Thursday, 16 November 2017
Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017; Second Reading
I rise to continue my contribution to the debate on this very important Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017. As I was referring to earlier, yesterday was a historic day for Australia. People will always remember where they were when they heard the result on that day. I feel honoured to be part of the debate and of ushering this bill into law. I do feel our former senators very closely here in the room with us—if they're listening. Senators Brown, Milne, Wright, Nettle, Simms, Ludlam and Waters have all, time after time, been supporting and campaigning for marriage equality when we Greens have been voting—every vote, every time—on marriage equality.
I feel inspired by yesterday's result. I don't think it's too extreme to say that there was literally joy in the streets. There certainly was down in Braddon last night, where people were celebrating very long into the night. The Australian community has demonstrated that we are compassionate and caring and that we support an inclusive community. I've heard of so many examples of people being proud to vote, and I'm so excited about how many young people engaged. Some families voted together. In my own household, my stepson wanted to vote so strongly and so passionately, but he wanted to vote with his dad, and he wanted to do it right away. So they voted as soon as they could and then walked up together to post their envelopes, to say yes.
We need to remember, however, the toll this survey has taken on many people. From the moment the survey was announced, there was a warning that it would lead to negative campaigning that would be hurtful to many. This has been a challenging time for many, many people. As I articulated in my earlier contribution when I shared a text from a friend of mine, the negative campaigning has had a big effect on many people. Our mental health services were not prepared for the influx of calls seeking help and relief from the divisive commentary that was made during the period of the survey.
But, despite all this, love is winning. Despite the divisiveness and the mistruths, love is winning, and I'm inspired and I congratulate my fellow Australians on this amazing result. We are a step closer to equality—in fact, many steps closer to equality. We are a step closer, through the results yesterday, to ensuring that same-sex couples have the right to marry. Sixty-one point six per cent of Australians voted yes in the postal survey and, in fact, 63.7 per cent of my fellow Western Australians supported marriage equality. In 30 short years, Tasmania has gone from outlawing homosexuality to a 63.6 per cent vote in favour of marriage equality. In the lower house, 133 of 150 electorates voted in support of marriage equality. Australia saw what the debate was truly about: equality. What is truly exciting about the result is the turnout as well. It is very encouraging that an overwhelming majority of Australians took part in the survey, which had a participation rate of 79.5 per cent. That is truly exciting, and it is certainly a high participation rate for a voluntary vote.
While this is a fantastic result that we are extremely pleased with, we still question the need for the survey. Polling showed us there was strong support in Australia for marriage equality. People wanted the parliament to get on with the job and to ensure marriage equality. Yesterday's result reinforces the results of that polling over the last 10 years, and that demonstrates that Australians want marriage equality. They resoundingly said yes. Unfortunately, many LGBTIQ Australians have had to endure the divisive debate and, at times, hurtful commentary over the last couple of months. The survey cost millions, and the money could have been spent on other issues. But Australians have come through that divisive debate and shown that they are a kind, caring, compassionate group of people, and they want equality for all.
As I touched on earlier, these have been difficult times for many LGBTIQ Australians who have endured these months of their lives being scrutinised and have often been criticised. You just need to look at the increased calls various support lines received and the extra demand for frontline mental health services during the survey period to know that it has taken a toll on LGBTIQ Australians and their families. ReachOut Australia saw a 40 per cent increase in demand for services since the survey was first announced. However, we've heard that the postal survey reportedly is coming in $20 million under budget. I'd like to make a suggestion to the government that that money should be given to mental health and counselling services, which have been so stretched and have done so much to support our LGBTIQ community in recent months. As ReachOut chief executive Jono Nicholas has said:
We need answers from the government now more than ever on how they plan to support frontline mental health organisations like ReachOut to heal the mental scars that will remain long beyond the result
So I encourage the government to invest that $20 million very wisely in supporting people with an extension of mental health services.
This is not the first time marriage equality has been before this parliament. As I articulated earlier, I've been on my feet many times in this chamber campaigning for marriage equality and supporting bills—the 23 that were quoted earlier in the day—that sought to introduce marriage equality. There have been many motions. There have been many urgency debates. In fact, I think it would run into the hundreds when you look over the years that this debate has been underway and there's been the campaign in this place to achieve marriage equality.
I'm looking forward to this bill passing and finally putting an end to the years of divisive, hurtful debate over same-sex couples' relationships. We can no longer delay this action, and it's exciting and it is a privilege to be part of this debate. We can no longer deny all Australians the right to marry. We need to pass this bill because it's the right thing to do. It is well beyond time that same-sex couples are treated equally in this country. Now that Australians have had their say, it's time for parliament to step up and be the leaders that Australia deserves. We have been elected by the people who now trust us to pass this legislation as a reflection of their vote. The people have spoken. They have chosen equality, love and fairness. It is time for all Australians to be able to marry the person they love. Love does not discriminate, it does not judge and it does not show prejudice—this is about loving the person you want to spend your life with and being able to marry that person. Let's allow marriage to do the same thing. The changes Mr Howard made to the Marriage Act undermined the institution of marriage. This bill strengthens marriage, ensuring that marriage is equally available to all Australians, and I feel that my marriage will be strengthened by ensuring that all Australians are able and have the right to marry.
There are going to be lots of weddings in this country very soon. I certainly will be getting out my glad rags, let me tell you! I was fortunate enough to be in Canberra on the one day that LGBTIQ Canberrans had the right to marry and, I tell you what, you could not move here without seeing people in ball gowns, in wedding gowns and in very high-heeled shoes. If that's anything to go by, there are going to be lots of weddings. There's going to be, I'd say, a mini economic boost in this country when this bill goes through. People keep talking about how some people won't want to bake cakes, for example, for a same-sex couple who wants to marry. I'm wondering how economically successful they will be if they don't participate in the trade that will ensue from everybody having the right to marry.
I'm looking forward to going to many of the weddings of my friends. When my husband and I got married, we were very conscious that we were doing it at a time when many of our friends and loved ones could not marry. We made a very heartfelt commitment to our LGBTI community, friends and loved ones. We committed and promised that we would not stop campaigning until marriage equality was achieved so that we could stand with them when they got married. So I'm really looking forward to that time when we can stand there and celebrate their love the same way that they stood with my husband and me to celebrate our love and commitment before our friends and families.
I want to take a moment to acknowledge the hard work of one of my staff members, Nadine Walker, who over the years has campaigned relentlessly for marriage equality to become a reality. She can't be here with us today due to personal circumstances, but I know yesterday's results mean so much to her and in fact were an early birthday present—so, Nadine, happy birthday today. I'm hoping this is making your day. We are thinking of you with love in our hearts. I also send a message to her partner, Hannah, to say thank you so much for supporting Nadine through this time. Love will win. The Greens have had a lot of stickers with, 'LOVE. WILL. WIN.' I don't know that we're going to have time to make stickers that say 'Love is winning,' but we'll certainly have plenty of time to have stickers saying 'Love has won.' Love is going to win.
I can't tell you how many rallies I've stood up at, supporting marriage equality and promising people that we will get there and we will never stop campaigning to ensure that love will win. We made a promise that we would support marriage equality at every vote, every time—every MP, every vote, every time. Around this country, we can proudly say: every Green MP, every vote, every time. We want to see this bill passed. This bill is supported across parties. People came to the table with compassion and love, wanting to ensure that there was a bill that could be passed by this parliament. This bill is capable of being passed by this parliament. That too will be a historic moment. People will say, 'I remember where I was when that bill passed.' There will be greater joy, literally, in the streets when it passes, way beyond what was seen in Braddon last night and way beyond what I've seen reported in other states, including my home state. It will be a day of joy for so many people when we finally have marriage equality in Australia and people have the right to marry the person they love.
