Wednesday, 29 November 2017
Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017; Third Reading
That this bill be now read a third time.
This day has been a long time coming—a day for which many of us have worked in our parties, a day for which many in the Australian community have worked, a day many of us have hoped for. It was not long ago in this country that gay and lesbian Australians were targeted by the criminal law for who they were. It wasn't that long ago that it was legal to discriminate against us simply for who we are. But equality is a remarkably persistent principle. It is a defining principle, a principle that springs from the simple and powerful precept of the inherent dignity of every individual, of every human being, and so it has been through human history. The aspiration for equality is the hallmark of our progress.
So today we stand on the cusp of a remarkable achievement and an historic event, and we pause briefly to reflect, just for a moment, on what we are a part of. We are part of an act of acceptance, an act of inclusion, an act of respect, an act of celebration: day when this Senate declares our acceptance of our LGBTIQ brothers and sisters.
The bill that passed in this chamber was negotiated across party lines. It reflects an appropriate balance between delivering marriage equality and the protection of religious freedom. The Australian people voted to lessen discrimination, not to extend it, and we, the Senate, have respected that vote by rejecting amendments which sought to extend discrimination or derail marriage equality through debates which are better had elsewhere. I acknowledge the senators who have participated in this debate, which, for the most part, has been respectful. It is disappointing that the House won't be able to progress this until next week, but I do hope that, when it does so, it follows the example set by this chamber and ensures this parliament delivers on the promise to the Australian people and legislates for marriage equality.
Laws matter; they endow rights. But they do more than this. They express our values: who we are and what we believe as a nation. I'm often asked what this law means for me and my family. This law matters to loving couples across the country. But what is more important is what it means for all of us—what it says to young LGBTIQ Australians, what it says to the young man struggling with who he is or the young woman who feels alone and ashamed, what it says to the children of same-sex couples who feel ostracised. It says to so many Australians: this parliament and this country accept you for who you are; your love is not lesser and nor are you. It says: you're one of us.
This day would not have come without the courage and dedication of all who have campaigned, and it would not have come without the decision of the Australian people to vote yes. In that vote, the grace and decency of our country men and women shone through, and, in voting yes, they have pushed our parliament to do what should be done. We may be their representatives but, in this, they have been our leaders. Every day it is a great privilege to stand in this place, but there are some days which are of great moment, which change our country for the better. This is such a day.
Honourable senators: Hear, hear!
At the 2016 election, the Prime Minister, Mr Turnbull, made a commitment to the Australian people that they would have the ultimate say on the question of whether the reform of the Marriage Act to enable same-sex couples to marry should be agreed to. We in the coalition took the view that a social change as profound as this was unique and therefore, unusually, should be the business of the people to be the final arbiters. We sought last year to give them a say through a plebiscite. That was opposed. I'm sorry it was opposed, because, had it not been opposed, those of us who were committed to marriage equality would have been celebrating this event at the beginning of this year, not at the end of it. But, nevertheless, for political reasons, it was opposed.
The government found a way, nevertheless, through a postal marriage survey to deliver on Malcolm Turnbull's promise to have a de facto plebiscite, and that de facto plebiscite, as we all know, was an outstanding success. Eighty per cent of the Australian people participated. Almost 62 per cent of them voted yes, as the Prime Minister and I and others had urged them to do. So, today, in this Senate, and next week in the House of Representatives, we will see this historic change accomplished.
Mr President, it is well known that some years ago, some time ago, I was not a supporter of the plebiscite. But I am so glad it happened this way. I am so glad that we involved every man and woman in Australia in this historic decision. I am so delighted that the result was an overwhelming yes. I am so grateful for the grace and decency of those who were not persuaded to change in the way that they have accepted the result. I am so proud of Australian democracy today—more proud than I have ever been. Nobody owns this result but the Australian people themselves. I'm not going to repeat the remarks I made yesterday. I merely say that we should acknowledge the historic nature of this occasion in respecting it. We should respect those who decide that they do not want to support this bill. But, as it's evident a clear majority of the chamber do, we should rejoice in what the Australian people have achieved this year.
