position that changing the Marriage Act is a society decision, not a government one. Australians elect representatives to parliament to manage the building of infrastructure, defence of our people, creation of an economy that rewards endeavour but cares for the downtrodden and poor, investment in our health system, looking after of our senior Australians and creation of opportunities for our children through education.
The coalition took to the 2 July 2016 election a party-room-determined decision that the only way there would be changes to the Marriage Act was if, first, the Australian people had been consulted. In contrast, the Australian Labor Party promised to introduce a bill to change the Marriage Act within the first hundred days of a Labor government. The coalition won the 2016 election, and I have defended vigorously both our obligation to honour our party-room-determined election commitment and the rights of Australian society to decide on the values of Australian society. I will always endeavour to be a man to honour my promise and listen to Australians. In contrast, the Australian Labor Party have tried everything to block Australians' rights to be heard and now try to take credit for a decision that Australians have determined.
I gave an undertaking to the people of the Wimmera Mallee that I would uphold their decision on the Marriage Act as determined in the recent postal plebiscite. I feel a sense of duty to do so. The people of the Wimmera Mallee voted 35,795, which is 45.7 per cent 'no', and 42,495, which is 54.5 per cent 'yes'. And the voter turnout was 78,290, which is 78 per cent, which is a significant turnout. Therefore, I feel duty-bound to vote 'yes'.
Other members of parliament will act according to their own convictions as to their own personal beliefs in contrast to their electorate, and I do not offer advice about or judgement upon how they vote in this chamber. I will pay tribute to the people of the Wimmera Mallee and to the extremely decent manner in which they conducted themselves throughout the period of the postal survey. The Australian Labor Party had such little faith in Australians' ability to think through and discuss complex issues, but I know how decent country people in particular can be, and they have proved me right again. It is a pleasure to represent such people.
Throughout this debate I held steadfast to my personal belief that marriage is and should be between a man and a woman. As the people of the Wimmera Mallee have given direction, I shall fulfil my duty and vote 'yes' to changes to the Marriage Act. It is not a position I hold personally, and I shall explain the reasons for my belief here today. I ask for a level of respect for my position because it is held by many millions of Australians who deserve the right to have someone voice their view in this discussion while it takes place on the floor of the parliament. Love between a man and a woman, a woman and a woman, and a man and a man can be as equally real in feelings and emotions. Who you love is a decision for you, but my belief is in upholding the ideal of the family in a world full of people who make mistakes and in a world full of less than perfect people, of whom I am one.
There is still value in retaining marriage as the covenant for a bond between a man and a woman to raise children. Love is an essential ingredient to the raising of children and, as a foster parent, I am more aware than most that a traditional relationship does not of itself guarantee the loving raising of children. The breakdown of the family unit has caused more children to be exposed to hardship than any other factor in Australian society. Making the lives of families better improves our society.
I do not cast judgement upon same-sex couples who are currently raising children. I'm sure your love is deep and enduring, and I wish nothing but the best for you. But I believe there is an essential truth that cannot be replicated without the influence of both a man and a woman in a child's development. A young girl between the ages of zero and five craves the nurturing abilities and closeness of her mother, and between the ages of five and 10 the positive influence of her dad is essential: to tell her she is beautiful and that she is worthwhile and precious in his sight. Fathers, I say to you: the best way to prevent your daughter getting stuck in an abusive relationship later in life is to instil a sense of self-worth in her early. Between the ages of 10 and 14, as her body changes, she needs her mum. Frankly, that's a journey best walked with a woman. Between the ages of 14 and 18, the role of a dad is to take her on a date, open the door for her, teach her how a guy should treat her—with respect—and be a guard from guys who might come knocking, while ensuring that their intentions are pure. For too many, this has not been either their upbringing or their lived experience in their own relationships. I want to pay tribute to the many single parents who have raised amazing and well-balanced children under different circumstances to this; however, nothing is equal to, nothing replicates and nothing replaces the ideal of marriage between a man and a woman and the loving raising of children.
Ultimately, I believe changing the definition of marriage from a union of a man and a woman to the union of two people both weakens this ideal and weakens our society. I will personally find fulfilling my duty to the people of Mallee by voting yes difficult, as I believe this change will rob the future children of Australia for generations to come, but I will fulfil my duty.
