Marriage Equality Amendment Bill 2013

15 September 2016

I rise to speak to the Marriage Equality Amendment Bill 2013 today. We should be given the chance to speak and to vote on a bipartisan bill not unlike this one. The approach of the parliament at this time could not be more wrong. It is well past the time for marriage equality in this country. Instead, we have this bill being debated in private members' time while the government pursues a divisive plebiscite agenda.

I would like to take issue with a few of Senator Hume's statements. It was lovely of her to share some of her family's experiences about robust and civilised debates on the issue of marriage. Indeed, they probably are quite satisfying, engaging family debates. But I put to you that it is an entirely different thing to be in a family having those debates if you are a GLBTI person yourself. For many LGBTI Australians, that is and has been a hurtful and difficult thing for them to be subjected to. This is precisely the key as to the reason why a plebiscite is not an ideal way forward and should be opposed. Indeed, I look at it from the point of view of an Australian family having that debate and whether we truly want to subject LGBTI Australians to such a debate.

We have waited too long already for marriage equality, myself included, and this is but one of many speeches I have given in this place, making a plea for myself and my community. My view—that all couples, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity, should have access to the institution of marriage—is well known. I have spoken about those views on many occasions. I have repeatedly stated my strong support for full marriage equality both inside and outside this place and in the community. This bill, like many others before it, including ones I have put forward myself, is about equality. It is about removing the last remaining piece of discrimination against LGBTI Australians in the laws of our country. So, clearly, it goes without saying that it is an issue of great importance to me, my family and our community.

Four years ago, almost to this day, I gave a speech in this place on this very same issue. I said to the parliament:

… we exist, we already exist, our relationships exist, our children exist, our families exist, our marriages exist and our love exists. All we ask is that you stop pretending that we don't. Stop pretending that our relationships are not as real as yours, our love not as true, our children not as cherished, our families not as precious—because they are.

And still those on the other side are pretending—pretending that it is somehow okay to subject our relationships to some kind of abstract public debate, as Senator Hume has highlighted should be the way forward. This is simply not on and not the way forward. It is psychologically humiliating and distressing for this to take place. The simple fact is that removing the last vestige of discrimination against gay, lesbian, transgender, bisexual and intersex Australians from federal law has the support of the majority of the Australian community. Bills like this, before us today, simply call on us to do that job.

This week, I was greatly honoured to meet with Rainbow Families. I heard from children of rainbow families who are deeply concerned about the impact that the plebiscite will have on them and their families. There were beautiful children wishing that their parents were able to be married. They spoke very compellingly about their fear of a nasty, divisive campaign and about the impact that that would have on them. They spoke of their hope that our nation's Prime Minister would one day soon change his mind and show them that he already thinks their families are equal—families like mine; ordinary families who live very ordinary lives, except that they do not have equality under the law. They made a very simple plea: for the kids' sake, please, no plebiscite. It was a moving and heartwarming but also heartbreaking experience. They are wonderful families, wonderful kids, wonderful parents, who have a simple plea to us—that is, that this place does its job.

So, today, again, I join the call made by LGBTI organisations, who released a very strong declaration yesterday, who have called on the Australian parliament to ensure that every Australian is able to marry the person they love, the person they cherish, in a country that they cherish. I have worked with many of these organisations over many years and I support their calls. Their declaration says:

Making a solemn commitment to build a secure future with your partner, in front of your family and friends, is something that should be publicly celebrated. Declaring your commitment to look after your partner in sickness and health both cements your relationship through the rough times and shares your joys in the good times. We make this call not only on behalf of LGBTI communities and their families who have been waiting for over a decade, but importantly to ensure future generations of LGBTI Australians can grow up on equal footing with their peers.

That means families like the ones I had the privilege of getting to know yesterday. The declaration continues:

Two thirds of the Australian people—

and this is based on qualitative and quantitative research—

a majority of both houses of parliament and leaders of all major parties support marriage equality.

And, if you do the numbers one by one in this place, researching people's views, that is how it stacks up: they all support marriage equality. The declaration continues:

We have never had so much support for achieving this small step towards every Australian having the same opportunities as their neighbour.

Our shared goal is simple­—we want marriage equality as soon as possible at the lowest cost. The most efficient and effective way of achieving marriage equality is a vote in Parliament, a power confirmed by the High Court in 2013.

I would like at this point to pay tribute to my family, Stephen Dawson and Denis Liddelow, who were married here in the ACT—before the High Court overruled their marriage here. It just goes to show how real and true marriage and these relationships already are, bar the fact that this parliament continues not to do its job. The declaration continues:

Marriage equality is about people, not politics. It is about the grandma who wants to see her granddaughter married in her lifetime, the parents who want to walk their children down the aisle, the children who wish to see their parents marry, and the many ageing couples who have endured inequality throughout their lives.

Our relationships, future happiness and security should not be used for political point-scoring.

We call on our political leaders to put aside partisanship and come together to find an achievable pathway for marriage equality, this term.

The Government proposes a plebiscite which we believe is unnecessary, costly and divisive, when the law can be changed through a straightforward vote in parliament.

