Senate debates

Monday, 21 November 2011

Matters of Urgency

Same-Sex Relationships

Photo of Stephen ParryStephen Parry (Tasmania, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I inform the Senate that, at 8.30 am today, two senators submitted letters in accordance with standing order 75. Senator Siewert proposed a matter of urgency and Senator Fifield proposed a matter of public importance for discussion. The question of which proposal would be submitted to the Senate was determined by lot. As a result, I inform the Senate that the following letter has been received from Senator Siewert:

Pursuant to standing order 75, I give notice today I propose to move:

That, in the opinion of the Senate, the following is a matter of urgency:

The recognition that an increasing majority of the Australian community supports marriage equality and believes it is time for the federal parliament to amend the Marriage Act to provide for this.

Is the proposal supported?

More than the number of senators required by the standing orde rs having risen in their places—

I understand that informal arrangements have been made to allocate specific times to each of the speakers in today’s debate. With the concurrence of the Senate, I shall ask the clerks to set the clock accordingly.

3:43 pm

Photo of Sarah Hanson-YoungSarah Hanson-Young (SA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

At the request of Senator Siewert, I move:

That, in the opinion of the Senate, the following is a matter of urgency:

The recognition that an increasing majority of the Australian community supports marriage equality and believes it is time for the federal parliament to amend the Marriage Act to provide for this.

This motion advocates true equality under Australian law for same-sex couples, a move that is well beyond its time, a move that we need to make in this country if we are to uphold basic standards of human rights, justice and fairness. Really, it should not be a big deal. We know that same-sex couples right around the world, in places such as Catholic Spain, Canada and now New York state, are able to celebrate their love for each other through having their marriage recognised under the laws of their state or country. It is an important step for Australia to take and it is something that has majority support amongst our Australian community. An increasing majority of Australians support marriage equality, support the idea of giving same-sex couples the same rights as every other couple in Australia, believe that consenting adults who desire to have their love recognised and respected under federal law should indeed have it so. It is not just a matter for these individual couples—their families, their friends and their work colleagues are passionate about this. They want to have the love of their mates recognised under law just as everyone else's love of their partners is recognised. Recent polls suggest that over 60 per cent of Australians support the idea of same-sex marriage and marriage equality, and over 70 per cent of Australians believe that this move is indeed inevitable. That is even amongst those who suggest that if it was their choice this type of change would not be happening. Progress is a wonderful thing, and progressive reform is important for any country but particularly for Australia. We have a wonderful history and a rich heritage to draw on, from giving women the right to vote to accepting, understanding and acknowledging Indigenous people as citizens in their own land and ensuring that Indigenous Australians can marry non-Indigenous Australians. These are progressive reforms that stand us in good stead not just in the current day and age but also for the future.

This is change that needs to happen sooner rather than later. We see that 71 per cent of Labor voters support marriage equality, over 50 per cent of coalition voters support marriage equality and over 86 per cent of Greens voters support marriage equality. This is beyond doubt an important reform but we should not get caught up in debating it. It is simply part of becoming a fairer and more just Australia. We know that there is a debate both within this place and outside about how important this issue is and that it ruffles people's feathers, but let us have a think about what this means to same-sex couples and those who love them most of all—their friends and family. I always reflect on the desire of parents to have their adult children recognised as citizens with the same rights as everybody else's children. Parents who have a gay son and a heterosexual son will want both of their children to be recognised equally under Australian law. There is the famous quote from Shelley Argent, who asks why should one of her sons be treated as a second-class citizen. We in this place should not tolerate a situation where people are considered second-class citizens. In this day and age people should not continue to be discriminated against simply because of their sexuality. It would be wonderful for Australia to grab hold of this and prove itself to be a progressive country in the eyes of the rest of the world. In places like Spain, South Africa, Belgium and New York state, the sky has not fallen in. In fact, the sun is shining brighter. People in those places are proud of how open, accessible, compassionate and fair their laws are because they recognise same-sex couples as equals.

Another point I want to raise is the impact that not moving on this progressive reform would have particularly on young people. This issue is undoubtedly one of the biggest factors in young gay and lesbian Australians right around this country questioning their self-worth, whether they be in the urban cities of Sydney and Melbourne, the suburbs of Adelaide or Brisbane or indeed our regional areas of Tasmania or Victoria. They are young people who are struggling to work out who they are and come to grips with their sexuality. The Australian Bureau of Statistics National survey of mental health and wellbeing released in 2007 indicates that homosexual and bisexual people are four times more likely to be homeless, twice as likely to have no contact with family or friends or have no family to rely on if there are serious problems, twice as likely to have a high or very high level of psychological distress, three times more likely to have suicidal thoughts, five times more likely to have suicidal plans and four times more likely to have attempted suicide. These are the stark statistics that relate directly to the representation of equality under our federal law. We cannot fudge these figures. Young gay, lesbian and bisexual couples right around the country need to understand and feel that they are equal. They are not second-class citizens in this country—they are equal and they should be supported. This move to ensure that we have marriage equality under federal law will go some way towards helping those young people feel supported, not just by their friends and family but also by the governments that are there to look after them.

