Monday, 27 November 2017
Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017; Second Reading
I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this debate on the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017. In doing so, I echo the sentiments of almost five million Australians who, like me, voted no. Some senators have touched on the history of the Marriage Act. You would think that the traditional definition of marriage commenced only in 2004, conveniently overlooking the fact that the amendment passed the parliament with barely a whisper of opposition. In fact, the division on the final bill even showed Senator Wong as listed among the ayes.
The Howard amendment, of course, merely confirmed what common law—a near universal understanding—had known for centuries: that marriage is the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others voluntarily entered into for life. Today, even to suggest this point of view quickly leads to cries of bigotry or to being labelled homophobic or fascist.
The coalition government went to the last election with a commitment to the Australian people to hold the plebiscite on this matter. The plebiscite was blocked by a cabal led by Labor and the Greens. Why? Because they feared going to a general election at the same time that Australians would be asked to vote on changing the definition of marriage. Eight of the top 10 'no' voting electorates were Labor-held seats, mostly in Western Sydney. This highlights Labor's hypocrisy. They knew their MPs, including those on the Right, who in the past had supported the views of their electorates, had given in to Labor's Left flank and were compelled to vote yes. There was no way that Labor would expose their MPs to a vote at a general election when those MPs were advocating the opposite of what many of their constituents believed and wanted, and, more importantly, by those constituents who had been stacked into their Labor branches. Labor cynically opposed the plebiscite. We saw sanctimonious and false protestations of concern for the feelings of same-sex couples. This was just a smokescreen. Sussex Street knew very well the sentiment on the street of these electorates.
The Turnbull government, faced with the defeat of the plebiscite bill, opted for a non-binding and voluntary postal survey. The survey provided the ignition of intense passion from both sides. Regrettably, the vitriol seemed to have been primarily directed at the 'no' camp. Most of the calls to my office were rude and abusive. Whilst no federal moneys were provided to the respective camps, we did see taxpayers' money and resources used. You could not walk through the CBD of Sydney without seeing the sea of 'yes' campaign flags, all funded by the City of Sydney ratepayers. You could not walk around Canberra without seeing the rainbow-coloured buses funded by the ACT taxpayer.
The campaign to redefine marriage was well-resourced, funded and campaign hardened. It had advocated its position for more than a decade. Their campaign website boasted support from 884 corporations, including iconic Australian brands such as Qantas, CBA and the NRMA. CEOs were anxious to join the rainbow message, giving little or no thought to the views of their shareholders, workers, or, for that matter, using their money to fund a political cause like this. A conveniently overlooked statistic is that 16 million voters were eligible to participate and of those just 7.8 million returned a 'yes' on this survey form. This represents 48 per cent of the voting population. This is not the enormous majority that the elites are spinning. Indeed, it is not a majority at all. In fact, 52 per cent of the voting population either voted no or did not vote at all. In my home state of New South Wales, the figure was higher, with 54.2 per cent of eligible voters either voting no or not voting at all. I do not mention this to undermine or belittle the result. I do so to merely provide context and underscore the irrefutable fact that more than half of Australia has not embraced this issue in the way in which we have been led to believe.
Since 1945, we have welcomed 7.5 million migrants to Australia. We have grown to a population of over 24 million people, with half of us either born overseas or having at least one parent born overseas. A quarter of us speak a language other than English at home. Indeed, some don't speak English at all. No region in our country better reflects this than Western Sydney. Of the 17 federal electorates that voted no, 12 were in my state of New South Wales, with the majority falling within Western Sydney. As I said earlier, eight of the top 10 'no' voting seats are currently held by Labor. According to the 2016 census data, each of these electorates has a population born overseas, exceeding the national average. Most of these electorates have second language speakers at levels almost double the national average. Many of these seats have been my patron seats during my time as a senator. I know these communities. As I said at the National Press Club two years ago and as I have repeated on other occasions, in an ageing, culturally and religiously diverse Australia the polls were not reflecting the 'no' sentiment of many of these communities.
Some have suggested that the swell in the 'no' result is due to the rising influence of Islam. This argument might have credibility if we looked at just Blaxland and Watson, with Islamic populations of 29.2 per cent and 23.4 per cent respectively. But what of the other electorates? How does this reconcile with the result in Parramatta, with a Hindu population almost double that of the Islamic population, or in Fowler, where the Buddhist population totals more than three times that of the local Islamic community. Let's look more closely at some of these seats, not just in terms of the participation rate but at the actual eligible voters in those seats who voted no.
The highest 'no' vote in the country was in Jason Clare's seat of Blaxland. It returned a 73.9 per cent 'no' vote, with a 75.2 per cent participation rate. Of its 104,000 or so eligible voters, almost 58,000, or 55.5 per cent of the electorate, voted no. The second highest was in Tony Burke's seat of Watson: participation, 77 per cent; 'no', almost 70 per cent. In this seat, 53.5 per cent voted no. The third highest was Chris Bowen's seat of McMahon, returning an almost 65 per cent 'no' vote. Of its 107,000 or so voters, 50.4 per cent voted no. The pattern was the same in Anne Stanley's seat of Werriwa. Next was Chris Hayes's seat of Fowler, where the vote certainly reflected the views of the local member. However, people like Chris Hayes will be stifled. Fowler returned a 63.7 per cent 'no' vote, with a 72.4 per cent participation rate. Of its 106,000 voters, 46 per cent voted no. And the story goes on in other seats, like Parramatta, Chifley and Barton.
As the most recent census reveals, Australia is increasingly a story of religious diversity, with Hinduism, Sikhism, Islam and Buddhism all increasingly common religious beliefs. The reality is that the support for traditional values transcends all faiths. Importantly, we must understand the values that come with this cultural diversity. Migrants have come from the four corners of the globe, bringing with them a fierce determination to succeed but also a set of values and beliefs based on family, faith, hard work and self-reliance. But, above all, a respect for the traditional family unit has become the cornerstone of success for so many migrant families. Call it traditional values, call it conservative values: these are the building blocks upon which millions of migrants in this country have built their success story. For me, they are the values that shaped my upbringing as I was growing up in working-class Wollongong.
Those who seek to dismiss these values and beliefs in contemporary Australia fail to take into account the influences of that diversity. Those who advocate a rich and diverse immigration program must ponder the consequences of silencing these values. Our diverse and pluralistic society will be put in jeopardy if we ignore the views of our religiously and culturally diverse community. Unless we provide for religious freedoms we are risking alienating those we seek to include and grow strong with. The strong vote in Western Sydney also demonstrated the strength of our interfaith dialogue. Faith leaders from across the entire religious spectrum worked very closely together to defend the fundamental tenet that is common to all their religions: that marriage is between a man and a woman.
Let me say to the people of Western Sydney, to our rich and diverse migrant communities and to the almost five million Australians who rejected the notion of redefining marriage: we hear you, we have supported you and we will continue to support you. Many of you have in the past placed your faith and trust in Labor. Indeed, at the 'no' campaign in Sydney I urged community and religious leaders to ignore any pressure that may be put on them by those pushing for a 'yes' vote and to stay true to themselves and to the communities they represent and continue to advocate a 'no' vote. Labor has ignored your views. They are not listening to you. They have abandoned your values and are seeking to crush what you hold so dear. You should never be made to feel that your values are wrong or your concerns insignificant.
Since the release of the survey result, the leading 'yes' campaigners have dismissed the need for the protection of basic freedoms that would be lost should this bill be passed in its current form, and this really worries me. This bill provides protections surrounding the wedding ceremony, but only to ministers of religion. It fails to address protections for speech, conscientious objection and broader religious rights. Freedom of religion is a broader concept than mere freedom or worship. Religion is a whole-of-life concept. For some, it shapes their entire world view and how he or she interacts in daily life. I believe the alleged religious safeguards in this bill are not adequate.
Whilst we commonly refer to Australian values encompassing freedom of speech and freedom of religion, it is unclear to what extent there is an implied right to religious protection under section 116 of the Australian Constitution. The most relevant case dates back to 1912, Krygger v Williams, where the High Court upheld the law requiring attendance at compulsory peacetime military training by an individual who conscientiously objected on religious grounds. The court held:
To require a man to do a thing which has nothing at all to do with religion is not prohibiting him from a free exercise of religion.
If this reason were adopted by the contemporary High Court then, arguably, section 116 might offer a very limited constitutional protection for a person who may be required by Commonwealth law to carry out acts which conflict with his or her religious beliefs.
Senator Fawcett will foreshadow five sets of amendments which I and other senators will be supporting. They represent (1) the definitions of marriage and traditional marriage celebrants and the basis for refusing to solemnise a marriage; (2) a new part VAA of the Marriage Act, 'Protection of freedoms'; (3) chaplains and authorised officers; (4) charitable and tax status; and (5) amendments to the Sex Discrimination Act. These amendments, informed by extensive research and legal advice, cover key areas of concern including: that the definition of 'marriage' should separately recognise both man-woman marriage and two-person marriage as valid marriages in Australian law; religious and conscientious protections to celebrants; freedom of expression and recognising legitimate beliefs; an antidetriment shield provision protecting individuals and organisations with a genuine traditional marriage conviction from being subjected to unfavourable treatment by public authorities because they hold, express or lawfully act on that conviction; freedom from being required to express, associate with or endorse a statement or opinion about marriage which is inconsistent with a person's or organisation's genuine religious or conscientious convictions about marriage; protections for charities; nondiscrimination in government funding; protection of religious bodies and schools; and parents having the right to withdraw children from certain classes.
I welcome the decision by cabinet last week to establish a panel of eminent Australians led by Philip Ruddock to consider the adequacy of religious protections. However, the Ruddock committee will not report until March next year, and therefore it is vitally important that this bill be amended now. Any further legislative changes can be considered after the Ruddock committee reports.
The legalisation of same-sex marriage without adequate protections for freedom of religion and conscience will have very real and very serious consequences. We have already seen some of these consequences overseas where same-sex marriage has been made legal. In September this year, the English High Court ruled that a Pentecostal couple was ineligible to adopt children as the couple was unlikely to celebrate homosexuality. This was despite the court's acknowledgement of the couple's outstanding record of adoption, because equality provisions concerning sexual orientation should take precedence. This case is yet to run its full course, but it is easy to foresee the calamitous discriminatory effect it will have upon prospective parents of faith. Heartbreakingly, a number of faith-based orphanages and adoption agencies in the UK and the US have been forced to close due to the incompatibility of their religious tenets and the provision of their services to gay adoptive parents. The consequences of legalising same-sex marriage go much further than the mere act of marriage itself. Numerous organisations, particularly religiously affiliated ones, are threatened by vague protections: employment agencies, charities, social housing, refugee services, retirement homes and hospitals—the list goes on.
Worryingly, we have already begun to see the ugly beginnings of it here at home. During this survey campaign, we saw a number of doctors and medical staff being disparaged and accused of violating the medical Code of Ethics and even being threatened with deregistration by the 'yes' campaign simply because they voiced their objections to same-sex marriage. An 18-year-old Canberra girl lost her job as a children's entertainer for holding traditional views on marriage. Last year a Green activist dragged Hobart's Archbishop Julian Porteous through a lengthy legal process following the archbishop's pastoral letter defending the Catholic Church's teachings on marriage. We cannot permit those that hold values based on religious teachings to be silenced through our court systems with time-consuming, costly and stressful antidiscrimination suits. As a constituent recently wrote to me, the process becomes as much about a punishment as about any outcome.
Religious and conscientious exemptions in this critical area must be unequivocal and must be implemented nationwide. One issue I hold serious concerns about is the impact this bill will have on our schools. Parents, school administrators and teachers have raised these concerns directly with me. Any proposition to redefine marriage, whether or not we want to admit it, has implications for children, particularly in the school curriculum and especially in religiously diverse schools. In the UK, teachers with traditional religious beliefs have lost their jobs when refusing to teach about same-sex marriage and parents have been denied the right to withdraw their children from these classes. Independent schools—most recently, a Jewish girls' school in north London—failed school assessments for inadequate promotion of homosexuality and gender reassignment as it failed to ensure a full understanding of fundamental British values. These examples highlight the validity of the principal concerns cited. They cannot be ignored.
Once this bill is passed it will be law. It will be part of our culture and an integral part of our civil rights. The opportunity is presented to us as parliamentarians to be part of a unifying piece of legislation that allows those wanting to be married to do so whilst allowing another significant part of our nation to hold true to their values and beliefs also. Let us keep this diversity, this tolerant and pluralistic Australian community where freedoms are strong and stable; where people can maintain and flourish in their culture whilst embracing this wonderful country; and, above all, where they practise their faith and where they can raise their family according to long-held convictions, beliefs and culture. This is what makes our uniquely multicultural society the envy of the world. As legislators we cannot abdicate our responsibilities and leave this to chance. We must ensure the inclusion of substantial religious protections for all Australians of faith in this bill. The 52 per cent of the Australian voting public who either voted no or did not vote deserve consideration. They deserve respect and they deserve inclusion of their fundamental principles and beliefs before passage of this bill.
I rise to make some brief remarks in relation to the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017. It seems to me, after serving some two decades in this chamber, that for a considerable part of those two decades I've been waiting to speak on a bill like this—that is to say, a bill that by all estimations is likely to pass and that will enshrine in Australian law the ability to achieve marriage equality. The journey to today has been, from time to time, convoluted and fraught to say the least. However, as an Australian whose rights, privileges and freedoms, at least in contemporary society, are rarely brought into question, if I feel like it's taken a long time, then the Australian communities for whom this means so much must have felt it as an eternity.
I want to acknowledge the length of that battle or campaign. I want to acknowledge those who kept this outcome or this prospective outcome in sight through the occasionally contorted travails of governments of both colours, it's fair to say. Today, I particularly want to acknowledge and recognise my Senate colleague and friend Senator Dean Smith—whose timing is impeccable—who brings this bill to the chamber with its co-sponsors. Nobody should doubt the strength and resilience it takes to do what Senator Dean Smith has done. In a party by its nature a combination of conservatives and liberals, the tenacity required to see this process through to this point is considerable and, in my view, commendable. I want to acknowledge a number of other colleagues as well, notably Warren Entsch, the member for Leichhardt, who over some years now has played a leading role on my side of politics on this issue. I've lost count of the discussions, the debates and the drafts of bills toured through Entschy's office over many, many years. But we, Australia, are now on a path to legislate for same-sex marriage, as many other jurisdictions have done. In recent years, I've watched numerous friends and acquaintances travel overseas to be married in other jurisdictions in the absence of the opportunity to marry here and in the absence of the opportunity to affirm their love and commitment along with the rest of the Australian community. Similarly, I know many Australians who have been waiting for the opportunity to marry here. If this bill passes then that will change in Australia. That is a very important step in recognising rights and freedoms for our whole community.
This bill, which has been in the public domain for some time, builds in a number of protections and mechanisms to protect religious institutions in particular. I support the inclusion of those provisions. On the matter of further amendments, I would note that I, along with all of our colleagues in this chamber, I am sure, will consider those on their merits; however, I do not want to see the resolution of this bill delayed. I note that the Prime Minister has, in the last week, announced the establishment of a review, under the Hon. Philip Ruddock, to examine whether Australian law adequately protects the right to religious freedom. I welcome this process. I very much encourage engagement in that process. I note and respect the view that my New South Wales colleague Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells expressed in the speech immediately preceding this. I do think that the examination with which Mr Ruddock has been charged is an important one in terms of examining religious freedom protection in Australia. As I said, I strongly encourage participation in that process, particularly in relation to concerns that have arisen out of the discussions and the debates leading to the presentation of this piece of legislation. However, I also note that, in my own view, it is not tenable under the guise of this debate to wind back our existing, longstanding legislative provisions and protections against discrimination, discriminatory behaviour and actions.
I want to speak briefly about the national postal survey. Others have noted—and it is most certainly fair to say—that it was an action disagreed with by many. But, importantly, given the nature of our election commitment before 2016, the undertaking of the national postal survey kept faith with the coalition's publicly enunciated and advocated position of engaging with the fullest breadth of the Australian people on this very important matter of marriage equality. We took that policy to an election and we implemented it, and we implemented it through the national postal survey of the ABS.
I also acknowledge—and I heard Senator Carr making these points himself in the chamber in the previous sitting week—the proponents of a parliamentary process for this change. It's a fair argument that that is what we are paid to do but, in light of the outcome of the survey, the level of participation and the strength of the response, I do feel very sure that as the parliament goes down this path we do so with the people's voice of affirmation for marriage equality ringing loudly in our ears.
I've been part of a failed referendum bid as a republican in the previous republican referendum. I know the bitter disappointment of not being able to bring the Australian people with you. But in this case, with such high participation levels, a strong 'yes' vote of over 60 per cent, we can progress this bill confident in the support of the Australian community. Those that responded to the postal survey in the negative, their responses should be acknowledged, should be respected. Our hope is that, as the parliament works through this, concerns which may have led them to respond in the negative can be addressed. But for some, of course, that will never be the case. That is, in my experience, the nature of the democratic process: it is the opportunity to exercise one's view, to exercise the right to express one's view, as we have done and as almost 80 per cent of Australians have done, but it is not always the case that the outcome is the one for which we voted, or, in this case, were surveyed.
So today, for some of my very dear friends—those friends whose commitment ceremony I went to so many years ago, decades ago, in Glebe, Bruce and Greg; for my friends who went to Denmark to marry, Shane and Yasper; for the thousands and thousands of Australians who, with the passage of this legislation, can now take that very special step—is very important. It is very special. It is momentous even. I am very proud to be in this parliament, albeit somewhat later than so many of us would have wished, as this bill is debated, and I look forward, at the appropriate opportunity, to have my chance to vote in this chamber and to vote 'yes'.
I, too, rise to make some comments on the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017. It is in response to the postal survey which, as everyone knows by now, on 15 November indicated the will of the Australian people, some 61 per cent, to change the definition of 'marriage'. I do so in the context as the chair of the then Senate Select Committee on the Exposure Draft of the Marriage Amendment (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill, which was appointed late last year, following a motion in this chamber, to examine the implications for religious freedom should a bill to change the definition of 'marriage' be passed in the Australian parliament. That's probably the most extensive examination of this specific issue that I think Australia has had, certainly for some years, if not ever—that is, looking particularly at issues of freedom of religious and conscientious belief in the context of a change to the laws around marriage.
Where we are at today, I think, is that there is an acceptance, certainly by the vast majority of people in this place, that the Australian people have spoken, and so, without unnecessary delay, we need to pass the legislation through both the Senate and the House to respect the will of the Australian people. But there is a need to do it in a balanced way that respects the rights and the beliefs of nearly 40 per cent of the Australian people, and that's what the Senate select committee sought to examine and understand—that is, how would you go about that.
One of the disappointments I have coming out of the Senate select committee is that many people seized on the word 'consensus' and said, 'We have a consensus report, therefore it gives us a road map on the way ahead.' But it's a little deeper than that. I would just like to cover off on some of the issues where we did find consensus, because they go to the debate that we will be having in this chamber over the coming days. They go to how we find that balance between the differing views of people in the Australian population, as well what I think were some of the important things that we recognised about our society during that debate, which, moving forward, we also need to address. I will then talk a little about some of the ways to remedy the lack of balance that, potentially, will exist following a change and about some specific amendments that I foreshadow that I will be moving in conjunction with my colleague Senator Paterson during the committee stage.
