When we talk about divisive speeches—we just heard one in this place right now. Again, it raises serious concerns about the motives of the other side.
Back in my late 20s, when I was living in remote Queensland gulf country, a fellow I knew went to Sydney one Christmas and came back as a woman.
Years later she wrote to me and thanked me for my acceptance, tolerance and support during that time. She said that contrary to the perception that the North is full of 'rednecks', it was, in her words:
“… thanks to these people and 'ringers' like you, that I used to work and socialise with, I was able to work and live a 'normal' life that is so often not available to others in situations like mine.
“As you and I know there is absolutely no family in the country that can assume it will be 'immune' to having a child/grandchild/relative that is gay or transgender… Hopefully, these families would want that person to have the same rights in their relationships that other Australians take for granted.”
It was not until I received that email that I realised the strength of my actions in not being judgemental but simply accepting her for who she was. That has made a lasting impression on me and was the beginning of my journey as an advocate for gay and transgender Australians.
At this point I would like to acknowledge a very good friend of mine, Kate Doak, who has embarked on a journey over recent years. I am proud and privileged to have been able to share that journey with her and work through with her, and it is wonderful for her to be sitting in the gallery today, because this debate is as much about Kate as it is about all of our other gay and transgender Australians.
Today I rise to speak on a bill that provides for a national plebiscite to be held on whether the parliament should legislate to allow same-sex marriage. Voting on 11 February 2017 would be compulsory and the result determined by a simple majority of votes cast across Australia, 50 per cent plus one vote.
Under the proposed legislation the definition of marriage would be changed to replace 'a man and a woman' with 'two people'. Conditions of a valid marriage would not change. Same-sex marriages would be recognised in Australia.
Existing religious protections for ministers of religion would be retained and strengthened, as would protections for religious bodies or organisations that refused to provide facilities, goods or services. Marriage celebrants, including those who are not ministers of religion, would be able to refuse a marriage of same-sex couples on the grounds of conscientious or religious beliefs.
It has been a long road to get to this point, and I accept that there are those who are not happy with where we have ended up. The plebiscite certainly is not my preferred position either. I put up a cross-party bill back in 2015 in good faith, but it joined the other 17 unsuccessful bills that have gone before it. The proposal for a plebiscite was taken to the 2016 election as a clear coalition policy, and we won that election.
For me personally, I have gained and lost a lot of votes on marriage equality alone. But conversations revealed that many people who supported the plebiscite were not opposed to gay marriage. There were certainly some, but the majority reasoned that they did not want the vote to be owned by the politicians; they wanted to be able to tell their gay friends or relatives that their vote had contributed to a significant social change—and that view should not be underestimated.
That is what I tell members of the gay community when they ask me, 'Why should my neighbour have a say on whether I'm allowed to get married?' The fact is that many of their neighbours are very keen to be part of this change and they do not want it owned by a small group of politicians.
In the period since the election I have become convinced that, were this plebiscite to get up, we would certainly be able to achieve marriage equity. There is overwhelming support in the Australian public. You only need to look at the recent Newspoll figures—62 per cent in favour and only 32 per cent against. Conversely, if we were to force a parliamentary vote on this issue, anybody who thinks the results will be accepted is kidding themselves. There is too much interest and emotional investment in this issue now.
If a vote in the parliament were unsuccessful, those supporting marriage equality and the broader public would challenge its validity because the decision was made by politicians. If a vote in the parliament was successful, the same goes. There is no way that those who oppose marriage equality would accept the result and walk away. The issue would continue to be unresolved indefinitely—and this is exactly what neither side wants.
Every issue has its time in the sun when the national conversation is at its peak but, when that moment passes, it can be years before momentum again reaches the point of change. Marriage equality is no different. There is a huge risk of issue fatigue the longer this is dragged out. We are in a position now where we can achieve the outcome we have been moving towards for so long. So I urge people not to dismiss the opportunity because they do not like the process.
Also, those in the community who are taking a 'willing to wait' stance are doing so based on two very flawed assumptions: firstly, that the Labor Party will win the 2019 election; and, secondly, that the policy position supporting gay marriage that was imposed on Labor politicians at their national conference will continue past 2019. The issue is white hot right now and, if not resolved on 11 February, I suspect many people will feel that they have given it their best shot and walk away and focus on other issues.
The exposure draft legislation has now been released and people have the opportunity to comment on it until 6 December. After this, the legislation will be finalised, ready to be enacted immediately in the case of a 'yes' vote.
We have already debunked the argument of a plebiscite not being binding with a cast-iron commitment that the parliament will respect the will of the people. If there are half a dozen who decide that they want to go against the will of the people, that is entirely up to them and they will have to answer to the people. The reality is that, if there are 150 people in here—and if what we hear from the other side is true and they are committed to making it happen—there is no way that such a vote, if it was 'yes', would not get through this place. So any suggestion that it would not is absolute nonsense from the other side. As I said, in the case of a 'yes' vote, there might be a handful who will vote against it or abstain.