With these statistics, with the public support for same-sex marriage and marriage equality right throughout the country, across electorates and across the electoral divides of the different political parties and across the different opinions and political persuasions, this issue is a real issue that concerns many Australians, either personally or because mums and dads want their kids to be considered as equal, grandparents want to see their grandchildren considered equally, and friends and colleagues, workmates, want to make sure that their friends and workmates are considered as equals. If two people are in love and they want to marry each other, let us bless that—let us not condemn it simply because of an outdated, archaic and backwards view of the world. We are better than that. We are a compassionate, fair and just country. We have taken progressive reform with both hands across different political issues and we have made a real difference to the lives of individuals. This is the next step by which this can be done. But it has to be done in this place. The Australian community is far ahead of our political leaders and particularly the Leader of the Opposition and the Prime Minister on this issue—streets ahead. I know there are people in this place on both sides, in the Labor Party and in the Liberal Party and the coalition—of course, the Greens have a policy for marriage equality—who want to see this change happen. There are individuals who know that this is the right thing to do. It is time for this place to step up to the challenge and ensure that progressive reform occurs, ensure that same-sex couples, their loved ones, their family, can all rest assured that under law, regardless of their sexuality, they will be seen as equal.

Let us not allow this to get caught up in the yuckiness of politics. This is about the love of two people. This is about two people who as consenting adults want to marry each other because they are deeply in love. They want that to be seen under the eyes of the law as legitimate. And so they should. If marriage is such an important institution, let us open it up. If Cupid does not discriminate, why should we? (Time expired)

3:53 pm

Photo of Carol BrownCarol Brown (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I am pleased to have the opportunity to contribute to this debate and to again put on record my support for marriage equality. A lot of what Senator Hanson-Young said in her contribution today I support. But for the Labor Party it is our national conference, not this debate today, which will determine our position on this issue. I hope the national conference of the Labor Party will bring an end to discrimination against same-sex couples, something many of us in this place have been supporting for many years.

It is indeed heartening to see popular public opinion continuing to build in support of marriage equality. We are consistently receiving poll results and survey data from around Australia that indicate that the majority of Australians support a change to the Marriage Act to allow same-sex couples to marry. The national data from a Nielsen poll released on 15 November shows that 62 per cent of Australians believe that same-sex couples should be able to marry. This represents a five per cent increase in the figure from the 2010 Nielsen poll. The data also shows that 75 per cent of Australians believe that reform to the Marriage Act to allow same-sex couples to marry is inevitable. It is obvious that our support for marriage equality is growing and that Australians are ready to bring about change.

In my home state of Tasmania, a poll conducted in February this year by Enterprise Marketing and Research Services, EMRS, showed that 59 per cent of Tasmanians surveyed believe same-sex couples should be allowed to legally marry. The data I have personally collected also confirms that a majority of Tasmanians support marriage equality. In September I officially reported back to the Senate the views of the Tasmanian and Denison constituents who contacted me on the issue of marriage equality. As I reported then, I had 1,093 interactions on the issue of marriage equality, with 509 constituents from around Tasmania completing the online survey and a further 584 constituents contacting me to register their views on this issue. The data I collated indicates that 55.9 per cent of Tasmanians support marriage equality and an overwhelming 78.6 per cent of constituents in the electorate of Denison, where I live and where my office is located, support marriage equality and an amendment to the Marriage Act. It is significant that the constituent interactions on the issue of marriage equality in Denison show that 78.6 per cent of Denison constituents support marriage equality. Further, out of the 184 respondents to the survey, 83.1 per cent said they supported amending the Marriage Act so that same-sex couples can be married.

Whilst we continue to have this debate in the community and in the parliament, I am looking forward to the debate at the upcoming ALP national conference. As someone who has supported a change to the national platform on marriage equality, it is great to see the momentum growing in the lead-up to the Labor Party's national conference. It is also a huge boost, I believe, to the campaign to change the platform that the same Nielsen poll data I referred to earlier shows that an overwhelming majority of Labor voters support marriage equality. The poll indicated that 71 per cent of Labor voters supported the reform.

Recently there has been some debate around a conscience vote on the issue of marriage equality rather than a change to the ALP platform. Whilst I accept that there is division within the Labor Party on the issue of marriage equality, I do not believe that the issue constitutes a matter of conscience. In the past, conscience votes have been granted on issues such as abortions, stem cell research and euthanasia. These have been matters which have been questions of life or death. Marriage equality is a question of political and civil rights and legislative reform that will give two people who love one another the freedom to celebrate and define their commitment in whatever way they choose.