I look forward to continuing to participate in this debate. I look forward to seeing the smiles of joy and the tears that I know will flow very freely when the bill finally passes. Then I look forward to going to lots and lots of weddings and sharing the joy of my loved ones and my friends in their ability to say 'I do', slip rings on each other's fingers, kiss, hug and share their love with their families and friends, because that's what this is about. It is about love and people's commitment to each other. Every human being has the right to do that with the person they love and to enjoy and celebrate that with their family, their loved ones and their friends. So, once again: every Green, every vote, every time. And we'll certainly be voting for this bill. Please, I urge people in this chamber to support this bill.
I rise today to speak on the private senator's bill introduced by motion to this place by Senator Smith and also by me, as well as a number of opposition and cross-party senators: the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017. Introducing this bill to the Senate is something that I was extremely proud to do, not because I have been at the forefront of this campaign. Indeed, I have not. Although my position on same-sex marriage has always been clear and has always been consistent, I have not led the charge. Since entering this place 15 months ago, I haven't made unsolicited comments to the media or issued a press release, I haven't covered myself with glitter or rainbows, I haven't changed my social media profile or picture to multicolours, I haven't attended a rally and I haven't even hashtagged. That's not because I don't believe in the cause—I do, deeply—but my political bandwagoning and virtue signalling, one way or the other, was not going to change a single vote. It was not going to affect the outcome one iota. I knew throughout the debate that, despite my very privileged position as a legislator in the Senate of this great country, my opinion on this issue is no more and no less important than anyone else's; it was the deeply held, personal opinions that were sought and received from the Australian public via the national survey. A glib Facebook post, a Q&A appearance, a Press Club address, a hashtag or a finger-wagging diatribe would have changed nothing. Indeed, who am I to think that I could have changed the outcome? We let the people tell us what they want—and, indeed, they have.
Despite my reluctance to gain political mileage from this issue, I have not recused myself from the responsibility of doing what is right. I have vociferously supported and defended the process not as a way to subvert or delay an outcome but because I believe it gives credibility and authority to that outcome. There was much going on behind the scenes that most of the 12 million Australians who participated will never see, and neither should they. We are here, elected by them, so they should trust us to get this right. I was a coalition member of the cross-party committee for 'yes' established to oversee the postal survey and ensure that the process was undertaken with appropriate safeguards and the highest integrity. The many days of observing the counting of the survey results was logistically challenging to administer and tedious, but it was important to ensure that the process was unquestionable. I want to thank those who volunteered to be an observer over the weeks of the count, both for the no side and for the yes side. Being locked away in a windowless room, watching computer screens all day and checking a random sample of thousands of ballot papers for validity was gruelling work, but each team behaved with patience and with dignity. I want to specifically thank Jarrod Lomas, the coordinator of the observers. He is a man of great organisational skill, wit, patience and dignity, and I have made a new friend.
I have also signed my name, along with my Liberal colleague Senator Reynolds and senators from across the opposition and crossbench, to the notice of motion that introduced the bill we are debating today. It is a bill crafted with meticulous care and consideration by my friend Senator Dean Smith. I took the decision to sign the notice of motion to introduce this bill because bringing on the debate immediately after the results of the survey were known was the right thing to do. It's the right thing to do by the Australian people, who, through the haze and vitriol of much of this debate, have made it abundantly clear that the parliament has their support, the imprimatur and the mandate to change the Marriage Act to allow same-sex couples to marry. It's the right thing to do by all Victorians, who I'm here to represent, for Victoria's support for a yes vote at 64.9 per cent has been overwhelming.
It's the right thing to do by my colleagues right across the chamber who have undertaken extensive committee work, receiving over 400 submissions, with three days of hearings in three states, and hour after hour of cross-party negotiations to return a consensus committee report. That was a historic occasion. A consensus committee report on a contentious issue is the unicorn of the Senate! It was the hard work and the goodwill of the senators involved that made that possible. It was the right thing to do by Senator Smith, a man of extraordinary integrity, kindness, diligence and wisdom, a man whose journey to this point has not been easy. My support for his bill is also a reflection of my respect and admiration for him. It's the right thing to do by my party, which knows that, when you look people in the eye and you make them a promise, you keep it. My party respects those not only who work hard but also who are as good as their word.
In my party, as well as in my country, we value no principle more highly than equality under the law. That includes the legal right to marry. Freedom of speech and freedom of religion are equally important but different principles. I believe that the bill before us, meticulously crafted to reflect the consensus views of the cross-party committee on this very issue, not only provides legal equality for all Australians in relation to marriage but does so without diminishing existing freedoms of speech or freedoms of religion. The bill removes existing discrimination in our marriage law, it protects religious institutions and it does not reintroduce commercial discrimination. In doing so, it advances the civic rights of all Australians and provides protection for religious institutions to continue to be guided by the tenets of their faith. Importantly, it actually offers new protections for ministers of religion performing marriages for religious denominations that are not yet recognised. This is particularly noteworthy for independent religious organisations and smaller, emerging religious groups. The bill also permits bodies established for religious purposes to be able to refuse to make a facility available or provide goods and services associated with the solemnisation of a marriage.
Importantly, this bill upholds existing antidiscrimination laws. There is nothing in the proposed legislation that removes an existing right, nor does any of it diminish an existing civil freedom. Very importantly for the deliberations of this chamber and for the millions of Australians who, not through bigotry or homophobia but because of deeply held personal or religious beliefs in hesitation and apprehension voted no, this bill affords far greater levels of religious protection than any of the 22 marriage equality bills that have been introduced since 2004. It is worth noting for the chamber that bodies established for religious purposes are actually already exempt from a number of antidiscrimination laws, including the Sex Discrimination Act 1984. The bill will ensure that the Sex Discrimination Act of 1984 is amended to give full effect to the religious protections in the bill.
We should be very clear on this point: this bill is not designed to satisfy those occupying the extremes of the marriage equality debate. That is not the remit of a representative chamber. Rather, the ambition of this legislation is to offer a considered, sensible and balanced pathway forward that will find favour with fair-minded Australians. And there are many, many millions of fair-minded Australians. I was very proud to sign my name to the notice of motion to introduce the Smith bill to the Senate chamber.
It is only a fool or an ideologue or a shameless self-promoter that would not reserve the right to consider amendments. Of course I will. In this chamber, there are many people with good hearts and sharp intellects, and no-one has a monopoly on good ideas. But I will not countenance amendments that in my mind condone brand-new forms of discrimination. Balancing competing freedoms is a very difficult task. We must always remember that, with rights and freedoms, come responsibilities. We have a responsibility to have a respectful and robust debate, but at the end of it all we cannot ignore, we cannot circumvent and we cannot subvert the will of the majority—the majority of both the parliament and the Australian people we are here to represent.
Thank you to the 12 million Australians who came out and voted. To the majority who voted yes, I want to reassure you that we will change the law to allow same-sex couples to marry. That is what you voted for overwhelmingly, and that is what my government promised you. To the minority who voted no, thank you for expressing your views in a democratic process. I'm very sorry that the old adage remains true: sometimes in a democracy the other side wins. I hope that today I have reassured you that your genuine concerns have been heard and many of those concerns have already been considered and have been addressed in the bill that we are considering today. The Australian people have instructed the parliament to act, and we will do so. We are all here as humble servants of the Australian people. We have an obligation—a duty, even—to respect their wishes and to act swiftly to make marriage equality a reality in this country. To do anything else would be a betrayal of the trust that the Australian people have put in us.
I am a passionate person on many things, but I am not prone to tears. When the results of the survey came in yesterday, I was surprised to find myself moved to weeping. It was somewhat embarrassing; I was in a meeting surrounded by my colleagues. The relief, the joy and the pride on the faces of those who had gathered in public places around the nation was overwhelming. It got me thinking about that word 'pride', a word used so much in this debate. And, of course, the opposite of pride is shame. I really hope that at the end of this process, when this bill—a good bill, a considered bill, a thorough bill—is passed, same-sex couples will feel proud of their love for one another, proud of the commitment they have made to each other and proud of the welcome place they have in their communities. I hope also that the shame they may have felt in the past is diminished in their memories and eliminated in their futures.