I have publicly expressed my disappointment at the way this particular piece of legislation has been brought into the parliament. I believe the coalition would have been better to draft legislation at the declaration of the result of the postal plebiscite rather than give free passage to a private member's bill. It would have been legislation that gives effect to the Australian people's wishes to change the Marriage Act from a man and a woman to two persons, as well as hold true to the values that the coalition stands for, values such as: freedom to hold and express a view, freedom for parents to have the final oversight as to how their children are educated, freedom of religious belief and expression and discussion of religion, freedom to administer the assets that a religious organisation has, and the freedom to marry who you love.
Whilst I hear the argument that existing laws already uphold these freedoms and that this bill is quite specific in the wording of the Marriage Act, there is enough concern among many Australians, and anecdotal examples from other countries around the world that have legislated for same-sex marriage, that adding additional assurances would have been a unifying action. The role of government is to unite Australians, and enhancing the rights of some should always be embraced while giving assurance to the rights of others. The coalition should have been able to do this more effectively than they have, and I will be supporting amendments to this bill.
However, I must add that the Australian Labor Party do not believe in freedom of conscience and at all times in this public discussion have sought to take away the freedoms of Australians. The Labor Party tried to take away the freedom to be heard as determined in a plebiscite, even though plebiscites are a key part of our Constitution and democracy. The Labor Party have taken away the freedom of conscience, as the party machine has directed that there will be no conscience votes on any amendments that may be proposed to this bill in the House of Representatives. I am not a member of parliament who believes in always being critical of the Labor Party. However, history teaches us that a political party that fails to consult with the people and curtails the freedom of expression within its own ranks would be more likely to remove freedom from people, and Australians should be concerned by the conduct of the Australian Labor Party on this particular issue.
It is here that I shall conclude my speech, for I have endeavoured to give voice to the people I represent, those who celebrate the 'yes' vote and look forward to the changes that this parliament will approve shortly and those who have voted 'no' and feel the parliament must hear their concerns. I have also attempted to give voice and be true to the values I hold, as ultimately we must all one day give account for the decisions we make in this place.
I rise to speak in support of the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017. I rise to speak in support of this bill on behalf of the many, many, many in the LGBTIQ community that have fought for over 40 years for such equality, and for the fellow travellers that have been there to support the community. We have watched and we have been with you for a very long time. This bill and the decision that we will make on this bill have been a long time coming. I really do pay my homage to all of you—for those of you in the parliament, for those of you that have lobbied and for those of you that are watching on television today.
I have long been a supporter of marriage equality. I have never had a second thought. It seemed to be so obvious to me. My track record in this space is a long one. When I was the Minister for Community Services in New South Wales, I supported gay adoption. Prior to that, a single gay person could adopt, but not a gay couple. I made sure, as Minister for Community Services, that that changed.
I support marriage equality as someone who has, and has had, loved ones who identify as LGBTIQ. To them, marriage equality would mean so much. I honour these people and, in particular, my late son, Binni. And I support marriage equality as someone who is a member of a community that has experienced great discrimination and injustice and understands what it means to be rejected, understands what intergenerational trauma feels like and what hurt and distress does to you. Just as the 1967 referendum fundamentally transformed the way we talked about, perceive, value and treat Aboriginal Australians, I truly believe that the passage of the marriage equality bill will make a similar positive transformation of our nation.
I have seen firsthand the confusion, anxiety and pain that many of our young people experience in dealing with their sexuality. The reality for LGBTIQ Australians should not have to be to hide your sexuality and your gender when accessing services at social community events and at work. That is wrong. They should not have to experience verbal homophobic abuse, and over a quarter report physical homophobic abuse and other types of homophobia, including cyberbullying, graffiti, social exclusion and humiliation. Homophobic bullying of LGBTIQ young people occurs in schools, and that has a profound effect on their wellbeing and their education and how their life continues. We heard so well about that from the member for Herbert.
What marriage equality says to our young people who are anxious about their sexuality is that, whatever you feel, you shouldn't be afraid anymore. You are equal. We embrace you and we love you as a nation. I say to the children of the LGBTIQ couples: be proud, and I'm so sorry that you've had to put up with the pain of the past.
