Senate debates

Tuesday, 28 November 2017


Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017; In Committee

6:17 pm

Photo of Zed SeseljaZed Seselja (ACT, Liberal Party, Assistant Minister for Social Services and Multicultural Affairs) Share this | Hansard source

There are a couple of areas that I want to touch on before I get into some of the issues around parental rights, which I think are absolutely critical. They are one of the reasons I will be supporting this set of amendments moved by Senator Paterson, which are thoroughly in the best traditions of liberalism and conservatism, and I commend him for it.

I will make a couple of comments in relation to Senator Collins's contribution. It does appear clear that Labor is voting as a bloc, so it doesn't appear that there is a conscience vote. I think that is clear. Senator Collins was objecting before to Senator O'Sullivan's characterisation of that, and it's not clear how that came about. I know that Mark Dreyfus stated today that there is a Labor position on the amendments, so I think that is clear. What's gone on internally in the Labor Party is up to them, but I would just make this point: we now have a situation, as we discuss these amendments, where certainly on the Liberal-National side there is a conscience vote, but Labor has bound their senators on this. So we don't have a genuine conscience vote as we debate these substantive amendments that were moved by Senator Paterson and others. I think it is well worth reflecting on that. Whether or not that's because, as Senator Wong said, senators who felt differently from the party line didn't want a conscience vote or because it's been imposed on them is for those senators to say, but I think that is a disappointing aspect of this, because certainly the Labor Party has been arguing for a conscience vote for a long time on this issue. They've in fact had a mixed message where they have argued for a conscience vote but were going to bind their people after the next election regardless. Now it seems there isn't a genuine conscience vote as we discuss these things.

I say to those Labor senators who expressed a view raising some concerns about religious freedom and about some of these fundamental things we are debating that the point that Senator Paterson made is a very good one. The review is important. It will look at a lot of these things, but they have an opportunity now to stand up for these things as they relate to beliefs about marriage. These are not hypotheticals. We have seen enough examples in Australia now and certainly overseas, where the law has been changed, of people being discriminated against because of their views of marriage. That is indisputable.

I'm sure that some of our colleagues in the Greens and the like would be very comfortable with that discrimination. In fact, I think that case in Tasmania against Archbishop Porteous was brought by a Greens candidate, if I'm not mistaken. So the Greens' world view is that archbishops who express the view of their faith on marriage should be hauled before a tribunal. I take a very different view. I think most Australians would take a different view. We have an opportunity to vote today in support of that freedom of speech. We have an opportunity today to address that situation with Archbishop Porteous—which, of course, did happen before marriage laws changed, but let's just play that to the end. We've got a situation where an archbishop was expressing the views of his faith about marriage in what I think most Australians would argue was a very respectful way. That also happened to be and happens still today to be the law of the land in this country. So Archbishop Porteous, whilst he was dragged before that tribunal, had backing not just because he was expressing his religious view but because he was expressing the view of what is reflected in the law of the land. That won't be the case in a week or so from now, and what we have seen from left-wing activists is that they will use antidiscrimination laws to try to shut people like Archbishop Porteous up. They will absolutely do that. They've already demonstrated that they will, and they will be emboldened by it.

Most people who voted yes don't want to see those kinds of actions. Most 'yes' voters would be very happy for same-sex couples to be able to marry and for individuals to be able to express their freedom of speech in relation to their view of marriage. That's, I think, where most Australians would probably sit, but, with the way that our antidiscrimination laws are in our states at the moment, things often don't work out that way. And so supporting amendments that really support free speech and support the ability of the people to express their views and not have adverse action taken against them is, I think, thoroughly liberal and thoroughly important when it comes to freedoms in this country.

We've heard of some of the overseas examples, and I won't go over all of them, but I will point to one of them: the issue at Trinity law school in Canada. I don't think anyone would want to see us get to a situation in this country where, because someone goes to a faith based school, faith based law school or school for another profession which has a traditional and conservative view of marriage, they would somehow not be able to practise in their profession. I think that would be an outrageous restraint on freedom of religion. And we don't want to get to that point.

