Senate debates

Tuesday, 13 February 2018


Finance and Public Administration References Committee; Report

5:40 pm

Photo of Kimberley KitchingKimberley Kitching (Victoria, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

I'm pleased to have this opportunity to comment on the report of the Senate Finance and Public Administration References Committee on the conduct of last year's postal survey on the question of marriage equality. I commend Senator McAllister as the chair and the other members of the committee on the work done in the limited time made available to the committee.

Now that marriage equality is a reality in Australia, it would be very easy for us on this side of the chamber to say, 'Well, all's well that ends well,' and let this matter drop. Despite our objections, the postal survey took place. It seems to have been managed by the Australian Bureau of Statistics without major problems—in fact, the ABS was thrown into the deep end in a little bit of a surprise manoeuvre from the government. There was an 80 per cent turnout, and more than 60 per cent of Australians voted for marriage equality. Finally, after some mostly respectful debate, marriage equality was put into law by this parliament last December.

But I think we should resist the temptation to put this episode behind us, especially without any analysis. Although the process insisted on by the government eventually produced the outcome that the majority of Australians wanted, the criticisms that we on this side made of this process remain valid. Before I look at some of the points made in the committee's report—and some of those have been mentioned by Senator McAllister and Senator Rice—I want to restate some of those objections. The most fundamental of our objections to the postal survey was that it was a complete, unnecessary waste of $80 million and an abdication of the responsibility of this parliament. The people of Australia elected this parliament to carry on their business, to debate and to vote on legislation.

The original Marriage Act was passed by parliament in 1960. It was amended by parliament in 2004 to preclude the possibility of same-sex marriages being recognised in Australia. On neither occasion was a plebiscite or survey thought necessary. If the Marriage Act was to be amended again to create marriage equality, it was the job of the parliament to amend it. Why were we forced to accept the waste of time and money represented by the postal survey? Why was the parliament not allowed to do the job it was elected to do? There was only one reason, and that was the weakness of the Prime Minister in his own cabinet and in his own party, which made it impossible for the government to allow the parliament to debate and vote on this question, even on a private member's bill. There was too great a risk that the deep split in the Liberal Party and the lack of support that the Prime Minister enjoys in his own cabinet and in his own party would be exposed. This is why the committee said, in its first recommendation:

… questions of human rights for minority groups should not be resolved by a public vote.

That is a basic lesson to be learned from this exercise. While I don't have much confidence that the present government will accept it, I hope future governments will not repeat this folly.

We also objected to the idea of a plebiscite or postal survey because of the likelihood that such an exercise would lead to campaigns of abuse and denigration against people from the LGBTI community. One of the reasons we have a representative democracy rather than a so-called direct democracy based on plebiscites is that representative democracy allows the passions and prejudices that exist in any political community to be mediated through the parliamentary process. Not for nothing is the plebiscite known as the tool of despots and demagogues.

Sadly but predictably, our fears on this front were fully justified. Let me quote from the committee's report:

This committee has received evidence from a large number of submitters about offensive and misleading behaviour and material that has been deeply distressing to the LGBTIQ community and highly divisive within the community more broadly. It is the committee's view that this behaviour and material is a direct result of the postal survey process and would not have occurred had the parliament simply debated and voted on legislation to legalise same-sex marriage.

The committee's report comments on the Marriage Law Survey (Additional Safeguards) Bill 2017, which was the government's response to the torrent of abuse provoked by the decision to hold the postal survey. The committee noted that this bill proved insufficient to curb much of the offensive material distributed by mail and throughout social media.

I agree with the committee's conclusion:

… much of this material was offensive not by accident but by design … the authors intended to … cause offence and hurt to others. It is disappointing that the government gave them an excuse to do so by pursuing a public vote on the question of same sex marriage.

In the light of all of this, the committee report recommends:

… the Australian Government consider how further funding and support could be offered to mental health and LGBTIQ organisations to help address the consequences of the postal survey.

Senator Rice has spoken at greater length about this.

I would strongly support the whole of the report and the recommendations contained at the back of that report, and I hope the government can act upon that report promptly.


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