Thursday, 16 November 2017
Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017; Second Reading
I rise today to speak on the private senator's bill introduced by motion to this place by Senator Smith and also by me, as well as a number of opposition and cross-party senators: the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017. Introducing this bill to the Senate is something that I was extremely proud to do, not because I have been at the forefront of this campaign. Indeed, I have not. Although my position on same-sex marriage has always been clear and has always been consistent, I have not led the charge. Since entering this place 15 months ago, I haven't made unsolicited comments to the media or issued a press release, I haven't covered myself with glitter or rainbows, I haven't changed my social media profile or picture to multicolours, I haven't attended a rally and I haven't even hashtagged. That's not because I don't believe in the cause—I do, deeply—but my political bandwagoning and virtue signalling, one way or the other, was not going to change a single vote. It was not going to affect the outcome one iota. I knew throughout the debate that, despite my very privileged position as a legislator in the Senate of this great country, my opinion on this issue is no more and no less important than anyone else's; it was the deeply held, personal opinions that were sought and received from the Australian public via the national survey. A glib Facebook post, a Q&A appearance, a Press Club address, a hashtag or a finger-wagging diatribe would have changed nothing. Indeed, who am I to think that I could have changed the outcome? We let the people tell us what they want—and, indeed, they have.
Despite my reluctance to gain political mileage from this issue, I have not recused myself from the responsibility of doing what is right. I have vociferously supported and defended the process not as a way to subvert or delay an outcome but because I believe it gives credibility and authority to that outcome. There was much going on behind the scenes that most of the 12 million Australians who participated will never see, and neither should they. We are here, elected by them, so they should trust us to get this right. I was a coalition member of the cross-party committee for 'yes' established to oversee the postal survey and ensure that the process was undertaken with appropriate safeguards and the highest integrity. The many days of observing the counting of the survey results was logistically challenging to administer and tedious, but it was important to ensure that the process was unquestionable. I want to thank those who volunteered to be an observer over the weeks of the count, both for the no side and for the yes side. Being locked away in a windowless room, watching computer screens all day and checking a random sample of thousands of ballot papers for validity was gruelling work, but each team behaved with patience and with dignity. I want to specifically thank Jarrod Lomas, the coordinator of the observers. He is a man of great organisational skill, wit, patience and dignity, and I have made a new friend.
I have also signed my name, along with my Liberal colleague Senator Reynolds and senators from across the opposition and crossbench, to the notice of motion that introduced the bill we are debating today. It is a bill crafted with meticulous care and consideration by my friend Senator Dean Smith. I took the decision to sign the notice of motion to introduce this bill because bringing on the debate immediately after the results of the survey were known was the right thing to do. It's the right thing to do by the Australian people, who, through the haze and vitriol of much of this debate, have made it abundantly clear that the parliament has their support, the imprimatur and the mandate to change the Marriage Act to allow same-sex couples to marry. It's the right thing to do by all Victorians, who I'm here to represent, for Victoria's support for a yes vote at 64.9 per cent has been overwhelming.
It's the right thing to do by my colleagues right across the chamber who have undertaken extensive committee work, receiving over 400 submissions, with three days of hearings in three states, and hour after hour of cross-party negotiations to return a consensus committee report. That was a historic occasion. A consensus committee report on a contentious issue is the unicorn of the Senate! It was the hard work and the goodwill of the senators involved that made that possible. It was the right thing to do by Senator Smith, a man of extraordinary integrity, kindness, diligence and wisdom, a man whose journey to this point has not been easy. My support for his bill is also a reflection of my respect and admiration for him. It's the right thing to do by my party, which knows that, when you look people in the eye and you make them a promise, you keep it. My party respects those not only who work hard but also who are as good as their word.
In my party, as well as in my country, we value no principle more highly than equality under the law. That includes the legal right to marry. Freedom of speech and freedom of religion are equally important but different principles. I believe that the bill before us, meticulously crafted to reflect the consensus views of the cross-party committee on this very issue, not only provides legal equality for all Australians in relation to marriage but does so without diminishing existing freedoms of speech or freedoms of religion. The bill removes existing discrimination in our marriage law, it protects religious institutions and it does not reintroduce commercial discrimination. In doing so, it advances the civic rights of all Australians and provides protection for religious institutions to continue to be guided by the tenets of their faith. Importantly, it actually offers new protections for ministers of religion performing marriages for religious denominations that are not yet recognised. This is particularly noteworthy for independent religious organisations and smaller, emerging religious groups. The bill also permits bodies established for religious purposes to be able to refuse to make a facility available or provide goods and services associated with the solemnisation of a marriage.