Again, I made the point earlier that we have this opportunity now, as we debate this bill, to make a decision. We've dealt with one part through the plebiscite, and that is: should same-sex couples be able to marry? The Australian people have said yes, so that's going to happen. Then the question is: Do we want to see some of the negative flow-on impacts that we've seen in other countries and the restrictions on freedoms and the pitting of one part of our community against another? Or do we want to take some sensible steps, some sensible safeguards, in accordance with international law, and say, 'Let's try to avoid that. Let's learn from other countries and try to make sure that in passing this we don't exacerbate that divide and the ability of some people to use our antidiscrimination laws effectively to shut people of faith up'? Yes, it's happened before. The fear is that it will potentially get worse in the future.

We saw the intentions of some in our community when it came to Pansy Lai. We saw the disgraceful targeting of Pansy Lai because she happens to have a view on marriage. In the view of some activists and the view of thousands of people who signed a petition, people like Pansy Lai shouldn't be able to practise as doctors, because they have a view of marriage that is currently expressed in our law but will not be in a couple of weeks time. I would argue that it will be harder for future Pansy Lais—or medical boards or others—to resist those kinds of things when the law of the land has changed. So putting in place some sensible safeguards seems to me to be very reasonable.

I want to make one other point in relation to Safe Schools and parental choice. When you ask virtually any parent faced with some of the material around things like the Safe Schools curriculum, whether a parent should know about that and have the opportunity to withdraw their child from those kinds of classes, you get an overwhelming response in the affirmative: that they should. As Senator Fawcett has pointed out, in accordance with their rights under the international covenant on the religious and moral instruction of their children, parents should be able to withdraw their children from those classes. This is something that is worth fighting for. People who are voting on these amendments would do well to consider whether they want to vote for that kind of situation, whether they want to vote against an amendment that would protect those rights.

No doubt we're going to hear from others who will argue the opposite. But go out there into the community and say, 'No, I don't support the right of parents to be able to withdraw their children from those types of classes,' and see how you go. During the campaign we saw the absolute distancing from things like Safe Schools, whereas some of the Greens senators in their contributions earlier this week said that we should absolutely bring the issue of Safe Schools and the issue of same-sex marriage together. It absolutely doesn't have to be, because we've got the opportunity here in this chamber, and when it's debated in the House of Representatives, to say, 'No, we do support parental rights.' I support parental rights. I think the vast majority of our constituents support parental rights in these areas. I would say to senators: demonstrate that you support those rights by voting for some of these amendments. Demonstrate that you don't want to see people discriminated against because of their views on marriage, whether it's in employment, whether it's in speech or whether it is in these fundamental issues of parents' ability to determine the moral and religious instruction of their children.

Those are pretty fundamental things for me. I think they have been pretty important things for us as a political movement at the centre-right of politics. The ideas of freedom of religion, freedom of speech, parental rights and freedom of conscience are fundamental to who we are as Liberals and Nationals. I would rarely hear at a branch meeting or from our supporters that we should water down protections when it comes to freedom of speech, freedom of religion and parental rights. It's very rare, in fact, that I've heard a supporter of the Liberal and National parties arguing for that, and, I think, with good reason, because these things are foundational to who we are.

So, Chair, I put to you and, through you, to senators that these amendments are well worth supporting. In fact, voting against them will send a very negative message about our views about some of these fundamental freedoms. To those Labor senators who have expressed some of these concerns—and we heard some of those concerns expressed in their speeches—I think it is bitterly disappointing that you don't have the freedom to vote according to your conscience when we were told by your leader that there would be a conscience vote. So I repeat: we have a conscience vote on this side and there will be a conscience vote, presumably, on some of the crossbenches, but there won't be a conscience vote on these fundamental issues in the Australian Labor Party. I think it would be better if there were, but I commend these amendments to the Senate.


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