The first consensus that the committee reached surprised a lot of people. There was consensus between the members of the committee, who were drawn from across the parliament, from the Xenophon team, Greens, Labor, the Nationals and Liberal. Despite the rhetoric that said that this was an issue of human rights and that there was discrimination, the committee found, with a consensus view, that under international law—under findings of the United Nations Human Rights Committee and also the European Court of Human Rights—Australia did not breach any of its obligations under international human rights law with respect to either equality or discrimination in holding that marriage was between a man and a woman and that as long as we recognised and protected same-sex relationships through another structure then that held to be true. If there is no discrimination under international law, there is no basis upon which you can derogate another right. So, as we come to this discussion around people's conscientious and religious beliefs, if there is no discrimination to start with then there is no basis upon which you can derogate or remove somebody's rights. That's an important starting point that we need to keep in mind.
The other conclusion that we came to unanimously, which has not been discussed by many people, is that this is a complex debate. There are a complex range of issues which go to the intersection of state and federal laws and, even federally, into things like charity and tax law, which are tied up with the definition of marriage. That surprised a lot of people, and the committee recognised that there was a deficit in the protection of religious freedoms across the nation. It was a consensus view. The committee recognised that complexity. It said, in the executive summary of its report:
… that should legislation be enacted to change the definition of marriage, careful attention is required to understand and deliver a balanced outcome that respects the human rights of all Australians if the nation is to continue to be a tolerant and plural society where a diversity of views is not only legal but valued.
My disappointment, following the survey, is that because people have not been prepared to engage with that sentiment from the report of the Senate select committee and examine these things in detail we are left in the Senate this week to canvass some issues that are relatively complex but need to be considered if we're going to get a balanced outcome. One thing that was done after the select committee inquiry was the kicking off of the inquiry by the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade into the status of religion and belief in Australia, so that we have a good benchmark, and the work that Mr Ruddock will be doing can look at how we might implement that in the future. That's a very broad issue.
In the recommendations and comments of the Senate select committee, we recognised that addressing that deficit in freedom of religion could go at one end of the spectrum from a bill of human rights, which I personally don't support, through to the concept of antidetriment provisions, which was one of the likely models that the committee said would probably work—or even trying to align antidiscrimination laws across our states and territories. I would note for the chamber that the last time an attempt to align antidiscrimination laws was made was when Nicola Roxon was the Attorney-General. The process proved to be so complex that, essentially, it was shelved, because it was too hard to get that many different legislatures to agree on what the standards should be and how they should align. So I have little confidence that that approach of trying to align laws across the whole range of issues that would be engaged in this would work.
That brings us to the survey. I know there has been disagreement on the concept, but personally I'm happy the Australian people have had their say. The outcome was not what I voted for, but I respect the fact that we have a clear outcome. The conduct was positive, with some 80 per cent participating or just under. Given it was a voluntary survey, I think that was very successful. The context, though, of the survey and how the community responded, is important as we come to this debate, because people have been told by political leaders and other advocates that there is nothing to be concerned about in terms of their religious freedoms and their ability to associate or speak freely—some of the basic freedoms we enjoy in this pluralistic society we live in—but when you look back over the period of the survey and indeed the months leading up to it, whilst there was a lot of concern about what the no campaign may do, and while there were some fringe elements on both sides, it would be fair to say that you could characterise some of the blockade-type protests by yes campaigners, which sought to frustrate the ability of people to meet and associate and discuss these issues, as some of the worst breaches of what we would call civilised conduct in the country.
We saw, for example, media fraud, where the media, who saw a Twitter or a Facebook post about a poster that was supposed to be in Melbourne, fabricated an image to put on the nightly news, and so again swayed opinion, even though there was no basis of fact to what they had put up, as well as boycotts, whether it be pubs who said, 'We will no longer allow Christian groups to come and hold events here,' printers who said, 'We won't print the book, because we don't agree with your point of view,' or advertising agencies who used denial of service as a virtue-signalling exercise. People who hold a traditional view of marriage have seen a number of their rights to speak, to associate, taken away by fairly strong advocacy by businesses, by activists and by others, and so they're concerned, as they look at the overseas experience plus the experience here, about what the impact might be.
Marriage, in their view, is by its nature a gender-differentiated union of man and woman. This view long has been held—and continues to be held—in good faith by reasonable and sincere people here and throughout the world.
I think that is true of the nearly 40 per cent of Australian whose voted no in this survey. The interesting part is that, whilst 61.4 per cent of people voted yes, 62 per cent of people, according to Newspoll, said that, regardless of whether they vote yes or no, protections are important. That's why we need to address it in this bill.
We've heard a number of comments from people saying there is nothing in this bill, and nothing in federal law, that enlivens discrimination or takes away protections for people. To a large extent that is true, but we've seen, both in evidence to the Senate select committee and since, that the operation of state and territory antidiscrimination and antivilification laws has chilled the ability of people to have free speech, in some cases freedom of association, and caused concerns. The amendments that we're looking for here are amendments not to create any new forms of discrimination, but in fact to prevent discrimination against what is, if you like, the new minority in Australia—that is, people who hold that marriage should be between a man and a woman.
The issue with the state and territory laws is that they vary across the states. South Australia and New South Wales, for example, have no protection in law for religious freedoms. The ACT probably has the most robust, Victoria has some, but across the states and territories a vastly different standard is applied in each state, to the extent that the Human Rights Commission here has called on a couple of occasions for the Australian government to look at legislating for article 18 and in fact the United Nations, in its sixth Universal Periodic Review of Australia's human rights, has called for us to implement article 18. Why is that important? Because, under law, if you're trying to balance two competing rights but only one of them is in your domestic law then it's very hard to find the balance because there is no counterbalance that the judiciary can apply there. It uses things like the Siracusa principles, which the United Nations has come up with, as the way to find that balance when, inevitably, the human rights that each of us enjoy—and it is each individual person—come into conflict. The UN, in its various guidance notes and comments around the human rights outlined in the ICCPR, is very clear that there is no one right that trumps another. You do need to find a balance. But the starting point for that is having, in an operational sense, those elements in our legislation here, and preferably at a consistent national standard.
The amendments that I'm foreshadowing are limited in scope. As I look back at Nicola Roxon's difficulties in trying to align antidiscrimination law, I recognise that the only way we will do this in a timely manner, if at all, is to limit the scope so that it deals with the topics we dealt with in the Senate select committee, which were around the issue of marriage and how we balance those two competing rights. They are based predominantly on the concept of antidetriment provisions and, importantly, they act as a shield. It's not licensing people to discriminate but it's saying, 'If you express your view and you are discriminated against, here is a protection for you.'
To give you some examples of the antidetriment by public authorities, what we saw in Tasmania was that when Archbishop Porteous wrote a pastoral letter to the parents of children at a Catholic school he was taken to the Anti-Discrimination Tribunal because somebody took offence and felt vilified by what he had said. Having read what he said, I believe it was not controversial at all. It was very mild in its tone. It was very compassionate and embracing in the way he wrote it. But he wrote the view that the Catholic Church has about marriage and family. Many people think that that case was dismissed by the tribunal in Tasmania, but in fact the commissioner, in evidence to the Senate committee, indicated that the complaint had been withdrawn. That means there is no case law, which means that that action could be taken again. Archbishop Porteous highlighted the tens of thousands of dollars and the months of angst that he and the Catholic Church went through in getting ready to defend that case, and that possibility remains open now. In fact, there are two other individuals in Tasmania, one a pastor and one associated with the church, who are currently before the tribunal down there again because they were speaking out on the church's view on what marriage was and they have been taken to account over that.
We see similar things overseas in detriment being applied by government-like agencies: organisations that register teachers or lawyers, for example, refusing to allow into the teaching profession or the legal profession—this is in Canada—graduates of a university that holds to the traditional view of marriage. We see students in the UK being kicked off their courses because they express a view supporting the traditional view of marriage. Even through to the High Court, their removal from the course has been held to be appropriate because at some point in the future they might offend someone. So we are seeing someone's ability to actually complete their education and move into a career being limited by the state because they hold a traditional view around marriage.
We heard a lot of evidence during the Senate committee inquiry around the impact on charities and the two laws in terms of the public benefit and public policy tests that we share in common with other nations, such as the UK and New Zealand. We have seen charities there disadvantaged as a consequence of the change to the marriage laws. We've seen similar decisions taken here already where, for example, St Vincent de Paul's has been held not to be a religious body. That has flow-on effects for things like the Sex Discrimination Act and exemptions around its views on marriage under that.
For many years, Australia has had a pretty commonsense approach to parents' rights to oversee the moral education of their children in accordance with their convictions. If a parent has a child in primary school, they can say, 'I don't want them to take part in the RE class, thanks very much.' They can go to the library, do an alternative class or play some sport. Everybody has been relaxed about that sensible accommodation. But what we are increasingly seeing is that, when it comes to other issues that have the title of 'equality' around them, that same right, which is guaranteed under article 18(4) of the ICCPR, is not being afforded to parents. It has gone to the extent that, following a change to the Sex Discrimination Act—a federal piece of legislation to include gender issues—South Australia has now issued directives to principals in its schools to implement programs around gender fluidity and that the principals are to override the will of the parents if their son or daughter, even those in primary school, wish to transition their gender. I think most Australians would think that is just beyond the pale, but that's what we are seeing currently. So, again, in the current climate, a change in federal legislation around marriage can be expected to lead to the same situation that we've seen overseas where parents are unable to have a say in the education of their children or in the things which their children are exposed to.
Freedom of expression: people need to be free to express themselves not in a way that threatens or harasses. Because we have such a lack of standardisation around the country, these amendments look at using the Sex Discrimination Act, with some amendments, to provide a standard basis across the country. There are also things around the protection of religious bodies, schools and celebrants. I'm aware that both the Attorney-General and, I think, Senator Leyonhjelm have some amendments on that—it came up during the Senate committee report—and we will certainly be looking to support them.
Why are these protections important? The evidence we saw in the Senate select committee inquiry said that the current protections were inadequate. We've seen from overseas and we've seen already in Australia that actions are being taken. The reality is that the change to the definition of 'marriage' is not the end of the story. We've seen in the UK, we've seen in the US and we've seen in Canada people saying that there is more to do. The Speaker of the House of Commons in the UK has said, 'We won't have true marriage equality until we've got rid of all these protections for churches and other things and anyone can get married in any church.' If we are going to make this change to a fundamental institution in our society then we need to at the same time put in place the protections so that we protect the rights of all Australians in a balanced and reasonable way and not just kick the can down the road for some future inquiry that may or may not result in the balance that Australia needs to be a plural and inclusive society. (Time expired)
Mr Acting Deputy President Sterle, I was saddened to get a text message this week from former Labor senator Ursula Stephens about the loss of our mate former Senator Hutchins—a good mate of yours and a good mate of mine. I'm sure more will be said about that in the Senate as time goes on.
For the whip's sake, I won't be taking the full 20 minutes. I just want to put a few things on the record. I was alarmed to hear my good friend Senator Fawcett say that principals in South Australia have already been directed by the education department to help transition students if they wish to change their gender, without consulting the parents or with the parents having no say in that. That is very concerning. I'm a 'no' voter. There is no secret about that. I have made the point clear for many, many years that I believe marriage is a Christian sacrament, the sacrament of matrimony, between a man and a woman—not that I will be following in the footsteps of Mary MacKillop. I can assure you of that, Mr Acting Deputy President. You can bet your house on that!
I congratulate the 'yes' vote. It is no surprise to me that the 'yes' vote got up. There was a bit of a betting ring going on here, in the parliament, about who was going to win and by how much. I invested two $5 and I had both of them on the 'yes' vote. So it's no surprise to me. I thought the 'yes' vote would get up. Mr Acting Deputy President, the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017 will pass both houses of parliament, you can rest assured of that.
However, I have concerns. In my 9½ years in this place, I've done a lot of work with banks and people in financial trouble, and my advice to them has always been: 'Stay out of the courtrooms'. I hope what is happening here with the legislation is that it does not promote a feast for solicitors and people going to court. I welcome the arrival of Senator Paterson into the chamber. I just wish that Senator Smith and Senator Paterson had worked more closely together on this private member's bill so that people will not be sued. I believe the legislation will exclude, for example, a situation where a Catholic priest or an Anglican bishop says to a same-sex couple, 'No, I will not marry you in our church.' They will be protected. What if the couple says, 'Well, you're not going to marry us in the church, but we're still going to hold the ceremony in your church'? Are they protected then? That worries me.
Senator Rice interjecting—
I'm getting an interjection from Senator Rice; yes, it is. But as we get into the committee stage of amendments, these will be questions we can ask, Senator Rice, to see that they are protected. It's all right to get yes from one side, but I want it in black and white and to be guaranteed that we're not seeing people—
Senator Steele-John interjecting—
It's not? You want to classify that before you interject, perhaps. I mean, if I can speak freely: we have not been interjecting on anyone around the chamber. The 'yes' people have had free speech, have not had interjections or any mud thrown. But this is typical—
Senator Rice interjecting—
Thank you, Mr Acting Deputy President; you've said it perfectly. Thank you very much. It has been a respectful debate, even though it's very divisive amongst many people in this place and I'm sure in the other place as well. We have a right to disagree, to differentiate. That's our democratic right in this country, and I'll use that right now. I straightaway said congratulations to the people who support the 'yes' vote; I think that's being fair. And there was basically a 60-40 vote for it in the postal vote around Australia. But, as I said, I want to see people protected. What it's going to lead to in the future I don't know. Will it be a situation where schoolteachers cannot refer to 'boys' and 'girls' in their classrooms in primary schools? Will they have to refer to them as 'students'? Will students have to talk to the teacher of 'my parents' instead of 'my mum and dad'? I don't know, but I hope we don't become embroiled in things like that in the future. This is about changing the act so that same-sex couples can get married, and that is the situation. As I said, it will pass the parliament.
We've seen in America—and this is my concern, so I'll just harp on this a bit—when the court ruled to allow same-sex couples to be married there were lots of stories of people being sued in small business, disagreeing with whatever. That is what I hope does not happen here—that the legislation, when passed, secures and protects people who may have a different view, whether it be through personal beliefs, religious beliefs or whatever. We can't just pass legislation and leave people unprotected. And I want to thank Senator Paterson and Senator Fawcett for the good work they've done, along with my colleagues Senator O'Sullivan and others, to try to make it a change of legislation whereby people are protected and don't face having writs served on them and expensive, long, drawn-out court cases. If you go to court, it could be three years of hearing a case in a courtroom, and you'd probably wait another six months for the judge's decision. In South Australia you'd wait longer; the courts are jammed up down there. Then it might be an appeal—another two years—so you could be looking at five, 5½ or six years if court action were to eventuate, which is a lot of cost and a lot of stress on individuals. As I've said in the media and in other comments I've made: now that the legislation will be passing, let us do our best to see that people are not being sued and do not have to live with all that trauma, pressure and cost because of a decision we make in this place.
Once again, I congratulate the 'yes' vote. I will be voting no. With about 19 months left in this place, I have no intention of making a hypocrite of myself. The bill will pass; we all know that. That's the situation I find myself in as I live with my conscience, and I've said no all the way through. I strongly and firmly believe in equal rights for same-sex couples. I have friends who are gay, good friends, and I believe they should be treated equally, that they should have the same entitlements as my wife around separation, splitting of assets, superannuation or whatever. We've done so much work on it, and Mr Philip Ruddock did a lot of work on it many years ago, back in 2004 in the Howard government. I believe they should be treated equally, as I treat them equally. Every day in this place, I work with people of same-sex leaning, if I can put it that way.
I hope that the legislation does not open up a Pandora's box of legal fights, a field day for the lawyers. I hope we get it right. If we don't get it right the first time and amendments that have been proposed by the Attorney-General, Senator Brandis, by Senator Paterson and by others are rejected—and I hope they're not—I hope that in time we can correct that legislation. Let's face it: we spend a lot of time in this place correcting legislation that hasn't worked as we planned it would work. I remember sitting over there in opposition alongside Senator Boswell, where Senator Rice is now. We were doing some amendments to some laws that went through in the Howard government era. I said to Senator Boswell, 'Bozzie, did you make a mess of this?' He said, 'We made a mess of it all right, and that's why we've got to correct it and fix it up.' That's not the first time, and it won't be the last time, that legislation has passed this place with consequences that could not be foreseen. So let's hope we get it right. If not, it means coming back here in with further debates and further inquiries, no doubt, and correcting any mistakes we make. So that's where I stand on it. I leave it for others to have their say.
I must say at the outset I'm extremely happy and proud that we're actually at this stage, debating the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017, with the very real prospect that it will deliver legislation that Australians voted for. This is an issue that should have been resolved a long time ago. For too long our nation's politicians lacked the courage to do what was right. For too long our nation's politicians were beholden to the interests of those who were on the socially conservative fringe. As far back as 2010, polls showed that 65 per cent of Australians believed the time had come for marriage equality. This is an issue that should have been resolved in this parliament, and it is deeply regrettable that it wasn't. There have been a number of bills brought before the Senate that would have delivered marriage equality, including one in 2012 that I co-sponsored with my Labor colleagues former Senator Trish Crossin and Senators Pratt and Marshall. Unfortunately, that bill was defeated at the second reading stage. Rectifying a wrong required real leadership from our politicians. Sadly, it was not forthcoming, and it was left to the Australian people to lead the way.
The Australian people provided the leadership when this parliament would not, and in doing so they have said loud and clear what supporters of marriage equality already knew: that we are a country of tolerance, a country that respects our LGBTI community and a country that believes in fairness. Australia said yes to marriage equality and no to fear and division. Australians voted yes because they knew that denying loving same-sex couples the right to marriage was not consistent with the Australian ideal of fairness. They voted yes because they knew that giving same-sex couples the same rights as those in heterosexual marriage would not take away from their marriages but would give LGBTI Australians the equality that they had been denied for far too long.
Over the course of the campaign, we saw LGBTI rights groups join together with other community organisations, politicians from across the political spectrum and the trade union movement to campaign for equality. I want to make a particular point on the role trade unions played during this debate. We've seen from the Turnbull government so often a vilification of our nation's unions and, in particular, the obsessive singling out of the CFMEU. I've always been a proud supporter of the union movement, and I was even prouder over the course of the marriage equality campaign. The CFMEU, like other unions, saw the injustice that LGBTI Australians faced and decided that they could not allow it to continue without doing something. They were told by some to stay away from the campaign, but in response they said:
You might want to tell us to stick to our "bread and butter"—to winning you better wages and conditions at work. But here's the thing about that: a better, fairer Australia where more people are equal? That's our bread and butter. That's what we work towards every day.