It is our job as legislators to give Australians better futures, so I too am proud today. I'm proud that I have played my small roles behind the scenes, away from the headlines, away from the limelight and away from the virtue signals and the political opportunism, to enable this change to take place. I'm proud of the conduct of my colleagues throughout this chamber in finding a consensus approach to a very difficult subject that has haunted successive governments for more than a decade. I'm proud of my government for standing resolutely by its promises. I am proud that I have not used, and will not use, this issue to advance my own standing within my party, within the parliament or within the electorate. I'm proud that my actions have contributed to the opportunities, the futures and the unbridled happiness of thousands and thousands of LGBTIQ Australians and their families. I am proud that my children, when they grow, will be part of a more accepting, open-minded and inclusive society where no legal construct will cause them or their friends shame.
I will support this bill, I will speak on this bill and I will fight for this bill because the people of Australia have told us emphatically that they want this bill passed. It is a commitment that we have made to many millions of people from the LGBTIQ community from my state of Victoria, from my party and from across Australia. But, more importantly, it is the right thing to do. I don't want to horrify the chamber, but I have Irish blood in me—it's not a section 44 issue, I promise! In fact, you'll have to go a very, very long way back in my family tree to find somebody born overseas. But, that said, I am reminded of a traditional Irish blessing that is often said at weddings. I would like to dedicate that blessing to those Australians who very soon will be able to marry. I'm looking forward to being able to say to them: 'May the road rise to meet you. May the wind always be at your back. May the warm rays of sun fall upon your home. And may the hand of a friend always be near.'
I'm not quite finished, but thank you. I know you were moved by that moment of Irish sentiment! It is with great pride—truly great pride—that I commend this bill, the private senator's bill of my friend and colleague Senator Smith, to the Senate.
I wish to indicate that I will be supporting the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017 to legalise same-sex marriage, as I did when a bill was presented in 2012. That was a bill that failed because there wasn't a free vote allowed on both sides of the chamber. Given that there is on this occasion, I've got no doubt that this particular bill will pass. I think we have seen—I don't think it can be argued otherwise—an emphatic endorsement for a change in the law as a result of the postal survey.
That doesn't change the fact that the postal survey was unnecessary and, I think, in many respects, remained a divisive exercise. I take the view that it was expensive, and that, while the ABS was able to manage it well within its allocated budget, it was a proposition that should have been managed through this parliament. That's what we are paid for, and I think that's what most people regard as our responsibility to undertake. That's been the case on many, many occasions where this parliament has dealt with changes to the Family Law Act. In the past, we've actually dealt with changes to the Marriage Act itself, and it's been a matter of no great difficulty. I can't see why this matter could not have been dealt with in that manner.
There's no doubt, though, that Australians have declared where they stand, on what, to me, is a fundamental human right. We had a turnout of well-nigh 80 per cent. That is very, very high for a voluntary vote, and, by international standards, I think it's probably a record—a record of which we should be very proud. It tells us much about our experience in this country with the Australian ballot. It tells us a great deal about the value of the experience that the Australian people have had with compulsory voting. It tells us that nearly 62 per cent of people have supported the change in the law, which is an absolutely clear majority. In every state and territory, a majority have sought that change.
This bill, however, is a bill about a civil institution, and it's about extending civil rights. It's a bill aimed at updating the law to meet contemporary community values, and it's a bill about ending discrimination. It's not about religion. In fact, I am suspicious of laws that seek to regulate religion. The strong yes vote in the survey showed that people are not swayed by the scaremongers who have tried to present this issue about same-sex marriage as a threat to the freedom of religion, or, as they have sought to do, as an attack on family life. I think the Australian people understand that it is about neither of those things.
So I think we are entitled to ask: what will the result be of changing the law as the result of this bill? The truth of the matter is: some of our fellow citizens have been unjustly excluded from the institution of civil marriage, and they will no longer be. And that's all it is. I don't see it as any matter that goes much beyond that. The sky will not fall. Couples, including same-sex couples, will continue to raise families, as they already do. It's about the democratic rights and freedoms that Australians should possess. It also, of course, allows us to enshrine freedom of religion and freedom of speech, which will continue to be upheld. Religious institutions that celebrate a traditional view of marriage will not be required to change that view. No supporter of same-sex marriage has ever suggested anything to the contrary. The bill allows for ministers of religion and religious marriage celebrants to refuse to marry same-sex couples, but it rightly restricts special protections for religious freedom to the actual celebration of marriage itself.
Frankly, I won't be voting for amendments that seek to undermine other aspects of our civil rights in this country, including any suggestion that we should extend the right to discriminate on any other basis, or to wind back state protections of civil rights. It would be unconscionable to allow businesses to do what they cannot legally do now: to discriminate against people based on their gender or sexual preference, or on any other basis—such as race, for instance. Yet this is what the opponents of this bill have actually been arguing publicly. They are not only resisting a change in the law that will recognise a basic human right; they are demanding that human rights that already exist and are protected in law should lose that protection. It is not supporters of same-sex marriage—and it is not this bill—who are threatening the rights and freedoms of Australians. It is the people who have opposed this overdue change in the law, and they've done so at every stage.
Let's see what this law will actually change. I think this has really been a device to delay—and, again, transparently so—the inevitable. The cross-party committee that recommended this bill rejected those demands, and rightly so. The Law Council of Australia rejected them and warned that conflict with Australia's international human rights and obligations can't be tolerated, and it's clear that a great majority of the Australian people reject the proposition as well. The Australian people want the laws on marriage in this country to be fair and inclusive. I think, as a result of changing the law in this regard, Australia will be a fairer and more inclusive society.
Some people talk of traditional marriage and traditional family as if these things never change. They talk about these civil institutions as if they are locked in, frozen in time. Historically, of course, that is nonsense. The shared social understanding of marriage and the law on marriage have changed many times over the centuries. I think I made this point before, but it's worthy of being repeated. There was a time when the law allowed 12-year-olds to marry. No-one today would see that as anything other than child abuse. There was a time when violence within marriage was barely ever spoken about. No-one would regard that as acceptable today. There have been constant changes in our understanding of the relationships within marriage. There has been an evolving understanding of the nature of marriage, and in a democratic, pluralist society like Australia social institutions like marriage have increasingly been measured against the standard of human rights, as they should be. On that measure, excluding same-sex couples from the secular institution of marriage can no longer be tolerated.
In the language of the 18th century, the language of the Enlightenment, human rights—or natural rights, as they were then called—are inalienable. The state does not grant them. It has the role of upholding and protecting them, and that's what this bill does. It makes Australia a more equal society because more Australians will be able to enjoy fully another fundamental human right recognised even in the 18th century. The sad fact of life is that, in this country, there are still far too many people who run in fear of the Enlightenment. There are too many who seek to mock the aspirations of creating a compassionate society. Our Constitution, for instance, stands in sharp contrast to the principles that are embedded in much older documents, such as the United States Declaration of Independence. In fact, in Australia I'm sure many people on the right find it laughable that some think that the role of government is to guarantee the pursuit of happiness. I've heard them mock it. I've seen Andrew Bolt in the Herald Sun so often argue the case that the pursuit of happiness is not the proposition that we should be engaged in, that the humanities have no role to play in terms of our research programs and that an understanding of the emotions is something we should not be part of. In the 18th century, this principle, which, of course, was written into the US Declaration of Independence, argued that it was a right which was given to humans by the creator. Humanists regard this principle, however, as an inalienable civil right, and I emphasise this. They believe that it is the fundamental responsibility of governments to protect that right. The right of people to marry the person they choose is one such right.
My party has allowed a free vote on this bill. I regard the social reform ushered in by the bill as an expression of Labor's historic task of extending the recognition of human rights. We don't, and I certainly don't, claim that we've always been successful in that task. We certainly don't claim any monopoly on morality, and I don't believe anyone in this chamber has the right to do so. But, as I said in the debate on the same-sex marriage bill presented in 2012, for more than 120 years Labor has relied on this one fundamental premise in terms of its operation. That premise was summed up by one of the Labor Party's earliest parliamentary representatives, George Black. He said that Labor's role was the making and the unmaking of social conditions. When our caucus voted to approve the bill recommended by the cross-party committee, we acted in accordance with that tradition. I'm therefore very pleased to be able to speak in support of the bill today.
