Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017 Second Reading Speech

 29 November 2017

I rise in support of this bill for marriage equality, the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017. Two weeks ago the Australian people delivered a strong statement about equality by voting emphatically in favour of legalising same-sex marriage in Australia. It was a momentous statement to the LGBTI Australians that the broader Australian community accepts them for who they are. I say to my friends and colleagues and all those Australians for whom this decision represents a massive, strongly fought for milestone: I'm overjoyed that Australia has said yes. This was truly a wonderful moment for Australia. I want to thank the Australian people. I want to thank all those across this great country who voted yes, who campaigned for marriage equality and who made their voices heard on this important issue.

I cannot imagine the relief and joy that members of the LGBTI community in Australia must have felt when the announcement was made on 15 November. It was a proud day for Australia. Here in Parliament House as the Senate was sitting those in favour of a 'yes' outcome gathered in a committee room to watch the results come in from the ABS Australian Statistician. It was, indeed, a really uplifting and emotional occasion when finally he read out the results, albeit he did take his time. We had cakes, tears, champagne and cheers.

I want to echo the sentiment of Senator Wong that this result is a profoundly important statement to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer Australians that they are accepted for who they are, that they too belong and that their love and families are equal. Unfortunately, the remarkable and joyous occasion of the 'yes' verdict does not detract from the long and difficult journey that the Australian LGBTI community have gone through. This has been a hard time for the LGBTI community, and we have all heard not just the personal stories of abuse but the stories of families fractured because of their different views.

Now that the postal survey has finally finished and the result has been an overwhelming and emphatic yes, it is time for the opponents of same-sex marriage to get out of the way and let us do what is right. For too long Australia's LGBTI community has been denied a fair go. There are no more excuses for inaction. Everyone deserves the right to marry the person they love. Now we have the responsibility here in this parliament to make that happen.

In my home state of Tasmania 20 years ago homosexuality was actually a criminal offence. We were the last state in Australia to have such a law. Only 20 years ago that changed and it was decriminalised. It took a challenge to the United Nations Human Rights Committee by Rodney Croome and his then partner, Nick Toonen, before we became the last state to remove our homophobic criminal laws. How far our state has come since then: in 1999 Tasmania enacted laws protecting LGBTI people from discrimination through our landmark Anti-Discrimination Act; in 2003 we established a same-sex relationship register as a precursor to marriage; and in 2013 Tasmania legislated to give full adoption rights to same-sex couples. This all happened under state Labor governments.

Now today as a Tasmanian Labor senator I will vote in favour of same-sex marriage in the Australian Senate. In voting for marriage equality I vote representing Tasmanians who overwhelmingly responded in support of same-sex marriage in the voluntary postal survey. In Tasmania the result of the postal survey was a landslide—191,948 Tasmanians voted yes. Of all Tasmanian responders 63.6 per cent voted yes, putting us ahead of the national average of 61.6 per cent. The love and respect for equality for all that has been demonstrated by Tasmanians in their support, in their strong turnout and in their strong 'yes' vote is indeed remarkable. I'm proud to say that more than 45,000 people in my electorate of Denison responded yes, which represents 73.8 per cent. This result was almost on par with the 'yes' vote here in Canberra and was the 14th best across all Australian electorates. Throughout Tasmania the result was an overwhelming yes. I'm beyond proud that every single electorate in my state voted in favour of same-sex marriage.

So how far Tasmania has come! Twenty years ago homosexuality was still illegal in Tasmania; it was indeed a crime. Today we can state unequivocally that the vast majority of Tasmanians support equality for LGBTI Tasmanians. The 'yes' campaign in Tasmania was principled, positive and inclusive. Volunteers came from all walks of life to stand for equality. In Hobart, local businesses had 'yes' posters in their shop windows, pubs hosted events, and I even saw rainbow colours on cats and dogs. This result is a profound statement of love and acceptance by Australians. It is a clear mandate to end discrimination and to end it now. The Labor Party has a long history of bringing an end to discrimination. It was under Labor governments that the White Australia policy was finally abolished, that legislation against discrimination based on race, sex and disability was introduced, and that discrimination against same-sex couples in many areas of law was also removed.

These changes never come easy. Equality only comes with a fight, and it is important to thank those who fight tirelessly to achieve it. Labor fought fiercely against the Turnbull government's proposal for a plebiscite on marriage equality. We knew it would be divisive for Australians, but once it was guaranteed to proceed Labor knew it was necessary to fight and to win. Labor owes its efforts over the past few months to the tireless work of strong figures in the Labor Party like Penny Wong, Tanya Plibersek, Bill Shorten, Louise Pratt and the many others who worked and fought tirelessly for equality. While the results of the postal survey have been overwhelming, let us not forget the terrible thing this survey has done. This survey has divided Australians and provided a voice for the worst and most despicable homophobic abuse. We've seen the 'no' campaign run a campaign that has attacked parents and alienated children. They didn't tackle the issue of marriage. Instead, they ran a fear campaign that had nothing to do with marriage. Their actions have harmed all Australians. Senator Wong said it well when she said:

When the LGBTIQ community is diminished in this way, the entire Australian community is diminished. Indeed, when any in our community are diminished in this way, be they our First Australians, people of different ethnicities, people of different religions or people of different sexualities, the whole Australian community is diminished—because we are one people, because we stand together to uphold the principle of a fair go, because the rule of law applies to all of us equally.