Sure, most of the time we achieve that by helping construction workers stand together and be paid a fairer wage, or be safer at work … but that doesn't mean we won't also stand up for our LGBTI members. Or for our LGBTI friends, family and neighbours. We stand for a fair go. We stand steadfastly with all our members who've waited far too long to be equal before the law.
That response sums up the attitude so many of our nation's unions took during the campaign, and, after a long and at times divisive postal survey, we now finally have a bill before us which all MPs and senators will have a free vote on. The road to this point has been long, and it has been hard for many LGBTI Australians and their supporters. As we know, the fight for marriage equality began long before the start of this postal survey. It has been a debate that has often dominated political discourse over the past decade, and it's important to acknowledge those without the tireless dedication of whom we would not be standing here today discussing this bill.
Thankfully, more than a decade on, attitudes have changed, and Labor has also led the way on that. There will still be work to do for LGBTI Australians, but, when it comes to achieving marriage equality, the end is now finally in sight. Over the course of the equality campaign, led by the fabulous Tim Gartrell and Alex Greenwich, I saw rainbow Labor and the wider Labor Party, mobilise the campaign. The campaign showed what we can achieve when we work together. The issue of equality is not and never should be viewed as a partisan issue. The emphatic 'yes' vote was the result of different parties, community groups, sporting codes and religious groups coming together with a common cause and a shared belief that discrimination against same-sex couples has no place in the Australia of 2017.
Our nation has come a long way on LGBTI rights. The process began in 1975 when South Australia decriminalised homosexuality, with Tasmania being the last state to decriminalise homosexuality. But I am very proud to say that Tasmanians voted 63.6 per cent in favour of equality. In fact, every single electorate in my home state said yes, and we recorded the third highest 'yes' vote of any state. I'm proud but I was not surprised. From Hobart to Burnie and everywhere in between, thousands of Tasmanians from the LGBTI community, their families and friends came together at market stalls and phone-calling nights to passionately campaign for equality.
When we look to the voices that joined together over the course of the campaign, we see teachers, police officers, doctors, defence personnel, nurses, labourers, office workers, mums, dads, sisters, brothers, neighbours and friends joining together. The 'yes' campaign was not about vested interests or a small minority; it was a grassroots movement which involved Tasmanians from all walks of life. That campaign was joined by Tasmanians United for Marriage Equality, with Rodney Croome, who has dedicated so much to the cause of marriage equality. I'd also like to take a moment to mention those who campaigned tirelessly alongside Rodney: PFLAG; Robbie Moore, president of Rainbow Labor, of which I am proud to be the patron; and Rajan, Michael, Megan, Robyn, Radek, Andrew, Rick, Vincent and Kym. And to Sam Watson, who, at 17, couldn't vote but was tireless in his advocacy for a 'yes' vote: your work saw a wonderful result.
The result on 15 November was met with euphoric scenes of jubilation across the country. Those were the scenes that were relayed in our living rooms on the nightly news, but I know of many who quietly took in the result themselves or in small groups, breathing a sigh of relief at the result and that the divisive and hurtful postal vote process was finally over. Equality had won.
Australia could have followed the lead of the United Kingdom, New Zealand, South Africa and so many other parliamentary democracies in voting on this issue in parliament. And I want to make this point again because, despite the resounding 'yes' vote and despite the overwhelming joy we felt as supporters of marriage equality, it should never have got to this point. We should be proud of the result but we should not be proud of this process. Thankfully Labor, with others, was able to stop the plebiscite from going ahead. We did so because we believed it would be divisive and unnecessary. Regrettably, the Turnbull government chose to get around the will of the parliament and introduced a non-binding, non-compulsory postal survey. Sadly, we were unable to stop that from proceeding.
Forcing LGBTI Australians and their supporters to stand on street corners or to knock on the doors of strangers, asking to have equal rights, was a shameful way to help achieve marriage equality. Subjecting the LGBTI community to the vitriolic abuse of the 'no' campaign over the course of a nationwide postal survey on their basic rights was hurtful, unnecessary and something we look back on with a great deal of regret. Labor warned the government prior to the survey of the sort of harm they were about to unleash. Sadly, we saw over the course of the campaign an increased need for counselling hotlines and mental health services for LGBTI Australians. It is my hope that the wounds from the campaign can now heal, and it is now the responsibility of this parliament to ensure we vote on the marriage amendment bill quickly.
I believe that the time is long overdue for Australia to legislate for marriage equality. I believe in marriage equality because I believe that all Australians deserve to be treated equally before the law. Our current marriage laws do not allow that to happen. The principles of equality and justice in Australia cannot be met if the key civil institution of marriage is reserved for heterosexuals only. Marriage is a declaration of love and commitment to a special person. All loving couples in Australia should have the right to participate in this institution if they wish. To deny same-sex couples this right based simply on their sexual orientation is discrimination and it has no place in Australia.
As Australians, we pride ourselves on our reputation as a generally inclusive, egalitarian and tolerant society, and we should use this opportunity to demonstrate these values. The core Labor values of equality, fairness and dignity underpin the debate surrounding marriage equality. The proposed amendments in the marriage equality bill are about respecting the rights of all Australians to be equal before the law. They are the final steps towards equality for same-sex couples. We should allow our friends, families and colleagues to define, formalise and celebrate their commitment to each other as they wish, whether they are straight or gay. That is why our current marriage law must be changed.
It is important to note that what we are discussing is not an amendment to how churches conduct marriages or for whom they conduct them. That will remain unchanged and at the discretion of churches. What we are discussing and what we are about to amend is the act relating to the civil institution of marriage. Amending the Marriage Act will remove this last barrier to full legal equality for same-sex partners and protect Australia's reputation as a proud multicultural, multifaith, vibrant and diverse country. The Australian people have done their part; now it is finally time for this parliament to do its part.
This bill will allow civil celebrants to solemnise marriage, understood as the union of two people to the exclusion of all others, and voluntarily entered into for life. This will remove the discriminatory amendment put in place in 2004. The postal survey asked a rather straightforward question: it was a question about marriage. It is disappointing that those who are opposed to marriage equality in this debate want to debate everything but the actual issue.
Despite the distractions thrown out by those opposed to equality, the postal survey vote was not about bakers baking cakes for weddings, the Safe Schools program or political correctness; it was a question of whether Australians believed it was appropriate to make our marriage laws equal. We cannot allow the same distractions used during the postal survey process to be used during the parliamentary debate, and we cannot allow a determined minority to delay thwart, twist and divert the will of the Australian people, 61.6 per cent of whom said yes to marriage equality. The survey was about the civil institution of marriage, and that is what this debate in this chamber must be about. We cannot allow this bill to become derailed by those opposed to seeing marriage equality.
The religious freedom arguments and proposed amendments are nothing more than last-ditch attempts to delay what people now need to accept is inevitable and the will of the Australian people. Churches currently, as I've indicated, are under no obligation to marry couples they do not wish to. That choice would not be removed with the passage of this bill. Australia voted to remove the discrimination against LGBTI people within the Marriage Act. They did not vote to impose different forms of anti-LGBTI discrimination under the guise of religious freedom, and nor should this bill.
As I've said previously, marriage will survive; indeed, it will be strengthened. Australia will survive and it will be strengthened too by showing that we truly believe in respecting all citizens. I urge you all to think deeply about the core principles of our fine country. I urge you all to reflect on the meaning of justice, the meaning of fairness, the meaning of equality, the meaning of love—because, when it comes down to it, that is all this is. It is very, very simple. It is saying to all Australians that, in the eyes of the law, we all have the same rights and we are all equal.
In closing, I would like to remind my colleagues that not one single state or territory voted no during the postal survey. If we are serious about being a chamber which reflects the will of the Australian people then we need to acknowledge the overwhelming 'yes' vote recorded on 15 November. My state of Tasmania voted overwhelmingly in support of marriage equality, and my vote will reflect that. It is an important step towards ending discrimination. At the end of the day, it doesn't matter whose name is on the bill; the names that will matter are those of the couples who will, for the first time, be able to have their names on a marriage certificate. More than 7.8 million people said yes to marriage equality. The strong 'yes' vote delivers a message loud and clear: discrimination against LGBTI Australians must end. Australia voted for marriage equality, and that is what this parliament must now deliver. Thank you.
Mr Acting Deputy President Sterle, I, like you, rise to speak in support of marriage equality. My contribution won't be as colourful as yours, but it is certainly one that I am proud to make. I was pleased that the Queensland result in the postal survey was so strong, with a high percentage and an overwhelming majority of electorates voting yes. I would like to pay tribute to our friend Nida Green, the Queensland campaign team and the national campaign team as well. It is always dangerous in these sorts of scenarios to single out people, but I want to mention Shelley Argent. I don't know Shelley that well, but I have met her in this job. I know the work she has done behind the scenes in Queensland, publicly and quietly advocating for marriage equality for a long period of time. And I also want to mention Rodney Croome, whom Senator Brown mentioned. They both came to see me a couple of months ago to make the case for marriage equality, which I'm happy to support. I will come back to Rodney's history and a bit of a connection with my family that I want to touch on. From meeting Shelley and Rodney, I developed a real understanding of how important this is.
I respect that people have different views and see marriage equality through a different prism, but for me it is about ending discrimination. Whilst I was happy with the survey result and excited for those who will be able to marry in the future, I could not help but feel for all those same-sex couples who have passed away—or where one partner has passed away—without the opportunity to marry. I hope they lived a happy life, but I can't help but think it could have been happier and more fulfilled if they were able to marry.
So, whilst pleased with the survey outcome, I was not pleased with the process or a supporter of the process. I'm sorry for what it has put people through and the distress it has caused. It was a failure of leadership and sets a dangerous precedent in a democracy. I believe a conscience vote in the parliament was the correct way to resolve this issue. But I was happy to support the campaign on marriage equality, and the one positive I take in regard to the survey, apart from the overwhelming 'yes' result, has been the conversation it has prompted amongst family and friends in my community.
My young children are inquisitive types, always asking questions, particularly my two eldest girls, who are almost nine—nine on Thursday—and six. Whenever they've asked about marriage over the years, my wife and I have always explained that we hope one day in the future people of the same sex will be able to marry. We have always taught our children that one day we hope this will become a reality. And, as part of my support for the campaign, I printed marriage equality posters and made them available to people who wanted to put them up: family, friends, those in the community. We had some posters up on our house as well, and what it did was prompt conversation with us, with family, with friends and so forth—friends who had a similar view with their children as well. So they started talking to their children about how they hope that one day people of the same sex will be able to marry. For me those were conversations I enjoyed having with people about marriage equality that they also had with their children.
But as a Labor Party senator I respect that this is a matter for a conscience vote. The current party position of support for marriage equality in the platform but that it be a matter for a conscience vote is one that I support. I wish the Liberals and Nationals had granted a conscience vote on this issue many years ago; we may not have had to be here today. Some will criticise that Labor has taken too long to progress marriage equality, and I wish it had been quicker, but throughout the history of the party we have always been at the forefront of important social change, and a conscience vote has played an important role.
Some of the important changes the Labor Party has been at the forefront of over the last 50 years include, under Gough Whitlam, the Family Law Act 1975, which was effectively no-fault divorce. There was the Racial Discrimination Act 1975. Under the Hawke government there were the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 and the Australian Human Rights Commission Act 1986. Under Keating there was the Disability Discrimination Act 1992. More recently, under Rudd-Gillard there were the same-sex relationships acts of 2008, which were effectively ensuring equal treatment in Commonwealth laws, amongst other important changes. So Labor has a proud record of ending discrimination, and again we will be at the forefront of ending discrimination in regard to marriage.
I pay tribute to those who worked tirelessly inside the party for change, in particular my colleagues in this chamber Senator Wong and Senator Pratt, and give a special mention as well to Rainbow Labor, a national network that has been so effective. I have nothing but admiration for your courage and determination. I wish it had been easier. I wish it had been quicker. But I will be honoured to vote alongside you to end discrimination.
I was brought up on what I would describe as traditional social justice principles. You treat people equally, no-one is better than you and you do what you can to help people less fortunate than yourself. This continues to guide me, and I continue to learn. One thing I learnt in this campaign was some history about how appallingly LGBTIQ people were treated in this country for too long. One such report came from Ulverstone in Tasmania and struck a special chord with me because it's where my parents, brothers and sisters and extended family are from and many still live. It is hard for me to comprehend that it was only 20 years ago that homosexuality was decriminalised in Tasmania. Journalist Angus Livingston, who I haven't met, alerted me to an antigay march that took place in Ulverstone in 1996. The reports of this event are distressing and alarming. The arguments mounted at the march are familiar in the current debate. I want to read an extract from a paper written by Sally Gibson that comments on this rally that occurred in Ulverstone:
One community rally organised to oppose the decriminalization was organised in Ulverstone on Tasmania's north-west coast and was attended by 700 people. The keynote speaker at the rally was Chris Miles, a Federal Liberal politician—
and the federal member for Braddon—
Miles linked reform of Tasmania's laws against homosexuality to infiltration by homosexual activists of the education system. He said, "if we give in on this one the rot will continue. This will just be the tip of the iceberg."
We can see some similarity in the arguments that were running 20 years ago with what we've seen from the 'no' campaign here. I note that the federal electorate of Braddon voted 54 per cent in favour of 'yes' in the recent survey.
I feel for family members who grew up and experienced life as gay Tasmanians through that period. I feel for family members who moved away or, if this impacted on them, were not living a life where they were comfortable in their sexuality because it was not welcome in their home state. I know that there would be similar historical examples of this throughout Queensland and the rest of Australia as well. I can't correct a historical wrong, but I can help ensure it never happens again. I support marriage equality.
I am very pleased to rise to speak today on the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017. I approach this debate like I approach many others—through a prism of freedom. I have always believed and have long advocated that it is not the appropriate role for government to prevent two people who love each other from formalising that relationship in a ceremony in front of their family and friends and calling it a marriage. Government should not get in the way of that love. A government which outlaws that is a government which is too big for me. Denying gay couples the freedom to marry has always sat uncomfortably with me as a Liberal, which is why I am very proud that it is now coming to an end—and it's doing so on the Liberal Party's watch through a process which we put in place. It's why I voted 'yes' in the postal survey and why I have consistently argued that we should change the law to allow same-sex couples to marry since I was first publicly asked about it in June 2011. I warmly congratulate my colleague Senator Dean Smith for all the work that he has done to bring this bill to the Senate, as well as our colleagues in the other place Tim Wilson, Trevor Evans, Trent Zimmerman and Warren Entsch for putting this issue firmly on the agenda.
When I heard the results of the postal survey two weeks ago, like many Australians I was relieved. The wait will soon be over for all of those gay couples who have wanted to get married for so many years, and that is a wonderful thing. The strong turnout of just under 80 per cent and the clear margin of almost 62 per cent of Australians voting 'yes' leaves no room for doubt. The Australian people want the law to change to allow same-sex couples to marry. It is now our task, as parliamentarians, to deliver it. We must do so by carefully considering the issues at hand but without a moment of unnecessary delay. I believe the Senate can, and must, pass this bill this week. Between now and then, there is going to be a lot of debate about the detail. There should be. This is a substantial change and we must get it right. People of goodwill who want to see this change happen can legitimately disagree about how to do so. As long as I have advocated for same-sex marriage, I have also advocated for the freedoms of other Australians. I have never believed, as some have argued, that granting the freedom to marry to gay couples needs to come at the expense of anyone else's freedoms. I have always argued that we can do both.
The postal survey confirmed what we already knew: Australians fundamentally disagree about how we should define marriage. As much as it might be nice if we all shared the same view, part of living in a free society is accepting that we don't all agree, including on fundamental issues like marriage. Given that, our challenge is to find a way to harmoniously coexist, including on fundamental issues like marriage. The second step is putting in place a legal framework that allows us to live alongside each other amicably whilst holding these different views. I believe a framework based on freedom and individual liberty gives us the best chance of doing so. That means accepting that we should not use the power of the state to force our views about marriage on anyone else. We should absolutely try to persuade each other to our point of view. We should encourage those who disagree to reconsider their perspective, but we should not compel them to change their mind. If we do, we will turn what should be a great unifying moment in Australian history to one that is divisive and defined by recriminations, not love. We would be violating the individual conscience of our fellow citizens, something that no free society should ever do.
I am not here today to speak on behalf of the 4.9 million people who voted 'no'. Given that I voted 'yes', there are others who are better placed to do so. But I do want to remind senators that these are our fellow Australians. They are our neighbours and our colleagues and our friends. They have lost this political contest and they should not be able to stand in the way of this change. But nor should they and their concerns be totally disregarded. I'm here today to speak on behalf of the many Australians who voted 'yes' but who don't want to see this change come at the expense of anyone else's freedoms.
I believe many Australians voted 'yes' for the same reasons that I did: out of a very Australian live-and-let-live attitude. The simple act of allowing a gay couple to get married has no effect on my life, so why should I stand in the way of their love? There is some evidence to support my conclusion. Many polls conducted throughout the survey period which showed a clear majority of support for same-sex marriage also showed high levels of support for protecting freedoms at the same time. When asked in a Newspoll between 21 and 24 September whether parliament should provide guarantees in law for freedom of conscience, belief and religion, 62 per cent agreed. A Guardian Essential poll last week found that 63 per cent of Australians supported allowing both ministers of religion and civil celebrants the right to refuse to solemnise a same-sex wedding. A Lonergan poll reported in The Guardian early in November found that 49 per cent of Australians supported granting commercial service providers the same protection, with 35 per cent opposed. It mirrored findings from University of Sydney's US Studies Centre which showed 43 per cent in favour of the same provision and 39 per cent opposed.
Many Australians who voted 'yes' were reassured by the promises from across the political spectrum that no-one else's freedom would suffer as a result of changing the law. On 15 September, the Prime Minister said:
I just want to reassure Australians that as strongly as I believe in the right of same-sex couples to marry, as strongly as I believe in that, even more strongly, if you like, do I believe in religious freedom.
On the same day, the Leader of the Opposition argued:
I am a supporter of marriage equality, but I also have been raised to be a person of faith. I can give this guarantee to the Australian people: I and Labor will not support legislation which impinges on religious freedoms in this country.
Others, myself included, made similar promises. We must now deliver on that promise. In my view, we must do so within this bill, and I want to take a few moments to explain why.
Whilst I very much welcome the Prime Minister's initiative to ask Phillip Ruddock to conduct a review into the adequacy of protections for religious freedoms in Australia, it is not a substitute for incorporating sufficient protections into this bill. As senators are aware, I recently released my own draft bill to legalise same-sex marriage. It contained broader protections for freedom of speech, religion and conscience than are provided for in this bill, but it did so in a narrow and targeted way, only relating to marriage. It did so because we recognise that beliefs that people hold about marriage are stronger than the beliefs they hold about other issues. For many people, it is integral to their faith. My bill did not attempt or pretend to offer wider protections for religious freedom. This was deliberate. The problem it sought to solve was a practical and immediate one: our disagreement over the definition of marriage, not a theoretical or future problem on how religious freedom interacts with other important rights. That is a worthy topic to discuss, but it will not be a short or straightforward conversation. It has the potential to go on for some time and to stray into other unrelated areas. Our prospects of achieving consensus in this area are remote in my view.