I rise to speak, as a proud co-sponsor, in support of the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017. My courageous colleague Dean Smith, who has been a brave point man on this historic amendment—which will pass or 'shall so hold', as the Prime Minister mispredicted about another matter—said in his speech earlier today that this 'is not revolutionary; it is evolutionary'. It reminded me that Gough Whitlam once told me this about a republic; he said a republic 'is evolutionary, not revolutionary'. That's what marriage equality is—evolutionary. But it has taken too bloody long, far too long. The same applies to a republic, but that's another issue for another day. Rachel Hunter, that actress from across the ditch, used to say, 'It won't heppen overnight, but it will heppen'. And now we know, after 61.6 per cent of Australia voted yes for marriage equality, it will 'heppen' here before Christmas—it must. The no supporters in this chamber and the other place must not use this debate as a filibuster or a Trojan horse. I will support the Attorney-General's amendments, flagged yesterday, to protect religious freedoms and to exempt marriage celebrants. But, if the same-sex marriage opponents try to block what is overwhelmingly the will of the Australian people with a slew of obstructive amendments, I will vote against them again and again and again.
Madam Acting Deputy President, may I ask for your indulgence today, in this unusual rainbow atmosphere of love and loyalty in the chamber, when I bend protocol a bit and pay tribute to the people here in this chamber most personally affected by the discrimination in the Marriage Act that John Howard so cruelly and calculatingly imposed on Australia 13 years ago in 2004, with the wrong-footed political acquiescence at the time of the Labor Party. To the people most affected, like Dean and Penny and Janet and Louise, I say: I'm sorry it has taken so long. I stood next to Senator Wong in the minutes before the result was announced. While the man from the ABS was doing his Rob Oakeshott impersonation, her inner tension was palpable. To me, that and her tears of relief, which were shared across this wide land yesterday, rammed home to me just what pressure and discrimination and unfair judgement LGBTQI Australians have lived under for decades, and for how long some of them have campaigned and struggled for this time to come.
Last night on Sky, on Paul Murray LIVE, I appeared with Professor Kerryn Phelps—the 'Kerryn and Derryn show'!—the former head of the AMA, whom I've interviewed a zillion times in a former life as a broadcaster. Kerryn Phelps said that she and her wife, Jackie, had been campaigning for marriage equality for 20 years. To be truly honest, if I had heard her back then, 20 years ago, talking about same-sex marriage, I would've said: 'No. What are you talking about? Marriage is between a man and a woman.' That's because, for years, for decades, I opposed same-sex marriage. That was 20 years ago, and it probably would've applied even 10 years ago. I stand here today as an Australian male who only a few years ago did think that that was the way the world was and should be—a neat and tidy status quo for heterosexuals. I'm sure that view was shared back then by a lot of Australians who voted yes in the postal ballot this time. I stand here today as a proud co-sponsor of this bill.
On this historic day, I want to go back to my road-to-Damascus moment, and maybe it will explain some things. I want to quote from something I wrote seven years ago for The Australian newspaper under the headline 'It was wrong of me to oppose gay marriage':
I WAS an opponent of gay marriage for years. I doggedly followed the ignorant, almost homophobic line without really thinking it through.
Marriage was only for men and women because that's just the way it was.
Forget the fact that loving relationships between same-sex couples lasted as long, if not longer, than many marriages, despite those couples swearing before God "til death us do part".
Only four years ago I wrote a book called You Are So Beautiful: the passion and the pain of relationships. There was a seemingly empathetic chapter called The Pink Revolution and in it I wrote: "Homosexual men and women have had, and many still have, added pressures in their relationships. There is the partner who won't come out of the closet. The partner who wants to keep it quiet because he (or she) doesn't know how to tell their parents. Even though you could usually bet money that a mother's intuition has already told her. A gay person whose lover won't-can't acknowledge their relationship must feel a bit like a mistress who doesn't exist in that partner's public world."
But when it came to voicing a strong opinion on gay marriage I wimped it. My editor, Anouska Jones, thought I should remove the whole chapter.
She said: 'Your attitude also comes across as ambivalent - as you openly admit - and I think that adds to the problem, as for the rest of the book you express definite, unswerving opinions on each theme that you tackle. For these reasons, I would advise not including it."
I did include it and eventually wrote: "I will admit that I have had difficulty coping with the non -traditional idea of a marriage between two men or two women but I am learning and I know that the day will come soon when it is as accepted and as protected as any other union." What a fence-sitting cop out.
It took two women - my wife and my ex-wife—
that is, my then wife, Chanel, and my ex-wife Jacki Weaver—
to convince me that my attitude was irrational and discriminatory.
And such discrimination is illegal because you cannot discriminate on the grounds of sex, religion or race. It is also morally reprehensible.
I also found my justifications increasingly hollow and unconvincing, even to me. It took me back to the days when my mother couldn't satisfactorily answer a question. After the third "Why?" she would respond: "Because it just is. That's why."
And that's about the best the opponents of gay marriage can come up with in 2010: it just is.
And that still applies in 2017. My article continued:
That is why I was surprised, disappointed and dismayed when Julia Gillard recently said that heterosexual marriage was not only her government's view but her personal view.
Now let me get this straight. And, I guess, straight is the operative word. Our new Prime Minister is an atheist. She doesn't believe in God, but she believes in the sanctity of God-blessed marriages except for gay people.
Sounds hypocritical to me. She lives with her partner Tim Mathieson, a condition the church would quaintly describe as "living in sin".
If the hairdresser with whom Gillard lives had been female I wonder if her views would be different? And where does Penny Wong stand on this? She is a cabinet member who has fewer civil rights than her colleagues, purely because of her sexuality.
But I did take in all of Senator Wong's sincere and intelligent comments today, and I now understand. I finally understand that she was right not to go out in what she called a brief blaze of glory—that's how she put it today. She decided to stay inside her party and lobby and fight for what we have ended up with today, and that is to her credit. It is a bill I'm thrilled to see her name on. My article from 2010 continued:
Gillard said: 'We believe the Marriage Act is appropriate in its current form, that it's recognising that marriage is between a man and a woman."
That statement came on the same day the female Prime Minister of Iceland married her female partner. In Mexico City, capital of a fiercely Catholic country, same-sex marriages and adoption by same-sex couples have been legal since March of this year.
In the US some states recognise same-sex marriages although those laws have been rolled back by referendum in places such as California. Closer to home—
as we heard from Senator Siewert—
the Labor-dominated territory government in Canberra legalised same sex marriages, but was overruled by the federal government, in the same way the Howard government blocked voluntary euthanasia in the Northern Territory. The Victorian Labor Party (Gillard's home state) supports gay marriage.
Gillard says her government (and Kevin Rudd's government) had taken steps to equalise treatment for gay couples over matters such as social security benefits.
That was true, but that was not enough. My article continued:
But she is not going to scare the voters, especially the religious Right …
I was right when I predicted way back then that she didn't want to advocate anything that would upset the Right, the religious Right and the conservatives. My article continued:
The Liberals and Nationals are even more locked in. After all, Tony Abbott has admitted he feels "threatened" by homosexuals. That's weird. What's also weird is the strident opposition when most marriages in Australia are these days conducted by celebrants and not in churches, only about 10 per cent of Australians are weekly churchgoers, two out of three marriages end in divorce, and one in three Australian children are born out of wedlock. What are people afraid of?
The only encouraging thing for gay people is that they know their day will come. Equality will prevail. One day.
In conclusion, I said, seven years ago:
The only encouraging thing for gay people is that they know their day will come. Equality will prevail. One day.
So I say: Australia, this is our Barack Obama moment. To the 61.6 per cent of you who voted yes, I salute you, and, Australia, I thank you.