Overwhelmingly, Australians already know how they are going to vote in a plebiscite. This issue has been discussed for well over a decade. So advertising material will only target the single-digit proportion of people—six per cent according to Newspoll—who are undecided. While I question the allocation of funds to the 'yes' and 'no' campaigns, I accept that funds need to be spent, whether through the Electoral Commission or the two parliamentary committees that would be established. This process will see government-produced material scrutinised through the cabinet process to ensure language is appropriate, respectful and decent.
It is this respectfulness and decentness which absolutely must be carried through into the national dialogue, as we have seen in the experience of other countries.
Tiernan Brady headed the 'yes' campaign in the Irish referendum, and I have met with him several times to discuss Australia's path to marriage equality. In a recent article in The Australian, Tiernan disputed the Leader of the Opposition's depiction of the Irish experience as 'ugly division'. Tiernan accepted that the lead-up to the vote was mentally taxing for LGBT people but said the campaign 'brought people together instead of tearing them apart' and the vote itself was 'an astounding and unifying moment' for his country. I see no reason why it would be any different here in Australia.
Tiernan went on to say that the 'ugly conversations' were not the result of the process itself:
“… the approach of people in the campaign decides what the tone is and I think that is a critical point…
“We have to set the tone that is respectful. There will be other voices and that is always the way it is and, sadly, we have to endure those voices.”
Tiernan's sentiments were echoed in a very good book recently released by Paul Ritchie, titled Faith Love and Australia—The Conservative Case for Same-Sex Marriage. Ritchie tells us to 'embrace all conversations' about same-sex marriage, writing:
“The opponents of same-sex marriage know they will lose a plebiscite that is about the merits of legalizing same-sex marriage, but they can win a plebiscite if they make the public debate about something else.”
That 'something else' is of course the issue of freedom.
Whether or not the plebiscite legislation is passed, supporters of same-sex marriage must not employ the American political tactic of simply shutting down opponents' messages, whether through banning TV ads, calling on hotels to refuse to hold meetings for same-sex marriage opponents or attacking corporate entities for not publicly endorsing the campaign for same-sex marriage.
The case for marriage equality is a strong and logical one in itself, while people opposed to marriage equality may have deeply held, personal convictions on the issue. We must allow all conversations to be heard and, yes, there may be public statements that are distasteful or offensive. But, as Ritchie says,
'We must let the unfair attacks sit in the public square as proof of why there must be change.'
I also dispute the assumption that all the negativity is coming just from the 'no' campaign. As a result of my efforts to make a plebiscite work, some of the communications coming to me from marriage equality supporters on the extreme side have been intimidating and incredibly offensive. So far I do not think either side can claim the high moral ground on this one. I am only one voice but I will continue to pursue this with dignity and respect and I urge everyone commenting on this issue to do the same.
This is a battle that has been going on for decades now. And, while I am not challenging the intention of some individuals across politics in championing this cause or those within the marriage equality movement, I am concerned that people are losing sight of the end game. For them, it is more about the battle than the outcome.
I listened to the opposition leader's contribution on this bill. Why didn't he make the changes between 2007 and 2013, when he was in government? He had the ability to do it, but he made no effort, because he had a different view on it then. He was opposed at that stage. He is all over the place. At an Australian Christian Lobby candidates forum prior to the 2013 election, the current opposition leader said that he was:
“… completely relaxed about having some form of plebiscite. I would rather that the people of Australia could make their view clear on this than leaving this issue to 150 people.”
Only in August last year the Leader of the Greens and Senators Xenophon, Lambie, and Leyonhjelm fronted the cameras to announce that they were putting forward a bill to bring on a plebiscite no later than the 2016 election. Senator Di Natale told the Financial Review and other media:
“One thing we all agree on is that we need to deal with this issue and deal with it quickly … and it must be the parliament that owns the plebiscite and drafts the question.”
Senator Xenophon added:
“If all MPs and senators can't have a conscience vote then there needs to be a conscious vote of all Australians through a plebiscite. But for goodness sakes let's get this done, let's have a vote as soon as possible rather than just being put off to the never-never …”
Well, Senator Xenophon and others, this is the never-never unless we start to deal with this issue right now. So stand up for what you committed to only 12 months ago.
By all means, as new information comes forward politicians should be able to change their minds on an issue without being accused of backflipping. But the Leader of the Opposition, in citing his reasons for change—and I find this quite concerning—has entered dangerous territory in directly connecting gay marriage to youth suicide.
We know that young LGBTI people are particularly vulnerable to negative commentary, but they will be exposed to it, whether it is through a plebiscite, a parliamentary vote, or another three years or more in a dragged-out debate. We can prepare for and minimise this risk by committing additional funding to headspace, in line with the Irish model, where extra funding for mental health services was fully utilised. There is no reason why we cannot do the same here and shorten the whole process.
Labor is the one playing wedge politics on this issue by fuelling divisiveness, ignoring the fact that there is a cost to democracy and trying to undermine the government, which has a mandate for a plebiscite, as voted by the Australian people.
We must put aside partisan objections and focus on what we want to achieve. If Labor and the Greens really support gay marriage and want it to be legalised as soon as possible, they should be supporting this plebiscite. This is the best possible chance we have had in a decade, but if the legislation fails I will be one of millions of Australians who will be profoundly frustrated and disappointed with the Labor Party's hypocrisy. Let us not allow this opportunity to be squandered.
I certainly commend this bill to the House.