My bill will not be introduced to the Senate, but key elements of it will be introduced as amendments to this bill. They will seek to cover the issues my bill sought to address except for one major element, which was to extend to commercial service providers the right to conscientiously object to participating in a same-sex wedding. I have heard the concerns of many Australians that to do so would be to extend discrimination. That was not my intent. My objective was to protect freedom of religion and conscience, and to avoid people resolving their different views about marriage by suing each other. Although I'll not be seeking to incorporate this provision as an amendment, I remain concerned that in the absence of it we will see divisive court cases that attempt to force people to participate in weddings that are inconsistent with their values. Most gay couples just want to get married and most wedding service providers will be delighted to have the extra business, but I do fear that activists will seek out those few conscientious objectors to use them as test cases for the law. I hope that I'm wrong.
The remaining amendments from my bill are much less contentious. Senator Fawcett, who is co-sponsoring them, has already outlined them in his contribution to this debate, so I won't go over them in detail. But, in broad terms, they seek to better protect the freedoms of civil celebrants, parents, charities and freedom of speech. I look forward to discussing them in more detail in the committee stage. The strongest argument that I have seen against these less contentious protections is that they may not be necessary. We are assured by many advocates of the bill in its current form that it has no impact on these freedoms and that we need not worry about explicitly protecting them. I do not have the same confidence. Even if I did, what harm would be done by reassuring all Australians with these protections?
Although my bill will not be legislated, I am proud to have released it. Doing so sparked the biggest debate about freedoms that we've had in this country for many years. It has led to a number of amendments being proposed, and I hope it will contribute to a better bill with stronger protections passing this chamber than otherwise would have. And we now have a holistic review of religious freedoms in the Ruddock committee.
As senators may know, I am not religious myself—I am agnostic—but I recognise the vitally important role that religious liberty has played in producing one of history's most tolerant, diverse and pluralistic societies that we all enjoy living in today. Equally, freedom of conscience and free speech are among our most important liberties. Without them, we can never truly be free or democratic. Standing up for them does not always win you universal acclaim, particularly when you do so on behalf of people who hold unpopular views—even when you don't share those views yourself. But when I came to this place I promised that I would be a strong voice for classical liberal values. I would not be true to that promise, or my own conscience, if I didn't fight hard for these freedoms. I hope that all the amendments that I propose and support this week are successful. But if they're not, at least I will know that I have done everything I can to protect the freedoms of all Australians and this will allow me to do something that I have always hoped that I could—to vote for a bill to extend a freedom to gay couples that they should have enjoyed years ago: the freedom to marry.
I rise to support the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017. If people have been listening in, they would think that this is a bill solely about religious freedoms. This is a bill about marriage equality. Fundamentally, it's a bill that has been the subject of debate in this place on many occasions, and a bill that is the result of what I think is the courage and commitment of Senator Smith in bringing it forward, after having thought deeply about his position on marriage equality, changing his position and becoming an advocate for marriage equality.
This bill amends the restrictions that limit marriage in Australia to the union of a man and a woman. The bill allows two people the freedom to marry in Australia regardless of their sex or gender. The requirements for a legally valid marriage otherwise remain the same. If you listen to some of the debates that have been in here today, you would think this was the end of religious freedoms in this country. I will come back to that issue, but I want to go to the key issue that we're dealing with here—that is, for all Australians to be treated equally. For all Australians who love one another—whether that's in a male-female relationship, a male-male relationship or a female-female relationship—that is acceptable and always should have been acceptable. We should not be here now debating this. It should have been law in this country some years ago.
We've had long debates about this. I congratulate a number of people who have been pushing this forward over the period I have been involved in parliamentary politics: Penny Wong, Tanya Plibersek, Anthony Albanese and Louise Pratt from the Labor side, who have pushed this bill continually and have advocated on behalf of same-sex couples; the members of Rainbow Labor, who have fought for fairness, justice and equality for all Australians; and Shelley Argent and the Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays for helping to educate the public and politicians on the rights of gay and lesbian Australians.
Most importantly I thank the mother of a young gay man from Greystanes, who rang my office in 2009 seeking my support for marriage equality and who outlined to me the discrimination, bullying, violence and social exclusion faced by her son growing up as a young gay man in Western Sydney. I also thank the gay man who approached me around the same time in Albury-Wodonga to outline the challenges faced by gay men growing up in the sixties in regional Australia. It was these personal stories that convinced me as a backbench Labor senator to speak out against my own party's support for a policy that denied equal rights for all Australian citizens. I decided that love and commitment should be the test for marriage in Australia, not outdated and discriminatory acts of parliament.
As a result of this I attended a rally of about 2,000 Australians in support of marriage equality outside Sydney Town Hall in November 2010. I broke with party policy and indicated I would be supporting marriage equality at the upcoming national conference of the party. I did this because, in my previous life as a blue-collar worker and a union official, my union had always supported the rights of oppressed minorities in this country, and no-one was more oppressed than gay and lesbian Australians. I'm pleased to have played a small role—only a small role, with many others—in bringing together parliamentary support for marriage equality.
Unfortunately, it has taken too long to come to the position we're in today. The parliament should have done its job and provided equality to all Australians many years ago. Politicians should simply have done their job and dealt with the matter, without wasting over $120 million of public money on a divisive and unnecessary postal survey—$120 million of public money wasted on a survey that told us exactly what everyone knew: that the Australian public supports marriage equality.
I want to turn briefly to the strategy some conservative politicians are adopting in an attempt to delay marriage equality in this country. Arguing that religious freedoms will be affected by this bill beggars belief. In a country where religious institutions have significant economic and political power, to argue that providing equality to same-sex couples will result in religious discrimination is just unbelievable. I know a bit about religious discrimination, having been brought up in the west of Scotland. The divide between Catholics and Protestants when I was being brought up was huge. I married a Catholic, and I was brought up a Protestant. And I must tell you, it was not easy to go through this process with parts of my wife's family and my own family. It was one of the reasons I decided I'd had enough of that nonsense and would not have my kids brought up with religious discrimination and in such a divide. I was fortunate enough to have a trade and to be able to emigrate to Australia, where I took the view that a much more relaxed position was adopted between different religions in terms of marriage.
That proved to be true, but to listen to some of the contributions over the last couple of days on this bill would lead you to believe that the end of the world is nigh for those who have a religious faith in this country. I am an atheist, so I come to this with a different point of view from that of some of my fellow senators. I don't see that religion should impinge upon the rights of atheist Australians, Australians who are agnostics or Australians who do not have a spiritual faith or believe in some spiritual being. I know many, many people, as we all do, who have strong religious beliefs and who use those religious beliefs to try to guide their life, and many of them do that in a very productive and progressive manner. Others, when you hear some of the debate that goes on, use their religion to try to discriminate against individuals who want the same right as they have: to marry the person they love. The proposals we've heard today from Senator Paterson are not what I would consider to be appropriate in this debate.
This is a simple proposition that says that all Australians should be treated equally, that all Australians should have rights in the context of becoming married. The bill itself provides significant protections for those who are religiously minded or have religious views. It protects religious freedoms in relation to marriage. Ministers of religion will be able to refuse to solemnise a marriage, in conformity with their religion's doctrine, even though I can't understand why a gay Catholic can't be married in the Catholic Church. I can't understand that at all. If you are a practising Catholic or a practising Christian, I always thought the argument put forward by religious proponents was that religion was about tolerance and love—except if you're gay or a member of the LGBTIQ community. I don't get that. As an atheist, I just don't get it. It is unacceptable in my view to discriminate against the LGBTIQ community in relation to marriage, health support and help when they become old and infirm. It is not something that I can understand as being compatible with what people argue religion is about.
I want to look at the argument that religion is under this huge attack because of this bill. Religious organisations in this country are amongst the most powerful organisations in the country. They are amongst the richest organisations in the country. They are not there as defenceless bystanders in Australian political life. They are not there as defenceless bystanders in the Australian economy. They are big players in the economy. They are big players in the parliament.
I take the view that there should be the separation of politics and religion, but that's something that does not happen in this place. When we come together in the morning to commence parliament, and the Senate, we say prayers—I think the Catholics say a different prayer to the Protestants—and we get a different approach to this. I come along because it's part of the tradition. It's part of respect for the parliament and respect for other people's views. But religious people should not be telling me, an atheist, how I should live my life, how my children should live their lives and how my grandchildren should live their lives.
If you look at the New South Wales public school system, you see religious teaching in public schools in what should be a secular society. But we've got religious teaching in public schools. My grandkids, along with about 40 per cent of the other kids in the school, have to go away to a quiet room and do something on their own while religious teaching is taking place. I find that objectionable. It's a public school system in a secular country and my grandkids should not be stopped from getting an education because of religion.
Some senators today have the hide to say that religion will be forever changed. Religion has its fingers everywhere in this community, even in the public school system. We've got chaplains going into the public school system and they are not supposed to proselytise, but they're in there. We should have support for children based not on religion, but on their mental and physical health. That's the thing that should apply, not religion.
I don't accept the argument being put up that having marriage equality in this country will lead to the end of religious freedoms in this country. These powerful bishops, these powerful people, have been out there influencing politics in this country for as long as we've had an Australian state. They don't need protection, but the public, young kids, have needed protection from them in the past. I just don't get this argument that there will be an end of religion if this goes ahead. I want to indicate clearly that I won't be supporting any amendments to this bill. I want to indicate that I'm concerned that the government has thought it necessary to set up a special inquiry to look at religious freedoms in Australia. I hope it's a broad based inquiry and that my freedoms as an atheist are taken into account. The single biggest group in Australia is not Catholics, it is not Anglicans and it is not Presbyterians. It is people who have no religion. I belong to that group, and I don't want religion stuffed down my throat by anyone. It's unacceptable to me, and it should be unacceptable in this parliament. That's really what we've got coming here with these amendments: it's about imposing religious beliefs on the parliament of Australia to give benefits to religious organisations that should not be there in a secular society. If people want to practise a religion, they are free and entitled to practise their religion. This parliament should not be making it more difficult for people who are not religious to have no religion as the basis of their lives.
I have said before in this place that I've been married since 1971. I was offended when I heard Senator Brandis and others talking about the sanctity of marriage, that you can only have a decent marriage if it is sanctified by God or if it is done in the eyes of religion. I've been married for a long time, and my marriage is as good and as strong as any religious marriage in this country. We've had our ups and downs, as both religious people and non-religious people have, but I've got a strong marriage and a fantastic wife, whom I love dearly, and I object to it being treated as second-class because I was not married in a church or under some sanctified mumbo jumbo, as far as I am concerned.
So this is a big issue. It should not be simply about protection for religion. Religion is privileged in all areas of society in this country. The people who have not been privileged in this country, and who have certainly been placed in a position of deficient rights in this country, are the LGBTIQ community. I say it will now be a problem for some of the atheists in this country if we get more so-called religious freedoms, which is simply code to be able to discriminate against the LGBTIQ community. I've got some great friends in the churches, some fantastic political friends, who go out there with progressive views helping people. But just because you're in a religious position, it should not make you any better than anyone else in this country. It should not be about religious freedoms but about rights for everybody in this country. (Time expired)
In the very short time before the dinner break, I'm going to make a start on my speech. I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017.
As many have already commented in this place, 15 November, just a couple of weeks ago now, was certainly a historic day. For me, it was the day that the Australian people told politicians—as they have in various polls over the past few years—to get on and legislate for marriage equality. As many others have also said in this debate so far, I'm one of those who didn't believe the survey was needed and that the $100 million—or however much it turns out to be—spent on holding it could have been used for so many more worthy pursuits. The harm that has been done, particularly to the LGBTIQ community and their families, will, for many, take a long time to overcome.
The Australian community voted overwhelmingly—
Sitting suspended from 18:30 to 19:30
Before the dinner break I was saying the Australian community has voted overwhelmingly to remove discrimination from marriage and to support equality, and now it is time for the Australian parliament to act and reflect that will of the Australian people in the bill that we are debating today. I'm not going to speak for too long, but I wanted to concentrate my remarks on the history of the equality campaign here in the ACT that I've now been involved in for more than 15 years. I think it is somewhat appropriate that we are debating this legislation here in Canberra which, whilst it is the nation's capital, the seat of government and the place where politics happen, is also a very strong and supportive community and town which has fought very hard to ensure that there is equality across the statute book and that all members of our community are treated equally.
I'll start by acknowledging that the ACT community in the recent same-sex marriage survey—and that includes Norfolk Island and Jervis Bay, for whom I am a proud senator—achieved both the highest jurisdictional result from the survey, with a 74 per cent 'yes' vote, and the highest response rate, at 82.4 per cent. In total, 236,979 people from the electorates of Fenner and Canberra completed their survey, with 175,459 voting 'yes' and 61,520 voting 'no'. This result did not surprise me at all. As thousands gathered in Braddon on the night of the 15 November to celebrate the success of the 'yes' campaign, it struck me just how long the campaign for equality has been running here locally and how many community events, rallies and meetings I've gone to over the years to progress marriage equality.
For me the majority of my involvement in this campaign has been during my years as a territory MLA, where a commitment to removing discrimination on the basis of sexuality from the ACT statute book was an election campaign back in 2001 in the very first campaign in which I stood as a candidate for Labor. Labor won that campaign and we began the work of amending various laws to remove discrimination against LGBTIQ people, their partners and their children in all ACT laws. This included various laws such as the Discrimination Amendment Act, the Parentage Act, the Sexuality Discrimination Legislation Amendment Act, the Human Rights Act and the Adoption Amendment Act.
In the second Stanhope Labor government we took a commitment to the 2004 election to establish civil unions for same-sex and other couples to provide equal and legal recognition with marriage under ACT law. The bill was called the Civil Unions Bill 2006 and it caused controversy at the time, particularly for the Howard government. Even though this was a clear election commitment from Labor prior to the election and it was an election where we won majority government for the first time in the history of self-government, the Howard government, with the then Attorney-General Mr Ruddock, threatened to intervene and overrule the bill should it pass the assembly. It did pass in May 2006 despite the threats from the Commonwealth at the time and it came into force on 9 June 2006. Four days later, with the swipe of a ministerial pen, the democratic will of the people of the ACT was overruled when the Federal Executive Council asked the Governor-General to disallow the act.
Not to be deterred, several months later the ACT cabinet, of which I was a member, advised by the very capable Attorney-General Simon Corbell, agreed to introduce another bill to recognise same-sex couples with the Civil Partnership Bill 2006, which sought to provide the same legal protections and recognition as the Civil Unions Bill. Despite seeking to amend the laws to remove the word 'union' from the bill, as that had caused a lot of the concern with the Commonwealth, the Commonwealth, represented again by Attorney-General Ruddock, indicated that the proposed legislation opened the door to bigamy and contradicted the Marriage Act's definition of marriage as being between a man and a woman. The Howard government threatened again to disallow the bill should it be passed into law. We took the decision at the time that as it was obvious that the Howard government were about to lose the federal election we would hold the bill over until after the federal campaign, when we hoped we'd have a more sympathetic government.
But even though the government did change in 2007, and whilst Prime Minister Rudd indicated that he would not override ACT legislation, the path to reaching agreement with the Commonwealth on a suitable bill that allowed the ACT Labor government to deliver on our commitment to the people of the ACT, whilst also being agreeable to the Rudd government, was not easy. Over several months the negotiations went back and forth and seemed to me to hinge on something so minor that I couldn't, and still can't, understand the strength of the Commonwealth's views at the time—which, I should say, were immoveable. In the end the ACT compromised, as we felt that the need to put in place laws that allowed the recognition of same-sex couples was more important than passing laws that clearly would likely be disallowed for the second time in a year.
So, almost two years after we had started with the draft legislation of the Civil Unions Bill, the Civil Partnerships Act commenced on 19 May 2008. The sticking point of the legislative ceremonies was removed from the bill, with an administrative ceremony instead being performed by a representative of the ACT Registrar-General. Further amendments were made in 2009 to reinsert ceremonies to be conducted with civil partnerships, making the ACT the first territory in the country to legalise civil partnership ceremonies for same-sex couples. The Commonwealth continued to threaten to disallow the laws, but further amendments were made to address their major concerns, and the bill passed the assembly late in 2009.
In 2012, some six years after the original Civil Unions Bill passed the assembly, we continued our quest to ensure that same-sex couples were able to have their relationships recognised legally and to enjoy the same rights as people married under the Marriage Act. At the time, and based on legal advice that we had, the ACT government, of which I was now the Chief Minister, flagged our intention that we would work with Tasmania to progress same-sex marriage legislation, as it was clear certainly from all the discussions we had had that it was not going to happen nationally at that time. So Labor went to the 2012 election with a commitment to introduce a same-sex marriage bill into the assembly during the next term. We delivered on this commitment in 2013 when we introduced the Marriage Equality (Same Sex) Act 2013. I said at the time:
We’ve been pretty clear on this issue for some time now and there’s overwhelming community support for this.
Relevant to the debate we are having today in this place, I went on to say:
We would prefer to see the Federal Parliament legislate for a nationally consistent scheme, but in the absence of this we will act for the people of the ACT.
This bill was debated in the ACT Legislative Assembly on 22 October 2013, more than four years ago now.
When the legislation came into effect on 7 December, 47 couples had registered their intention to marry. This was despite the very early announcement—even before the bills actually passed the assembly—from Senator Brandis that the Commonwealth was going to challenge the validity of the laws in the High Court. Thirty-one couples married over a five-day period, between 7 and 12 December, which was the date the High Court annulled the laws, finding that the ACT laws were inconsistent with the federal Marriage Act and that only the federal parliament could make laws in relation to marriage, with the judgement finding that:
… under the Constitution and federal law as it now stands, whether same sex marriage should be provided for by law—
as a majority of the territory Legislative Assembly decided—
is a matter for the federal Parliament.
Over the almost four years since that decision I have often reflected on whether pursuing marriage equality on our own was the right course to take. I was very aware at the time that, whilst this was a legal battle between two governments, real people and families were caught in the middle. Those who had been married under our scheme would have their marriage annulled as though it had never existed, when it was clear to everybody who attended one of those ceremonies that the union did exist and that they did matter.
But overall, and on reflection, I believe it was the right thing to do. We had made a commitment to our community that we would ensure that every one of our citizens would be treated fairly and equally before the law. We stood up for that principle, and it's an important principle which I support today.
For me, the most important thing that came out of the 2013 experience, aside from the happiness and love that we witnessed over those pretty intense weeks, was that we stood up for what was right, we stood up for the ACT. And, while we comprehensively lost in the High Court, we did end up with a very clear judgement which said any amendment to the Marriage Act is a matter for the federal parliament; it clarified that once and for all. And here we are today—no more obfuscation, no more avoiding—doing what we should have done years ago. Thanks to the direction of the High Court, we are here doing what only this parliament can do. I'm proud of the role the ACT Legislative Assembly, the smallest parliament, has played in getting us to where we are today. It's taken 16 years, and we never took a step back. But now, from the smallest parliament to the largest, it's time to get this done. Thank you.