Labor has a proud history of championing change to remove discrimination against same-sex couples. We have amended over 85 pieces of Commonwealth legislation and executed reforms across Australia that have ensured that same-sex de facto couples have the right to receive fair access to assisted reproductive technology such as IVF and to adopt children. These historic reforms for greater recognition of equality of same-sex couples have all been achieved without a conscience vote. The issue of marriage equality is no different. If we acted to remove discrimination that riddled our legislation, we did so to ensure equality. The Marriage Act is no different. We need to amend the act to ensure that there is full equality. If we consider the context of the past debates on the institution of marriage, there was a time when inter-racial couples were not allowed to marry and when a wife was indeed seen as the property of her husband. Just as the institution of marriage has evolved over time, it is vital we legislate to represent the values of Australia today. The ALP National Conference will be the time for the Labor Party to take this final step towards full equality and recognition for Australians, and to allow two people who love each other to make that commitment public and official.

People of faith have nothing to fear from allowing same-sex marriage. Under any amendment to the Marriage Act all religious celebrants will remain free not to carry out same-sex marriages. Moreover, we have leading Christians, including Baptist and Uniting Church ministers, arguing in support of marriage equality. In my home state of Tasmania the public narrative of those opposed to marriage equality has been dominated by advocates in the Australian Christian Lobby. However, we also have some Christians, like Reverend David Hunnerup from the Uniting Church in Launceston, who have stepped forward as vocal supporters of same-sex marriage. Reverend Hunnerup has said that not amending the Marriage Act is dangerous and cancerous to social cohesion. (Time expired)

4:00 pm

Photo of Gary HumphriesGary Humphries (ACT, Liberal Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Defence Materiel) Share this | | Hansard source

I am pleased to enter into this debate on this urgency motion on marriage equality. I preface my remarks by observing some of the dynamics behind the decision of the Australian Greens to bring forward this urgency motion today. Whatever the high-minded principles that might underpin the sentiments in this urgency motion, I think it is appropriate for the Senate to acknowledge that this motion also has some tactical advantage for the Australian Greens. The Greens will not be unaware of the fact that, at the present time, the Australian Labor Party has moved its policy into a state of some flux, as Senator Carol Brown's speech just indicated. As we know, Senator Bob Brown does not like to be outflanked in such matters and, I think, wants to put his stamp on this issue as one which, he feels, is very much his territory. That is fair enough. He is entitled to take some ownership of this issue if he wants it, but I think it is important for the Australian parliament, including the Senate, to resolve conflict and debate about these issues soberly and in light of all the arguments, not on the basis of what is in the short-term interests of either the Australian Greens or the Australian Labor Party.

I also note with interest the reliance in this urgency motion, in this move towards what the proponent of the motion calls 'marriage equality', on the argument that there is an increasing majority of the Australian community which supports this concept. It is something of a testament to the opportunism which so often characterises what the Greens do that they are very happy to rely on opinion polls when those polls tend to support what they want to do, and are equally happy to ignore opinion polls when those polls repudiate the Greens' position.

Photo of Don FarrellDon Farrell (SA, Australian Labor Party, Parliamentary Secretary for Sustainability and Urban Water) Share this | | Hansard source

That's the same as the Liberal Party!

Photo of Gary HumphriesGary Humphries (ACT, Liberal Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Defence Materiel) Share this | | Hansard source

We tend not to rely on day-to-day polls. We always say that these are things we have to be very careful about. To see the Greens before the Senate promoting what they call marriage equality in this motion on the basis that it has a majority of support in the Australian community is ironic given that only a few days ago the Australian Greens voted to support a carbon tax which, according to the latest Newspoll, has the support of only 32 per cent of the Australian community—less than one in three.

However, this issue deserves to be addressed on a substantive basis, not just on the basis of the dynamics behind it. It is well known that in 2004 the coalition legislated to provide that marriage should be a union between a man and a woman, and a man and a woman only. That accorded with the traditional understanding of the institution and was consistent with the position that the coalition took to subsequent federal elections. The ALP also took this position to the last two elections, but this may not be consistent with the position that the Labor Party proceeds with in future.

There are a number of perspectives possible on same-sex marriage. As both a large-L Liberal and a small-l liberal, I believe that governments and parliaments should minimise their intervention in the personal behaviour of citizens. If Australians make choices about how they live, how they arrange their affairs, what relationships they enter into and who they love, provided that no harm is done to anybody by such choices then, as a general rule, governments and parliaments should stay clear of such personal arrangements. If governments and parliaments do get involved they should be involved to the extent of removing any forms of petty discrimination against people on the basis of how they have chosen to live their lives.

