Tuesday, 26 June 2018
Finance and Public Administration References Committee; Government Response to Report
In respect of the government response to the Finance and Public Administration References Committee report on arrangements for the postal survey, I move:
That the Senate take note of the document.
I'm glad that we have finally got the government's report, some eight months after the postal survey was completed. The Finance and Public Administration References Committee made three recommendations on the arrangements for the postal survey. They were all pretty straightforward and all very strongly supported by the committee. I'll start with the one that the government has supported, recommendation 3:
The committee recommends that the Australian Electoral Commission actively engage with remote communities and Indigenous peak bodies to increase the number of enrolled people in remote electorates and to increase the participation of enrolled people in local, state and federal elections.
The government supports this recommendation, which is pleasing, because this is critical. We know that one of the by-products of the postal survey was that it actually did increase enrolments across the country. There were 100,000 new people enrolled through the process of the postal survey. But we know that, overall, these were overwhelmingly people in the cities rather than rural and remote people. We also know that participation in the postal survey was considerably lower in rural and remote communities, and particularly in Indigenous communities.
We are pleased to see the government's response to and support for that recommendation. However, it is disappointing to see the lack of support for the other two recommendations, in particular the first recommendation, the most important recommendation that we made. After having gone through the process of this postal survey and having seen the impact that it had on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer communities, the committee overwhelmingly recommended:
… that questions of human rights for minority groups should not be resolved by a public vote.
That was very clear. Although we've ended up with a good outcome—marriage equality in Australia; people being able to marry the person they love—the process that this government put our communities through should never be repeated again. There is ample evidence of the impact that the postal survey had on LGBTI communities. It was an unnecessary impact, because we did not need to go through this survey process. We did not need to have people's human rights put to a public vote. We should have had this parliament making the decision to legislate for marriage equality. But, no, we had huge impacts on the LGBTI community. There was an increase in the rate of vilification, particularly of transgender, lesbian and gay people. It is a massive amount of damage that was done, and this has been documented. Research has been undertaken looking at the impact of this survey on the LGBTI communities. It showed that significant damage was done to people's mental health and to their sense of belonging in the community and that there was an increase in the rate of harassment, vilification and prejudice against LGBTI people through the process of undertaking this survey.
We got through it. There were people who thought it wouldn't affect them very much. I know that there are some young people—in fact, I know one young person in particular who today is still feeling a bit shaken by the process he was put through, still feeling that he's having to process it. He's still seeking psychological support for having his whole identity, his sexuality, put under the spotlight of a public vote, of people making judgement on him as a young gay man. There was damage that was done. It is indisputable that damage was done.
That was why we would not recommend that this process be gone through again, that the human rights of minority groups should not be put to a public vote like this. So we are very disappointed that the government is only 'noting' the recommendation and then, in their response, they basically go on to say, 'Oh well, we ended up with a good answer.' In particular, they say that the exceptional level of public participation in the marriage survey showed a strong public endorsement for the process of the survey itself. Well, I beg to differ, because I think most people—the overwhelming majority of Australians who supported marriage equality before the postal survey—would have much preferred for the parliament to have done its job and to have legislated without putting the community through the process we were put through.
In particular, I had the opportunity of being one of the observers of the survey process and seeing the postal survey forms come in and the number of people who actually decided to vote informally or wrote comments on their postal survey papers. The overwhelming majority of those were actually saying: 'We should not be voting like this. We should not be putting the human rights of our fellow citizens to a public vote.' So, there was a lot of disquiet about it. Most people in Australia would have preferred us not to have gone through this process. Absolutely they wanted us to achieve marriage equality, but they would have much preferred for the parliament to have done its job rather than having the political fix. That's all this was. It was a political fix. It was so that the Liberal and National parties could get themselves out of a dilemma with the dinosaurs on their backbench who did not want marriage equality to go ahead. It was a political fix, and the LGBTI community was put through the ringer because of that political fix.
The final recommendation of our committee was that 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. The government, in their response, say they support and recognise the importance of ongoing funding for mental health treatment for all Australians, which is commendable. However, it does not address the gap in funding that is still there. It is still very difficult for LGBTIQ people to access the mental health support that many of them need because of the prejudice that's still there in the community, and there is a considerable increase in funding that is still required, way above and beyond what is outlined in this government response.