Importantly, this bill upholds existing antidiscrimination laws. There is nothing in the proposed legislation that removes an existing right, nor does any of it diminish an existing civil freedom. Very importantly for the deliberations of this chamber and for the millions of Australians who, not through bigotry or homophobia but because of deeply held personal or religious beliefs in hesitation and apprehension voted no, this bill affords far greater levels of religious protection than any of the 22 marriage equality bills that have been introduced since 2004. It is worth noting for the chamber that bodies established for religious purposes are actually already exempt from a number of antidiscrimination laws, including the Sex Discrimination Act 1984. The bill will ensure that the Sex Discrimination Act of 1984 is amended to give full effect to the religious protections in the bill.
We should be very clear on this point: this bill is not designed to satisfy those occupying the extremes of the marriage equality debate. That is not the remit of a representative chamber. Rather, the ambition of this legislation is to offer a considered, sensible and balanced pathway forward that will find favour with fair-minded Australians. And there are many, many millions of fair-minded Australians. I was very proud to sign my name to the notice of motion to introduce the Smith bill to the Senate chamber.
It is only a fool or an ideologue or a shameless self-promoter that would not reserve the right to consider amendments. Of course I will. In this chamber, there are many people with good hearts and sharp intellects, and no-one has a monopoly on good ideas. But I will not countenance amendments that in my mind condone brand-new forms of discrimination. Balancing competing freedoms is a very difficult task. We must always remember that, with rights and freedoms, come responsibilities. We have a responsibility to have a respectful and robust debate, but at the end of it all we cannot ignore, we cannot circumvent and we cannot subvert the will of the majority—the majority of both the parliament and the Australian people we are here to represent.
Thank you to the 12 million Australians who came out and voted. To the majority who voted yes, I want to reassure you that we will change the law to allow same-sex couples to marry. That is what you voted for overwhelmingly, and that is what my government promised you. To the minority who voted no, thank you for expressing your views in a democratic process. I'm very sorry that the old adage remains true: sometimes in a democracy the other side wins. I hope that today I have reassured you that your genuine concerns have been heard and many of those concerns have already been considered and have been addressed in the bill that we are considering today. The Australian people have instructed the parliament to act, and we will do so. We are all here as humble servants of the Australian people. We have an obligation—a duty, even—to respect their wishes and to act swiftly to make marriage equality a reality in this country. To do anything else would be a betrayal of the trust that the Australian people have put in us.
I am a passionate person on many things, but I am not prone to tears. When the results of the survey came in yesterday, I was surprised to find myself moved to weeping. It was somewhat embarrassing; I was in a meeting surrounded by my colleagues. The relief, the joy and the pride on the faces of those who had gathered in public places around the nation was overwhelming. It got me thinking about that word 'pride', a word used so much in this debate. And, of course, the opposite of pride is shame. I really hope that at the end of this process, when this bill—a good bill, a considered bill, a thorough bill—is passed, same-sex couples will feel proud of their love for one another, proud of the commitment they have made to each other and proud of the welcome place they have in their communities. I hope also that the shame they may have felt in the past is diminished in their memories and eliminated in their futures.
It is our job as legislators to give Australians better futures, so I too am proud today. I'm proud that I have played my small roles behind the scenes, away from the headlines, away from the limelight and away from the virtue signals and the political opportunism, to enable this change to take place. I'm proud of the conduct of my colleagues throughout this chamber in finding a consensus approach to a very difficult subject that has haunted successive governments for more than a decade. I'm proud of my government for standing resolutely by its promises. I am proud that I have not used, and will not use, this issue to advance my own standing within my party, within the parliament or within the electorate. I'm proud that my actions have contributed to the opportunities, the futures and the unbridled happiness of thousands and thousands of LGBTIQ Australians and their families. I am proud that my children, when they grow, will be part of a more accepting, open-minded and inclusive society where no legal construct will cause them or their friends shame.
I will support this bill, I will speak on this bill and I will fight for this bill because the people of Australia have told us emphatically that they want this bill passed. It is a commitment that we have made to many millions of people from the LGBTIQ community from my state of Victoria, from my party and from across Australia. But, more importantly, it is the right thing to do. I don't want to horrify the chamber, but I have Irish blood in me—it's not a section 44 issue, I promise! In fact, you'll have to go a very, very long way back in my family tree to find somebody born overseas. But, that said, I am reminded of a traditional Irish blessing that is often said at weddings. I would like to dedicate that blessing to those Australians who very soon will be able to marry. I'm looking forward to being able to say to them: 'May the road rise to meet you. May the wind always be at your back. May the warm rays of sun fall upon your home. And may the hand of a friend always be near.'