I rise today to speak on the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017, introduced by my friend and WA colleague Senator Smith. I congratulate Senator Smith and all those who have sought to change the law in our great democracy and in a matter of days will succeed in their undertaking. Whilst we disagree on this issue, I have never doubted the blood, sweat and tears Senator Smith has had to shed over this issue. In fact, I congratulate all those who have contributed to this debate. It is at these times that we often hear the most interesting speeches in this place. My speech will not be as interesting as some but, as a senator, it is my responsibility to put my views on the record, particularly as they are contrary to the views of a majority of Australians and a majority of my colleagues.
This bill will pass parliament—and, given the clear will of the Australian people, it should. Obviously, this private senator's bill comes to the chamber with a genesis unlike any other. Though the decisions were taken well before I came to parliament, I was uncertain about the survey. I was wary of an idea that parliamentarians should in any way outsource their decision-making capacity to a survey. However, I think these circumstances should be seen as unique. That said, the survey was obviously an extraordinarily successful undertaking with a strong participation rate in what was a voluntary process. The Australian people have spoken clearly and unequivocally to alter the definition of marriage.
Mostly, the debate was reasonable and respectful. There will always be the internet trolls who post hateful things. We should never become inured to this or shy away from topics because of it; we must be able to have respectful debates on all issues. Whilst this debate has in the main been respectful, the media continue to struggle with these issues. They seek to create two camps, when, in reality, Australians fall along a spectrum. I have been described as an arch conservative, a staunch conservative—a label I find cartoon-like. It is all too easy for the media to leap on such labels as a short-form way of pigeonholing, and thereby dismissing, different points of view. This is then exacerbated by the trolls online.
I do believe that institutions and traditions are important. They are our links to the past, and the glue that binds our society together. We have become a society that has moved away from many traditions—probably most traditions—and clearly some of these are not missed. In my experience the casual racism, sexism and homophobia that were part of the Australian culture in the recent past have now largely disappeared. However, marriage is an institution that emerged long before codified laws or doctrinal religions and has a particular meaning and character not static but remarkably durable. It is also an institution that has been under significant pressure for a number of generations but has lasted.
It is in this context that I decided to support the traditional definition of marriage. I'm not convinced that not being able to attach a particular tradition to a relationship can be described as a human rights violation. Not being able to access an institution absent discrimination in the law cannot be viewed as equivalent to an act of discrimination or somehow devaluing other types of relationships. As a society, we have gone on a journey where today all relationships between people are treated as largely equivalent under the law of Australia. There may still be some areas that need addressing, and they will now be overtaken by the passage of this bill.
I do not believe that government or laws make any relationship more valid or more important. To me, the validity of a relationship is the bond between two people; and that is what I'm lucky enough to share with Rebecca. Nothing government does or does not do will ever change that. It cannot strengthen it; it cannot weaken it. I do not view and have never viewed anyone's relationship, no matter its form, as less than my own. However, as someone who does value tradition and institutions, I see marriage in its traditional sense as being something that is worth preserving.
Now a decisive majority of Australians have spoken, and this parliament will act. Traditions, customs and institutions can and do change, and that is what will happen with the passage of this bill. However, I do counsel all to consider with open minds the amendments proposed to this bill, particularly the amendments proposed by senators Paterson and Fawcett. We do not want the outcome of this debate to be an endless round of litigation targeting certain beliefs. That would do no-one any good except a few radical ideologues. I genuinely hope that those who benefit from this change derive the positive experience from it that they seek.
As I said in my first speech just a few weeks ago, whilst farmers are conservative, they do not fear change. I am someone who profoundly believes that the people get it right. Not on every individual occasion but across the broad sweep of history in open, free democracies, people get it right. I am therefore the first to admit that I may be wrong. One thing I'm sure about is that in these contentious debates we must fight against the trend towards the anonymous keyboard trolls. I say to all: not everyone who disagrees with you is your enemy, not everyone who takes a position contrary to yours takes it out of fear or hatred or dislike. Take people as they come to you, with a positive mind and an open heart. That is how I live my life.
This is not my maiden speech. I rise to speak to the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017. This bill seeks to amend the Marriage Act 1961 and the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 and make amendments contingent on the passing of the Civil Law and Justice Legislation Amendment Bill 2017 to allow for same-sex marriage. This bill also purports to provide that refusal of a priest or a minister to solemnise the union of same-sex couple will not be unlawful.
The fact that a majority of the community have voted in favour of the change proposed by this bill should be acknowledged. However, it is false to claim that simply because a majority have agreed to do something all parliamentary representatives are bound to support it. Governments rely on majorities. Senators, however, rely on only 7.7 per cent or 14.3 per cent of the vote. Otherwise there would never have been a Greens senator.
Precisely. For decades, Greens senators have championed hard-Left agendas which, if the opportunity had presented itself, would have been firmly rejected by most fair-minded Aussies. However, that does not deny the legal right, indeed the moral obligation, of those elected as Greens senators to represent their own constituencies, even though they represent less than 10 per cent of the population. Likewise, I consider myself morally obliged to speak for those whom I consider myself to represent. I am under no illusion that I'm here for any other reason than because votes directed to Pauline Hanson passed to me, and I came here fully intending to be a Pauline Hanson's One Nation senator. The fact that I was booted out of One Nation does not change what I was voted in to do. I was elected to represent the interests of those who voted for One Nation and those who preferenced One Nation. I still intend to represent those people.
This brings me to the current bill. If you look at the highest areas of the 'no' vote against same-sex marriage, they are in the areas where the One Nation vote was strongest—rural and regional Queensland. This clear indication of the views of what I consider to be my constituency is reinforced by the many thousands of conversations I've had over the years, both campaigning with Pauline for 20 years and as a publican. They have given me a clear view of rural and regional Queenslanders' views on same-sex marriage. It is my intention to reflect those views.
I believe that the family is the cornerstone of our society and marriage is the cement that holds it together. Even three years ago, both major parties pretended to agree with this, yet today many of the same people who opposed same-sex marriage when the last Labor government was in power, such as Senator Wong, have undergone a 'road to Damascus' conversion. If same-sex marriage is such a pressing concern, why not legislate it during the Rudd and Gillard government days? The answer, of course, is that when Labor were in government they were terrified that supporting this would create a rallying cry against them. So much for high moral principles!
The fact is, of course, that same-sex marriage has become today what the republic issue was in the 1990s: a red herring, a fashionable distraction from the looming crises facing our nation. A left-leaning government and a clueless opposition have grasped on this issue of same-sex marriage as the previous government did on supposed climate change—anything to distract from the real issues like runaway government spending, ever-increasing taxes, endless erosion of our personal freedom and criminal neglect of the people of rural and regional Australia.
Instead of wasting our time in this place with this issue, the parliament should be focused on governing. Tens of billions continue to be wasted on handouts to the lazy and feckless or on grandiose ideas and idiot schemes like NBN, for which there never was and never will be a market need. The latest obscene money waster is a submarine project on which, with scarcely any reflection, this government has elected to fritter $60 billion reinventing the wheel when we could easily buy a dozen perfectly serviceable modern submarines from Japan for $10 billion and the rest of the money could be used for better things. Meanwhile, the crucial regional dams, roads, bridges, railways and coal-fired power stations remain unbuilt. Yet, instead of debating these real issues, we are here wasting a week of parliament's time on the same-sex marriage bill. What does that say about the priorities of the government and opposition? What does this augur for the future of our country?
It is not for me to judge the morality or desirability of other people's lifestyle choices, but it is for all of us in this place to consider whether we should be sprinkling legal holy water on these choices. This is not a matter of equality. It is a matter of whether our country will be better or worse if we overturn the time-honoured and religiously sanctioned definition of marriage as between a man and a woman just to satisfy a vocal and sometimes violent political lobby. What would Ben Chifley, John Curtin, Bob Menzies and Harold Holt say if they could see what the parties which they once led have come to? Instead of jobs, economic development or nation-building, what exercises the attention of the heirs of Menzies and Chifley is whether same-sex couples can call their unions marriage. Thank you.
I rise to speak on the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017. I first want to acknowledge and respect the will of the majority 'yes' vote in the recent postal marriage survey. I acknowledge the 'yes' campaigners' long fight for this reform and pay tribute to those who've maintained a respectful and reasoned discourse over the course of the last several months and years.
I think we must acknowledge that, if this bill passes, we must consider the legitimate concerns regarding religious freedom that have been raised. It's important that these issues be investigated by the Ruddock review and that religious freedom protections in Australia be considered in greater detail. Those who know me know that I have always had a very strong view regarding marriage, its definition and its place in our society. It is the cornerstone foundation of our democracy, with religious and cultural traditions as its core.
I want you to know that I have always stood against discrimination of any kind in our society, and I have vehemently supported antidiscrimination legislation. It's important that we recognise that this reform will not simply end discrimination against same-sex-attracted people. As a parliament, we should be looking to remove any discrimination based on sexual orientation. This fight will continue regardless of this bill. We must bring a divided nation together on this issue and ensure leadership and unity. The time for division has passed. It is now time, as a parliament, to move to ensure there are adequate protections for religious freedom, freedom of speech, parental rights and the rights of charitable organisations in this country.
The result of the marriage survey must be appreciated in its entirety: 61.6 per cent of Australians, or 7,817,247 people, voted yes; however, a large number of Australians voted no, with 38.4 per cent, or 4,873,987 people, voting for the traditional view of marriage. A significant number of Australians did not participate in the survey at all, as 3,278,260 people, or 20.5 per cent, decided not to return the survey to the ABS. Seventeen electorates across Australia did not vote for a change to the Marriage Act. In the seat of Blaxland, 73.9 per cent voted against the proposition we are debating; in Watson, 69.6 per cent; in McMahon, 64.9 per cent; in Fowler, 63.7 per cent; in Werriwa, 63.7 per cent; in Parramatta, 61.6 per cent; and in Chifley, 58.7 per cent. Western Sydney has a large migrant population that holds a proudly traditional view of marriage based on religious teachings. Their views, and the views of everyone who participated and did not participate in the survey, should be respected. I note my colleague the member for Blaxland's comments after the postal survey result. The Hon. Jason Clare stated of the result in his electorate:
Good people with good hearts can have different views on this … issue.
In my home state of Tasmania, 63.6 per cent of Tasmanians, or 191,948 people, voted yes; however, 36.4 per cent, or 109,655 people, voted no. A significant number of Tasmanians also elected not to complete the survey—20.3 per cent. Nearly one-fifth of eligible voters in Tasmania, or 77,020 people, did not return their survey to the ABS. In the electorate of Braddon in my home state only 54 per cent of people voted to change the Marriage Act. This displays a significant and notable split within the community on this issue. I'm one of the 109,655 people in Tasmania who voted against changing the Marriage Act, and I stand firm in my decision to do so. Australians expect the Australian parliament to ensure a balanced way forward for all communities so that the four out of 10 Australians who voted for a traditional marriage will be allowed to practise freedom of speech and freedom of religion. These core democratic values are so important to our country, and should never be underestimated or undermined.
As a parliament, we must ensure that by implementing change to the Marriage Act, in changing the definition of a secular marriage, we display respect for the almost five million Australians who voted no, as we equally respect the seven million people who voted yes. This is the fair thing to do and upholds the spirit of the country. We live in a pluralist society, which means people hold various and competing viewpoints. There is nothing more democratic than a pluralist society. Many argue that this bill will end discrimination against a group of Australians, but we must be sure that we do not end up discriminating against another group in order not to discriminate against the first group.
Nationwide, four out of 10 Australians voted against changing the traditional definition of marriage. This is a significant number of people and they should be heard, not ignored. Whether people's reasons for voting no were endowed in a religious, personal, cultural or spiritual view, they were completely entitled to vote 'no'. I note that the 2017 Select Committee on the Exposure Draft of the Marriage Amendment (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill acknowledged that evidence demonstrated that there are substantial matters of law and individual human rights to be dealt with that extend well beyond the Marriage Act itself.
… if Australia is to remain a plural and tolerant society where different views are valued and legal, legislators must recognise that this change will require careful, simultaneous consideration of a wide range of specialist areas of law, as opposed to the common perception that it involves changing just a few words in one act of parliament.
Australia has a proud history of upholding Western democratic freedoms at home and abroad. Australia assisted in the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The declaration states, 'Everyone has a right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right includes freedom to change his or her religion or belief and freedom either alone or in community with others in public or private to manifest its religion or belief in teachings, practices, worship or observance.'
I'm sure many of you will recall the case of Madlin Sims in September of this year. Ms Sims took it upon herself to sack an employee after that female employee posted, 'It's okay to vote no' on Facebook. This person engaged in political debate and exercised her right to freedom of speech, but, because she exercised this fundamental, democratic principle, she lost her job. Unless we ensure appropriate protections are in place, this is the type of intolerance incident I fear could become the norm if safeguards are not put in place in the future. The challenge we face in this place is to ensure the almost five million people who voted no are not marginalised because of their traditional view of marriage they hold dear. We need to ensure that there exists adequate protections for freedom of religion and freedom of speech in this country.
Only ministers of religions and civil celebrants who, within 90 days of this bill passing, register their objection will be protected. We must ensure that the religious freedom of all Australians of faith are investigated and protected. We need to protect people who espouse a religious viewpoint or hold a strong Christian faith, Jewish faith or Islamic faith. Many of you would be aware of the case of Archbishop Julian Porteous of Hobart. In 2015 Archbishop Porteous was taken to the antidiscrimination commission for publishing and distributing information on Catholic teachings of marriage. Religious leaders, outside a wedded context, must be protected. We must have protection to ensure that cases such as Archbishop Porteous's does not happen again. Currently another archbishop or other religious leader can be brought before the an antidiscrimination tribunal for advocating their teachings on marriage.
We must also look at this reform and the interaction with state-based antidiscrimination laws. Commonwealth laws only protect freedom of political and religious belief in the area of employment. In all other areas people depend on other state laws to protect them. State antidiscrimination laws must be considered and be consistent so people are protected from persecution, regardless of this bill. The current antidiscrimination law in Australia is significantly unbalanced as to who it protects in this debate. It protects same-sex orientated Australians and people who speak on their behalf from discrimination in every state and territory and federally, but the law in some states provides no protection at all to individual Australians who support traditional marriage from a conscientious or religious conviction, particularly New South Wales and South Australia. Similarly, federal law provides no protection to individual Australians who support traditional marriage based on a religious conviction. There are no laws in any jurisdiction that protect associations or charities from detriment because they adhere or express a belief in favour of traditional marriage. We must ensure that we balance the rights rather than the exceptions for religious freedom. Religious freedom in terms of exceptions from antidiscrimination law neglects that religious freedom is a right in and of itself. Religious freedom belongs to all people; not just institutions or professional clergy. The Senate select committee noted that 'Australian human rights commitments are protections that apply to all individuals.' Many of you will be aware that the Senate select committee report called for additional protections for religious freedom.
We must acknowledge that there may be non-religious objections to same-sex marriage. People may not have a faith based reason for not wanting to participate in same-sex weddings. A person's right of conscience on this issue should be respected even if it is not on religious grounds. If someone wishes to continue to publicly or privately object to a change in secular marriage they should not be persecuted. Civil marriage celebrants who do not want to solemnise same-sex marriages for religious reasons must make this objection public. No government should be forcing a person to declare their religious affiliations in a public way. It is a burdensome imposition not only on the freedom of religion but also on the right to privacy.
Religious bodies must be afforded protection and the protections must extend further than merely bodies established for religious purposes. In the recent case of Christian Youth Camps v Cobaw, the definition was read so narrowly by the court that a Christian youth camp with the word 'Christian' in its name was deemed not to have been established for religious purposes. A court may narrow the protections available to decide that a body is established not for religious purposes but for educational, charitable or other purposes. This is a significant flaw which will have religious bodies across the country extremely concerned for their long-term viability.
As it stands, parental rights and the rights of faith based schools have not been provided great attention in this debate. Many parents send their children to religious or faith based schools because of the reputation of the school or because of the moral world view which the school has a proud reputation for teaching. Religious or faith based schools are provided no such protection if they continue to teach a traditional or faith based view of marriage. We must look at protections for a school, principal or teacher from being brought before an antidiscrimination tribunal for teaching a faith based or traditional view of marriage.
Charities which have a religious or traditional view of marriage must be protected. Charities cannot undertake a disqualifying purpose which, according to the Charities Act 2013 (Cth) includes 'the purpose of engaging in, or promoting, activities that are unlawful or contrary to public policy'. Many of you will be aware that in New Zealand the Family First charity lost its charitable status for this reason. In Australia this could threaten charities such as Salvation Army, Anglicare and St Vincent de Paul, to name a few, that do so much within our communities across the country to make life better for marginalised Australians and those who are less fortunate. We must ensure that we do not make life harder for organisations which help so many people in the community that require assistance in times of hardship, family breakdown and cost-of-living crises.
The Senate select committee noted that the right of freedom of religion 'has two broad facets: the right to have or to adopt a religion or belief; and the freedom to manifest one's religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.' You cannot legislate to change the definition of secular marriage without protecting religious freedom in this country. If you do not, people will be persecuted. Religious organisations already receive threats and are persecuted on a regular basis by groups who do not share the same views. With the rise of social media it is so easy for people to abuse and intimidate people using these platforms. This should never be tolerated and it should never be accepted in civilised society. Such intolerance and aggression demonstrates a malicious attack on our entire community because it attacks the very fabric of a peaceful way of life. Many now argue religion no longer has a place in our society. I sincerely disagree with this view. I am of the view that religion still plays an important role within our community. Religion is one of the elements in our community that actually brings people together.
During my time in this place I've been consistently lobbied by members of my community to uphold the traditional view of marriage and to protect religious freedom and freedom of speech. Since the completion of the marriage survey, my office has been inundated with phone calls, emails and messages urging for religious freedom and freedom of speech to be protected in this country. I've also been stopped in the street by people urging me not to shift my position regarding this issue. I stand firm in representing these voices, the voices of nearly 40 per cent of Tasmanians and Australians who voted no. These members of our community deserve representation.
Freedom of religion is guaranteed under section 116 of the Australian Constitution. For hundreds of years, religion has been practiced in relative harmony. However, it can be argued that the Constitution has failed to protect religious freedom. Commonwealth laws only protect freedom of political and religious belief in the area of employment, which is why freedom of religion must be entrenched in individual acts of parliament. For so many Australians, religion provides them with a sense of who they are and how they act on a daily basis. For others, it does not. However, respect is a two-way street and fundamental to civilised society.
Although Australia may not be as religious as it once was, for many Australians we still are. Regardless of whether you are religious or not, the majority of us do respect an individual's right to practice their faith as long as it does not impinge on another person's legal rights. In reality, Australia has a diverse range of religious and spiritual beliefs. Statistics reveal that still around 60 per cent of Australians classify themselves as Christian, with 25 per cent identifying themselves as Catholic and 17 per cent identifying as Anglican.
