Senate debates

Tuesday, 13 February 2018


Finance and Public Administration References Committee; Report

5:25 pm

Photo of Jenny McAllisterJenny McAllister (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I present the report of the Finance and Public Administration References Committee on the postal survey concerning same-sex marriage, together with the Hansard record of proceedings and documents presented to the committee. I move:

That the Senate take note of the report.

I will keep my remarks brief. I wish to start by congratulating all of those people who worked so hard to bring about marriage equality for Australia. Many people put their personal stories on the line and were most courageous in standing up to discrimination and pressure to keep quiet about the reality of their lives. People fought bravely and the outcome was well deserved. I really look forward over the coming decades to attending weddings of friends and colleagues who, for the first time, will be allowed to have their love recognised in the way that's been available to the rest of us for so long.

However, this committee was not concerned with the substantive question of marriage equality; it was concerned with the process established by government to determine this question. The committee is disappointed, to say the least, in that process. The government's approach, from the outset, was more concerned about resolving internal political problems than it was about delivering a good policy result for any of the affected groups or for the Australian community as a whole.

The government was warned repeatedly about the problems that might arise if a plebiscite was initiated and, indeed, if the survey was initiated, and specifically about the problems that would arise in terms of hateful material being directed at the LGBTIQ community. And so it came to pass. All of the warnings proved to be correct, and many people reported to our committee the hurt and distress that they and their families experienced from having hateful material propagated throughout their communities, outside their schools, in their shopping centres and on the walls of local buildings and hateful mail in their letterboxes. This process was entirely unnecessary because, at every stage in the process, the parliament needed only to do its job. The parliament needed only to take the opportunity to vote on legislation to bring about marriage equality. The parliament, under the leadership of Malcolm Turnbull, chose not to do so.

Our committee makes just three recommendations: We recommend that questions of human rights for minority groups should never again be resolved by public vote. We recommend that, given the evidence of harm done to the LGBTIQ community, the government consider how further funding and support could be offered to mental health and LGBTIQ communities and organisations to help address the consequences of the postal survey. And, given the evidence around participation in remote areas—and particularly Indigenous participation—we recommend that the AEC act urgently to engage with those communities to increase the number of enrolled people in remote areas and to increase the participation of those enrolled people in local, state and federal elections.

I know other senators wish to contribute on this same matter. I will leave my remarks there. I thank my fellow senators for the serious and sober way that they approached this question and the diligence with which they applied themselves to it.

5:30 pm

Photo of Janet RiceJanet Rice (Victoria, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I also seek to take note of the Finance and Public Administration References Committee report on the postal survey concerning same-sex marriage. I congratulate Senator McAllister for her chairing of this committee, because I think this report is a very comprehensive assessment of the issues associated with holding a postal survey, a public vote on an issue of human rights. Achieving marriage equality was a massive achievement at the end of last year—certainly the highlight of my 3½ years in the Senate so far—but it was achieved at a cost, and it was an unnecessary cost.

There is great joy around the nation now as people are getting married. I haven't got to any of the wonderful weddings yet—the first one that I'm going to is in a fortnight's time—but the photos, the videos and the sharing on social media as people can finally marry the person they love are terrific. But we should not have had to go through the process of having a public vote in order to achieve this, and this report outlines the reasons why that pathway to achieve marriage equality was far from optimal. It was up to this parliament to vote on marriage equality. We could have had the vote in the parliament that we had in the last sitting weeks of last year without going through the harm and the tortuous process of this postal survey, but that was the process that the government headed us down. That's what we all had to grit our teeth and get through in order to get to the prize of people's human rights being respected and celebrated so that people, regardless of their gender or sexuality, were able to marry.

So the first finding of this report is the most pertinent one. The experience of that postal survey makes it very clear that questions of human rights for minority groups should not be resolved by a public vote, and there is so much documentation that's outlined in this report as to why that's the case. Having this public survey unleashed such an avalanche of hateful and discriminatory material—material which was inciting hatred towards lesbian, gay and bisexual people and particularly towards transgender, gender-diverse and intersex people.

I just want to read some of the accounts that are outlined in our committee report. Firstly, just to set the context of why this matters, it's not just that these were hurtful, harmful things for my community to have to endure and put up with. It had a huge impact on the mental health of that community. The New South Wales Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby provided a catalogue of material which had already been disseminated prior to the survey being mailed out, and they noted:

Such material … has significant impact on the mental health of so many LGBTIQ Australians. Young LGBTIQ people are at a six times greater risk of suicide, and this material which perpetuates hateful and offensive comments is not likely to improve this situation.