Indeed, I note that that has very much been the underlying principle which has educated the decision of the coalition in the last decade, both in government and in opposition, to remove any petty discrimination which derogates on a person's right to make decisions about the course of their own life and the lives of others with whom they choose to form relationships. In 1999, for example, the coalition took steps to remove discrimination in superannuation legislation to provide that trustees of superannuation funds could, at their discretion, pay a member's accumulated benefits to the member's dependants or legal personal representatives if the member died. That would include anybody with whom the deceased person had been in an interdependent relationship. We also made amendments to permit funds to change their governing rules to provide for binding death benefit nominations. If a person is a member of a fund which provides for binding nominations that person can nominate a same-sex partner who is a dependant.

At about the same time we also agreed to extend certain conditions of service entitlements to members of the Australian Defence Force in interdependent relationships, which includes members in same-sex relationships. From early in the life of the Howard government steps were taken to provide that an employer could not terminate a person's employment on the ground of their sexual preference. There were a number of steps taken by the coalition in government and supported in opposition to achieve the same effect. So it needs to be put on the record very clearly that the coalition does not favour discrimination against people on the basis of their sexuality or the basis of the relationships that they form.

The question of whether or not the symbolism and the title of marriage ought to pertain to people in certain relationships is a different question from the question of the substance of the law as it affects people in such relationships. There is an argument, which I personally subscribe to, that the title and institution of marriage were essentially under the custodianship of the church or churches for many centuries. If the state no longer needs that institution or that title to convey or deliver certain rights to people, as was once the case, then the state should leave that institution in the hands of the church, possibly with other appropriate recognition of the rights of people in same-sex relationships so that they do not experience discrimination.

The federal parliament has a role to play in this debate because placitum (xxi) of section 51 of the Constitution entrusts the stewardship of this institution to the federal parliament, but it is not an excuse for us to make decisions without due regard to issues such as the history of this institution and the expectations of the Australian people. On that question, this urgency leaves a multitude of sins not properly addressed. (Time expired)

4:08 pm

Photo of Christine MilneChristine Milne (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise today to very strongly support the urgency motion that is before the chamber:

The recognition that an increasing majority of the Australian community supports marriage equality and believes it is time for the federal parliament to amend the Marriage Act to provide for this.

There is no justification for discrimination in Australia. That is the fact of the matter. If we are to be a modern democracy, if we are to live up to the ideals of our Constitution, there is no room for discrimination. As Justice Kirby once said, 'Equal justice under the law for all.' That is what the Australian Greens stand for: equal justice under the law for all.

I heard Senator Humphries talk a moment ago about cynical politics. It took at least five minutes of his speech to actually get to saying what his view was. It is a pathetic statement to suggest that the Greens moving on this is some sort of cynical politics. It has been our policy for a very long time. In fact for decades the Australian Greens have had a view that discrimination should be removed and that civil society ought to pride itself on equal participation and equal rights on all bases. We have argued it in terms of the rights of women. We have argued it in terms of racial equality and religious equality. We are now arguing it strongly in terms of equality under the law for people to marry. I am shocked to hear Senator Humphries say that, as far as he is concerned, the institution of marriage should be handed back to the church. I am assuming that he meant the only people who could be rightfully married as such are those who marry in a church. That would be the logical extension of that view. I find that an extraordinary thing.

I find it extraordinary because there is some suggestion that it is about symbolism and title and it is a bit obscure; so long as you have equal access to things like superannuation, equality under the law and various other matters, it does not matter whether or not people can marry. Nothing could be further from the truth. I think one of the best exposes of this occurred in South Africa, where a legal action was taken in 2002 by a couple to have their union recognised as a valid marriage. It went through the courts and on 1 December 2005 the Constitutional Court handed down its decision. The nine justices in South Africa agreed unanimously that:

… the common-law definition of marriage and the marriage formula in the Marriage Act, to the extent that they excluded same-sex partners from marriage, were unfairly discriminatory, unjustifiable, and therefore unconstitutional and invalid.

In a widely quoted passage from the judgment, Justice Albie Sachs wrote:

The exclusion of same-sex couples from the benefits and responsibilities of marriage, accordingly, is not a small and tangential inconvenience resulting from a few surviving relics of societal prejudice destined to evaporate like the morning dew. It represents a harsh if oblique statement by the law that same-sex couples are outsiders, and that their need for affirmation and protection of their intimate relations as human beings is somehow less than that of heterosexual couples. It reinforces the wounding notion that they are to be treated as biological oddities, as failed or lapsed human beings who do not fit into normal society, and, as such, do not qualify for the full moral concern and respect that our Constitution seeks to secure for everyone. It signifies that their capacity for love, commitment and accepting responsibility is by definition less worthy of regard than that of heterosexual couples.

