Senate debates

Thursday, 16 November 2017


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

5:29 pm

Photo of Matthew CanavanMatthew Canavan (Queensland, Liberal National Party, Minister for Resources and Northern Australia) Share this | Hansard source

I'm humbled and privileged to make a contribution to this historic debate. I want to, at the outset, congratulate those who have campaigned and fought for change in this area on their victory. I think they have engaged in a worthwhile and, as others have described, lengthy debate to bring themselves to this situation, and I do want to genuinely congratulate them on what they've achieved. This is what politics should be about: advocating and seeking change. Sometimes that can be frustrating and take time, but we have got to the situation here where we will legislate change, and I do want to genuinely extend my congratulations to those who achieved that, notwithstanding the fact that I thought it was best not to change the Marriage Act.

I do think that change has been achieved and will be enshrined in law through this process because there have been some very strong arguments in favour of change. Even though I came to a different point of view, overall there has been a very strong argument put and that is why it resonated with the Australian people and has ultimately manifested itself in this result. I do accept, and I have said this during the debate, that the strongest argument for same-sex marriage is that two people love each other and they should be able to marry and solemnise that love in the way that others can.

That argument has won the day, but I would also hope as we proceed through this debate that we don't simply ignore those Australians who did vote no, and not have the respect and ability to recognise that there were strong arguments on the other side of the debate too. I don't think it's possible or likely that we could have had nearly five million Australians vote no without there being strong and well put arguments on the other side of this debate too. That's not to say we have to agree with each other or each other's conclusions, but I do think, as citizens of Australia, that we want to come together and unify after debates such as these, and a fundamental element of delivering that unity is respecting each other's different opinions and views. I have always tried to respect those who had a different opinion on this matter from me, as I do in every debate that comes to the floor of this chamber, and I hope such respect can be returned.

I do, however, disagree with the view that somehow having this debate was incorrect or unfortunate. I think there's a lot of truth in the epigram of Joseph Joubert, a French moralist, who said:

It is better to debate a question without settling it than to settle a question without debating it.

We are lucky in the country to live in a place where we are all able to debate weighty and major issues. I know I might be a minority in this place, but I do believe firmly that as a result of this survey we have a stronger and more likely ability to unify as a nation if there is goodwill because all parties have had an opportunity to have their say. I do want to say, as someone in this place who has been in favour of traditional marriage, there are many Australians who don't feel that their views on this matter have been well voiced in the Australian landscape, be it through the media, be it through this place as well, and this process has given them that opportunity. I do want to thank many sections of the media who I think approached this debate in a dignified and balanced way, including, may I say, and I put it on record, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation—not someone I would always necessarily ascribe fair and balanced views to, but I do applaud them for their coverage over the past few months. They have approached this in a fair and balanced way and that has given a level of validation from all areas of Australia to the result of this vote and the ultimate decision that will be made in this parliament to legislate for same-sex marriage.

I have always said through this debate that I, myself, would respect the will of the Australian and Queensland people, who I represent, and I will do that through this debate. I do hope that I can vote for a bill that changes the Marriage Act. I have said throughout the debate that I cannot, in good faith and good conscience, support a bill that would otherwise compromise fundamental human rights. I might seek to explain that a little during this contribution but I ultimately hope that I can support the will of the Queensland and Australian people. I do think that is a prospect with some of the discussion we've had here today, but I also flag that the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill, as presented, does not go far enough in protecting fundamental freedom of religion and parental rights.

I quickly want to return, though, to the strong arguments from the 'yes' side that the love of two people should be recognised and that there should be an ability to solemnise that relationship. I have always accepted that is a strong argument. It is a strong emotional argument and it has strong logical connotations to it, too, but I would also like to repeat that it's important to understand why some people voted no. I fundamentally reject the view that those on the 'no' side did so out of any ill will to those of a homosexual persuasion who would like to solemnise a relationship. I certainly didn't. My position, and the position of many millions of other Australians as well, is that there is something fundamentally unique and distinct about a male and female relationship. It does not make it better or superior or in any way above a homosexual relationship, but it is fundamentally different. In my view that is why, independently, human tribes, human civilisations for millennia, long past and since we have recorded history, have settled on a cultural institution that has involved marriage between one woman and one man to the exclusion of all others. This is not a religious concept, although religions have often adopted or co-opted such institutions into their own tenets. In almost every civilisation it has always been something that has seemingly organically emerged as human culture has thrived and developed.

I do make the point that this is a significant change. It is a significant change to what human civilisations over the millennia have previously espoused as the definition of marriage. We also must, and I hope we can, recognise that the vast majority of countries in the world continue to retain a definition of traditional marriage. Indeed, on the latest count that I have, more than 85 per cent of countries in the world retain a definition of traditional marriage. That may change over time; although the prospect of that happening in the immediate future in some parts of our region, the Asia-Pacific region, is probably slim because they remain quite socially conservative cultures—not Judeo-Christian ones, but socially conservative ones; that's for sure. As I said earlier, I hope that the respect that we hopefully have for each other here in this place and that we have shown in this country can also be extended to our near neighbours and fellow countries, which will probably most likely retain a definition of traditional marriage. As I said, I do not see that it is in any way a rejection or diminution of a homosexual relationship. It is just a different cultural institution that some societies will continue to want to have as a means of flourishing family life.