I am mindful of the fact that there are a range of views in the electorate of Barton, which did return a 'no' vote on the postal survey. And I want to say to the electors of Barton: I respect those views. But you know, and I know, that it was very clear a long time ago, in the lead-up to my election, long before I was elected to the parliament, that I was always going to support marriage equality and that I would vote in favour in this parliament.
I did not like the postal survey. It was expensive, divisive and hurtful. But what I found most disgusting about it was that it forced LGBTIQ loved ones to beg for their own civil rights, a truly humiliating and shameful exercise. I think it was particularly hurtful, unethical and in complete contradiction to the principles of the Westminster parliamentary representative democracy to put the question of basic civil and human rights to a popular vote, or a survey, as if it were some kind of reality TV show. I see parallels in the 1967 referendum, and I've spoken about this in the past. But, of course, the 1967 referendum proposition to count Aboriginal people involved an amendment to the Constitution and required constitutional reform. Marriage equality did not require a referendum. It should have been straightforward, and it should have been done a long time ago.
We saw the most disturbing, disgusting and misleading homophobic political material circulated in the seat of Barton and in several other electorates in the country. We knew this would happen. Medical experts warned us that this would happen. And that's why I was in no way surprised that many of our LGBTIQ Australians reported fear, anxiety and other mental health difficulties during this difficult time. This issue should have been resolved by this parliament. We should have just simply done our jobs as members of parliament. However, we are where we are now. And, by Friday, this country will have equality for our friends in the LGBTIQ community.
I understand that many opponents of marriage equality are tied to the notion of traditional marriage being between a man and a woman. To them I would say: I acknowledge that your concerns may feel real to you, but this is not the first time marriage has been redefined, and it will not impact you. It used to be that people of different races couldn't marry each other. Today, they can, and life goes on happily. I know that there are some elements within this parliament who may try to make issues of religious freedom amendments. I join with my colleagues who will support this bill, and we will not entertain those amendments. To that I will say to those elements who desperately try to employ tactics to delay and distract from this debate: you will not be successful. I have a large, diverse religious community in Barton and I love them. If they raise genuine concerns with me, of course, I'll consider those concerns. But what I won't do is engage in delaying tactics from extreme elements of the parliament who are essentially proposing to roll back antidiscrimination measures. I will not vote to remove one form of discrimination to be replaced by another. The world has come a long way since the days of signs saying, 'We will not serve this race or this community.' My vote for marriage equality will not be about popularity; it will be about what is right and what is wrong, what is fair and what is unfair.
In political life, and I have been in it for 14 or 15 years now, there are very few opportunities where we vote with our conscience. They are precious moments. And my conscience is this: I have spent my entire life fighting for fairness. I have fought for the rights and welfare of first peoples. I have fought and will continue to fight to close the gap for recognition and for reconciliation. I have fought against government efforts to make it more difficult for residents from non-English-speaking backgrounds to attain Australian citizenship, a proposal which will impact many voters in the electorate of Barton. I have fought against unrelenting attacks on those that need income support and against robo-debt. I have fought about the 55 million unanswered calls and increased wait times in Centrelink. I have fought for the aged, I have fought for our students, I have fought for all Australians with a disability who are finding it difficult to claim support, get jobs and have a life that's valued. I have fought for fairness in education. I have fought for truth for my entire life. I have fought for fairness in health. I will fight for fairness by voting in favour of marriage equality.
I represent one of the most multicultural electorates in the nation. I note that some media reports suggest that the 'no' vote correlated with the ethnic enclave in suburban Sydney, but I would issue great caution against this interpretation or analysis of the postal survey results. Even if all the voters from non-English-speaking backgrounds in my electorate and in Australia voted no, it would still not account for the entirety of the 'no' vote. So, let's just get a little perspective on these results. I am proud of my electorate. I am proud of the fact that the electorate of Barton is one of the most multiculturally diverse in this country. And they are proud of me. It wasn't this diversity that was the cause for the 'no' vote in Barton. Voters want conviction from us as politicians; they want truth. My conviction, my life and what it stands for is equity, and that means yes to this proposition. It means yes in eloquence; it means yes, and it's heartfelt. It means yes because it is the decent and the right thing to do. It will help us grow up as a nation; it will broaden us as a nation. It would also say to a community that has experienced enormous hurt and enormous discrimination, including legal discrimination, that finally, 'We love you, we embrace you and you are as equal as anyone in Australia.'
