BILLS;Plebiscite (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill 2016;Second Reading – 07 Nov 2016

I rise tonight to speak on the Plebiscite (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill 2016, a bill which, if passed, will give effect to the most wasteful political exercise certainly that I can remember and probably in Australian history: Australia’s largest ever taxpayer-funded, non-binding opinion poll.

As others in this place would know, I have, over time, changed my view regarding marriage equality. I have come to support it after careful thought and reflection and after speaking to many same-sex couples, including among friends, family and my Tasmanian constituents, and hearing what marriage equality would mean to them. I believe we need a pathway to marriage equality in Australia but that this bill is not the way to achieve it. Not only is it a monumental waste of money at a time when there are far greater needs; it will serve as a platform for hate speech, even though many of those supporting a plebiscite disagree. Only today, in my office here in Canberra, I received in the mail—and I am sure many other senators did and probably members in the other place too—a pink document that said the most atrocious things about the effect that same-sex marriage would have. I was going to bring it in and read it but, to be honest, I actually felt sick when I read it. I tore it up and put it in the rubbish bin.

I believe that, rather than achieving the desired outcome, this bill would likely delay it. What makes this expensive and wasteful exercise all the more galling is that for the past seven years those opposite have been lecturing Labor about fiscal responsibility: those opposite, who are now overseeing a net debt of $296 billion, $77 billion more than it was predicted to be when Labor left office; those opposite, who have more than doubled last financial year’s deficit from a projected $17 billion in their first budget to almost $40 billion now. And what hour did they choose to break the news that they had blown out the deficit? Close of business on a Friday. I will not digress to speak of all the announcements we have had from this government at close of business on a Friday, but let me just say this: as it was explained in the TV drama The West Wing, Friday is known as ‘take out the trash day’. It describes a media management strategy where as much bad news as possible is released on a Friday in the hope it will get buried in the flood and because, it is alleged, fewer people read the papers on a Saturday.

Labor are willing to take a cooperative approach to budget repair, but we are not going to be lectured by a government that tells us we need to tighten our belts and then proposes to waste over $170 million to outsource a decision that should be made by this parliament. We believe in budget repair that is fair, but those opposite have their priorities all wrong. Spending $170 million or more on a non-binding national opinion poll is clearly the wrong priority. At the same time, this government is doing almost nothing to crack down on multinational tax avoidance, overly generous superannuation concessions for those on high incomes, or negative gearing. Despite trying to make the most vulnerable and disadvantaged people in Australia do the heavy lifting on budget repair, this government wants to waste $170 million on a non-binding plebiscite.

We were led to believe, when Mr Turnbull rolled Mr Abbott for the prime ministership, that we would have a different approach to leadership; that Mr Turnbull would have the courage of his convictions and pursue those issues that he truly believed in—like real action on climate change, like an Australian republic and like marriage equality. Instead, we got a continuation of Mr Abbott’s policies, but with a slightly better dressed salesman. The really embarrassing reality for Mr Turnbull on the plebiscite is that it is not his policy; it is Mr Abbott’s policy. As I said, it is an expensive and wasteful delaying tactic cooked up by the conservatives in the Liberal Party to delay marriage equality.

We know from statements prior to becoming Prime Minister that a free vote in parliament would be Mr Turnbull’s preferred approach. But, as with so many other issues, Mr Turnbull has had to roll over to the right wing in his party. He has had to forfeit his convictions in exchange for their support for his leadership. It has left so many Australians looking at last year’s leadership coup and scratching their heads thinking, ‘What was that all about? What was the point of Mr Turnbull becoming Prime Minister? And who is the real Malcolm Turnbull anyway?’ Mr Turnbull may claim to have won the election, but, in the words of former Treasurer Peter Costello, Mr Turnbull’s government is ‘in office but not in power’. We saw an example of that when the government’s so-called workable majority in the House of Representatives crumbled in the first week of parliament. Despite his narrow win in the last election, Mr Turnbull was severely wounded. He does not command the authority within his party to lead it. Instead, he is letting his party lead him. If he had the courage and the authority to lead his party to stare down the conservatives, then he would be bringing on a free vote instead of pursuing a wasteful and expensive plebiscite that he does not really support. But, like an old book that is falling apart, we all know Mr Turnbull has lost his spine.