Tolerance, compassion and understanding are all fundamental to a well-functioning and civilised society. Tolerance at this most important basic level amounts to respect—respect for others, respect for their right to share a different view from your own and respect their right to free speech and freedom of religion. We must ensure that we protect adequately religious freedom, freedom of speech, parental rights and the rights of charitable organisations.
It is now time, as I said earlier, to unite the country, to end division and to provide relevant protections so that Australians can continue in their lives in harmony and enjoy freedoms that make our country the best place in which to live and work. I look forward to the Ruddock review into the protection of religious freedom in Australia. But I want to place on record my sincere and heartfelt thanks for those members of my family and friends who are members of the LGBTIQ family. I want to thank them for respecting my right to have a view that is contrary to theirs; to know that they still love me and still consider me an important element of their family and their lives means so much to me today.
So, as others have said in this place, it is time that we move on and that we get this done. I concur with that, and I have no desire to hold up the passing of this legislation. I think it's important that we all remember we're entitled to have different views, we're entitled to be heard and we're entitled to practice our religion and to have freedom to do so in this country of ours.
I rise to speak on the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017, and I do so with great hope for our country.
I thank the parliament and the people of Australia for the enormous courage that has been taken at some of the most personal and intimate levels for individuals across our country and here in our parliament: to put forward their views on whether it's yes or no—importantly, in a respectful manner. It is the courage of our nation—it is the description of who we are as Australians—when we say yes: to moving forward, yes. When the people of Australia voted so much in favour of yes, our parliament now just has to get it done. Do it now! Do it now—that's what the people of Australia are saying and that is our job here as parliamentarians. I stood here during my first speech to the parliament to tell a very personal story. I called then on Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to legislate in the parliament to allow same-sex marriage, because we could do it. Why did I say that? I said it from a very personal perspective, and I've heard so many of my colleagues in the chamber speak exactly like that. I will share again with the Senate what I said on entry into the parliament about my family. It was about my cousin's sister: a young lesbian Aboriginal woman from the Gulf of Carpentaria who struggled with her sexual identity and who was made to feel that, as an Aboriginal woman, it was something she should not be talking about. The attitudes not just of those around her but also of our country reflected deeply in her life and in the way that she lived her life. But it all became too much and, at the young age of 23, she took her life. Our families have missed her terribly. Each time we talk about this issue, I know how it touches my family and of the frustration, recklessness and inability to be able to just say: 'Hey, it's okay. Who you love and how you live, it's okay.' Well, this week, this parliament is hopefully going to say: 'Yes, it's okay. It's okay'. I commend Senator Smith for his courage in navigating through, no doubt, an incredibly difficult time on his side.
We want this bill passed before Christmas. Labor went to the last election with a clear and unambiguous policy: that, if elected, we would introduce legislation to make marriage equality a reality across our nation within the first 100 days of government. The plebiscite devised by those opposite, a policy devised by opponents of marriage equality and designed purely to delay the cause of marriage equality, was really not about progressing it. Certainly leading up to the survey, I reflected and voiced concerns about the ability of all people in the Northern Territory to fairly participate in this postal survey. Historically in the territory we have a low voter turnout, and this is especially relevant for areas outside of Darwin. I raised in this Senate how many people live in the bush, on stations or in town camps, and that the very nature by which the postal survey was created and conducted did not support the people who live in these regions, many of whom do not have a postal address and, in some cases, don't even have a birth certificate. The immense amount of heartache caused by the 'no' campaign was prominent in the Northern Territory. The rumours, half-truths and lies spread rapidly, but, nevertheless, in the face of adversity, the people of Northern Territory stood strong and we got it done. In Alice Springs, the central Australian community got together to paint a mural to support the 'yes' vote. Despite being vandalised, the Little Mural That Could was repainted by the 'yes' volunteer community in a rainbow reincarnation. All the hard work of the 'yes' volunteers paid off with the Lingiari electorate's 'yes' result of 54 per cent. Similarly, when anti-marriage equality graffiti appeared in Darwin, community members were quick to turn the offensive message into a statement for equality.
The time for talking is over. The public are sick of the bickering and political point-scoring about same-sex marriage. The Northern Territory in Australia need to move forward.
This was what was being talked about in the Northern Territory.
But there are other things that occurred throughout the same-sex marriage campaign, and I want to put on the record a very big thank you to other courageous people in the Jesuit community, in the schools of Saint Ignatius' College and in Xavier Catholic College and to the principals and rectors of both. In Saint Ignatius's newsletter, Viewpoint, Principal Dr Paul Hine rejected a warning from Melbourne Archbishop Denis Hart, which was revealed by Fairfax media, that staff at Catholic schools and parishes who entered same-sex marriage could be sacked. Dr Hine said it was a difficult time for same-sex-attracted people, who faced an onslaught from not only the media but also religious institutions:
I do not know if Riverview has any LBGTQI teachers or parents in the college and if they have intentions of marriage: I won't be asking with a view to removing them from the school.
Those of same-sex orientation who are part of our community are welcomed and valued as part of the greater mission of the church, and that is to bring God's love to the world and those in need of it.
The rector, Father Ross Jones, also wrote specifically about the need for compassion, love and understanding. And it was an outstanding moment in the campaign for same-sex marriage. Outstanding why? Because those in religious institutions who believed and wanted to say yes were heartened and encouraged by the leadership of these leaders in the Jesuit schools. And I say thank you. As a former employee of Saint Ignatius' College I say thank you.
Before concluding my speech, I'd also like to share a story from a constituent about the needless anxiety and trauma caused by the postal survey:
On the 15th of November after a long wait and sleepless night I sat in my car to find out how Australia had voted - was my relationship worthy of voting yes?
I was in my car because I couldn't bear to be around others, what if it was a No vote what would I do? and what could I say?
And I knew I could not console others and that the pain would run too deeply. Normally, I can find something in myself to support others but this one was personal it was my life and that was something very different.
When I heard that Australia had voted yes I expected a huge sense of elation and that did happen, but mostly I felt relief.
Relief the plebiscite was over, relief that maybe it would not take up all the dinner conversations with my friends and family, relief that I could drop the guard and just be a little bit angry with the No Campaign and the Coalition for marriage and every other person that had minimised the relationships of the LGBTI community.
No one but the LGBTI community will know what it was like to have family members would probably vote NO and be terrified to discuss this out of fear of what that might mean to our relationship.
Afterwards my blood boiled when I heard politicians pat themselves on the back and say the plebiscite was a good thing and positive thing and isn't it great that Australia said yes.
That was insulting and no it was not a good thing it was never a good thing and as someone said the Government "outsourced" the decision to Australian citizens and thankfully they said yes, but there was a cost and that cost was a collective anxiety that never should have occurred. So I sat in my car and reflected and then my children rang, they were crying, laughing and of course asking when my partner and I were getting married. I was truly shocked at what the Yes vote meant to them.
My partner and I have been together for 12 years and in that time we have gone through good times and bad, we have raised children and built a life together as a family and my children wanted our relationship to be solidified.
They wanted it to happen, not because of economics, or legalities or because now we could but they wanted to be part of celebrating our relationship and because as my daughter said she didn't have to explain anymore.
So now we wait again, our anxiety is not over it goes on. We just want to get this whole thing over with, we want our politicians to listen to the people and stop debating the validity of our relationships which is being mixed up in a "dog whistle" debate about where we can buy cake for our weddings which is insulting and discriminatory.
The right to get married is so much deeper than where we buy our wedding cakes or which venue we go to. It is actually much simpler. This debate is about love, commitment and the right to our relationships. They are to be respected and valued like everyone else's.
Even in the face of an extremely unnecessary, expensive and divisive survey.
Love is love.
Love always wins.
That's the message from my constituents in the Northern Territory, that's the message to the Senate and that's the message to the Australian parliament: love is love. Let's just get this act together, hey? Thank you.
I'm delighted to have this chance to speak on the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017. I begin by congratulating all of those who campaigned well and in the spirit of fair public discourse. I congratulate the 'yes' campaign and send congratulations and good wishes to people I know who want to be able to marry. I'm thinking of friends of mine, one couple who have been engaged for years, who now are able to celebrate the serious step of committing to each other, putting the other before anyone else, including themselves, and becoming, to some intents and purposes, indivisible. I'm thinking of Shelley Argent, the national spokesperson of Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, who gave evidence at the Senate select committee hearing in Sydney earlier this year. She said:
As parents, we stand with our sons and daughters to support them on the issue of marriage equality and what we see as fair.
But I reiterate that Labor opposed the principle of the survey. We took the view that if the Marriage Act were to be amended it was the job of the elected parliament to legislate on the matter. But, as we all know, the deep divisions within the Liberal Party and the weakness of the Prime Minister in his own cabinet and his own party made it impossible for the government to allow the parliament to debate and vote on this question, even on a private member's bill. There was too great a risk that the deep split in the Liberal Party and the Prime Minister's lack of support in his own cabinet and his own party would be exposed. This survey proves that, indeed, the Prime Minister cannot lead.
There has been an explosion of cynicism and questioning not just of elected representatives but even of representative democracy. At its heart is inauthenticity from some of our leaders. The Prime Minister always said he was in favour of marriage equality, but his way of delivering it involved a completely unnecessary plebiscite that cost, as Senator Cormann's press release at the time stated, around $120 million—and I must pause at this moment to thank Senator Cormann for ensuring that all Labor parliamentarians are now getting full and constant access to his media portal.
This is the same Prime Minister who wants cuts to Medicare, education and so much else because, he says, the government can't afford it. It's the same Prime Minister who will forgive every single member of this parliament every last dollar of their salary and entitlements, yet will chase to the ends of the earth those overpaid by Centrelink, even when the recipients have acted entirely appropriately and tried to do the right thing. The public are not stupid. There is an inauthenticity at the heart of this prime ministership. 'An empty leather jacket', I saw some wit on Twitter say today, recalling the leather-jacket-wearing, rich, urbane, inner-urban sophisticate whose pontifications on Q&A on the ABC once so enthralled Australia's chattering class. Where was that Prime Minister today, when two Liberal women senators were left to protest the lack of Liberal women MPs? That Prime Minister wouldn't have pretended that a vote for Labor in Bennelong was somehow, in a way he has not yet explained, a vote for people smugglers. That Liberal would not have said:
Now believe me, right now, the people smugglers are using Kristina Keneally's articles, her statements on this as a marketing tool to get people onto their boats to take them to sea…When the boats start again, if Labor were ever to get back into government, how many of those asylum seekers is she going to bring to Bennelong?
My friend the member for Gellibrand pointed out today that Robert Menzies, in campaigning for the conservatives in a 1940 Corio by-election, declared, equally implausibly, 'Hitler's eyes are on Corio.' History tells us that Labor went on to win that by-election in Corio.
We want and need leaders who are true to themselves, comfortable in their own skin, honest about what they believe and strong enough to have the courage to implement it. We did not get that in the debate on marriage equality. We had Malcolm Turnbull send out a few brave Liberals to fly the flag for the cause he says he believes in. Like a cowardly armchair general, he sent out the member for Goldstein, Senator Smith and others to fight the fight he ought to have fought.
Tim Watts, the member for Gellibrand, made me think back to that troubled time of war and back further to Winston Churchill's description of a weak Prime Minister, Ramsay MacDonald. It was said that MacDonald was a Prime Minister in name only. It was said a more formidable force, Baldwin, was allowed to call the shots and make the big decisions in his government. Sound familiar? Well, so might these words. Churchill described him thus:
I spoke the other day, after he had been defeated in an important Division, about his wonderful skill in falling without hurting himself. He falls, but up he comes again, smiling, a little dishevelled, but still smiling …
Then, staring at Ramsay MacDonald across the chamber, Churchill said:
I remember, when I was a child, being taken to the celebrated Barnum's circus, which contained an exhibition of freaks and monstrosities, but the exhibit on the programme which I most desired to see was the one described as "The Boneless Wonder".
Winston Churchill went on:
My parents judged that that spectacle would be too revolting and demoralising for my youthful eyes, and I have waited 50 years to see the boneless wonder sitting on the Treasury Bench.
And so it is, all these decades on, that we too have a 'boneless wonder' pretending to run our government—a hopeless hack whose achievements in business have made him rich but whose ineptitude in government is making more and more Australians, other than his friends, poorer and poorer. This 'boneless wonder' has been so cowardly in leadership that he has been willing to sacrifice the careers of up-and-coming backbenchers to fight a fight he was not courageous enough to fight himself. There are many reasons for the rising tide of cynicism in public life, but central to it are the boneless wonders in this place who won't stand up when it matters. When I came here, I vowed to myself I wouldn't be one of those. I wouldn't die wondering what might have been or what I could have done; I'd go for it. I suspect most, if not all, of us arrive here with that fervent hope. With some, and clearly it is the case with our Prime Minister, cynicism and pragmatism get the better of them. Sic transit gloria Malcolm.
The solution the government came up with was a non-binding kind of plebiscite in which the votes of the Australian people would be used to override the Prime Minister's opponents within his own cabinet and his own party. Labor and other members of the Senate strongly opposed this expensive, unnecessary and wasteful exercise and it was defeated in the Senate. The government then turned to the expedient of a postal survey, which could be conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics and would not require legislation. Labor opposed this exercise also, but we could not defeat it, neither in the parliament nor in the High Court. Once it was clear that the survey was to go ahead, Labor decided it was necessary to secure the biggest vote possible in support of the proposal to amend the Marriage Act. Led by Bill Shorten and our leader in the Senate, Senator Penny Wong, we threw ourselves wholeheartedly into the campaign for a 'yes' vote. Why? Because we on this side of the chamber are not people who take our bat and ball and go home. We fight for what is principled.
I acknowledge, of course, that other members of the Senate—some Liberal senators, the Greens political party, the Nick Xenophon Team and Senator Hinch—also campaigned strongly. I acknowledge also that voters for the Liberal Party, the Greens political party and other parties were part of the successful 'yes' majority. But I think all senators will agree it was the support of the great majority of Labor voters for the 'yes' campaign that made possible the great victory we saw. Of course, there are now many more progressive voters enrolled than ever before, because those voters, predominantly young people, wanted to ensure that they had a say. This was the upside of a cynical political exercise by the Prime Minister: people feeling there was an issue they wanted to ensure they could have a say on.
Having said that, I want to comment on some specific aspects of the vote. Six coalition seats voted no, three in rural Queensland and three in suburban Sydney. These results are not especially surprising given that the National Party advocated a 'no' vote and that a substantial section of the New South Wales Liberal Party also campaigned for a 'no' vote. In fact, I was surprised that support for the 'yes' case was as strong in country seats as it was. Outside Queensland, every rural and regional seat voted yes, and that is perhaps something the National Party should take note of.
The fact that 11 Labor seats voted no, some of them by wide margins, should also be taken note of. Of these, nine are in the suburbs of Sydney and two are in the suburbs of Melbourne. What these 11 seats have in common is their multicultural character. What we saw in this survey was not the usual class-based divide we see at most Australian elections; we saw a cultural, religious and ethnic divide over a specific issue. If the 'yes' vote in most country seats has a lesson for the Nationals, we need to accept, and I do accept, that the 'no' vote in these 11 seats has a lesson for Labor. People in these seats vote overwhelmingly Labor at federal and state elections. They are in some ways the bedrock of our support. Yet in this survey they did not accept the position that Labor asked them to support.
I respect the fact that many of these voters hold sincere religious and cultural beliefs that led them to vote the way they did. I think the lesson here is that we as a party need to work harder to listen to the views of our voters in these seats and to communicate the values and policies of our party more effectively to them. This vote is a reminder that Labor represents a wide spectrum of voters who hold widely varying views, and sometimes conflicting views, on many issues. It's the role of a political party to represent the views and interests of its voters but also to lead its voters—to persuade them that the party's policies and values are to be taken into account. Ultimately, of course, we must hold to the values and policies of our party, but we also need to work harder to persuade our voters to support those values and policies.
Some politicians are voting against the results in their seat, on both sides, and I think that those parliamentarians should be given that freedom, both for consistency of approach and because it is respectful. This debate, like any debate, is not made better by attacking people for acting on their conscience, on their beliefs or on their faith. I think, disappointingly, we saw some sectarianism in the education bill, the Gonski 2.0 bill. It is not fitting for anyone to use arguments that belittle someone's beliefs; it is simply wrong. Indeed, some of this debate on same-sex marriage has reminded me very much of Arthur Miller's play The Crucible. A lack of tolerance in any way, the non-extension of a hand held out to help and a lack of willingness to understand another person will never help any community.
Now that the survey results are known, the responsibility to decide the issue of marriage equality has come back to this parliament, where perhaps it should have been all along. The government decided to submit this question to the Australian people, and now they have their answer. The Australian people have shown that they support changing the definition of marriage in the Marriage Act so that any two adults who wish to, regardless of gender, can enter into a civil marriage on the same basis as any other two people. Now it is our responsibility to take that mandate from the people and turn it into legislation.
The best way to do that is to pass the bill which Senator Smith has introduced, without unnecessary delay. We have only two sitting weeks left this year, and we can and should bring this matter to a conclusion before we leave. Some members may complain that this does not leave sufficient time for debate. My answer to that is the parliament could have debated this question at any time this year and could have debated a bill such as this at its leisure. That this did not happen is because of the delaying and obstructionist tactics of that faction of the government parties which is opposed to the principle of marriage equality and because of the weakness of the Prime Minister in not overruling them and allowing a bill to be brought to the parliament much earlier.
I thank Senator Smith for his courage in grasping this issue and for his patience and diplomacy in crafting a bill which accommodates the views of a wide spectrum of members and senators. It is after all no easy thing to draft a bill which both Senator Rhiannon and Senator Leyonhjelm will support. But Senator Smith has done that and he deserves our thanks.
I was speaking about this bill and the survey on Melbourne radio station JOY FM about a month ago. I mentioned an article by Matthew Knott from Fairfax about Senator Smith, who some time ago did not support same-sex marriage but has since become, in Matthew Knott's words, 'a passionate supporter'. I think this speaks to the complexity of this debate, that one could start with one position and move through to the opposite. But, having been on the Select Committee on the Exposure Draft of the Marriage Amendment (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill, I know that Senator Smith is a very thoughtful person. He understands human nature, both at its best and at its worst, and retains compassion and patience and has respect for human beings. The Senate select committee had a membership that really did encompass the full spectrum of views on this issue, and yet everyone on that committee, even if they vehemently disagreed with something another committee member was saying in our private meetings, was respectful of the other person's view. The committee was chaired with utter professionalism and even-handedness by Senator Fawcett. The point is that Senator Smith's bill is a compromise bill, a bill which none of us is perhaps entirely happy with but which represents what most of us are prepared to accept.
It is difficult to discuss the amendments without seeing their wording. I support, and Labor supports, religious freedom. What that means is the right of all Australians to practise their religion and to express their religious beliefs in a way that is consistent with the law. The Smith bill provides that no religious marriage celebrant can be required to perform a marriage ceremony which is contrary to their religious principles. No priest, minister, rabbi or imam will be required to perform a same-sex marriage if they do not wish to do so. The bill contains certain other protections for religious organisations and the expression of religious opinions.