I thank all of those involved in finally bringing this to a vote, from both sides of the House, from the upper house and from the lower house, and also those people who have been mentioned in particular by the member for Herbert, who spoke just prior to me. I can't wait for February and March in Sydney; what a great Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras it's going to be in 2018! We will have the eyes of the world on us. The eyes of the world are watching what we are doing now. What we are doing now is making the right decision. We are providing equity, we are providing an embrace, we are providing love and we are righting a great wrong that has been perpetrated in this country for a very long time.
We are giving people who love each other the right to marry, just like other people do in this country. This is not only a legal right; marriage, of course, is much more than that. It is about how you feel in your heart. It is about a commitment to someone for reasons that are soaring reasons to want to marry. It is also, of course, something that this parliament will be able to hold its head up about from today onwards. And when we take this final vote, despite the ongoing amendments that will come, I know that this chamber and this House will finally do the right thing by the LGBTI community, and that is to say: 'You marry, just like everyone else. You are equal.' I cannot say just how proud I am to be able to be part of a parliament that will finally make the decision that should have been made, as I said, a long time ago.
I reiterate that whilst the electorate of Barton may have voted one way—and, of course, that's been reported—they know what I stand for and I know what the electorate of Barton stands for. Above all, it is not about this issue; it is about the issue of equity and equal treatment, and those two thoughts are what will carry us through.
Finally, more than anything else, this debate is about love. It is about finally recognising that love is love, and love is the thing that makes this world go around. Finally, this world will go around properly for all people in Australia, no matter who you are, where you are or what you believe in. There could be no more joyous moment and no prouder moment than the moment that this House will experience when we finally pass this bill in the next 24 to 48 hours—certainly before the end of this week. I am a very proud member of the Labor Party and I am very proud to be able to give my thoughts in this debate. With enormous respect, it's about time.
Following the recently concluded postal survey, I'm pleased to speak today on the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017. In keeping with the range of conversations I've had with people across Farrer over the last few months, I expected my electorate to vote yes on this issue. The local survey returned a 55 per cent 'yes' vote. This was very much average when compared to the rest of New South Wales, where 57.8 per cent voted yes, and the nation as a whole, where 61.6 per cent voted yes. The participation rate in Farrer was also similar to the national average, with 77.4 per cent in the electorate taking the opportunity to have their say compared to 79.5 per cent Australia-wide. So in my electorate there was a firm endorsement—not categorical but a reflection that this is an important cause whose time has come.
But, as historic as this moment is as an important moment in time for this parliament, this was not always the case. For many, and for many years, same-sex marriage laws were not a critical issue. 'Get on with what is important,' people might have said. But for a proportion of the community, for those who felt they were being excluded by the current definition of marriage, this is a vital issue. I remember Georgia Henderson from Deniliquin, who asked to meet with me in 2011. Arguing her case passionately, talking about her feeling of feeling excluded within her own country community, Georgia said, 'I don't want to be forced to move somewhere in Sydney just so I can feel normal.'
I have met several times with Hume Phoenix, based in Albury-Wodonga and led by Toni Johnson. Toni has organised a number of local events, meetings and marches over recent years, and I want to acknowledge her heartfelt and personal efforts on behalf of her local LGBTI community.
I must also recognise the advocacy of Archdeacon Peter Macleod Miller from Albury's St Matthew's Anglican Church. Father Peter is certainly a man of the cloth, but, much more importantly, he is a campaigner for social justice and equal rights—the rights of the homeless, the rights of refugees and the rights of marginalised members of society who deserve our compassion. Father Peter came to this place in August 2015 to hold a prayer breakfast on this very issue. He was just one of 106 members of the clergy who presented a letter of support for marriage equality. As one of the organisers said that day:
We are working to raise up the voices of Christian people and people of faith who believe that relationships ought to be strengthened and supported … And we believe this because of our faith, not in spite of our faith.
While I am voting with my conscience and the sentiments of my community, the sentiments my community has endorsed, it is impossible for me to sum up in a few statements what the entire LGBTI community in Farrer must be feeling today. Perhaps the most appropriate reflection takes me to a small town in my electorate, Hay in the New South Wales Riverina, a town on the edge of the outback, home of the Shearer's Hall of Fame with, I think it's fair to say, an image that is blokey and rough and tumble. Next March, Hay will be host to the very first rural gay and lesbian Mardi Gras. This event, I'm told, is set to become the country alternative to the much higher profile Sydney event. The changing face and attitude of places like Hay is why we are here today. One of three local women who are organising the Hay Mardi Gras—which, by the way, would have gone ahead whether the vote result was yes or no—is Kerry Aldred. She said:
I personally am so relieved that the result was in favour of the yes! I have many friends that this survey has affected in far too many ways, so having this win is awesome.