Not only is the plebiscite a waste of money but it will serve as a platform for hateful and divisive comments that call into question the legitimacy of same-sex relationships and the legitimacy of families with same-sex parents. Australian Marriage Equality, in a fact sheet on the plebiscite, has pointed out that this is the experience in marriage equality votes overseas. Research into US states that held referenda on marriage equality found that amongst LGBTI communities there was a 37 percent increase in mood disorders, a 42 percent increase in alcohol use disorders and a 248 percent increase in generalised anxiety disorders. At the same time as these states experienced an increase in mental health issues, there were no significant impact on the mental health of LGBTI people in states that achieved marriage equality without a statewide poll. So the fact is: no matter how hard you try to achieve a respectful debate marriage, equality referenda and plebiscites serve as a platform for anti-gay hate speech.

There is a very real concern about the implications that this could have for the mental health of LGBTI Australians if the Turnbull government’s proposed plebiscite goes ahead. As Dr Patrick McGorry observed in a recent press conference:

We know when these campaigns are held in the public domain, like in the US and in Ireland, the risk does goes up. There is evidence to support that, so this is a dangerous thing to be doing to actually give a free rein to this sort of debate. It will harm peoples’ mental health, there is no doubt about that.

So if the no case in a marriage equality plebiscite can restrain themselves from hurtful comment—comments which call into question the legitimacy of people’s families and relationships—then why on earth do they need to suspend provisions of anti-discrimination legislation, as some have requested?

Yet, this bill is not only offering a platform for such hurtful and discriminatory comments but proposing to fund it with taxpayers’ money. Struggling Australians are justified in asking why they are being called on to make sacrifices in the name of budget repair when this government wants to spend over $170 million on an opinion poll. If the government had their way in their first budget, pensioners would have had their pensions cut by $80 a week, university students would be paying up to $100,000 for a university degree and unemployed Australians would be waiting for six months to receive Newstart with nothing to live on but fresh air.

Imagine what else the Turnbull government could do with $200 million if they abandoned this folly. With $170 million you could run a community grants program and give $1 million to every House of Representatives member to spend in their electorate. In fact, this is exactly how the Stronger Communities Program operates. Scrapping the plebiscite would save enough money to fund eight or nine rounds of Stronger Communities. Another use for $170 million would be to return the $115 million of funding this government has stripped from the CSIRO, with plenty of change to spare. I have spoken many times in this place about the government’s disastrous cuts to the arts and the impact on the Australian economy and society. One hundred and seventy million dollars would return about over half of the funds they have ripped away from the arts sector and restore much of the damage the government have inflicted on our arts industry.

I have also spoken several times in this place about the dire situation facing Palliative Care Tasmania in my home state and their community education program. A mere $2.3 million would fund Palliative Care Tasmania’s community education program for another four years and another $100 million or so would be enough to role out the program nationally, vastly improving the end-of-life care experience for thousands of Australians. Also in my home state of Tasmania with just over half the cost of the plebiscite the government could restore the $100 million they cut from funding to the upgrade of the Midland Highway or restore the Gonski funding to Tasmania for the 2018 and 2019 school years. So there are lots of things we could be doing with that money.

How can those opposite convince the Australian people of the need for an expensive taxpayer-funded opinion poll when they themselves are divided on the details? We have heard that Senator Brandis, the Attorney-General and minister who has carriage of this issue, was rolled by the conservatives in the cabinet on the issue of public funding. Senator Paterson recently said quite openly in a doorstop that he did not think that either side should be funded and that he did not believe taxpayers should be running political campaigns. And Senator Smith has said he would either abstain or cross the floor on this plebiscite bill—not to mention those like Senator Abetz who have mentioned that, no matter the result, they will not be bound.

I reject the argument by those opposite that the plebiscite represents a pathway to achieving marriage equality, because it clearly does not. If the plebiscite was the best, or the only, way in which marriage equality could be achieved then we could have a debate about whether it is worth the expense; but it is not. If the plebiscite was a viable pathway to achieving marriage equality then it would be overwhelmingly embraced by the LGBTI community; but it is not.

Dianne Hinton, the national president of Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, said:

The notion that our families will become a national discussion, something to be judged by strangers, to us is appalling.

And it is to me too. A joint statement of over 50 LGBTI representative groups had this to say on the bill that we are currently debating:

Our expectation has always been that should a plebiscite proceed, parliament would ensure a fair and reasonable plebiscite process that recognises the impact of this national conversation. Unfortunately, the plebiscite machinery legislation now presented by the government is neither. Indeed it is unfair, unjust and unworkable—

The groups then went on to provide the following concerns about the government’s plebiscite approach—

No government amendments to the Marriage Act have been provided as yet, nor are they guaranteed to come into effect following a successful Yes vote. It is unreasonable to expect the community and the parliament to vote on a plebiscite without first seeing the detail of what will be enacted upon a successful vote.