This is indeed a great moment in history. Today the nation is consigning discriminatory laws to the dustbin of history. Today this parliament has said yes to equality; it has said yes to love. There are so many people to thank right across the country. I won't thank them by name, but there are many of those people here today. I want to thank you so much for your wonderful work and for all the hope you have given us through this campaign. I want to thank those people right across the country who have knocked on doors, who have had conversations—many of them difficult conversations—and who have helped us as a community to come together. I want to thank my Greens colleagues and those who have gone before me: Senator Bob Brown and Christine Milne. I want to thank my current team, and particularly Janet Rice for stewarding us through this great moment. Thank you, Janet. I want to thank my entire team. I want to thank so many Australians. I am so proud of my team. I am so proud of this parliament. Today I am so proud of my country.
I will be very brief. I stand here as a person who was opposed to same-sex marriage. Ten years ago, I would have said, like many Australians, that marriage is between a man and a woman because that's just the way it is—the way my mother would say about any argument we had. That was until I realised how hollow my arguments were, how shallow they were and how unfair they were to fellow Australians.
I said to people like Senator Wong, as I did four minutes before the vote was announced the other day, I thought it was a disgrace we had a plebiscite. I didn't think it was right that we should have a postal vote that had total strangers deciding on how you should live your life. But I now actually agree with Senator Brandis when he said that the postal vote was a great advantage because it showed that the majority of Australians are decent people and did want this to happen, and it did happen. I just say one thing to gay Australians: be a little charitable to the people who opposed it, to the 'no' voters. When it comes to Christmas and if you're sitting at the Christmas table and you find out, to your shock, that your dad or mum voted against it, they came from a generation that had a different view. Just be a little bit tolerant. I know how it hurt and how it hurt schoolkids through this long period, but I just want to say: congratulations, Australia, and all you people who have fought this for so many years—and going back to Bob Brown's days. I think this country now is wonderful.
I want to put on record my warm congratulations for those who are joyously celebrating today a change that they have long campaigned for. I echo the remarks of the Leader of the Government in the Senate, who has indicated the success of this process to deliver this change.
I said in my contribution to the second reading debate that I hoped I would be able to vote for a bill that amended the Marriage Act in favour of same-sex marriage. I always said I would recognise and respect the wishes of the Queensland people but I would not vote for a bill that compromised human rights in my view. I, unfortunately, cannot support this unamended bill because I do not think we have made these changes in a way which advances rights fully through this process. In particular, I think the failure to fully protect celebrants who may have a conscientious or non-religious objection to solemnising a same-sex marriage is a missed opportunity for our parliament to unify here.
I want to thank some of my colleagues who have put forward these viewpoints respectfully during this debate. Those five million Australians who did vote against a change to the Marriage Act have had a voice in this parliament, but, unfortunately, I do not think they have been listened to. I think it's unfortunate that we have had a situation where we have not had the ability for all senators to vote with their conscience in this place. I said during the campaign that I was sceptical. I was sceptical that we could trust the political process to get all of these protections right and I, unfortunately, believe that my fears have been proven true. It is clear that a political fix was in before we debated these amendments and issues on this floor. A political fix was in between those in the Labor Party who voted as a bloc, despite some, I know, having different conscientious views on these issues, some in the Liberal and National parties and the Greens. It's unfortunate that we have not been able to proceed in a debate that has allowed every senator to vote with their conscience. I truly believe that, if that had been the process, we might have made some small adjustments to this bill which would have allowed many more of us in this chamber to vote for this change and to do so in a way which would have truly unified our nation in a way that respected all Australians and all views rather than take a winner-takes-all approach, which has been what has happened here in the last 24 hours.
I do, again, congratulate those who will see this change occur. It is unfortunate I cannot join them in support of this bill. I thank the Senate.