Senate debates

Tuesday, 13 February 2018


Finance and Public Administration References Committee; Report

5:30 pm

Photo of Janet RiceJanet Rice (Victoria, Australian Greens) Share this | Hansard source

I also seek to take note of the Finance and Public Administration References Committee report on the postal survey concerning same-sex marriage. I congratulate Senator McAllister for her chairing of this committee, because I think this report is a very comprehensive assessment of the issues associated with holding a postal survey, a public vote on an issue of human rights. Achieving marriage equality was a massive achievement at the end of last year—certainly the highlight of my 3½ years in the Senate so far—but it was achieved at a cost, and it was an unnecessary cost.

There is great joy around the nation now as people are getting married. I haven't got to any of the wonderful weddings yet—the first one that I'm going to is in a fortnight's time—but the photos, the videos and the sharing on social media as people can finally marry the person they love are terrific. But we should not have had to go through the process of having a public vote in order to achieve this, and this report outlines the reasons why that pathway to achieve marriage equality was far from optimal. It was up to this parliament to vote on marriage equality. We could have had the vote in the parliament that we had in the last sitting weeks of last year without going through the harm and the tortuous process of this postal survey, but that was the process that the government headed us down. That's what we all had to grit our teeth and get through in order to get to the prize of people's human rights being respected and celebrated so that people, regardless of their gender or sexuality, were able to marry.

So the first finding of this report is the most pertinent one. The experience of that postal survey makes it very clear that questions of human rights for minority groups should not be resolved by a public vote, and there is so much documentation that's outlined in this report as to why that's the case. Having this public survey unleashed such an avalanche of hateful and discriminatory material—material which was inciting hatred towards lesbian, gay and bisexual people and particularly towards transgender, gender-diverse and intersex people.

I just want to read some of the accounts that are outlined in our committee report. Firstly, just to set the context of why this matters, it's not just that these were hurtful, harmful things for my community to have to endure and put up with. It had a huge impact on the mental health of that community. The New South Wales Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby provided a catalogue of material which had already been disseminated prior to the survey being mailed out, and they noted:

Such material … has significant impact on the mental health of so many LGBTIQ Australians. Young LGBTIQ people are at a six times greater risk of suicide, and this material which perpetuates hateful and offensive comments is not likely to improve this situation.

That's an understatement. They also note:

The rates of suicide among young trans and intersex people are even higher, with young trans people being 35% more likely to attempt suicide.

Then this committee received submissions from people who outlined their experience of what they went through during this survey period. A 42-year-old transgender man from rural Queensland submitted his experience of the postal survey to the committee. He said:

After the Survey was announced, my world becomes hell. It was the hate and vitriol of the 1990s that I experienced, but this time our Prime Minister gave this hatred a name—respectful debate.

Another submitter described the broader effect of the postal survey on LGBTIQ people. They said:

The Postal survey to a gay and lesbian person was never just about … [same-sex marriage], it seemed like it was a survey on whether gay and lesbian people were good enough for the Australian people. Having the whole Country vote on this was a horrible feeling and having them judge you, brought up all sorts of emotions from my youth.

There were a number of surveys that various LGBTI advocacy organisations conducted on the impact of the study. The National LGBTI Health Alliance did a survey of nearly 10,000 LGBTIQ people, and they found that more than 90 per cent of respondents reported the postal vote had a negative impact on them to some degree. It said:

The most shocking finding of the study was that LGBTIQ respondents said that experiences of verbal and physical assaults more than doubled in the three months following the announcement of the postal survey compared with the prior six months.

They reported an increase of more than a third in depression, anxiety and stress during the same period.

Almost 80% of LGBTIQ people and almost 60% of allies said they found the marriage equality debate considerably or extremely stressful.

These survey results were replicated in other surveys, including ones undertaken by SHINE South Australia and just.equal.

The committee received a really heartbreaking letter, which was in the submission from Rainbow Families in New South Wales. It shared the experience of Kate and her family. It said:

We received two personalised letters from our neighbours expressing their traditional views on marriage and their negative thoughts about our family and the wider LGBTIQ community … The letters spoke about "militant lesbians storming our churches and mosques demanding to get married" …

It said:

We cried for that whole weekend and were scared to check our letter box on the Sunday … We started to think about moving out … We stopped going to the local parks … avoided going to the local supermarket. We became hermits and didn't want to be seen in the local community. My heart rate went up every time I opened the front door and went out the front for fear of seeing the neighbours. We tried to shield our 2-year-old son from our pain - but he could see it. One night he said "I’m scared of the neighbours". This was so upsetting to hear. Neighbours who we had been friendly with started being less friendly - or were we just being paranoid? My partner and I both took sick days off from work and we also left our home and area for safer more accepting areas to try and get away from it all.

This typifies the impacts of this survey on so many people. I think it's a really important learning that has been documented in this committee report as to why such a survey should never be done again.

The second important finding of our inquiry is that, given this impact on LGBTIQ people and their mental health, there is an urgent need to invest more money in mental health services for the LGBTI community. In fact, we're in a situation where not all of the budget allocation of $122 million for the postal survey was spent. It came in $41 million under budget. So the second recommendation of our committee report is that the government should consider how further funding and support could be offered to mental health and LGBTIQ organisations to help address the consequences of the postal survey. The Greens go further than that. We think that all of that $41.5 million should all be allocated to mental health services and other support services for the LGBTIQ community, to at least try to make up for some of the pain and the suffering and the hurt and the discrimination and the prejudice that was felt during this postal survey.

The final recommendation of the report reflected on how not all people got to participate in this survey equally, and that people in remote communities and Indigenous people were much more likely to not vote in the survey. We are recommending that the Australian Electoral Commission actively engaged with remote communities and Indigenous peak bodies to increase the number of enrolled people and to increase their participation. That's another very important finding. Our democracy in Australia is to be treasured. It works mostly; we have to make sure we can make it work even better.

Sadly, having plebiscites isn't the best way to make our democracy work for us. We know that we are here and that we should have been able to vote. But we need to make sure that more people are actively involved in voting and more people are actively involved in expressing their views constructively and positively so that we can have a more informed community. I'm hoping that, having put this experience in the past, we can move on from this and really celebrate the diversity of our community, celebrate the rights of our community and vow to work forward together to make sure that those rights are genuinely appreciated by everybody in our society.


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