It is unacceptable to use $15 million of tax-payer dollars to fund the YES and NO committees, adding to the already extraordinary cost of the plebiscite. The proposal requires no truth-in-advertising test, yet will be seen as being endorsed by the Australian Government.

The Government’s bill will create an uneven playing field. Religious organisations already enjoy a range of tax benefits and concessions denied to other entities. Few LGBTI organisation have comparable tax deductibility status. Limiting tax-deductible donations to $1500 for individuals will exacerbate this unfairness.

The question is unnecessarily complex and the wording ‘same-sex’ fails to be fully inclusive of all LGBTI relationships. Media reports that the question has been crafted to improve the chances of a ‘no’ vote are troubling.

The plebiscite package provides no strategies or funding to address the considerable concern about the impact of the plebiscite on LGBTI communities, our families and friends. We have already seen reports of LGBTI Australians distressed.

Given this—

all of the above—

we call on parliament to vote down the plebiscite machinery legislation.

This statement was supported by groups such as Australian Marriage Equality, Working it Out, the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, and the National LGBTI Health Alliance. So if, as this government and particularly Attorney-General Senator Brandis would have you believe, a $170 million taxpayer-funded opinion poll is the best path to achieving marriage equality in Australia then why is it overwhelmingly rejected by the LGBTI community?

In support of the plebiscite we hear arguments that the Republic of Ireland went through a national vote on this issue. But that was a binding referendum not a non-binding plebiscite, and they went through it because it was legally necessary for them to do so in order to achieve marriage equality. Like the exercise in various US states, it served as a platform for hurtful, discriminatory and divisive comments. But, unlike here in Australia, it was necessary to go through the exercise in order to get the job done.

The number of members and senators in this parliament who have said they will not be bound by the result of a plebiscite just goes to show what a wasteful exercise it is. As Justice Michael Kirby pointed out, referring the issue of marriage equality to a plebiscite is ‘simply an endeavour to delay or defeat the measure.’ Justice Kirby said that the government’s proposed plebiscite creates a dangerous precedent in Australia where parliamentarians avoid making decisions on controversial issues and refer them to an expensive popular vote instead.

While Justice Kirby makes a compelling argument for parliament to get on and do its job, another who has made the argument well is the government’s own Senator Smith. As I mentioned before, Senator Smith has signalled his intention to cross the floor on this bill. Senator Smith said that the plebiscite proposal is:

… a willing admission by some that an institution which has served the nation well for 115 years is suddenly, on one issue alone, not up to the job.

Now, I ask these couple of questions: did we have a plebiscite when the Marriage Act was passed in 1961? No, we did not. Did Prime Minister Howard call a plebiscite when he changed the Marriage Act in 2004? No, he did not. Over the past 115 years, 44 Australian parliaments before us have undertaken major economic reform, declared war, signed treaties and made many other decisions that have had a huge impact in shaping our nation—all without a plebiscite.

The last time we had a plebiscite on any issue was almost 100 years ago, and that was on the issue of military conscription. Back then we did not have the benefit of regular opinion polls to give us an insight into what Australians thought on particular issues. Yes, these polls are only a sample and have a certain margin of error. But when you have a series of them overwhelmingly producing the same result it is not unreasonable to draw the conclusion that a plebiscite is almost certain to produce the same outcome. We already know from poll after poll that Australians overwhelmingly support marriage equality, so what is one more poll going to tell us that the others have not?

Even so, I have a fundamental problem with popular opinion being used as a decision-making tool, especially when it comes to issues of basic human rights. That is why we have a representative, deliberative democracy, instead of being captive to popular opinion on every issue. As parliamentarians, we are elected to this place to make these decisions—not to outsource them. Of course, we will hold a national vote when there is a federal election, or when we need to change the Constitution, because it is legally necessary. But in our democratic tradition, parliament makes the decisions it is empowered to, because that is what the Australian people have elected us to do.

If Mr Turnbull truly believes in marriage equality, as he claims to, then all he has to do is bring on the vote—just bring on the vote. With a conscience vote allowed in the Liberal Party, the numbers are there in parliament to achieve marriage equality by the end of this year. So let’s do our job right now. Let’s end this wasteful, farcical exercise and reject the government’s taxpayer-funded opinion poll. Let’s get on with our job as parliamentarians, bring on a bill for marriage equality and vote for it. Let’s embrace the future and legislate for marriage equality.