The bill that the Greens have put forward today, for example, is about as simple as you can get. It is about the shortest piece of legislation that this parliament would ever really have the opportunity to consider. The substantive part of the bill is but a few paragraphs long. And still we seem determined, by virtue of the government's view on the other side, to subject our nation to a $160 million opinion poll. No Australian, in my view, should have to witness a national debate on the worth or the value of their relationship. Like many other community members, I am very concerned about the psychological impact on our communities caused by repeated exposure to divisive national discourse—concerns that are based on research and evidence.

It is, I think, much the same as Senator Hume's family debate. You can have such a family debate but, if you are an LGBTI person yourself and you are in the middle of that family, it can be damaging and hurtful—damaging and hurtful to be seen by your parents as not equal to your siblings, damaging and hurtful to have fundamentalist religious views defining your identity and your place within the family. As Senator McCarthy highlighted yesterday, in her family's tragic story, it is precisely that identity conflict that causes that psychological harm and can result in depression, death and suicide. So, when I say no Australian should have to witness a national debate on the worth or the value of their relationship, I truly do mean it. This can and will be, as the Irish experience shows, a damaging debate.

Those in the LGBTI community who have been both campaigning against a plebiscite and getting ready for one should this place make the unfortunate decision to go ahead with one, always said that, at the very least, the parliament would need to ensure a fair and reasonable plebiscite process that recognises the impact of having this national conversation. But the simple fact is that the machinery in the legislation before the other place, presented by the government, is neither. What has been presented is unfair, unjust and unworkable. It is not a reasonable path to marriage equality. Instead we need a bill not unlike the one that is before us, a bill that has bipartisan support across the parliament, a bill that everyone in this place is free to vote for according to their conscience, a bill whereby people in this place do their job rather than outsourcing it to an expensive process.

I would like to echo the sentiments of the Leader of the Opposition and Tanya Plibersek when they put forward their bill in the House of Representatives. The Leader of the Opposition said:

Achieving marriage equality should be an occasion for joy, a unifying moment of celebration. That is why the Deputy Leader of the Opposition and I have brought this proposed legislation forward today. I say to the Prime Minister: this is an issue you said you cared about. You have been Prime Minister for a year now. You can get this done and, instead of a private member's bill introduced by the opposition—

or, as I say today, introduced by the Greens—

let marriage equality be a truly cooperative achievement.

It really does go to show why the path set forward by the coalition is so absurd.

No amendments to the Marriage Act have yet been provided, nor are they guaranteed to come into effect following a successful yes vote. It is unreasonable to expect the community, LGBTI or not, to vote on a plebiscite, and for this parliament to vote on whether to have a plebiscite, without first seeing the detail of what would be enacted in a successful vote.

We have, for example, heard rumours that the version of marriage equality that the government wants to put forward is quite different from what I would support or what the Greens have put forward in their bill today because it supports conscientious exclusions—conscientious objections—for people baking cakes for a wedding, for example, or enables people to refuse to provide services for same-sex couples. These are substantive matters when we look to what kind of vote we have and what kind of question the Australian people and this parliament would be expected to vote on. So there is no detail of what would be enacted upon a successful yes vote.

It is unacceptable to use $15 million worth of taxpayers' dollars to fund 'yes' and 'no' committees, adding to the already extraordinary cost of a plebiscite. The proposal requires no truth-in-advertising test yet will be seen as being endorsed by the Australia government.

There is also a significantly uneven playing field. For example, religious organisations already enjoy a wide range of tax benefits and concessions that are denied to other entities. Very few LGBTI organisations have comparable tax deductibility status. Limiting tax deductible donations to $1,500 for individuals within the plebiscite process, which is what the government is putting forward, completely exacerbates this unfairness. Religious organisations will be able to funnel money to it, but other parts of the community in favour of marriage equality, because advocacy is not something that is tax deductible in this country, will not.

The question is also unnecessarily complex, and the wording, 'same-sex', fails to be inclusive of all LGBTI relationships. For example, it is extremely misleading to use the term 'same-sex' when some of the people who are excluded from marriage equality are intersex—that is, they are biologically of indeterminate sex, biologically of both sexes or biologically of neither sex, and that is their physical sex characteristic. So it is simply a nonsense to talk about 'same-sex' because you are excluding people who are not—so female-female, male-male or male and female—from that definition because their biological sex is none of those things. So you are indeed putting forward a technical nonsense in that regard. Many of these people have had their gender legally recognised by the states as 'of indeterminate gender' or as 'of both genders', for example.

In addition, there have been media reports that the question has been crafted, indeed, to improve the chances of a 'no' vote. And that I find extremely troubling.

The package also provides no strategies or funding to address the considerable concern about the impact of the plebiscite, as I have already highlighted, on LGBTI communities, our families and our friends. Indeed, we have already seen reports—as I have already seen on my Facebook feed and heard in personal communication—of a high level of distress being experienced from even the very nature of this debate.

A plebiscite is an opinion poll and nothing more. The substantive issue still has to come back to parliament for debate and a vote, regardless of the outcome, through a bill like the one we have before us today. And, even then, MPs and senators will have a conscience vote.

So a plebiscite, in my view, will foster acrimonious debate, split communities, divide church congregations and embattle families. If members of parliament—members and senators—were entitled to a free vote on the issue of marriage equality, a bill would pass this place and LGBTI Australians would be equal under the law.