As I stood at the Henty Machinery Field Days for three days in September, I learnt that people had mixed feelings about the postal survey plebiscite process. Some were annoyed that it had come to this, feeling that we as politicians had handballed the problem to the community to give us the answer. Many, however, were thankful to see us following our election commitment. They told me they looked forward to having their say and would be happy to abide by the result even if that result was not what they voted for.
The decision the parliament will take this week is about the future. If there is one powerful reason to vote yes, it is that in every high school, in every university, in every venue where young people gather, whilst there are a range of different views on so many things, on the subject of marriage equality there is almost always only one view.
We have not yet fully resolved discrimination against the LGBTI community, but we have come a long way in this generation. In 1978, I was completing my ACT year 12 certificate at Dickson College in Canberra. The same year, police arrested 53 people at the first Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras parade. The Mardi Gras was a planned street festival calling for an end for discrimination against homosexuals in employment and housing, and an end to police harassment. The Sydney Morning Herald published the names of those who were arrested. As a result, many of them lost their friends and lost their jobs. The Mardi Gras was seen by my contemporaries as somewhere between a confused celebration of immorality and an exotic curiosity.
In 1982, I was working as a public servant in Canberra. I made friends with a co-worker who disclosed to me that he was gay. This was highly unusual. I was fortunate because his friendship gave me the gift of understanding the irrelevance of a person's sexual orientation to the intrinsic quality of who they are. That year, Australia saw its first case of AIDS, and gay people, gay men, were most unfairly targeted as being somehow responsible or, indeed, only having themselves to blame if they were stricken with this awful disease.
In 1984, I was an air traffic controller at Melbourne and Sydney airports. I would have confidently stated that none of my circle of colleagues or friends were LGBTI. In fact, several were. Tragically, the case of a couple who became sick and died meant that their final months were spent hidden and alone without friends. I wished I could have had the opportunity to reach out a non-judgmental hand of friendship. Society judged—that was the problem—even if as individuals we did not. In that year, my home state of New South Wales finally decriminalised homosexuality.
In 1987, I was working as a shearers' cook in western Queensland when the grim reaper advertisements first hit our screens. The campaign was not meant to fuel negativity towards gay men, but it did. Young people became terrified of AIDS; stories circulated about how easy it was to catch and how rapidly it would spread. The rumour mill was out of control. In rural Australia, gay people went underground.
The unique circumstances of people growing up gay, lesbian and transgender in rural Australia have defined my approach to marriage equality. I have heard too many stories of loneliness, misunderstanding, rejection and, ultimately, tragedy not to know that this legislation will do much to heal the anguish. As every provider of mental health services and support will tell you, acceptance of you and who you are—and your sexuality is a huge part of this—does much to prevent adolescent anxiety and self-harm. As so many young people in regional Australia have described to me, it is just so hard to be LGBTI growing up in a small town where everyone knows everyone and there is no-one to turn to for understanding and support. In future, I know this angst and distress will be calmed by the sheer ordinariness of same-sex marriages in a person's community, in their extended family and in society at large.
What has been very clear to me throughout this debate is that those of us who are heterosexual should listen to those of us who are not. Anders Furze is a journalist with The Citizen. He comes from my home town of Albury. He expressed his feelings thus:
I'm privileged enough to move in social circles where overt homophobia is rare, although it does happen. But the thing about coming out in a heterosexual culture is that you don't just say "I'm gay", magically click your gay fingers and suddenly erase the overwhelming shame that comes from living in the closet. The effects of hiding an essential part of who you are can and do flow well into adulthood.
When the High Court ruled that the same sex marriage survey could go ahead that shame, which I now realise I had displaced onto other aspects of my life, came rushing back. It's hard to avoid it when every time you turn on the TV or switch on the radio or log onto Twitter or check Facebook or walk past an outdoor billboard or stand on a tram or exist in the world people are debating your sexuality in the background.