I also want to make a brief comment, and only a brief one, that, while my support for traditional marriage is one rooted in my overall conservative viewpoint of the world—that we should respect the institutions that have stood the test of time and seek to understand them before we change those long-standing institutions—I also am increasingly concerned about the breakdown of the family unit in the modern world. This is a separate issue to what we are debating here; however, I do think we must recognise here that once the Marriage Act is changed it will represent a fundamental shift in how our society, over many decades, has viewed and taught what marriage is in our society. We will have gone from a situation many decades ago where marriage was most often something that was entered into for life and would not be broken until the passing of one of the partners to one where it is much more, and often, temporary. Although the statistics are often hard to get at, given their longitudinal nature, possibly about half or maybe more than half of marriages end in divorce and are not seen through to the end of life. It has always been the right of society to make that change—and we're not going back to the previous world; that is certainly not the case—but I recognise that that has not always and everywhere been a good thing.

The ideal environment for a child, the ideal environment for any young Australian, is to know and love their biological mother and father, if possible. That is not always the case; that is not always able to be delivered for a variety of reasons, some completely out of anyone's control. But I still hope and believe that that is the ultimate horizon that is aimed for in life, that a young person can know and love the two people who created them and created their life. I think it's something fundamental about what it is to be human to have an instinct, a desire, to know and love one's biological mother and father. Again, I want to stress that that is not saying to any extent that a different form of parenting is inferior or incorrect, and that extends to adopted parents. Adopted parents provide loving and secure homes to many, many people. But it doesn't change the fact that I think there's something fundamentally human, instinctively in all of us, to know and love our biological mother and father.

I hope that Australian governments and Australian society generally continue to strengthen the family unit and try to ensure that as many Australians as possible do have that opportunity. As a father, and a proud father, there's an almost unequal responsibility on the father in these situations not to run away, to stick around. I think it's very unfortunate when men do that. It's a negative part of male culture that has emerged in our society that many are not meeting their responsibilities as fathers. If you're lucky enough and fortunate enough to create a life, you should bear up to your responsibilities of looking after that person and make an effort towards rearing them.

Returning to the issue of respect, I do hope that there can be an understanding that the reason why amendments may be sought to be moved is to protect fundamental human rights. Some of those amendments, and I'm not going to go through all of the amendments right now that I may move, come from the viewpoint that it is a fundamental human right that a mother, father or parent should be able to decide and determine the moral and religious education of their children. That is not something that I'm necessarily asking to debate right now. It is something that the Australian government has signed up to and enshrined in international human rights law. Specifically, the International Covenant on Civil and Politics Rights, at article 18, states:

The States Parties to the present Covenant undertake to have respect for the liberty of parents and, when applicable, legal guardians to ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions.

That is something we have; it's part of our law to uphold that in this country. Any change to the Marriage Act, including in the bill before us, will not reduce or change that commitment we have made in international law. But I think there are some issues here that provide an opportunity for us to recognise that commitment and to ensure that it is upheld in any changes to the Marriage Act. I do think there is a strong desire in the Australian community to provide parents with that autonomy.

Others have quoted the views of the Australian people in the broad and the majority opinion here. I'm not seeking to make this argument only because the majority of people have that view, but it is the case that all the polls show the majority of Australians want to see strong protections for religion and human rights and also for parental choice. In polling over the weekend, about 60 per cent of Australians would like to ensure we have strong protections for parental rights in any change to the Marriage Act.

There is also a general protection for religious freedom in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, in article 18 subsection 1:

Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.

This is something we signed up to in the 1970s as a country, but of course it's also a fundamental building block of Western society, of the democracy that we have here today. It's not a small cause of the society we have had, but the fight for religious freedom over many centuries and years. Indeed, one of the reasons, perhaps, we have been fortunate enough to have had the flowering of Western democracy in our country and many countries in the Western world is the ultimate conclusion of battles for religious freedom, stretching back many, many hundreds of years. I hope that that fundamental freedom as well can be protected through this debate, particularly as it might manifest itself in marriage ceremonies, including those involving not just ministers of religion but also celebrants.

Finally, I want to not just congratulate but give very genuine well wishes to those who will now be able to get married under the change that will occur. There was a strong argument for this particular change, and I am sure, given the outpouring of happiness and joy as a result of the change, that the effect will be multiplied over many months as people are able to have their relationships recognised under the law. I think that will be something that all Australians can join in and share and recognise. I very much hope that those people that will be able to have that opportunity will take out of this now a happiness that could otherwise not have been provided by action in this place. I thank the Australian people for the respectful way this debate has been handled. It's a testament to the strength of our country and the strength of our democracy, and I hope we continue to go forward on that basis throughout this debate in this chamber.


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