That is the state of play in Australia for every single person who stands up and says they do not support removing discrimination against same-sex couples. That is exactly what they are saying to those people in Australian civil society and it is completely unacceptable.

In terms of the emotional scars of people who are discriminated against, it is interesting when you look back to see the justifications that went on for years about the reasons why people thought it was appropriate to discriminate against people on the basis of race and the reasons that people had to discriminate against people on the basis of their gender. When my mother started teaching it was a part of the accepted practice that once a woman married they could not teach in schools. It was not until the 1970s that you had equal pay for female teachers. We would not have had Prime Minister Gillard standing up saying that it should be a conscience vote as to whether you might remove discrimination against women under the law in Australia. We would have had an argument that it was totally inappropriate to discriminate against women in spite of, as Senator Humphries just said, the traditional understanding. The traditional understanding in Australia was that women were their husband's possessions and they could not work after they were married and they did not deserve to have equal pay. We got rid of that traditional understanding because it was plain wrong.

There is the traditional understanding that is not being spoken here that somehow same-sex couples are not equal and do not deserve to be recognised as equal. As the judgment in South Africa from Justice Albie Sachs said, if you object to the notion of marriage equality for some reason, what you are saying is that a gay couple do not have the same capacity for love, commitment and accepting responsibility and that their relationship is less worthy of regard than those of heterosexual couples. What an insult and an affront to people in our civil society. Australia is a big-hearted country. The community has recognised that these so-called traditional understandings are discriminatory and hurtful and that we would be a better society if we actually celebrated the fact that people who love one another want be able to be recognised in a marriage relationship in exactly the same way as everybody else. And why shouldn't they? Why shouldn't parents be able to have that same expectation for their children regardless of their sexuality?

I think it is a complete cop-out to be suggesting some idea of a conscience vote on an issue of removing discrimination. Removing discrimination ought to be the aspiration of everyone in this parliament and it should be something we aspire to at every level and for every reason that people discriminate. We should remove it, and we try to do so. This is not a matter of conscience; it is a matter of civil rights. In Australia we want, as Justice Kirby mentioned, equal justice under the law for all. I would ask senators to ask themselves whether they think it would be appropriate to look one of their own children or siblings in the eye and say to them, 'You do not deserve the same civil rights as other people because of your sexuality. As much as I love you as my child or brother or sister, you deserve to be discriminated against because somehow you are not up to it in the way the rest of the community is.' I put that to my colleagues. I put to them as well to ask themselves whether that is a matter of conscience or a matter of civil rights. It is a matter of equality, justice, fairness and love. That is what this is about. It is longstanding Greens policy. It is something that the Australian community wants and, frankly, some of the arguments that are being put forward against it are an anachronism.

In terms of religious argument, religions are able to maintain whatever laws they wish to govern themselves and people do not discriminate on that basis. But we are talking about equal rights under the law of the civil society in Australia, which is a fair society in which we do not tolerate discrimination of any kind.

4:18 pm

Photo of Mark FurnerMark Furner (Queensland, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise this afternoon to contribute to the debate on this urgency motion of the Greens. I do so in regard to supporting the position of our Prime Minister, Prime Minister Gillard, in opposing any changes to the Marriage Act and also to reiterate her position as indicated recently in the Age of 15 November. She said:

My position flows from my strong conviction that the institution of marriage has come to have a particular meaning and standing in our culture and nation and that should continue unchanged.

We will continue with that position and we will not amend the Marriage Act. We moved decisively in 2007 when we came to office to amend many of the discriminatory positions that related to same-sex couples. We moved to eliminate discrimination on these grounds in superannuation, social security, taxation, Medicare, veterans affairs, workers compensation and educational assistance—reforms that were significant in those times to eliminate discrimination.

One thing that has been indicated today is that this is a diverse discussion and debate. Certainly in the Labor Party we will have a diverse debate at our soon-to-be national conference where as a democratic party we have the right to have that debate with speakers for and against this particular issue. I think that right needs to be extended to people in the other various parties that are in this chamber as well. Even Senator Joyce has indicated that the coalition should not oppose a conscience vote, should it come to that.

The other part of the motion, however, I really need to challenge—and that is this notion of this being the majority view of Australians. You only need to look at the emails you receive from people who are pro and anti gay marriage to see that is not the case. I have a particular email that I received recently not from a constituent of mine but from a constituent from Western Australia actually. She indicated that:

Australian human rights lawyer Frank Brennan AO, former Chairman of the National Human Rights Consultative Committee, is an expert on discrimination. He says: “In considering whether to advocate a change to the definition of marriage, citizens need to consider not only the right of same sex couples to equality but even more so the rights of future children. I think we can ensure non-discrimination against same sex couples while at the same time maintaining a commitment to children of future generations being born of and being reared by a father and a mother. To date, international human rights law has appreciated this rational distinction.