But religious freedom does not mean the right to act in a discriminatory way in matters which have no connection to religion. One potential that has been discussed is an amendment regarding the provision of commercial goods and services. I do not believe that Australian society is served by allowing providers of commercial goods and services to not serve or to not provide goods and services to gay and lesbian Australians. A comparison would be to allow a provider of commercial goods and services to not serve or to not provide goods or services to an interracial couple who come in to seek goods or services for their upcoming nuptials, because the provider does not believe in interracial marriage. Equally, a provider cannot refuse to provide goods and services to women, Jews, Catholics, Indigenous people, Muslims, Chinese people, people with a disability, gay men or lesbians or transgender people. They cannot do so even if they genuinely hold a religious belief which holds one or other of these categories to be in some way inferior or objectionable, and thank God for that.
The Australian people have told us, and by a wide margin, that they want all Australians to be treated equally, regardless of gender identity or sexuality. I want to quote Noel Pearson, because I think that he is a very thoughtful individual. He said after the survey:
I think the same-sex marriage debate has shown us very clearly that the silent majority of Australia is actually … generous, very fair-minded and actually want to bequeath our children something better than we have …
The government sought the views of the Australian people and that is what the Australian people have told us. Our fellow citizens have been kept waiting for far too long for us to take action on this matter. They should not be kept waiting any longer.
I want to go back to Shelley Argent, who spoke quite emotionally when she gave evidence at the Senate select committee hearing. She said at that hearing:
When I first began lobbying MPs, I would say most of you were not even in politics. I was being told that our sons and daughters would want to marry the dog, the TV or the dead.
… … …
As parents, we want our sons and daughters to have the right to marry in a respectful manner, just the same as their peers and siblings.
… … …
As parents, all we ask is that our sons and daughters have the right to the same opportunities and to be seen as equal by the government, regardless of gender or orientation. They work; they pay taxes, and they contribute equally to society. We, their parents, want them, when they can finally marry the person they love, to have the same opportunities and privileges that marriage provides.
So let us legislate and let the bills ring. Thank you.
Like many before me, I rise to make a contribution to the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017, Senator Smith's bill.
I've been watching the debate as it has proceeded today and towards the end of the last sitting, and I just want to address this question around the government having reached out to the Australian people to engage in this process to allow the parliament to have a clear indication of where they ought to go with this. It's well known that the government—the coalition—took this opportunity as an election promise. We took it to an election and we were elected into government. I find it increasingly difficult to hear advocates indicate that for some reason or another any side of parliament that takes a promise to the people, and is endorsed with being given the government benches, should then abandon that promise. That's the first thing. We'd have been criticised for that equally, had we not proceeded.
I was one of the people who pursued a plebiscite—not a postal plebiscite, I must admit. I was successful in getting a unanimous motion before some 700 or 800 delegates of the Liberal National Party conference in Queensland. Notwithstanding the fact that there were speakers strongly against the proposition, including the Attorney-General, the conference overwhelmingly supported the question of a plebiscite. I'd been watching this closely with colleagues and, mind you, I have been long on the record, as a private person, that I would vote no if the opportunity presented itself in a plebiscite, but my argument was I had engaged with so many colleagues, both here in the Senate and in the other place, who I think had abandoned their fundamental role in representative democracy. There were colleagues who indicated to me that, had they followed what they believed was the appropriate position on behalf of their electorates, they would have voted differently to what they were intending to vote.
In a representative democracy each of us goes to our communities and we present ourselves, we present our policies and we present our promises. We have an obligation as we vote in this place to take their wishes into account when we make decisions. There are occasions, of course, when information not available to us at that time comes along which might cause us to change our position. At that point, we have to try and anticipate what our electorate, if you like, might want us to do in those circumstances. I personally believe that we then have something of an obligation to pursue what we consider are their interests.
Remember that there have been 24 attempts to change the Marriage Act from when the legislation was introduced under the Howard government, including four bills that made their way into full debate and failed: 24 occasions. Suddenly, we wake up with some collective wisdom that after those 24 attempts somehow society had moved on—measured in months—and that now we should ignore the history of evolution on this question, we should all suddenly simply vote yes and immediately come into these places and produce legislation to support that position.
If you want to look at things in my home state, people living in about 80 per cent of the land mass voted no—very decidedly no. In those circumstances you might think that someone like me, particularly as a senator, ought to take that into consideration and support a 'no' vote against—
Senator McKim interjecting—
Senator O'Sullivan, resume your seat, please. I will inform the Senate that it has been a respectful debate. I ask those on my left, especially on the cross bench down there, to please let people speak and show them some respect even if they have a different point of view. Could you please abide by that? Senator O'Sullivan, you have the call.
I said in this place the other day that, given this question has been before society now for decades, this place and the other place should not rush with undue haste simply because there are two weeks left. I, too, want to see this matter resolved by the end of the year. I have made the statement, and since reaffirmed it, that if the Australian people indicated that they wanted a change to the Marriage Act I would support that, subject to the details around these basic protections that so many of us want.
So many Australians—five million of them, of course—didn't support the 'yes' case on this occasion. I have spoken to a lot of people in my circle and in my capacity as a senator. I think it's fair to say that some people who voted no were not so concerned about the fact that gay people would be allowed to marry at the other end of the process; they were concerned about an absence of any detail around the protections that may be afforded them. So many said, 'I really don't care what two people want to do; it's their private business.' They indicated that—this is a position I support entirely—government has no place in the sexuality or the sexual lives of consenting adults. I've held that view for a very long period of time.
This is no longer a question about a debate allowing two people to marry. Even those of us who are proceeding cautiously and have a view around these protection issues and some amendments have effectively conceded that the Australian people have spoken and that the effort of both this chamber and the House of Representatives ought to be to give effect now to what the Australian people have said. But this isn't about that. I have listened carefully to all of the speeches, and so much of it has been about the support of the question on the Marriage Act, but it's no longer about that; it's about a series of very sensible, I think, amendments that are being proposed and will be presented during the course of our debate on this bill.
The first, I think, is a very simple amendment and I don't understand why it would be resisted. We have a situation where we want to change the Marriage Act and there is no reason why it could not identify marriage between a man and a woman, as has been traditional and held dear for so many people, as well as exercising the power for two people of the same sex to marry. In fact, the Supreme Court decision that gave effect to gay marriage in the United States talked about marriage in part of the ruling. It said:
Marriage, in their view, is by its nature a gender-differentiated union of man and woman. This view long has been held—and continues to be held—in good faith by reasonable and sincere people here and throughout the world.
That's the consideration of the Supreme Court's majority decision in 2015. So one of the first amendments on which many in this place will be seeking to have the support of the chamber will be to recognise and make changes to the Marriage Act to allow for same-gender marriage but at the same time include equally a preservation of the definition that marriage is between a man and a woman.
I find it difficult to understand why anyone in this place would resist freedoms to express traditional beliefs without fear of vilification laws provided that the expression does not threaten or harass a person or group of persons. That's a fairly simple proposition. We can't say that we have religious freedoms in this country that allow us to express all of our religious beliefs, except one, now changed by the potential changes to the Marriage Act. You can't do that. If we are to give freedom of expression of traditional beliefs, it must be unconditional—and nobody wanting these amendments supports any expression that threatens or harasses a person or group of persons.
One of the amendments is freedom from being required to express, associate with or endorse a statement or opinion about marriage that is inconsistent with a person's or organisation's genuine religious or conscientious convictions about marriage. Now, I'm not about to start citing all the examples that have been provided, many of them in the contributions prior to mine by other senators. But where could resistance come? Where could resistance come, in a fair and reasonable argument, that we deny people the freedom from being able to express, associate with or endorse a statement or an opinion about marriage that is inconsistent with a person's or organisation's genuine religious or conscientious convictions about marriage? Just as the government has no place in the bedroom, it has no place in starting to create a regulatory environment—or an absence of protections, in this case—that prevents people from having that freedom.
One of the other propositions is an anti-detriment provision protecting individuals and organisations with a traditional marriage belief from unfavourable treatment by public authorities. Many examples have been cited in this place. And remember that at the last census, in 2016, about 70 per cent of Australians identified as religious—mostly Christian, Islamic, Hindu or Buddhist. It's clear that many of those people voted yes for marriage equality. But they did not do so on the basis that it might open up an environment where their freedoms to express their religious beliefs would be impaired. As I understand it, the North Melbourne council in Victoria is giving particular benefits to people of the LGBTIQ community and not to those who are engaged in traditional marriage. There were instances where another council had indicated that applicants for public funding within their community would need to demonstrate that they previously had a body of work around supporting the LGBTIQ community before they'd be considered for funding.
The Australian Medical Association, much divided over this issue, used their resources to lobby members of parliament to support a 'yes' case. I wrote back to the AMA and I inquired. I said, 'I've been a senator for four years, and I haven't heard from you on other important issues such as domestic violence and inadequate health services in rural Australia.' I listed about six or seven issues where, if they had positive policies to solve those issues, none of them had been shared with me. I had not been lobbied before. Again, we've seen this with corporate Australia using its power in many instances to influence, in a way, against the 'no' vote in this country. Corporations have been using their funding in many instances against what may well have been the majority will of their shareholders and their customer base.
Another protection sought, of course, is for religious bodies in schools to act in accordance with traditional marriage belief. How can that be resisted? In no instance do I advocate, nor does anyone advocating these amendments advocate, that any of those protections should open up the possibility for any person, group or organisation to behave in a manner that would threaten or harass a person or persons.
Then we come down to the issue of protection of rights of parents, until their children reach the age of majority, with respect to teachings within the schools. This has to be one of the most fundamental rights of parents who are charged with the guardianship of their children: to make a determination of what their children would be exposed to in education, not just around some of these issues of social contest but in a very general sense. We're seeing manoeuvres now where there is resistance to the prospect that we would give parents the right to, for example, withdraw their children from classes where material to be taught conflicts with their moral or religious beliefs. How can that be resisted? I don't understand how than can be resisted.
We recently, of course, over the last couple of years, had a battle over the Safe Schools Program. I'm not one of these senators who say, 'I've talked to hundreds and hundreds of people and had thousands of emails,' but, to the extent that I've had conversations with dozens upon dozens of parents about the Safe Schools Program, they indicated to me, quite properly, that as a school community they ought to have the right to veto the introduction of education modules, if you want to even call them that, into their schools, and then, notwithstanding that, that they would have the right to make decisions about their children not being exposed to educational material that did not fit with their value system, their moral system or their religious conscientious beliefs.
Civil celebrants are the subject of another amendment. They are not ministers of religion, but many people who are attracted to the professional role of a civil celebrant themselves, by nature, come from a Christian background. But they afford a service to people to get married on the basis that it is not a religious service. It doesn't mean that they don't conscientiously object to the marriage of two same-gender people. They ought to be afforded a protection to be able to do that.
I suspect that in the fullness of time, as generations pass, this will be a bit like when we crossed over into decimal currency. There was that lovely letter to the editor where some old lady said, 'Why couldn't they have held off on making this transition until all of us old people have died?' I think, in the fullness of time, the need for protections will lessen. But right now we've had five million Australians—and I'm not going to start playing with the figures and add back, subtract and multiply; five million is enough—who have indicated 'no' on the question of same-gender marriage. It could well be argued that most of them, if not all of them, would have a stronger view about the need for some of these protections to allow them and our society to transition with the adoption of this inevitable legislation, of this inevitable change to the Marriage Act, in a manner that doesn't cause disruption.
I said here on the day the bill was introduced that it is our duty now to go cautiously and steadily—and I don't mean measured in weeks; it could only necessarily be in days as we properly consider some adjustments to this bill—so that the end product unites Australians and doesn't have the potential to divide them.
I rise to contribute to the debate on the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017.
It now looks inevitable that a change to the definition of what marriage means under Commonwealth law will happen in the next few weeks. This change follows the results of what is referred to as the 'marriage survey', under which all Australians on the electoral roll were provided the opportunity to have their say on the change. The result of that survey was emphatically clear: the majority of Australians in all states voted for a change in the definition of marriage.
One might speculate on the reasons why Australians who voted yes did so, and I suspect there was a range of reasons. Speaking to many of my constituents in my home state of Tasmania suggests that at least one of the reasons was because people were sick of the debate and they just wanted to move on, which I guess is as valid a reason as any. Of course, many voted yes because they fervently believed that not allowing people of the same sex to marry represented discrimination that needed to be removed. But I suspect others did so out of some desire to undermine what they see as regressive aspects of how we live, or have lived—those based around the family unit and a strong morals based approach to society and how we live. These are aspects which I consider have helped to support a strong, vibrant and healthy community.
I also note that many Australians voted against changing the definition in their survey response—almost 40 per cent of those who participated, in fact. Additionally, in the survey millions of others chose not to participate, presumably indicating that they held no strong view on the issue. The perspective of each of the Australians who voted no, and even those with no strong view, are in my mind just as important as those who voted yes. But in a democracy, rightly, the majority view should prevail, a fact I acknowledge and accept.
At this point I would like to strongly endorse the benefit of having conducted the marriage survey. The issue of whether the definition of marriage should be changed by legislation to specifically include couples of the same sex is one that divides the community. For many years there have clearly existed strong views in favour of changing the definition and corresponding strong views against. In recent times, those in favour have generally argued for a parliamentary vote to resolve the issue, ignoring the fact that there have been numerous such votes, all of which have failed—although I do note that until fairly recently the Labor Party supported the concept of a plebiscite to gauge the position of the broader Australian population on the issue.
However, the coalition took the view that before a change occurred which would deliver such a fundamental alteration to an institution so important to our society and its history, it was vital that Australians were given the opportunity to have their say first. In my view, the primary reason for doing so was, to use a favourite term of those on the left, to foster inclusiveness following such a change. Given the very strong views held by many Australians that the traditional view of marriage, held by almost all societies on the planet for millennia—that marriage is an institution whereby a man marries a woman—should continue to prevail.
There was always a high likelihood that ramming a change to the definition through parliament without a public vote of some sort would only lead to more division, more resentment and maybe even more ill feeling directed at people in same-sex relationships. I concluded that in the event that a majority of Australians were of that view, then the best way of achieving the maximum level of acceptance of such a change would be if it were first put to the Australian people. If that were done and the outcome turned out to be support for the change, at least those who opposed the change would feel that they had been given an opportunity to have their say, to have their voice heard and to have some ownership over the result. To again use a term favoured by the Left: in my view, a public vote on the change was necessary to obtain a social licence for the change. That is, the fact that the marriage survey was held and its result will maximise the prospect that the change will be accepted by as many Australians as possible.
Incidentally, I note here the irony that many of those pushing the need to change the definition, who argue that parliament should get on with it and do its job, are the very same people who argue against parliament doing just that on issues they oppose—for example, new coalmines, high-rise developments, pulp mills, dams and so on. None represent such fundamental change so important at a personal level to so many Australians across our nation on both sides of this issue.
Although my clear preference would have been for a compulsory plebiscite, as it would have ensured the maximum benefit in terms of satisfying as many Australians as possible that the result was one they could accept, the marriage survey itself enjoyed very high returns and on the whole has achieved as strong a benefit in this regard as was open to the government.
One thing I had to personally decide when agreeing to support a process to formally obtain the views of Australians was how I would respond to their views. I made it clear early on that I would respect the views of the outcome of that process even if the majority view did not accord with my own. As the majority of participants in both Tasmania and Australia clearly expressed a view in favour of change, I have already publicly announced that I will support this bill and a change to the definition of marriage. I reaffirm that position tonight. However, I remain concerned to ensure that this change and others do not lead to laws which undermine other rights of Australians, some of which I consider to be the rights that underpin the defence of all rights we enjoy as Australians. As such, I will be looking to support amendments to this bill which seek to provide protections to the almost 40 per cent of Australians who expressed a view that marriage should stay as it has been for thousands of years and who may continue to hold that view and maybe from time to time express that view.
It is vital that in any democracy citizens are free to form and hold views, on whatever basis, counter to those held by the government of the day or as reflected in the laws in force from time to time. It is equally as important that they are able to express those views and participate in debate, public and otherwise, about the need for change to laws that are in place or are being proposed. Indeed, people's existing freedom to form, hold and debate views around the need to change the definition of marriage is what has led to this bill now being before this place. The right for them to have done so must be protected, as must the right for others to argue for change on this or on any other issue. The absolute need for citizens to have the right of freedom of conscience and freedom of speech on any issue, whether one currently in vogue or not, is what provides ultimate protection for citizens from tyranny, from creeping autocracy and ultimately from abuse of power by governments and the powerful.
As noted, from freedom of speech flow all the other freedoms. The ability to speak one's mind, to challenge the political orthodoxies of the times, to criticise the policies of the government without fear of recrimination by the state is the difference between life in a free country and life in a dictatorship. One of the most notable proponents of the link between freedom of speech and democracy is Alexander Meiklejohn. He argues that, since democracy is self-government by the people, an informed electorate is a necessary prerequisite. In order to be appropriately informed, there must be no constraints on the free flow of information and ideas. Meiklejohn says democracy will not be true to its essential ideal if those in power are able to manipulate the electorate by withholding information and stifling criticism. He acknowledges that the desire to manipulate opinion can stem from altruistic motives but argues that, even then, choosing manipulation negates, through its means, the democratic ideal. Worse—and in the true spirit of the anecdote—power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, the cumulative effect of altruistically motivated restrictions and manipulations of opinion can severely negate that ideal, leading to a lack of opposing voices and a consequential unintentional failure to understand the will of the people or even to a deliberate corruption of purpose, protected by rendering opposition illegal or silent. Similarly, US Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Cardozo wrote of free speech:
… that it is the matrix, the indispensable condition, of nearly every other form of freedom.
From time to time—you certainly notice this from time to time—the pursuit of a particular right can come into conflict with the delivery of other—for example, the right of privacy may be infringed by government seeking to deliver on obligations to ensure people are safe from crime and terrorism. In such cases, balance and proportionality need to be forefront in dealing with those conflicts. But because freedom of conscience and speech are so fundamental to the protection and delivery of all other rights, the point of balance where competing rights may infringe on them must be weighted heavily in their favour. For this reason, I will be supporting amendments that seek to achieve these aims. This will include any amendments that seek: to protect beliefs held for religious and other reasons; freedom of expression and beliefs more generally; freedom from having to express, associate with or endorse certain statements or opinions on marriage inconsistent with a person's view; an anti-detriment shield, protecting individuals and organisations who hold tradition marriage views from being subjected to unfavourable treatment by public authorities because they hold or otherwise lawfully express or act upon that conviction; protections for charities; nondiscrimination in government funding; protection of religious bodies and schools; and the right of parents to determine the beliefs and convictions that their children are taught, including the right to withdraw them from government curricula they do not endorse.