So, my heart goes out to the LGBTI community who have been subjected to the questioning and judgement of their relationships. They have shown incredible courage and resilience not just over the last few months but over decades, campaigning for recognition and the basic rights that we—each of us—take for granted. To my friends that have had to travel to New Zealand to get married, that have themselves experienced that discrimination here in Australia and that have fought for change, today I stand in this place in support of you and your rights for equality.

Not only has this survey been deeply hurtful for LGBTI Australians; it has been a blatant abdication of this government's responsibility and a waste of $100 million of taxpayers' money—money that could have been better spent on mental health services for the LGBTI community, a group that we know is more likely to be at risk of mental illness and suicide as a result of the entrenched discrimination that they face. Or it could have been better spent tackling homelessness on our streets, or supporting other important social services. It was the parliament where this should have been voted on and legislated. It was not necessary to have this postal survey, and making Australians go through this process was an abdication by the government of its responsibilities. Despite that, the government has been told loud and clear what I think most of us in this place already knew—that Australians want marriage equality.

It has also been disheartening to witness the actions of conservatives who have attempted to use this momentous occasion to legislate protections not against discrimination but in favour of it. This is an opportunity for love, not hate. We need to be focusing on how we can reduce and remove discrimination in Australia, not finding new ways to entrench it. It beggars belief that, under Prime Minister Turnbull's weak leadership, the conservative members of the coalition have controlled every step of this process. They are the ones that pushed for the disingenuous postal plebiscite that we didn't want or need, and now they're trying to use this predictable and overwhelming result in favour of same-sex marriage to try to push us backwards. The Prime Minister continues to let them lead the government, and that is an absolute shame. Australia will not accept that. Australians have spoken, and they have said loudly and clearly that they want less discrimination, that they want same-sex marriage to be legislated by this parliament.

I recognise that there is a small percentage of Australians that have reservations, but I say to them that this bill provides the appropriate protections for them and those people. This bill is already a compromise. This bill has gone through a cross-party support process, through a Senate inquiry, that has come out with a report, which this bill follows from, not including provisions which are inconsistent with existing antidiscrimination law. It is so important to recognise that the Senate inquiry into this bill that we are debating and voting on already settled on a compromise. The compromise is already there. It does not need to be amended with further compromises to entrench further discrimination.

On that, I think it is very important to recognise that we are trying here to legislate for marriage equality while preserving important antidiscrimination protections for LGBTI Australians, not entrenching them further. Fiona McLeod, the Law Council of Australia president, said very clearly:

The people of Australia were asked if they wanted same-sex couples to marry and they have delivered a resounding 'yes'. They have not been asked if Australians' anti-discrimination protections should be wound back. This important distinction should be front of mind to all Parliamentarians.

Ms McLeod went on to say:

Australians have voted for marriage equality, they have not voted to erode anti-discrimination protections.

Freedom from discrimination is a fundamental human right.

Discrimination on arbitrary grounds, including sexual orientation is contrary to Australia’s international human rights obligations.

I ask senators who want to come into this place and move amendments to recognise those words from the president of the Law Council of Australia and to recognise the rigorous process that this bill has already gone through in the Senate committee inquiry. I call on them to think before they come into this place and try to attempt to wind back the protections against discrimination to LGBTI Australians that we currently have—that is not what this is about—and to also recognise what Australians have voted for in this marriage postal survey.

Australia stands on the brink of joining some 24 or more other nations in the world, representing more than 840 million people, in legalising same-sex marriage. It is disappointing that, having led the world on so many progressive issues, we are the ones who have lagged behind on this issue. But, finally, we have a piece of legislation that I hope will pass—and that I look forward to passing—this parliament. I want to recognise the work of Senator Dean Smith, and that of other senators who have joined his bill, in ensuring that we have a piece of legislation that can pass this parliament, that does provide the balance needed to pass this parliament, to provide marriage equality for Australians and to provide the protections that get that balance right. And it is that bill that we need to pass, not any watered-down, amended form.

Now it's time to finally join the right side of history on this issue and to demonstrate our nation's love and acceptance for Australians, regardless of gender, identity or sexuality. There are no more hurdles; there are no more excuses for delay. Australians have made their opinions clear. The Australian people have embraced acceptance and respect for our differences. We will not allow ourselves to be diminished as a country by discrimination. Now it is time for parliament to do its job. It's time for marriage equality.