Those are the words, as I indicated, of a constituent from Western Australia and not from my state of Queensland. It is fine for us to listen to polls—they have some value at times—but we should not be ruled by polls. Regardless of whether it be a poll on this issue, a poll on how well a party is travelling in government or a poll on how well a party is travelling in opposition, we should govern based on what is the right thing to do. To give another example, I have met with a variety of people, both pro and anti gay marriage, from churches from my area. It is important to listen to their views and to appreciate their concerns. Unless we appreciate the views of a variety of people we will not know where we are heading with this particular issue. Just yesterday, I attended a gathering of people of the Islamic faith who have strong concerns about gay marriage. In fact, one of the young gentlemen at the barbecue, Abdul, approached me wanting to know our position on gay marriage. He indicated to me their overwhelming position on this issue.

There are a diverse range of views in our communities. They are views we as a government need to listen to and decide upon. We need to continue to press the position that we have indicated overwhelmingly: that we will not amend the Marriage Act. We will consistently put across our view, particularly at national conference, to support marriage between a man and a woman.

4:24 pm

Photo of Barnaby JoyceBarnaby Joyce (Queensland, National Party, Leader of The Nationals in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

Quite obviously, this is an emotionally loaded subject. I have to say at the start that it is another of those Green wedges where they jump onto an issue and try to hijack it without any concern for the consequences. Once you redefine the nature of the relationship, you affect not just the person for whom you are redefining it but for all people who have seen themselves in that kind of relationship. Those people also have their position redefined.

Senator Hanson-Young interjecting

I listened to you, Senator Hanson-Young; do you want to just be quiet? By redefining marriage you not only redefine for everybody now; you also redefine it historically. You redefine how people see their parents' marriage, their grandparents' marriages. All of this is part and parcel of the process.

People quite naturally come to this chamber with a sense of great emotional attachment to the term 'marriage'. It seems that this is being portrayed as an issue of Christian edict. It goes way beyond that. It is as much a Christian edict as it is a Buddhist edict, a Hindu edict or an Islamic edict. We live in a society that holds to certain tenets, including a belief in a multicultural society. For all these people we should also give thought to what this chamber puts forward, because we are defining it for them. We want to make sure that they have a right, and a strong attachment, to marriage as being between a man and a woman.

Another very important point is that both sides promised that the definition of marriage as being between a man and a woman was never going to be challenged in this term of parliament. That promise was made by both sides. We should honour those promises. Those promises were made because people feel so strongly about this issue. When we broaden a term we do not just broaden it; we water it down. The broader it gets, the more its meaning is diminished. That is something that people feel so strongly about.

Why is this issue before the parliament? It is here because under section 51(xxi) of the Constitution the Commonwealth parliament has the power to make laws in relation to marriage.. That is why we are having a discussion about it. It has become a political issue. Because it is a political issue, people have political positions. They have every right to express their position. We are absolutely overwhelmed by emails with messages supporting the institution of marriage as it currently stands—they literally come in their thousands. When breakfasts and other functions are held in this place they are packed out with people who respect the institution of marriage as it currently stands. We have a right to represent their views.

This issue ultimately becomes drawn into the complex tapestry that is the issue of discrimination. I do not think that this is an issue of discrimination. By reason of everything we are, there are certain things that we are and there are certain things that we are not. As much as I might like to call myself short, I am not short; I am taller than average. I might like to call myself olive. I am not; I am fair. You are either a man or woman. Things are defined by reason of what they are, and they always have been. To say that a definition holds true is not to be discriminatory; it is a statement of fact. The historical statement of fact about a marriage is that it is between a man and a woman. That is how it was defined. That is how history has defined it. That is the historical reflection of the history of every family in this chamber.

Not every marriage is successful. I understand that nearly half, unfortunately, are not, but nobody goes into a marriage with the idea of it falling apart. Everybody realises that not every marriage is a statement of love. There are some marriages that certainly lack love, but they are most certainly a marriage. That saying, 'I love someone,' can somehow equate to marriage and that marriage is love and love is marriage is not necessarily correct. A marriage is an arduous sea that people try to navigate. Whether we like it or not, marriage is by definition, historically and through the structure of society, an institution between a man and a woman. Whether we like it or not, whether it is politically correct or politically incorrect, it is the cornerstone on which our nation stands and on which our society stands. If we keep pulling the rug out from under each section of that which makes a society stand up society will ultimately fall over, because we will have reached the point of making everything meaningless.