Previously, I have publicly indicated that I voted no in the marriage survey. This vote reflected my long-held view that it would be preferable were there to be no change to the definition of marriage. I hold that view, a view I still hold, for a range of reasons. At its heart is a conclusion that, no matter how you spin it, marriage in a relationship context is what it is and what it always has been: an institution in which a man and a woman commit to each other with the intention of that commitment being for life, and which institution maximises the prospect of delivering a safe and secure environment in which to raise children. There is no doubt that same-sex relationships, like any other relationship, can be enduring and have the potential for those in them to deliver and receive the life-long companionship, support, love and personal nurturing that any long-term or romantically based relationship can and should deliver. But to me, put simply, such a relationship does not contain all the necessary elements to label it a marriage.
In regard to equality of rights, almost 10 years ago a series of bills were passed that ensured that under Commonwealth laws same-sex couples would attract the same rights as opposite-sex couples. The changes were broad and comprehensive. All aspects of Commonwealth law were changed to deliver equality for all committed couples regardless of whether they were opposite or same-sex in nature. I do acknowledge that not all laws at a state level deliver the same level of equality—for example, the treatment of a non-married partner of a dying person in a de facto relationship. I suspect some state laws may still need to be considered even after the passage of this bill. I would encourage those laws to be considered and addressed as soon as possible. The bottom line is that the only so-called right that same-sex attracted couples do not currently have under Commonwealth law is to receive a piece of paper on Commonwealth letterhead. As such, there is nothing in the law now that stops them declaring their love for each other, holding a wedding, calling themselves married and living as a married couple. They just won't have a piece of paper saying so.
Proponents of changing the definition have argued, misleadingly, that what we are talking about today is changing the law back to what it was prior to the change to the Marriage Act in 2004 under Prime Minister Howard. This argument is misleading and even disingenuous, as there has never been a national law in Australia under which same-sex couples could marry. Under the legal system we inherited from the British, the understanding since time immemorial was that marriage was a matter between a man and a women. This was defined under the common law in Hyde v Hyde in 1866 when Lord Penzance opined:
I conceive that marriage, as understood in Christendom, may for this purpose be defined as the voluntary union for life of one man and one woman, to the exclusion of all others.
The change made under the Howard government was to codify what was the clearly understood position as it stood in common law and in recognition of the thousands of years of practice. It changed no aspect of the law; rather, it sought to clarify it.
Regardless, I acknowledge that it is highly likely that this bill will pass with or without amendments and will deliver change to the definition of marriage so as to incorporate same-sex couples. As noted, ultimately I will support that change out of respect for the views of the majority of Australians, but, before we get there and as foreshadowed, I intend to support amendments that provide protections for other rights and freedoms. In my first speech, 10 years ago, I mentioned the fact that fewer than 10 nations remained free and democratic for the entirety of the last century. This was no historical accident but rather a direct result of the application of the rule of law and adherence to democratic principles, and protection of the rights and freedoms that underpin the success of democracies. We need to ensure that we protect these building blocks that help to guarantee we continue to enjoy life in a free and democratic nation—the rights and freedoms that allow to us freely challenge, test, object to and debate ideas and laws that impact on Australians. For this reason we must not allow Australia to go down the path of eroding more of our freedoms, particularly freedom of speech and expression, the freedom so important to the protection of all other freedoms.
I'm very happy today to rise to support the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017, which will strengthen the institution of marriage by making it more relevant and more accessible to more of the people we represent in this place. It has been a long and winding road that has taken us to where we are today. The most recent twist in that road has been the postal survey, something that never should have happened and has caused significant harm to so many in Tasmania's LBGTIQ community. What should have happened is that we parliamentarians should have simply done our job by making the laws of this land and voting to deliver marriage equality to Australia without putting such a fundamental human rights question to a popular vote. After all, there was no popular vote before the coalition and Labor got together in 2004 to insert the hateful and discriminatory amendments into the Marriage Act that survive to this very day—that marriage in Australia can only be between a man and a woman.
But there is a silver lining to all the harm and the hurt that was caused by the survey—that is, there can be no argument now about the position of the Australian people on marriage equality. It turns out that the silent majority in this country believe in fairness and equality. Who would've thought it? Marriage equality is supported by an overwhelming majority of Australians. It's supported by a clear majority of people in every single state and territory in our country. I want to give a shout-out to my home state of Tasmania, which voted in support of marriage equality at a higher rate than the rest of the country taken as a whole. Who says Tasmanians aren't progressive? We've been catalytic in this debate, and I want to spend a bit of time putting some of that Tasmanian history on the record.
Tasmania had the first openly gay MP in Australia's history, when Bob Brown entered the parliament in Tasmania in 1983. At that time it was a crime in Tasmania for adult men to have consenting sex with each other, punishable by up to 21 years in prison. Bob moved quickly to reform the law by moving to decriminalise consenting sex between adult men. When he put that up, his was the only vote in support as Labor and Liberal MPs locked in behind discrimination. That has been a recurring theme in this country and will be a recurring theme in my speech tonight.
In 1988 the Gay Law Reform Group formed in Tasmania. Later that year, we had the infamous Salamanca arrests, where members and supporters of the Gay Law Reform Group were at their stall at Salamanca Market, asking people to sign a petition in support of decriminalisation. They were asked to desist, they refused, and the arrest of 130 people followed shortly afterwards. Those people included Rodney Croome. Many have given a lot to the campaign for marriage equality in Australia, but Rodney, in my view, is the person who has done more by some margin than any other Australian to campaign for marriage equality, not just in Tasmania but nationally, and get us to where we are today. It's worth pointing out, in the context of the Salamanca arrests, that, to its credit, the Hobart City Council, which runs the Salamanca Market, apologised in 2008 for its role in those arrests. And later, in 2013, the Hobart City Council had embedded across the pavement on each side of Salamanca Place, at the market boundary that people were arrested for crossing to campaign to remove discrimination, two phrases of apology. They are beautifully lit from below at night and they read, 'Forgive me for not holding you in my arms,' and, 'In the wake of your courage I swim.' Beautiful words and beautiful sentiments.
It was around the time of the Salamanca arrests that the then Liberal Premier of Tasmania, Robin Gray, said, 'Everyone's welcome in Tasmania—even Greenies are welcome in Tasmania—just not homosexuals.' What a time that was. It was also around then that I personally witnessed something that has stayed starkly with me to this very day. I saw a rally opposing the decriminalisation of sex between consenting adult men. I was at Salamanca Market, saw the rally from a distance and wandered over to have a look. I saw a sign at that rally that I remember verbatim to this very day. It said this: 'Kill all the poofters before they kills us all with AIDS.' What a time that was in Tasmania.
In 1989, shortly after a state election, the Labor-Green Accord was signed between the then Labor leader, Michael Field, and the Green independent MPs, led by Bob Brown. That accord included a commitment to gay law reform, a commitment to end the criminalisation of consenting sex between adult men. Legislation was tabled and passed through the lower house, but was twice rejected by Tasmania's upper house in 1990 and 1991. In 1991, Rodney Croome and his then partner, Nick Toonen, took Tasmania's discriminatory laws to the United Nations Human Rights Council, and in 1994 they memorably achieved victory in their case. That paved the way for Paul Keating to move the Human Rights (Sexual Conduct) Bill, which then passed through the Commonwealth parliament—again, events in Tasmania catalysing national reform to reduce discrimination faced by LGBTIQ people.
It was that act, the Human Rights (Sexual Conduct) Act, that allowed Rodney and Nick to take their famous High Court case against the Tasmanian government in 1995. When the High Court accepted that case for hearing, the then Liberal Premier, Tony Rundle, agreed to grant his MPs a conscience vote on the issue of decriminalisation. So the then Greens leader, Christine Milne, put up a bill, which passed through the lower house. On 1 May 1997 it passed by a single vote in Tasmania's upper house, and became law shortly afterwards. What a time! In 2003, Tasmania passed Australia's first civil partnerships legislation—and to this day that remains Australia's most comprehensive and inclusive relationships legislation. A year later, of course, John Howard, with the support of the Labor Party, took Australia in the opposite direction by amending the Marriage Act to explicitly ban same-sex marriage.
In 2005, I had a sushi lunch with Rodney Croome at which we decided to work together to draft and table bills to provide for same-sex marriage in Tasmania. We did so because both of us believed that if we could achieve marriage equality we would erase all other forms of discrimination faced by LGBTIQ people along the way. As Greens justice spokesperson, I became the first member of any parliament in Australia to introduce explicit marriage equality laws when I tabled the cognate package of same-sex marriage bills.
It was during our campaign in support of that legislation that Rodney Croome and I decided to head up to the north island and promote marriage equality. As part of that, we had an event at the Newtown Hotel in Sydney. It was in the big upstairs room and, let me tell you, they were hanging from the rafters that night. There were plenty of Greens at that event in support of marriage equality, but, to my surprise, there were also plenty of Labor people there—but not to support my bills. Rainbow Labor stacked that event, they stacked it good and proper, and boy did they let us have it! To say the place went off would be a gross understatement. It was hostile. There was plenty of shouting. The then co-convener of Australian Marriage Equality, Luke Gahan, was spat on. I was heckled as a homophobe by Rainbow Labor for daring to try to deliver marriage equality in Tasmania. What a time that was!
So I tabled my bills and couldn't get a single vote from a non-Greens MP to even have them referred off to a House of Assembly committee—not a single vote. Again, Labor and Liberal uniting to entrench discrimination in this country. What a time!
I tabled those bills again in July 2008 and in 2010. In 2012, having finally got the support of the Labor Party for marriage equality in Tasmania, I moved that the House of Assembly express in-principle support for marriage equality. That was passed, therefore leading the Tasmanian House of Assembly to become the first chamber of any parliament in Australia to express in-principle support for marriage equality. Later that year, I co-sponsored with Premier Lara Giddings the same-sex marriage bill. It went through the House of Assembly, which then became the first chamber in any parliament in Australia to pass marriage equality legislation. We thought we had the numbers. We thought we were going to get it up in Tasmania. We had done the numbers and we thought we were a chance until, a couple of days before the vote, we lost a vote we thought we had; and then on the floor, during the debate, we lost another crucial vote. That second vote was cast by someone who was a devout Catholic. I'm not going to name them here, but I later found out that that person had been called by Cardinal George Pell the night before. Thankfully, Cardinal Pell's got a bit too much on his plate at the moment to be making those sorts of calls today. I tell this story to reveal one of the ways that the hierarchy of the Catholic Church has operated behind the scenes to entrench discrimination in Australia.
In 2015, Tasmanian Greens Leader Cassie O'Connor again moved that the House of Assembly express in-principle support for marriage equality. When a similar motion inspired by Cassie's was passed by the Legislative Council soon after, Tasmania achieved another equality first: it became the first parliament in Australia to give bicameral support for marriage equality. It has been a most amazing journey. It's been a journey that has seen Tasmania come from a long, long way back on this issue—from a situation where consenting sex between adult males in the privacy of their own home was a crime to leading the way on this issue in so many different ways. And the story on marriage equality in Tasmania has been part of the story of the Tasmanian Greens. We have led the way there, as we have led the way politically on the national stage—every MP, every single time, every single vote.
The bill that we're currently debating is not a perfect bill. But I do congratulate Senator Smith and everyone who's worked with him to bring this bill to us today to allow us to have this debate. I believe the bill has a strong chance of passing not only this chamber but the other place. It's not perfect and, to be frank, it has more exemptions in it than I would like to see. However, given the mood of the times, it's incumbent on us to do everything we can to pass marriage equality this year. On that basis, I am prepared to support the bill as it currently stands. But the Senate needs to understand this: if this bill is amended to include further exemptions that entrench discrimination, I will not be supporting it on the third reading.
In its current form, this bill removes the last major bastion of legal discrimination against LGBTIQ people. And it's so important that we do so—not just in the context of marriage but because we cannot hope to remove discrimination from our streets, from our schools, from our footy clubs and from our homes until we have removed discrimination from our laws. There's no such thing as 'mostly equal'. Laws that discriminate 'just a bit' are still discriminatory laws. And that's what we're debating here today. We need to show leadership to the people we represent in this place by removing discrimination from our law so we can show leadership in removing discrimination from our community.
The other thing that we are here to do today is give one of the most powerful gifts that any person or group of people can give, and that is the gift of hope—the gift of hope that gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer people can soon look forward to a wedding day, whether their own wedding day or that of their brother, their sister, their son, their daughter, their mother, their father or their friends. I absolutely hope that they will soon be able to come together with full access to one of the most fundamental civil institutions in our society, the institution of marriage, to celebrate their love for each other with their friends and families in a way that currently only couples of opposite sex can do in Australia. What a time that will be.
I'm entering this debate simply to put my position on record. I don't intend to try to convince anyone one way or the other in relation to the debate. Before I do that, I do want to apologise to the Senate. I'm one of those who does believe that there is a certain dress sense in the Senate. Unfortunately, I'm not abiding by that today—I've just flown in from North Queensland. I also had to attend an important Senate committee hearing and I've come into the chamber more or less straight after that without being able to get a coat. So I do apologise to the Senate and seek forgiveness because I do think we should have certain standards in the Senate, and wearing a suit and a tie is something that I've always adhered to in the 27 years I have been here.
Thank you. It's very kind of you, Madam Acting Deputy President! I would not normally speak in this state of undress, but I do today. My position on this whole issue has been pretty clear from day one. I don't think this is a high-order issue. I know some of my gay friends would argue with me on this, and some have indeed done so. But I don't think this is the sort of issue that deserves the wall-to-wall treatment it's had in the media in recent times. I've always worked on the basis that there is no discrimination in Australia on anything—on race, religion, colour, creed, sex or gender. Over the years, some of which I've been in this parliament, laws have been passed to make it illegal to discriminate on any basis. Certainly for same-sex people, those laws, as I understand it, were passed some years ago. There is no discrimination in Australia, in my view, of any sort. I think we are a wonderful country that respects everyone's views.
I have recently been to a meeting of the Inter-Parliamentary Union in St Petersburg, where, during the course of debate, a delegate—a female parliamentarian from, I think, Italy—accused the Russians of having detention camps for gay people. I certainly don't say whether that is true or not true, but it was interesting to see in this forum of parliamentarians from right around the world the debate and the emotions that were raised on this particular issue. The Russians were accused of this and, as is the way in these multinational forums, they sought a right of reply, which they eventually got. Their response was not to comment on that subject, but to ask the Italian lady who had accused them why she was picking on Russia when, as the Russians said, 'There are many parliamentarians in this chamber from countries whose parliaments have the death penalty for those who are gay.' So, when people say there is discrimination in Australia, I just ask them to look around and see what happens in other countries in a so-called civilised world.
But I've always worked on the basis that there is no discrimination. As a previous speaker said today, I've said to some of my gay friends: 'If you want to get married—if you want to say you're getting married—send me an invite. I'll come along, I'll bring a present, I'll drink your grog and we'll have a great party. We'll all celebrate and you can sign whatever you like, and away we'll go.' I just understand that there are many people in Australia who have a deep religious conviction on what marriage is. I class myself as a Christian. Regrettably, I'm not as regular an attender as perhaps I should be, but I do know many Christian people who are deeply offended by what they see as an abuse of the Christian rite of marriage. Recently, I've been to a couple of weddings in churches and, when you hear the ceremony, when you hear the words, when you hear the traditions and when you hear the passages that are read from the Bible and elsewhere—which were the same when my wife and I were married, I have to say—you start to think that this does seem to be a very Christian tradition, a Christian part of the Bible and what Christianity says. I'm one of those who can take everyone's view, one way or the other, but I do know that there are very many deeply religious people who are offended by this proposal, and, of course, their vote in the recent plebiscite was fairly significant.
But my position hasn't changed. I've always made it clear that I, through my upbringing, my understanding and my association with people who are deeply religious, would be voting no in the plebiscite, and I did. But I also made it clear that, in the end result, I would follow whatever my fellow Australians decided to do on this particular subject. My main concern was that we as a political party, the Liberal and National parties, had in two elections, following each other, promised to the people of Australia that we would give them a say on whether same-sex marriage should be allowed. I'm proud to say that I belong to a political party that does actually honour the commitments that it makes at election time. I know there are other political parties in this room that made the same sorts of commitments in the past, but, like other promises they've made, they choose, once they're in power, just to ignore those promises. Of course, that's one of the reasons why politicians and politics are held in such low regard around Australia at the present time. But I was proud that my party stuck by its guns and honoured the commitment it had made in the last two elections that, if there were to be any change to the Marriage Act and to the issue of same-sex marriage, then the people of Australia would be consulted by way of plebiscite. Unfortunately, others in this chamber didn't agree with us. We had to end up with a Bureau of Statistics survey, which, although it wasn't ideal, did, I think, get the same result, and that showed that the majority of Australians in all states actually support the concept of same-sex marriage. So I, as I committed before, will be voting to support a change to allow for that.
I confess that I have not gone into the proposed amendments in any great depth. My general feel is that the protections should be greater rather than lesser, but I say that without having directed my mind to any possible amendments to the bill that we're debating. If there are amendments brought forward I will assess them as we go along. I do think that in a society such as Australia people should have the right to act in accordance with their own beliefs, providing they're not hurting others. There have been in the bit of this debate that I have heard a lot of very fine arguments and very fine propositions put forward which I think require and warrant very serious consideration, consideration I intend to give to the wording of the bill as we come to vote on it.
For the moment, I indicate that I will be voting in accordance with what the Australian people asked us to do, as I have for many years past. We were very keen to honour our promises to have a plebiscite of all Australians. Having done that, we are of course duty-bound to follow the dictate of the majority of Australians and support a change to allow for same-sex marriage. I will be looking carefully to make sure that there are adequate protections for those who, perhaps inadvertently, might otherwise be discriminated against when certain bills become law through this parliament. But I indicate that for the time being I will be supporting the change, as I indicated before that I would, in accordance with the wishes of the majority of the Australian public.
This debate on same-sex marriage has torn a lot of Australians apart. We have had a plebiscite in which 61 per cent of Australians voted for it, approximately 39 per cent voted against it and about 21 per cent didn't vote at all. I have had conflicting views from people: they never received their papers and didn't have a chance to vote. Regardless of that, 61 per cent of Australians voted for it.
Same-sex marriage is a very contentious issue, and I'm continually getting emails from people who are very, very upset. They don't agree with marriage between people of the same sex. The whole debate was centred around the idea that what you've got is called love: 'This is all about equality; it's all about love.' I did not agree with the plebiscite. I thought the question should have gone to a referendum so it would be enshrined in our Constitution, in section 51 where it states the word 'marriage'. We need to define in our Constitution that marriage is to be accepted by the Australian people as being between a man and a woman or people of the same sex. My concern about this is that, if we pass it in this parliament of 226 people, who's to say that further on down the track a parliament could not expand it to mean multiple marriages or who knows what? I believe that what should be enshrined in the Constitution is what it has been determined the people want, whether it is marriage between people of the same sex or of the opposite sex. It could then only be changed by being taken back to the people. Anyway, the plebiscite has been taken.
I would also like to say that I am of mixed opinion on this and I voted no. My personal vote was no. I have grown up of the opinion that marriage was between a man and a woman, but I do not take away the right of people to be in a relationship and to find happiness within themselves.