So, I implore the government. I call on them to really take a clear-eyed look at the need for supporting LGBTI people so that they can have that support that they need. And it's going to require a lot more money than is currently outlined. This is the sort of thing we should be spending money on, instead of having $200 billion of tax cuts—$200 billion through the personal and corporate tax cuts this government is proposing and legislating for, when we've got huge gaps in services, particularly in this instance the mental health services for LGBTI people.
Look, I'm pleased that we had a response. I'm pleased we have now finally, with this response, put to bed the whole process of the postal survey. I implore us to, please, not go down this avenue again. On issues of human rights, we as a society, we as a parliament should be able to see our way clear to legislate together rather than put the human rights of people to a public vote in the way that was done through this postal survey.
I also would like to speak briefly on the report of the Senate Finance and Public Administration References Committee inquiry into the arrangements for the postal survey that is before us and, indeed, the government's response. Although I'm a member of the Senate Finance and Public Administration Legislation Committee, I'm not a member of the references committee so I didn't participate in this particular inquiry, but this does bring to an end a very, very important chapter in the political history of our country generally. More specifically, it brings to an end, it underlines, the very, very extensive and exhausting debate we had in our country in regards to how to give equal recognition before the law to same-sex relationships. I'm glad we ended with the outcome we did. I'm glad that the sun has continued to come up. Indeed, it goes down, comes up, goes down, comes up in a way that it did before we had the marriage debate and before we had the marriage legislation.
But it would be remiss of me, as someone who has come to the Australian Senate with a fervent faith in our parliamentary democracy, not to end this discussion with a reiteration of my strong and public view that plebiscites and, in particular, postal surveys have been a corrosive feature on our democracy. As I've been travelling the country since the marriage legislation passed, people have said to me, 'Senator Smith, you must agree the postal survey was necessary because we got the right outcome?' No. Not at all. Because the outcome could easily have been 49 to 51. What would that have done to the political debate? What would that have done to the social fabric of our country?
In coming to a very strong and clear view about why I opposed the plebiscite, as it was originally proposed, and why I opposed the postal survey was because, when you look at the history of our country and the plebiscites that were held in 1916 and 1917 on the very sensitive issue of conscription, when you read the history books—none of us were there, none of us can re-tell the stories from personal experience—it divided the country, it divided towns and it divided families. By the grace of God, this country pulled through and we got a wonderful result with the postal survey. I absolutely agree with the comments that the success of the postal survey process was because people endorsed the principles of fairness that underlined that marriage debate. It was not an endorsement of the process, nor was it an endorsement of the huge sums of money that were expended.
This country has much to be proud of in regards to its parliamentary history, and at the centre of that is the work of this chamber, the Senate chamber, and the other chamber in the House of Representatives. Plebiscites and postal surveys seek to undermine the work we do individually and collectively as parliamentarians. They are most definitely corrosive and undermine trust in the body politic. When people suggest that advisory plebiscites or, indeed, postal surveys can be used in the future to debate and come to a resolution on other important national issues, I will continue to oppose them with as much vehemence as I did the plebiscite and the postal survey in this case. Anything that undermines parliamentary democracy undermines the credibility and contribution of each and every one of us as senators and each and every one of us as federal parliamentarians. It is easier to hold your parliamentarian to account for his or her actions every three or four years, or in the case of senators, six. It is harder—near impossible—to hold your neighbour accountable for how they might conduct themselves in a postal survey or plebiscite. When people seek to hold their neighbours and the members of their community accountable, and not their federal parliamentarians, that great peace and stability that we've come to take for granted as a group of people is easily undermined and diminished.
This brings to an end a very, very important and historical part of our political process. It did bring pain to many families and to many LGBTI people. People who say that it didn't are either deliberately misleading or so far removed from the debate that their commentary is of little or no value. I was disappointed that the government didn't do more during the postal survey to support LGBTI people and their friends and family. That's a bruise that I take, as an LGBTI member of this government, very seriously. I'm deeply saddened by it, but this brings to an end an important chapter. I'm very grateful that, in bringing this chapter to an end, we were able to legislate for same-sex marriage in our country. I seek leave to continue my remarks.
Leave granted; debate adjourned.