I'm happy to stand corrected, but I think I'm the first person who openly campaigned against redefining marriage to actually speak in this debate on the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017. I want to extend my congratulations to the 'yes' campaign. What matters in the end is how the Australian people voted, and you had an overwhelming victory. I congratulate you on the campaign. It was generally played out in good spirits, and I hope you recognise that, from our end of the campaign—the official 'no' campaign—we also sought to do the same thing.
A couple of years ago in a debate with Senator Wong at the National Press Club I said that if a majority of people in a majority of states voted to redefine marriage then who was I to stand in the way, and I stand by those words today. I've been called many things in this place, but a hypocrite is not one of them. I stand by those things and I accept that this bill is going to pass and that there are going to be many thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions of people who will be very happy at the transition from marriage being what it is today to being open to same-sex couples.
It's hard to argue with the joy that I've seen in people who I sometimes don't agree with—or who I don't agree with quite a lot. They're obviously very happy. It's a very personal experience. There's a sense of happiness in me that they're happy, notwithstanding I would have preferred a different result. But, having said that, I do want to just put on the record the genuineness of the concerns amongst many in the no-voting fraternity.
We've had this wonderful circumstance in Australia where our freedoms have often been taken for granted, and we've legislated to remove discrimination, which is also the right thing to do in many respects. But rarely have we had this great transgression on our traditional freedoms. I spoke about this in my maiden speech to this place, which was about how we're forced to choose between whose rights should prevail in an era of competing rights. In other places around the world, they have had legislated freedoms, whether freedom of speech or freedom of religion or other freedoms, and they've sought to get the balance right between anti-discrimination legislation and the freedoms that we need.
I acknowledge that the numbers are against us. You guys have the numbers to do whatever you want with this bill—to go forward. I would only ask that you consider some of our concerns. We don't want to rain on your parade. And it was a pretty big parade last night, I can tell you! So we don't want to rain on your parade, but we do want to protect religious liberty in this place—not to offend you and not to upset those who think that it's somehow an infringement on their rights, but to protect or codify the significant rights that have evolved over a very long time in this country.
You know that I'm a defender of freedom of speech, and I think that 18C is an obnoxious infringement upon that. It's the same sort of thing that I would argue in this case as well. We've had circumstances internationally where people's freedoms have been curtailed by activists in the same-sex marriage lobby, as they have by others. We've seen it in this debate as well, with Archbishop Julian Porteous. They are very real concerns, and I hope that in some way they can be addressed.
I also express the concern of many parents. It is not perhaps a place directly for the federal parliament, because education is a state based issue, and that's a principle of federation. but I do think there are things going on within our education system that parents feel uncomfortable about and feel are somewhat out of their control. Give some accommodation or consideration to the rights of parents—if they conscientiously object, whether for religious reasons or other reasons—to say, without making a fuss about it: 'I'd rather my child not be exposed to some of these teachings,' or to have some input into it. I think that would be a positive step forward.
I stand by my stance. I'm rarely for changing—though that might bring a smile to your face!—but I stand by the stance that I think there are unforeseen consequences in this. I'm happy to be proved wrong, to be perfectly frank. I'm struggling with the idea already, because, despite what Karl Stefanovic said, I've had two invitations to same-sex weddings already, both from people for whom I have enormous respect, one from someone with whom I've had a very longstanding friendship for many, many years. I'm not sure whether he really has been proposed to three times in one day, because he's not that handsome—that's how I would describe it! Anyway, I'm not going to mention his name, lest someone Google him! Look, it is what it is. I accept that I'm on the losing side of this argument—
Senator Dastyari interjecting—
That's why I didn't mention his name, Senator Dastyari. It's like why no-one says that you're anyone's friend! It is what it is. You guys have won an extraordinary victory. I ask, just simply, from the humble no voter, that you be mindful of their genuine concerns. They're not motivated by malice. They're not motivated by loathing or hatred. They're motivated by a desire to ensure that Australia can preserve and protect some of the things that make us really, really good. For 10 years in this place I've said that there are encroachments along the way, and I've been trying to push back against some of them. I can't push back against this one. I can only say: let's think of the principles, of the freedoms, that have built our country and made it fantastic. I have nothing but goodwill towards you, I am sure. To the same sex couples who want to get married: get married; have fun; do what you want to do. I hope you all have at least as happy a time as I've had in my 21 years of marriage. So, with that, I say thanks to the Senate.
How good is it that we stand here today knowing that, after all the years of fighting for marriage equality, it's almost here? How good is it that the purposeful discrimination introduced by the Howard government 13 years ago will soon be dead and buried? Australia has voted for equal love, for equal treatment and for equal respect. I know what a proud moment it is to be able to publicly commit to the person you love, as I have with my wife, Kristin. Every Australian will soon have the same privilege. I'm especially proud that every single electorate in my home state of South Australia voted for marriage equality. Sixty-two-point-five per cent of South Australians voted yes. This is an unambiguous result and I would urge my state Senate colleagues, Senators Gichuhi, Bernardi and Farrell, who have so far indicated that they will not back this bill, to respect the wishes of our great state and, instead, vote for it. In fact, given that every state and territory voted in favour of changing the definition of marriage, every Senator should follow suit. This chamber could make history with a unanimous 'yes' vote, and that would be a very impressive scene.
As exciting as the results have been, I do however regret that we wasted $122 million of taxpayer money to confirm what we already knew. In 2004, when John Howard amended the federal Marriage Act to explicitly state that marriage be between a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, he didn't insist on a survey or a plebiscite; he simply took it to the parliament. Our current Prime Minister could and should have put forward legislation months ago to allow parliament to vote on the issue of marriage equality. This would have been the least expensive and least harmful way of ensuring that all people, regardless of their sexual orientation, are equal under the law. But the deed is now done and, with almost 13 million people completing the survey, at least there can be no arguing about the result. The people have spoken and we are here to do what Australians have elected us to do: listen to their wishes and enact their decisions on marriage equality.
It is worth taking a moment to appreciate how far we have come as a society in a relatively short time. Only two generations ago, being gay was a criminal offence. South Australia and the ACT were the first states to decriminalise homosexuality in the mid-1970s, but it took 22 years until it was decriminalised across Australia. Tasmania was the last state to hold out. It was still a crime as recently as 1997—just 20 years ago—and yet Tasmania has resoundingly embraced marriage equality. It is this thought of adaptability and commitment to fairness that makes me proud to be an Australian.
Incredibly, it was only recently that we took the next logical step to expunge the sting of criminal convictions. In 2013, South Australia was the first state to expunge convictions for homosexuality. New South Wales and Victoria did the same in the following two years. Queensland and Tasmania both passed legislation just last month, and Western Australia only introduced legislation to do so two weeks ago. I suppose it is better late than never. I still feel some disbelief that, as recently as the 1970s, eighties and nineties, we found the notion of homosexuality so confronting that we jailed and chemically castrated men who were only being true to themselves. We forced LGBTI people to live a lie. We forced them to conform, which not only brought misery to them but also often brought misery to the people they misguidedly married in their desire to fit society's norms. Thank God those days are well and truly over.
I respect that not everyone who completed the survey felt comfortable ticking yes and that the people who oppose same-sex marriage have a variety of personal and religious reasons for doing so. That's fair enough. We're all entitled to our views, but I am confident that the end of days predicted by the worst excesses of the no campaign will not come to pass. This moment is a line in the sand that acknowledges the obvious truth: we are not all cut from the same cloth. What is important is to support loving adult relationships.
Senator Smith's marriage amendment bill makes only a tiny change to the Marriage Act, but it will bring about a profound, welcoming and inclusive change to our society. It undoes the definition of marriage imposed during those Howard years. It will protect religious freedoms in relation to marriage by allowing places of worship to refuse to host same-sex marriages if this doesn't accord with their doctrines, and it will allow religious ministers and celebrants to refuse to solemnise a marriage if it affronts their religious beliefs.