That's an understatement. They also note:

The rates of suicide among young trans and intersex people are even higher, with young trans people being 35% more likely to attempt suicide.

Then this committee received submissions from people who outlined their experience of what they went through during this survey period. A 42-year-old transgender man from rural Queensland submitted his experience of the postal survey to the committee. He said:

After the Survey was announced, my world becomes hell. It was the hate and vitriol of the 1990s that I experienced, but this time our Prime Minister gave this hatred a name—respectful debate.

Another submitter described the broader effect of the postal survey on LGBTIQ people. They said:

The Postal survey to a gay and lesbian person was never just about … [same-sex marriage], it seemed like it was a survey on whether gay and lesbian people were good enough for the Australian people. Having the whole Country vote on this was a horrible feeling and having them judge you, brought up all sorts of emotions from my youth.

There were a number of surveys that various LGBTI advocacy organisations conducted on the impact of the study. The National LGBTI Health Alliance did a survey of nearly 10,000 LGBTIQ people, and they found that more than 90 per cent of respondents reported the postal vote had a negative impact on them to some degree. It said:

The most shocking finding of the study was that LGBTIQ respondents said that experiences of verbal and physical assaults more than doubled in the three months following the announcement of the postal survey compared with the prior six months.

They reported an increase of more than a third in depression, anxiety and stress during the same period.

Almost 80% of LGBTIQ people and almost 60% of allies said they found the marriage equality debate considerably or extremely stressful.

These survey results were replicated in other surveys, including ones undertaken by SHINE South Australia and just.equal.

The committee received a really heartbreaking letter, which was in the submission from Rainbow Families in New South Wales. It shared the experience of Kate and her family. It said:

We received two personalised letters from our neighbours expressing their traditional views on marriage and their negative thoughts about our family and the wider LGBTIQ community … The letters spoke about "militant lesbians storming our churches and mosques demanding to get married" …

It said:

We cried for that whole weekend and were scared to check our letter box on the Sunday … We started to think about moving out … We stopped going to the local parks … avoided going to the local supermarket. We became hermits and didn't want to be seen in the local community. My heart rate went up every time I opened the front door and went out the front for fear of seeing the neighbours. We tried to shield our 2-year-old son from our pain - but he could see it. One night he said "I’m scared of the neighbours". This was so upsetting to hear. Neighbours who we had been friendly with started being less friendly - or were we just being paranoid? My partner and I both took sick days off from work and we also left our home and area for safer more accepting areas to try and get away from it all.

This typifies the impacts of this survey on so many people. I think it's a really important learning that has been documented in this committee report as to why such a survey should never be done again.

The second important finding of our inquiry is that, given this impact on LGBTIQ people and their mental health, there is an urgent need to invest more money in mental health services for the LGBTI community. In fact, we're in a situation where not all of the budget allocation of $122 million for the postal survey was spent. It came in $41 million under budget. So the second recommendation of our committee report is that the government should consider how further funding and support could be offered to mental health and LGBTIQ organisations to help address the consequences of the postal survey. The Greens go further than that. We think that all of that $41.5 million should all be allocated to mental health services and other support services for the LGBTIQ community, to at least try to make up for some of the pain and the suffering and the hurt and the discrimination and the prejudice that was felt during this postal survey.

The final recommendation of the report reflected on how not all people got to participate in this survey equally, and that people in remote communities and Indigenous people were much more likely to not vote in the survey. We are recommending that the Australian Electoral Commission actively engaged with remote communities and Indigenous peak bodies to increase the number of enrolled people and to increase their participation. That's another very important finding. Our democracy in Australia is to be treasured. It works mostly; we have to make sure we can make it work even better.

Sadly, having plebiscites isn't the best way to make our democracy work for us. We know that we are here and that we should have been able to vote. But we need to make sure that more people are actively involved in voting and more people are actively involved in expressing their views constructively and positively so that we can have a more informed community. I'm hoping that, having put this experience in the past, we can move on from this and really celebrate the diversity of our community, celebrate the rights of our community and vow to work forward together to make sure that those rights are genuinely appreciated by everybody in our society.

5:40 pm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I agree with the committee's conclusion:

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

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

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

Senator Rice has spoken at greater length about this.

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

Photo of Glenn SterleGlenn Sterle (WA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you, Senator Kitching. Do you seek to continue your remarks?

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

I have concluded.

Question agreed to.