Senate debates

Thursday, 16 November 2017

Bills

Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017; Second Reading

4:54 pm

Photo of Stirling GriffStirling Griff (SA, Nick Xenophon Team) Share this | Hansard source

How good is it that we stand here today knowing that, after all the years of fighting for marriage equality, it's almost here? How good is it that the purposeful discrimination introduced by the Howard government 13 years ago will soon be dead and buried? Australia has voted for equal love, for equal treatment and for equal respect. I know what a proud moment it is to be able to publicly commit to the person you love, as I have with my wife, Kristin. Every Australian will soon have the same privilege. I'm especially proud that every single electorate in my home state of South Australia voted for marriage equality. Sixty-two-point-five per cent of South Australians voted yes. This is an unambiguous result and I would urge my state Senate colleagues, Senators Gichuhi, Bernardi and Farrell, who have so far indicated that they will not back this bill, to respect the wishes of our great state and, instead, vote for it. In fact, given that every state and territory voted in favour of changing the definition of marriage, every Senator should follow suit. This chamber could make history with a unanimous 'yes' vote, and that would be a very impressive scene.

As exciting as the results have been, I do however regret that we wasted $122 million of taxpayer money to confirm what we already knew. In 2004, when John Howard amended the federal Marriage Act to explicitly state that marriage be between a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, he didn't insist on a survey or a plebiscite; he simply took it to the parliament. Our current Prime Minister could and should have put forward legislation months ago to allow parliament to vote on the issue of marriage equality. This would have been the least expensive and least harmful way of ensuring that all people, regardless of their sexual orientation, are equal under the law. But the deed is now done and, with almost 13 million people completing the survey, at least there can be no arguing about the result. The people have spoken and we are here to do what Australians have elected us to do: listen to their wishes and enact their decisions on marriage equality.

It is worth taking a moment to appreciate how far we have come as a society in a relatively short time. Only two generations ago, being gay was a criminal offence. South Australia and the ACT were the first states to decriminalise homosexuality in the mid-1970s, but it took 22 years until it was decriminalised across Australia. Tasmania was the last state to hold out. It was still a crime as recently as 1997—just 20 years ago—and yet Tasmania has resoundingly embraced marriage equality. It is this thought of adaptability and commitment to fairness that makes me proud to be an Australian.

Incredibly, it was only recently that we took the next logical step to expunge the sting of criminal convictions. In 2013, South Australia was the first state to expunge convictions for homosexuality. New South Wales and Victoria did the same in the following two years. Queensland and Tasmania both passed legislation just last month, and Western Australia only introduced legislation to do so two weeks ago. I suppose it is better late than never. I still feel some disbelief that, as recently as the 1970s, eighties and nineties, we found the notion of homosexuality so confronting that we jailed and chemically castrated men who were only being true to themselves. We forced LGBTI people to live a lie. We forced them to conform, which not only brought misery to them but also often brought misery to the people they misguidedly married in their desire to fit society's norms. Thank God those days are well and truly over.

I respect that not everyone who completed the survey felt comfortable ticking yes and that the people who oppose same-sex marriage have a variety of personal and religious reasons for doing so. That's fair enough. We're all entitled to our views, but I am confident that the end of days predicted by the worst excesses of the no campaign will not come to pass. This moment is a line in the sand that acknowledges the obvious truth: we are not all cut from the same cloth. What is important is to support loving adult relationships.

Senator Smith's marriage amendment bill makes only a tiny change to the Marriage Act, but it will bring about a profound, welcoming and inclusive change to our society. It undoes the definition of marriage imposed during those Howard years. It will protect religious freedoms in relation to marriage by allowing places of worship to refuse to host same-sex marriages if this doesn't accord with their doctrines, and it will allow religious ministers and celebrants to refuse to solemnise a marriage if it affronts their religious beliefs.

I know many same-sex couples gave up waiting for Australian law to catch up to Australian opinion and went overseas to get married. This bill will finally allow their marriages to be recognised here. But same-sex marriage is not just about wedding rings and recognising love equally. Marriage also simplifies some of life's messy red tape and it will extend some important rights to same-sex couples. For instance, both people will automatically be considered parents of babies born through IVF rather than having to prove their de facto status. What makes me especially happy about what we are doing here today is how much this will mean to the children of same-sex couples. They will know that, in law, their parents are no different from other parents. They will know that their parents' love and respect for each other is truly recognised, that their relationship is valued and that their rainbow family is not in any way second class. This bill topples the final barrier in our law that discriminates against LGBTI people.

I note Senator Paterson had also drafted a bill, which sought to represent the views of the 38 per cent of Australians who voted no in the survey. I'm glad it did not see the light of day, because that bill did not respect the yes vote. In fact, it was an insult to it. How could we possibly enact a bill to end discrimination against same-sex couples only to enshrine it elsewhere, as Senator Paterson's bill sought to do, by making it okay to refuse a service to LGBTI people? Such a regressive step would only take us as a society back to an ugly place and would be a slap in the face to the community and, indeed, to anyone who is affronted by bigotry and discrimination in any form. Senator Smith's bill strikes the right balance. As I said earlier, marriage equality is such a small change in law but will have such a profound impact. It puts love above prejudice, and I truly believe we as a society will be better for it.

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