I know many same-sex couples gave up waiting for Australian law to catch up to Australian opinion and went overseas to get married. This bill will finally allow their marriages to be recognised here. But same-sex marriage is not just about wedding rings and recognising love equally. Marriage also simplifies some of life's messy red tape and it will extend some important rights to same-sex couples. For instance, both people will automatically be considered parents of babies born through IVF rather than having to prove their de facto status. What makes me especially happy about what we are doing here today is how much this will mean to the children of same-sex couples. They will know that, in law, their parents are no different from other parents. They will know that their parents' love and respect for each other is truly recognised, that their relationship is valued and that their rainbow family is not in any way second class. This bill topples the final barrier in our law that discriminates against LGBTI people.
I note Senator Paterson had also drafted a bill, which sought to represent the views of the 38 per cent of Australians who voted no in the survey. I'm glad it did not see the light of day, because that bill did not respect the yes vote. In fact, it was an insult to it. How could we possibly enact a bill to end discrimination against same-sex couples only to enshrine it elsewhere, as Senator Paterson's bill sought to do, by making it okay to refuse a service to LGBTI people? Such a regressive step would only take us as a society back to an ugly place and would be a slap in the face to the community and, indeed, to anyone who is affronted by bigotry and discrimination in any form. Senator Smith's bill strikes the right balance. As I said earlier, marriage equality is such a small change in law but will have such a profound impact. It puts love above prejudice, and I truly believe we as a society will be better for it.
I'm afraid I may disappoint a few people today—not that that's going be a first!—because normally I don't refer to notes. Normally I'll just say what comes into my head and what I've picked up in my ventures to get here. But today I want to dignify my contribution by referring partly to some well-thought-out written notes. Some might have thought they'd cop the old mic drop from me like the last time I got up and spoke about marriage equality in this country. I came in to make a 20-minute contribution and I think I got to 48 seconds and thought, 'I've had a gutful of even talking about this, because it has been 10 years.' I just walked off after making some comment about: 'I'll be at the Royal Hotel in Queanbeyan. Give me a call when you get your act together.' Thank goodness the country's got its act together finally—and what a magnificent outcome!
I'd like to begin by echoing the words of Senator Penny Wong yesterday when she said: 'Australia, thank you. Thank you to the millions of Australians who participated in this process, and thank you for voting for equality. You have resoundingly told the parliament that equality matters, and that means the world not only to me but to the many, many Australians who want to have their relationship recognised by the law and to those who support marriage equality.'
I am especially proud of Western Australians, who returned the second-highest yes vote out of all the states in our nation yesterday, where 801,575 Western Aussies voted yes—63.7 per cent. I must say how proud I was to hear that every single Western Australian federal electorate, the whole 16 of them, voted yes—a clean sweep for that great state of Western Australia. I've always been proud to represent Western Australia in this place, but today I'm standing here even prouder, if that's possible. I was in the room yesterday with Senator Wong, Senator Pratt and other colleagues to hear the results read out. While we all were a little nervous leading into the announcement, the feeling in the room afterwards, I have to tell you, was electric.
Now, as a homosexual man—sorry, as a heterosexual man—and I didn't mean to do that. Mind you, it wouldn't worry me anyway; I'm so excited, I got my words mixed up. As a heterosexual man happily married with two adult kids and a wonderful grandson—and I dearly love the lot of them—I will never understand what it's like to be discriminated against because of who I love. Many of us in this chamber will never understand what that feels like—I couldn't possibly understand that—and to say that people didn't feel hurt or weren't victimised throughout this campaign is, sadly, absolute rubbish. But, when I was waiting for the result to come through yesterday, I sympathised with everyone in the room who was from the LGBTIQ community.
While the result was and is fantastic, it is still a shame that it had to come to this. It's a shame that we had to spend $122 million of taxpayers' money unnecessarily on a survey to tell the parliament what we already knew, and it's disingenuous to think that members of the Australian parliament, whether they be in the other chamber or here didn't know what the feeling was out there. This has been a barbecue conversation for at least 10 to 15 years. This is not a topic that just popped up in this parliament. Communities, organisations and families across the country were forced—or had the opportunity—to make a choice. Some of them were forced to pick a side and were instantly labelled, depending on the position they supported. In some cases, this did pit good friends against each other. It led to arguments around the dinner table—I've heard them—and it led to many hurtful discussions from one side of the campaign about people from the LGBTIQ community based purely on who they love. I ask: how wrong is that? This just shows how wide-ranging the impact of this survey was on the Australian public.
Watching the looks on the faces of people in that room prior to the announcement, including our leader in the Senate and our champion of this campaign, Senator Wong, was, at times, heartbreaking. The people in that room were tired, some of them were hurt, and they were worried that their love would once again be rejected. But, when the results were read out, I've got to tell you what a genuinely happy moment it was. My ears are still ringing from the cheering that was going on around that room. Seeing Senator Wong's reaction and the looks of relief on the faces of everyone around me really made me appreciate how much this meant to each and every member of the LGBTIQ community and their friends and their families. I say to you all: Australia has told you that you matter, Australia has told you that you and your relationship should be equal, and Australia has told you that they want marriage equality—and what a magnificent thing that is.
Watching the news coverage yesterday of all the different parties and community events across our nation celebrating the outcome was purely fantastic. It was a historic day for our country. I've been told that there was quite the street party in Braddon last night—and I know Braddon well; I used to live in Braddon. It was attended by some luminaries from all sides of politics. It explains some of the dreary faces I've seen around the building this morning. I can understand why they're dreary, and I hope you had a good celebration. One person who shall remain nameless—that's you, Ben—said to me that they didn't think there were that many people in Canberra, the crowds were that big. They also said that the feeling in Braddon was unbelievable. Everyone was happy, some were still crying, and there was a lot of dancing. Most people there were strangers to each other, but the one thing that drew them all together, the one thing that brought them all out to celebrate, was love—and that is what this is all about. Love wins. Love will always win. And that is what we saw yesterday.
Each of us, throughout the campaign, would have had interactions with people from both sides of the debate. While I really don't want to go into detail of some of the revolting, disgusting, hurtful and plain filthy emails I received—and a lot of people are brave at the other end of an email—criticising not only my support for marriage equality but those in the LGBTQI community, I am truly thankful to everyone who I met along the way during the campaign. Today, I can't help but think of all of you who I either met in person or had conversations with either on the phone or through Facebook. This bill is for each and every one of you. This is the good part—this is really good—I even got a few wedding invitations via Facebook from some of my followers. I'm looking forward to the day we make this legal, so that I can send back my RSVP. I also can't help but think of those close to me who this bill affects.
For Ben in my office, the result yesterday and this bill mean that people want his relationship to matter. They want it to be equal and they want people like Benny and his partner, James, to have the opportunity to get married—and I do too, mate. I've known Ben since he was 16—he stalked me from his school days!—and I consider him to be a great mate. But, when we were talking about the postal survey, when it first came up, I was a bit taken aback when Ben said that this was the first time that he had felt personally attacked or disadvantaged by politics. I thought, for someone who has been in the movement for 10 or so years, how could this be so? With all of the elections he's worked on with me and others, surely he would have picked up something that he was passionate about. But then I realised: this campaign was different. This argument wasn't about cuts to the pension, cuts to penalty rates or other important issues which didn't directly affect Ben but were issues he could sympathise with; this argument was deeply personal.
At the end of the day, the survey came to be because the Prime Minister, unfortunately, didn't have the bottle to bring the debate into the parliament. I could go on and on and on, but today is a day where we're going to celebrate the outcome. I don't think it would be a great thing to throw barbs across the chamber when we are celebrating, and I won't, but, unfortunately, some in the government did put the relationship of Ben and that of others up for public debate, and we mustn't forget that. The survey put Ben in a horrible position, because it made him feel like, unfortunately, his government didn't think that he or his relationship mattered. That's how Ben felt. I would be deeply offended if I knew that the country had a say on who I could or couldn't marry. I married my wife 35 years ago because she was the only one that would have me! No, it was because I loved her and still do dearly—she was the only one who would have me, but! Why should it be any different for Australians in the LGBTQI community? Hopefully, through the passage of this bill, it won't be different anymore. The hurt was felt by each and every Australian from the LGBTQI community, and for this I say sorry. What the community did have, however, was each other, and the result yesterday truly was a team effort. Despite the hurt and the pain, what an immensely proud feeling to know that a majority of Australians, when our government sadly failed to do it, have stood up for you. Yesterday's results speak to Ben, Louise and everyone in the LGBTQI community. You matter, your relationships matters, and the majority of the Australian public want you to feel equal.
