Monday, 17 September 2012
Marriage Amendment Bill (No. 2) 2012; Second Reading
I rise today to speak to the marriage equality bill that is before us. This bill, the Marriage Amendment Bill (No. 2) 2012, is the second marriage equality bill that I have spoken on in the past month. This is, of course, an issue that people are extremely passionate about in our Australian community. Here in this place we have taken quite some time to catch up with those out in the streets, around dinner tables at home, with friends, family and work colleagues who, across the country, have become far more passionate about this issue in the last decade. We know that other countries around the world have taken this step of removing discrimination in their marriage acts. They have shown a willingness to remove that discrimination and allow the institution of marriage to become inclusive, not exclusive, allowing same-sex couples the ability to have their love celebrated and their relationships accepted, understood and respected under their laws—countries like Catholic Spain, Belgium, Canada and various states in the United States. Recently there were celebrations on the streets of New York when New York allowed same-sex marriage and moved for marriage equality.
We also know that political leaders throughout the world have changed their views on this issue. The President of the United States, Barack Obama, despite being staunchly opposed in recent years to marriage equality, has now changed his view and become a key supporter because, as he put it, when his daughters asked him why such discrimination would exist and what difference it made to allow same-sex couples the same rights as everybody else, he found it difficult to explain that type of prejudice and discrimination to his own children. That is reminiscent of the change that many of us have seen, not just with political leaders but also, of course, in the way the general community has learnt that the time has come to remove discrimination, to allow equality and to push ahead for this important reform.
Here in this place we have had many debates about this particular issue. In 2009 in this place we debated my marriage equality bill for the first time. When that bill was finally put to a vote it was only the five Greens senators sitting right here in these seats that voted for that piece of legislation.
I think it is important for us to reflect on just how far we have come since then: to now see four bills for marriage equality across both houses, with a real willingness, passion and push from many people from all sides wanting to see this reform happen.
We know there are reforms happening in the states and territories across Australia because people are becoming sick and tired of waiting for the inevitable. Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott, despite their personal views, remain steadfast in blocking true reform from happening. Tony Abbott, of course, is not letting his members have a free vote on this issue. I think that is shameful. I would like to think we could have this debate today and that, when this bill finally comes to a vote, every person in this house has the opportunity to vote for what they know is right. And, if that is indeed to remove this discrimination, people should have the opportunity to do that. I read in the papers this morning that it does not look as though Tony Abbott is going to change his mind, that he is going to keep his troops well and truly in their place.
But I am concerned too with the lack of leadership shown by Julia Gillard on this front. Despite continual insistence that she does not support marriage equality, she can never quite explain why. We will hear throughout this debate today, and in coming days, members in this place stand up and speak very passionately against removing this discrimination and they will base that on their long-held views of tradition and their religious convictions around marriage equality. I tend to disagree with their position, but I can understand the footing from which they have come to their views. Our own Prime Minister, however, is not able to articulate her opposition on this issue. I think it is disappointing to see the leader of our country unable to take this issue in both hands and drive the reform forward and because of that I believe Julia Gillard, like Tony Abbott, is standing in the way of this reform happening.
But it is inevitable; it will happen. The changes are inevitable. There are many, many Australians who want to see marriage equality become a reality. They want to see this discrimination removed. They do not want us to be left back in the dark ages where we thought that just because somebody was homosexual they deserved to be treated as a second-class citizen. This is modern Australia. This is 2012. It is time for us to rid our statute books of this type of discrimination.
I spoke several weeks ago on the marriage equality bill that is currently before this place in my name about how the institution of marriage should be embraced as an institution that is important not just to the state but to our communities; about how we understand the universal language of marriage and love and that we should be allowing this institution to be inclusive not exclusive. I spoke about how the institution and our understanding of it has changed over time. Back in the 1950s, before we had the federal Marriage Act, each of the states was responsible for governing the laws of the institution of marriage. Within some states there was active discrimination against people being able to marry because of their race. Some states had to sign off on the marriage between an Aboriginal man and a white woman or between an Aboriginal woman and a non-Aboriginal man. The institution was discriminatory based on whether somebody was indeed Aboriginal. When in this federal parliament it was decided to enact a federal marriage act, there was a big debate about how one of the best things about having a federal marriage act would be that it would overcome the discrimination embedded in some of the state jurisdictions on this issue. When the federal Marriage Act was established during the Menzies government, Menzies himself said that that type of discrimination had no place in what would become the new laws governing the institution of marriage and love. I think it was a pretty noble act to remove that discrimination and to accept that two people love each other and no-one else should have the right to say no simply because of who those people were.