In this debate, and I am sure this debate will go on, there has to be respect for the different views held by people throughout the chamber. On behalf of my colleagues in the National Party, with whom I have spoken, I am very much of the view that, while not every marriage is perfect, marriage is a statement between a man and a woman. It must stay that way not because of what we want but because of what society needs.

4:29 pm

Photo of Louise PrattLouise Pratt (WA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I am on record in my first speech to this chamber declaring my support for marriage equality in this nation. I do believe it is time to move forward on this issue. Notwithstanding that though, clearly it is a question that is currently being debated within the Australian Labor Party. I am very pleased with the progress that the ALP has made on so many issues confronting GLBTI Australians—issues that we have acted on and addressed. But we have an important opportunity at our national Labor Party conference to move forward on this question. Labor has a very proud record of removing discrimination against GLBTI Australians, and I believe we will move forward on this question also.

I have been very proud to work with Rainbow Labor, which is a grassroots organisation for GLBTI, which stands for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex Labor Party members and supporters. The aim of this organisation is full equality for the GLBTI community. We are keenly calling on the national conference to move forward on the question of marriage. The national conference is the federal ALP's highest decision-making forum and approves the national platform, which outlines our policies and principles. Because of that, I am bound by our party's current platform and policy. It is important to recognise that we have made progress on so many of the issues confronting GLBTI Australians because of the binding nature of our agenda and because we have historically viewed that these issues of rights and equality are not a matter of conscience but a matter of substantive rights that all Australians should enjoy. That is why this conference is so important.

As someone who has been denied the right to marry, I know how disappointing it feels and I, like many thousands of other Australians, was deeply disappointed when in 2004 the Marriage Act was amended. There are a great many people in the Labor Party, Labor supporters and people right across the community who feel the same way. I would like to share with you some quotes from some of these people:

My parents are married, my brothers are all married, we have a large happy extended family. My partner and I have been together for over seven years, we have a beautiful daughter Matilda and we would like marriage equality.

…   …   …

It's time for marriage equality. It's time for same sex relationships to be respected and acknowledged as equal in society and in law. It's time to end this discrimination.

Another quote:

My parents are in their 60s and still married. I am a divorced father of 1, having been married for 13 years.

…   …   …

It's time for marriage equality because we're Australia! Lesser countries have had marriage equality for years. I mean, are we *really* sure that we want to be behind South Africa on social policies like this?! If the land of the apartheid can do it, we certainly should. Arguments such as 'traditional marriage' that my local (Liberal) MP has is nonsense.

And another quote from a couple:

My partner of 19.5 years Mal and I are treated in every other respect, by our families friends and colleagues, as a couple. But we can't marry.

…   …   …

Put simply—we are behind the time with the rest of the civilised world, the choice should at least be available to us …

This quote from two women who have lived together for 18 years is particularly touching:

We own our own home, work for Queensland Health, and pay our taxes. Our son is 21 years old and gainfully employed and has a steady girlfriend. During our time in Queensland we opened our home to children in foster care and have done voluntary work with disabled young adults. Our belief is that everybody is born equal and should have equal rights.

Why do I think it is time for equal marriage? It is time to climb out of the Dark Ages; it is time for change. I feel that more energy should be put into promoting safe, happy and loving environments for our future generations. The gender of parents should not be an issue. It is about love, it is about commitment and it is about basic human rights.

Full equality under the law is something that any progressive society should strive for. In a secular society, the right to marry one another as consenting adults should be a right without restriction. Marriage is a deep seated ritual in the public consciousness that confirms the community's acceptance of the union between two individuals. In the end, all that GLBTI people want is to feel accepted.

I challenge some of Senator Joyce's remarks about the determination of gender and how absolute such things are. I ask this chamber, through you, Madam Acting Deputy President: what if you are of indeterminate gender—of no gender at all? Does that mean you have no right to marry anyone? That is the current situation in this nation. It is an appalling thing. It is also an appalling thing for those married couples with children where one partner wants to change their gender. Because of the Commonwealth's discrimination, such people are denied the right under state laws to change their gender. They are denied protection under state anti-discrimination acts because of the Commonwealth's discrimination. As a result, you are pretty much asking committed, functional families to divorce in order that someone be entitled to get their gender recognised. So when you talk about the absolute nature of a man and a woman for the purposes of marriage you are actually talking a nonsense because gender is a far more fluid thing than is generally understood by people in this chamber. So it is an important time for this nation to be discussing and confronting this question of marriage equality. It is not simply an issue of same-sex marriage; it is an issue of equality for all adult couples in terms of who they seek to form a committed and loving union with. I for one am very much looking forward to our national conference in December, where I will have the opportunity to call on my party to change its position on this question. It is a question I think we will be able to move forward on. Why? Because the Labor Party is a party that has always stood for progress, for equality and for the future.