I'd like to take this opportunity to recognise a few people. This campaign was not a few people—it was millions of people—but there are a few I'd like to recognise. To Senator Penny Wong and Senator Louise Pratt: congratulations. To Senator Dean Smith: a lot has been said and a lot will be said. Good on you, Dean. This has been hard fought, trying, tiring and difficult—but look where we are now as a nation! You've done it. To Bill, to Tanya and to the Labor family, who have been steadfast in this campaign, I say well done. Once again I say to Senator Dean Smith, who introduced this bill: mate, not enough words can be said about you, and they are all heartfelt. I commend your courage, mate, and your determination in writing this bill. You should be extremely proud. Tiernan, Tom, Anna, Alex and all from the Australian Marriage Equality Campaign—look what you've achieved. You and your team should be immensely proud of what you've done for our nation. But I say to Tom and Anna especially: it has been a privilege to get to know you both over the campaign. It must be so rewarding to see the outcome after all that you have worked so darned hard for.
When I spoke on this matter last year, I spoke of how proud I was to walk my daughter down the aisle at her wedding. And I said that every parent should have the same opportunity as I did with my child, regardless of their sexuality or who they choose to marry. Once we make this bill law—and hopefully we're only a couple of days away—all parents across our country will be able to do this. As Senator Pratt said earlier, this issue is not just about people from the LGBTQI community. It's about their friends, their families, their supporters and their loved ones. This result and this bill show them that their loved ones matter. This result and this bill show them that Australia wants them to be equal, regardless of their sexuality.
We have all made it through this postal survey. Australians have done what their government unfortunately didn't do. But Australians have made their decision. They have told the government that they want marriage equality. It's now up to us to make this happen. I am encouraged. I have to say that this time yesterday, or a little bit earlier, I had fears of how the debate could slide into an even worse position than what I thought it possibly could prior to the postal survey's results. I want to support Senator Griff's statements, but, sadly, I don't know what was going through Senator Paterson's head. Fortunately, whatever it was has fallen out. Fortunately, we're not going to have that shocking debate that Senator Paterson's bill had the ability to take us down into. I don't know how anyone in this chamber could try and qualify that we can shift the nastiness to another argument to attack our gay and lesbian communities with the nonsense that we were confronting through that piece of rubbish that's been thrown away. Thank goodness for that. I don't know if I could sit here and say we fought for years to eliminate discrimination, whether it be against our First Australians and now our LGBTQI communities or against workers, foreigners or women. I felt: 'What would be next? Should we start on fat people? Should we start on people who are bald?' That's just how stupid it could have got. So I congratulate the grown-ups within the coalition and the government who came to their senses and got rid of that nonsense.
I want to throw a challenge out to the LGBTQI community. It doesn't matter if you have to sink down on one knee, slip a ring in your partner's almond daiquiri—I don't know if anyone drinks almond daiquiris anymore!—or hire a skywriter to say, 'Please, marry me, Penny,' 'Marry me, Louise,' or 'Marry me, Ben,' or whatever their name is. Get out and do it. I did it 35 years ago. It's the greatest thing I've ever done, and I don't think that I should be the only one who should have the ability to say that they've been happily married for 35 years. Please, do it. Make the most of it—enjoy, rejoice, celebrate, brag. What a fantastic time for Australia; we've got ourselves out of the Dark Ages!
I do not look forward so much to the debate across the chamber that may come, but, when I heard Senator Bernardi's words, which were very, very dignified—and Senator Bernardi was one of the spear-chuckers for the 'no' campaign—I thought that, if Senator Bernardi can have the humility to say, 'Let's get this done and, if we have a difference of opinion, can we come to some arrangement?', we're in a pretty good place; there's no doubt about that. So to Dean, Penny, Louise and everyone in the community: congratulations! Congratulations, Australia. Thank you so much. Let's roll our sleeves up. Let's get into it. Let's just get it done.
This is not my first speech. I speak to this chamber tonight overwhelmingly filled with happiness. Yesterday, at 10 o'clock, Australians voted for equality. They voted for justice and they voted for love, and I am just so thrilled that they did so in such overwhelming numbers.
I think any statement in this chamber would be remiss if it omitted to thank the thousands of campaigners across the country who worked so hard to make it possible—those who doorknocked, those who phone banked, those who worked on social media and those who had conversations with their mums and dads and friends. Sometimes those conversations were deeply uncomfortable, but they stepped up. They understood what was at stake and they worked to ensure that we had a resounding yes—and I cannot offer them a more profound congratulations than the one I do today. You made sure that this country acted and joined so much of the rest of the world in saying, 'Love is love is love is love.'
However, this happiness is tempered with a sense of disappointment inasmuch as, although I am thrilled that this chamber will now debate and decide and, God willing, pass marriage equality, the months of campaigning were not necessary. It was not necessary to seek the opinion of every Australian on the fundamental human rights of their fellow citizens. It was not necessary to subject thousands of fellow Australians to bigotry and hatred and abuse. It was not necessary. The tears weren't necessary. The fear wasn't necessary. The effort wasn't necessary. The self-justification in the face of those who have already brought such havoc in people's lives was not necessary.
It was brought about because of what can only be named as the most profound act of political cowardice that this country has seen in many, many decades. It was an abdication of leadership by this federal government on a scale which has scarcely been seen in history. And, although I am deeply moved, and was deeply moved, by contributions such as those made by Senator Smith and those made by Senator Wong, I cannot speak tonight without thinking how this debate may have played out, how sooner we might have reached this blessed moment in our history, if all sides of politics had shown more leadership at different points in time. It is very sad that it was, in fact, the people of Australia who had to show leadership rather than those within this chamber and in the other place. For every single one of us, if, on reflection, we can see that, at some point in time, we might have spoken more strongly or acted with more purpose to convince colleagues in this place that this was a reform that was needed, and if we find that we could have done more as parliamentarians to spare our LGBTIQ friends and family members the horrendous experience of the last few months, then we should, in our private capacities, do what we can to offer our apology.
Having said that, I would now like to turn, on a personal note, to a couple of friends of mine back in WA who have campaigned on this issue for the last couple of months. Before I was unexpectedly catapulted into this place, I was working with a group of community members to try and get our local council, Rockingham council, to make its support clear for marriage equality. Of course, this moment that we arrive at now comes on the back of decades of campaigning not just by individuals or wonderful organisations such as Australian Marriage Equality but by unions, businesses and local governments, who, though it was not within their power to legislate, recognised that it was within their power to speak. And so they spoke. That's what I was dedicating my time to before I ended up here. So I would like to take this opportunity to extend my thanks and congratulations to every single member of MMERIT, Motion for Marriage Equality in Rockingham: It's Time, particularly to Marnie and Honor, who got engaged a couple of weeks before I ended up here and will now be able to turn that wonderful moment of happiness into something which is recognised under Australian law.
I would also add that I am very aware that, although this is a wonderful moment, a moment of celebration, as it should be, there is a real need to recognise that this is not the end of the journey when we think of LGBTIQ rights in Australia. So many have contributed—and I want to thank Senator Rice and Senator Siewert for their incredible contributions to this debate and join with Senator Sterle in proclaiming the hope that the debate over the next couple of weeks, however long it goes on for, turns into a celebration of the most wonderful aspects of our community. I hope we spend the next few weeks—but as quickly as we can—speaking to the better angels of the Australian nature.