Initially I played the game. I entertained semi-sober arguments made by straight acquaintances at the pub. I respectfully argued in Facebook threads for my right to be an equal citizen. I took a deep breath and earnestly braced myself for every conservative think-piece on the issue.
The realisation gnawed at me for days before I eventually let it come racing in: I'd been playing this game my whole life. I'd been deferring to others on the subject of who I was, respectfully segregating my sexuality in order to more easily navigate heterosexual spaces. Why? So I wouldn't offend people. So I wouldn't offend myself. It was a way of being, I realised, that was slowly eating away at me.
To the people in my electorate who identify as LGBTI, may I say that you have been heard. To the people in my electorate who voted no: I respect your vote. I appreciate that you have expressed deeply held, often religious, convictions that have nothing to do with the discrimination against or marginalising of same-sex couples. I note that the Prime Minister has appointed Philip Ruddock to examine whether Australian law adequately protects the human rights to religious freedom. This review will report in March next year. I assure all of my constituents who have voted no that I will continue to listen to your genuinely expressed concerns.
In conclusion, many Australians have had a personal journey when it comes to marriage equality and accepting same-sex marriage. I'm not sure that I would have voted yes 10 years ago. I probably wouldn't have. Five years ago, I might have been ambivalent. Today, for me, a 'yes' vote is the only possibility.
I want to thank the many individuals across this country who have patiently, carefully worked so hard for so long to bring about this result. The generosity, acceptance and sense of a fair go that have always been at the heart of the Australian character have been and will continue to be well and truly on display.
Seldom have so many eyes of the nation has been on this House, on our words and, most importantly, on our actions. I stand here to support the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017 on behalf of the LGBTI community, for those who fought in the past, for those who fought today to see equality in the law, for those who suffered stigma and felt ashamed, for those who have passed and will, sadly, never see the sun rise on a day when they are treated equally in the eyes of the law, and for those who shed so many tears of shame and sadness alone and in the dark. Through this parliament, we have the power to turn those tears into joy by our actions.
I also stand here today to support this bill for all the mums and dads, sisters and brothers, friends and extended families of same-sex couples. For many of these, it was not about placards on the street. It was about love and loved ones given a fair go. It was a defining moment in our society where people overwhelmingly voted yes for love, and it is important we acknowledge that, for many of these people, it was a leap of faith. It was a quiet determination to address an inequality that, for many, had seen a dinner table split down the middle. This generation of haves and have-nots was measured not by material success but by a right to marriage.
When I talked to people in my electorate, the mood was mixed. The majority of people I spoke to were in favour of marriage equality, but many resented the airing of such a personal issue in public. Many felt the glare and focus on something so inherently personal was unjust. While views were mixed on the subject, I struggled to come across anyone who thought it was $122 million well spent. But in the end, the LGBTI community again shone through with a conviction that was best summed up by Magda Szubanski, her passion only outmatched by her class. She was the articulate and dignified voice of the campaign. She spoke up on behalf of both the young queer country kids and the generation that had to suffer through the old laws that criminalised homosexuality. Her message and cause resonated.
In Corio, 84 per cent of electors decided to have their voice heard, and 68 per cent of those who voted in Corio voted yes. Such an overwhelmingly strong turnout for a voluntary survey showed that compassion, love and fairness runs stronger than fear. But, as Magda put it at the National Press Club, we can't turn our back on those who voted no. If we claim respect and fairness as our pillars, we owe it to our democracy and to the next generation to make people feel comfortable and welcome. After all, we in this House are elected to represent our entire electorate, not just the convenient parts.
In the course of talking with my community about marriage equality, I have come to appreciate how important it is that we make sure we talk about protecting religious freedoms. This bill is about marriage and is necessarily focused on that, but I'm glad that it does look to religious protections that those with concerns in our community will in turn be glad to see. If this survey sparks an in-depth look at our human rights framework and where religious freedoms fit, that can only be good. This bill is about making sure we extend freedoms, not remove them, and that is the worthy principle to which we should adhere. But ultimately our job now is to keep a clear focus on having this bill passed, for it will herald a transitional change for justice for those who will now be able to fully enjoy the institution of marriage for the first time.