4:37 pm

Photo of Cory BernardiCory Bernardi (SA, Liberal Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary Assisting the Leader of the Opposition) Share this | | Hansard source

Recently a number of parliamentarians reported back on their electorate-wide consultation about the issue of gay marriage. It was heartening to read that an overwhelming majority, and some say as many as two-thirds, maintained their constituents broadly supported preserving marriage as being between a man and a woman. Of course, when Greens MP Adam Bandt suggested a system of consulting and reporting back, he never thought this would be the outcome. Given the Greens advocacy for almost everything that undermines the bedrock institutions of Western civilisation, it is a safe bet that he was expecting the response to vindicate his world view. Unfortunately for Mr Bandt, but fortunately for many of us, the innate wisdom of the electorate has recognised the importance of one of the most enduring institutions of society: traditional marriage.

Marriage has historically been the union of a man and a woman for life with the intention of raising a family. It has proven itself as the most sustainable and effective social support and training environment for our future generations. Within this ideal, children benefit from having both a male and a female role model. Of course, despite such a circumstance being the ideal for the nurturing of our children, we cannot ignore the fact that families today come in many different forms. Whatever their construct, we must also acknowledge that where children are protected and nurtured by a caregiver or caregivers who love them unequivocally they are better off than millions of other children around the world. That said, simply because families take many different forms, and some with a measure of success, does not mean we should stop recognising that what is best for children is living with a mother and father who have a strong, respectful and enduring love for one another.

That is one reason I think we need to preserve marriage as the gold standard of relationships and not allow the term to be applied to unions other than those between a man and a woman. To describe other types of relationships as being 'marriage' would reduce the important role that traditional marriage plays in one of the most important building blocks of our society, the family.

This motion is part of the current push within our parliament to broaden the definition of marriage. Once again, this demonstrates the salami-slicing encroachment by some on our important institutions. Only two years ago the progressive Left pushed and were successful in granting to all relationships the legal status and benefits accruing to married couples. This was well received by many within our community. However, there were some who voiced concerns that this was simply another step on the road to undermining the institution of marriage itself. To assuage these concerns there were assurances given by some in this chamber, and Senator Joyce referred to the bipartisan commitment that marriage being between a man and a woman would not be challenged during this parliament. Perhaps it will, but I hope it is not. But those assurances have not stopped the continual push to claim yet another of our social and cultural mores in the name of progress.

Leading the charge against our social institutions, in this case marriage, is the Greens party and some willing accomplices within the Labor Party. They, like many others, claim to represent the majority of people on this issue and yet find it hard to deal with the fact that their pursuit of these matters is not in keeping with the outlook or priorities of mainstream Australia. This motion is symbolic of the true agenda of the Australian Greens and it also highlights their priorities. Since the Greens first used their political clout to drive the direction of the Gillard government, we have seen their version of the national debate rotate around gay marriage, euthanasia and a massive green tax that will not be of any environmental benefit. These are not the priorities of mainstream Australia, and anyone with a true understanding of their concerns would know that.

However, the Greens led government insists through this motion and others like it that mainstream Australia supports the Greens social agenda, in this case the suggestion being that a growing majority of Australians want to change the definition of marriage as being between a man and a woman. I would dispute that claim, not only because it serves my personal views but because I dispute the Greens' continuing claim that a majority of people want Australia to become a republic. They have been maintaining that position from before the 1999 referendum. The fact they were wrong then, evidenced by the massive defeat of that referendum, has been entirely lost on those who live in a virtual green dream world.

In respect of the particular statement made in this motion from Senator Siewert, I realise that some members in this place have very strong opinions on this subject—strong opinions that lie on both sides of the argument. Indeed, I have a strong opinion on this myself. In many respects that was recognised when MPs in the other place consulted their electorates at the behest of the Greens and reported back to the parliament. According to the Greens, if you don't like the outcome, you just make claims like they have in this motion and you soldier on.

Those who advocate along the lines that the Greens do talk about 'marriage equality'. I believe we already have equality between couples in a committed relationship, according to our laws. In fact, that is what we passed two years ago. The fact that the term 'marriage' is applied to the union of a man and a woman with the permanent intent to maintain that union is not inequality but the recognition of the important role, both real and symbolic, that marriage has in our society. Accordingly, I will not stop advocating for the preservation of marriage as being between a man and woman. As Senator Joyce said, it is not just a contract between two people; it is a contract within society itself.

Photo of Trish CrossinTrish Crossin (NT, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The time for debating this motion has expired. Question put:

That the motion (Senator Siewert's) be agreed to.

The Senate divided. [16:48]

(The Acting Deputy President—Senator Crossin)

Question negatived.