So we got rid of that discrimination and we moved on, and we thought that was a fabulous and wonderful thing to do, except that this discrimination currently exists and it is time that we did something about it. Marriage as an institution has changed over time as our understanding as a community, as a people, as governments and as elected representatives has changed. Back in the 1950s, we thought it was wrong to discriminate against people because of their race, and it was; and it is wrong today, as it was wrong back then, to continue to discriminate against a couple simply because of their sexuality.
That is the point that so many Australians believe in so dearly: this institution is important and people should have the right to choose whether they want to marry, but it should not be the law itself that discriminates simply because it has always been that way. I have heard some opponents speaking about why they strongly believe that the Marriage Act should not be amended and that marriage equality should simply be brushed aside. They talk of not wanting to change the institution of marriage, that it cannot be changed, that it has always been like this and that, whether we like it or not, that discrimination exists and will continue to exist. Mr Deputy President, I put to you that, as society accepts that things must change, as we become wiser about the decisions we make in not discriminating against people based on their race, gender, ethnicity or sexuality, the laws that govern our country must change as well. Thankfully, the majority of Australians across all sectors agree—from the cities, to the suburbs, to the bush and to the regions there is an overwhelming feeling that, if people want to get married, who cares whether they are straight or gay?
I say that, remembering a T-shirt that I saw in a town I was visiting in rural Victoria during the election in 2010.
It was a young guy, and he was wearing a T-shirt that said: 'Some dudes love dudes. Get over it.' I thought: 'You know what? Well said.' It is true, Mr Deputy President. There are gay couples and lesbian couples in our community living in committed, loving, long-term relationships. They are couples who have families. They are somebody's daughter or son, sister or brother, and niece or nephew. They could also be somebody's mother or father, and these people deserve the same rights as everybody else. If they wish to get married, they should be able to.
The strongest support in this place that I have seen from marriage equality advocates over the last three years in particular has come overwhelmingly from the parents of gay and lesbian Australians. Organisations like PFLAG—Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays—have done a sterling job at bringing forward this issue into the light of the public realm. Right here in this place, the number of doors of parliamentarians they have knocked on has been phenomenal, and they do it because they love their sons and daughters. They want their now adult children to be accepted as equal and to see their relationships equally recognised. If their son or daughter wants to be able to marry the person that they love and are going to commit the rest of their life to, these parents believe they should. Why should parliamentarians in this place have the right to say no just because of the argument that this is the way the law has always been? It is a really hollow comeback. It is not a significant argument against why we would move to enable marriage and the institution of marriage to be more inclusive.
One of the other reasons, of course, that we hear from opponents on this issue is in relation to religious freedom. That is why, when the Marriage Equality Amendment Bill 2010—which was subject to a debate here in this place only a couple of weeks ago—went through an extensive Senate inquiry, the most submissions ever received in a Senate inquiry were received on this piece of legislation. People believe that this is an important issue to debate. They want our parliamentarians to be talking about it. It became very clear that, while religious organisations already have the ability to make a decision about who they want to marry in their churches or by their particular celebrants and who they do not, they want it to be even clearer. That is why this piece of legislation that is currently before us makes it very clear: no-one is forcing anyone to be married, to marry somebody else or to oversee a marriage. It is all about removing the restrictions that say that people cannot if, indeed, they want to. It is an interesting point to make on that issue that actually the majority of weddings in Australia are conducted by civil celebrants. Over 60 per cent of Australian marriages are. People already make a choice about what type of ceremony, celebrant, wedding and marriage they are going to have. Those choices are there for celebrants, religious organisations and couples who are entering into that important institution.
As I have said several times here in this place, there is growing support in the Australian community for marriage equality, and it is only going to continue to grow.
I hope this legislation does pass in this place but I fear that, until there is true leadership from the political leaders of both the Labor Party and the coalition, it will not. This issue will not go away. It will continue to grow. When the legislation finally passed in New York last year there were celebrations in the streets that marriage equality was finally happening, but that vote on that piece of legislation did not finally get through until the third try. The issue did not go away. It kept coming back and, by the time political representatives and leaders in their parliament accepted that the change was inevitable and that the tide could not be stopped, it was on the third time that the legislation passed.
I believe that that is what will happen here too. This is important reform. Australians believe in it. It is part of our nature to give people a fair go, to not get hung up on the differences between us but to focus on the things that we all believe in dearly. If that means extending the institution of marriage, we should. (Time expired)