I have received many happy messages from people about just what this change will mean for them, and I'd like to include just one, from Thomas Marshall, who said:
To me, this means that we as a nation are able to put aside our differences and finally legislate on marriage equality and join so many other countries across the globe. It means that the love I have is legitimised and recognised by the state, and when the time comes, I'll be able and ready to marry.
That message of unity is one we should carry close to our hearts as we pass this bill, for this is a moment when our country grows. When we embrace difference, we become a bigger society. While on the surface there may be a difference between relationships which are gay and relationships which are straight, their fundamental essence is the same; the value of their love is just as precious; the sincerity of commitment is just as deep; and the families built up around them are just as strong. What we are doing today embraces all of those in our lives that are in same-sex relationships on equal and dignified terms and allows parents and children, nephews and aunts, brothers and sisters to engage in the full familial embrace that so many of us as Australians deeply desire. And so today we celebrate all of those in our lives who are in same-sex relationships and who we love. I celebrate my brother-in-law, Jason, and his partner, Wayne. I celebrate my colleague Penny Wong and her partner, Sophie. I celebrate my dear friend Lidija Ivanovski, who helped me with this speech today, and her wife, Jane. I celebrate my sister Jen and her partner, Sue.
As we celebrate all these wonderful people in our lives, it is important that we remember that, while it is our words in this House to which people will look, it is ultimately our actions by our vote which they so critically await.
I welcome this significant opportunity to represent the fine electorate of Groom in this debate on the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017. We are a very significant part of regional Australia and our voice, like those of other electorates, should be heard here in the national parliament. Our centre of Toowoomba is the second largest inland city in Australia behind this, our national capital, and we are the centre of a significant export-oriented agricultural production region and the centre for education, health and cultural services for southern inland Queensland and northern inland New South Wales.
Like many members in this chamber, I have been engaging right across my electorate on this particular issue, not just in recent weeks since the survey result was released but since the federal election of last year, 18 months ago, in relation to the coalition's commitment to ensuring that all Australians would have the opportunity to have their say on the question of same-sex marriage. I have engaged on those issues in Toowoomba, in Pittsworth and Highfields, and in Oakey and various communities in between. Like many, if not all, electorates, we certainly have our share of passionate advocates for either case in relation to the survey. In the case of Groom, that has included a whole range of representatives of the LGBTIQ community that I've met with and spent time with. It also includes, for example, Lyle Shelton, the Managing Director of the Australian Christian Lobby, whose home town is Toowoomba, and also one of his campaign colleagues, Dr David van Gend, the President of the Australian Marriage Forum. Through those consultations, I've heard many personal stories. I've shared in many personal stories of people, of family members and of couples wishing to engage in both sides of this debate. All voices needed to be heard, and that's what the survey has enabled us to achieve.
I'm on the record in my community as one who has supported the traditional definition of marriage. That's based wholly and solely on my own relationship. Thirty years ago this year, my wife, Anita, and I were blessed by the sacrament of marriage in the Catholic cathedral in Townsville, by her late uncle, then Father Michael Putney, later Bishop Michael Putney. In local media, requests right across the community, both publicly and, of course, privately on a number of occasions, about my beliefs—my own stance—have been met with my explanation of my personal story. It's very much my view that my relationship with my wife, Anita, is our business. It's no-one else's business. I recognise that such questions are certainly in the sphere for public debate for us politicians, but, just as my relationship is my business, so are other people's relationships. I don't proselytise about mine to others and I'm so pleased that those whom I've engaged with in discussions about same-sex marriage since my election last year have shown me respect for my relationship, just as I have shown respect for and heard the stories about their relationships, both gay and straight.
I respect different views and I recognise that good Australian citizens—peaceful people, philanthropists, business owners, community organisation members and leaders—can be any one of us, in all of our communities across Australia, gay or otherwise. I also reflect that this particular issue has not been the most common issue raised with me as the member for Groom. The more common issues by far include the economy, local jobs, infrastructure, such as the Toowoomba Second Range Crossing, inland rail as it crosses New South Wales into our part of southern Queensland, as you're aware, Mr Deputy Speaker Coulton, telecommunications, Centrelink—and the list goes on.
But I am so proud of the coalition's commitment, as I said earlier, to ensuring that all Australians had the opportunity to have their say on the question of same-sex marriage. That's certainly been embodied in the comprehensive national survey result just completed, which, of course, returned an emphatic 'yes' result in Queensland.