I would also like to add to that I think it is important that, when this debate is over and this reform is law, we recognise that it is not the end of the road, that the struggle for equality does not always go forward. And so it is, and remains, important that we who have fought for this reform, and that we who have achieved this reform, now safeguard this reform and ensure that our LGBTIQ community members are protected in all aspects of their lives. The Greens have always been with the community. I'm sure there are people listening tonight, and I would like to say to you directly that we are still with you, that we are still here for you and that we will always fight with you. I thank the chamber for its time.
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.
I'm very proud to rise to speak on the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill today. My contribution will be unusual because it's going to be cut in half, by about 10 minutes, to get into it. I will be honest—I'm not prepared. I'm going to talk out the debate to six o'clock tonight. But sometimes those contributions are the best and they come straight from the heart. I wanted to start by saying that the speeches I heard this morning, from my colleague Senator Janet Rice and from Senator Smith, were amongst some of the best speeches that I've heard in this place. I was very moved by both speeches. I do have a thing about Dorothy and rainbows that relates to my mother watering the plants outside my room when I was a child. She used to sing that when I was waking up.
I thought the contributions today, and the tone of the contributions, were beautiful. It's not often in this place that we get to be emotional. I suppose, based on the opportunity of voting with our conscience, we can speak our minds. I think this debate is going to be an interesting moment for those who voted for us and who follow us to get a good sense of who we are and the bases of our characters. And it also interests me that, when I think back to the old Roman Senate and, prior to that, to Greece and Athenian politics, it was a time when passion, debate, reason and logic could persuade people. We get so locked into our political positions here, but I sense that this debate will give us all an opportunity to listen and make up our mind because we have that freedom to vote with our conscience. It's a very rare thing here, and I feel extremely privileged to be able to cast my vote as part of a party which has campaigned for equal marriage now for decades.
To you, Senator Smith, if I could interrupt you—I know it's been a very long and emotional day for you, as it has been for Senator Rice. I don't have any quotes off the top of my head, but they do say that one crowded hour of glorious life is worth an age without a name. I believe that you have had yours today, and I hope that this chamber and the next place makes sure that the spirit of your contribution and the words spoken today are actually translated into action and into law.
I pay tribute to all the campaigners everywhere, and not just in this country but also overseas, who have been leading on this issue and who have suffered through the ardour of discrimination, threats, violence and a whole lot more. I want to pay tribute to them first and foremost. I pay tribute to Rodney Croome, from my home state of Tasmania, who, along former senator Christine Milne and my colleague Senator Nick McKim—who will be giving his contribution when the Senate next meets—very proudly championed reform in Tasmania. It almost beggars belief that, in my home state only decades ago, it was illegal to be homosexual. You were thrown in jail if you were determined to be homosexual. It's very, very difficult to believe that it was only 20-something years ago, but it is actually the case. Rodney, Nick and Christine got together and they not only removed that horrendous discrimination—almost unbearable and unthinkable discrimination—but also managed to bring in some of the best anti-discrimination laws in the country in Tasmania. They worked across all political parties to do it. In old, conservative, stuffy Tasmania they got a great outcome by working together, and it's a really good model for what we should be doing here in this place.
I would also like to pay tribute to Bob Brown. In Bob's recent writings he's talked about his journey as a young gay man and the kind of mental torture he felt over this issue of not fitting in. In his latest book he talks about the time in his life where he got to the point where he was going to commit suicide. He was a medical student here in Canberra. He wasn't sure how to do it and, and he thought about it. He knew he wasn't a good swimmer and that Lake Burley Griffin was very cold, and he decided that the best way to do it would be to swim across Lake Burley Griffin, because he knew he wouldn't make it. It was at that point in his life when he faced the question, 'What am I gonna do? I can't live with this,' that he decided that the three things he needed most to get through life, to build a flimsy raft to carry him across the turmoil, was to remain optimistic, to take action and to be himself. They were the three things that he decided he needed. That went on to form a big basis of his activism in his later life. This issue is deeply important to him, as it is to many LGBTIQ people around the country.
I'd like to pay tribute to Janet, who has led our team into this debate, and her partner Penny, who I am very fond of. She's also one of the world's most important climate scientists, which I think is also incredibly important to note. I also pay tribute to my colleague Sarah Hanson-Young, who's not here tonight, who was the Greens' representative on same-sex marriage for many, many years and is very well respected and acknowledged in the LGBTIQ community here in Australia.
There are so many others, but they're just the ones that come to mind. I think it's important to acknowledge the fight and the struggle that they've had over a number of years to get us to this point. When this passes, and I'm sure that it will, it will be a crowded hour of glorious life for all of us—maybe more than just one hour. When this passes, if the party is anything like what we saw in Braddon, Canberra, last night, then we'll be having an early Christmas celebration.
I would also like to say—and I truly mean this—that one of the best speeches that I've heard in this place was in 2012 when we had this debate the last time. I was a new senator and I sat in here and I listened to former Senator Faulkner speak on this issue. He talked about this issue being a lot of things and there being a lot of layers of complex emotions but that, ultimately, the most important thing was to ensure that everybody was equal before the law. It's a pretty simple concept. If we discriminate on the basis of your sexual preference or your gender identity, then why can't we discriminate on the basis of your race or your religion or the colour of your skin or your football team? The list goes on. He said it's a fundamental principle that everybody in a democracy should be equal before the law. This issue has hurt a lot of people over a long period of time. They may not choose to get married, but it's the right—their right—and the choice that's absolutely critical to these people.
So I think, at the end of the day, we can talk about our religious differences, but we really need to look at what the basis of a democracy is, and that is all people being equal before the law. When I ran with ex-senator Christine Milne in 2010 on her ticket for the Senate in Tasmania, I was tasked with going as a Greens candidate to an Australian Christian Lobby forum in Launceston. I remember that it was a very colourful night, and when I got in there I figured that I wasn't going to get any votes, so when it was my turn to talk I stood up and I said, 'Look, I don't expect any of you are going to vote for me, so I'm just going to speak my mind tonight and tell you what I think.' I talked about the issue of people being equal before the law and discrimination and other issues, and it occurred to me that there was a lot of fear in the room, which, to me, has always been the opposite of love. So I said that. I said, 'Gee, there's a lot of fear in this room. Where does that come from?' To be honest, I might have agitated them a little bit by saying that if Jesus were alive today he would have been a Green, because of his preachings of love. I did grow up in a Christian family and I was a practising Christian till my early 20s, so it's something I am schooled in and I do believe deeply. Interestingly enough, at the end of the night when I talked to people individually I had a few people say to me, 'You might've got a few more votes than you thought, Peter.'
I met one of the local pastors who I agreed to have a breakfast with because he said, 'I want to talk to you about that fear.' We went out and we had a 2½-hour-long breakfast where we discussed this issue, and I've got to say that I think I get where the fear comes from—the fear of the unknown, the fear of change—but I also was quite surprised and quite shocked with the focus on the sexual aspects of same-sex couple relationships. It was something I wasn't expecting, to be honest. I think it's understandable that people fear change. They have grown up with their own views and they have their own ethics and their own philosophies, but I still think it's a fundamental right in a democracy for everybody to be equal before the law.
With only a few minutes left to go, I will say a little bit about the plebiscite. It was a victory yesterday. It was an ugly one, because so many people have suffered throughout this process, and it was a very expensive one. But, nevertheless, it was an important victory, because nearly eight million people around this country sat around their coffee tables, around their kitchens, in their bedroom, out in a cafe—who knows where—and they filled in that form. They filled in that form and they said, yes, we should legislate for equal marriage in Australia. Because it's an unusual exercise in our democracy to have a postal plebiscite and people have gone to those efforts to vote and recognise that, I can tell you that there are going to be very high expectations on us. Eight million people around the country are going to want to know why we haven't legislated for same-sex marriage. At the end of the day, this will be a reform that I am going to be very proud to have been a part of. It certainly will be a reform that I'm going to talk to my children about, and I'll tell them that I was here to witness it.
I'm looking at the clerks. I saw the interview with Rosemary Laing before she left. She was sitting in the chair when the Mabo decision came down. It was a very emotional time for her. I certainly hope that all of us are going to be able to share in the gravity and the momentousness of this decision.