BILLS;Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017 – 27 Nov 2017

I would like to reiterate Senator Moore’s comments in regard to Senator Smith. Senator Smith, you have shown great courage in bringing this matter forward and I do congratulate you on that. You have done an amazing thing for so many people within Australia. I think you’ll go down in history—and I’m proud for you to do that. So there you go!

It’s clear to the vast majority of Australians that it’s time that marriage equality was finally legislated. We have seen this issue delayed by the government for far too long. Too many people have had their rights denied for too long and too many people have been hurt by this debate. On 15 November 2017 the Australian Bureau of Statistics revealed that over 60 per cent of Australians supported a change in the law to allow same-sex couples to marry, and the results of the survey confirmed what we already knew from a string of published opinion polls—that Australians overwhelming supported an end to discrimination of same-sex couples when it comes to our marriage law. Not only did the government waste over $100 million on telling parliament something that we already knew but they also ignored warnings about how holding a national plebiscite or survey would encourage homophobic hate speech and increase anxiety for LGBTIQ Australians.

Labor warned the government that there would be consequences from this wasteful and expensive public opinion poll, and we warned that it would lead to an increase in anxiety and mental health issues for LGBTIQ Australians. There was already evidence of this experience from the polls held in other jurisdictions such as the Republic of Ireland and certain states of the US. We had the warnings from mental health experts, such as Dr Patrick McGorry. As expected, the LGBTIQ services reported a spike in calls, with young people, in particular, expressing anxiety over the possible results of the survey. I had young people talk to me about concerns they had right from the moment that this survey was put into action in regard to them being bullied or treated unfairly. They were serious concerns. People had friends who were talking about committing suicide. I think this has been one of the most devastating actions that I’ve seen in the time that I’ve been in this parliament. I don’t think the government really understood what was going to happen. The national mental health organisation ReachOut reported a 20 per cent increase in people accessing their LGBTIQ support services, with young people asking questions like, ‘Am I a freak?’, and, ‘Will I be accepted?’ If those opposite think that the outcome of the survey and the high participation rate vindicate their decision to hold the poll, then I think they need to think again.

In preparation for my contribution on this bill, I had a look back at my speech on the plebiscite bill in 2016 and the things I said then about the government’s proposed plebiscite. In that speech, I pointed out that despite the expectation that many Australians would conduct the debate in a respectful manner it would serve as a platform for hateful and divisive comments that call into question the legitimacy of same-sex relationships. And it did. I said it would lead to an increase in anxiety and mental health problems for LGBTIQ Australians. And it did. I said it would waste millions of dollars on telling us something that we already knew from a series of published opinion polls—the view of mainstream Australia. And guess what? It did. Like many other Australians who answered yes, I completed and sent my form in not because I believed the survey was a useful exercise but because there was a need to send a strong message to my colleagues across the chamber that the Australian public truly wanted change.

I’m very excited and really pleased that 61 per cent of Australians who completed the survey voted to end discrimination against LGBTIQ couples. I’m proud and pleased to live in an Australia that embraces same-sex couples, gives legitimacy to their relationships, upholds their rights and recognises that their love is love—that their love is equal to the love I have for my husband. I’m proud to live in an Australia that rejects the idea that LGBTIQ people should be treated as second-class citizens. I’m also proud to represent a state, my home state of Tasmania, which returned a ‘yes’ response of 63.6 per cent, which was higher that the national average.

While the result of the survey was a proud moment for Australia, I still say the exercise itself was a shameful one for the Turnbull government. It showed that we have a divided government with a weak leader. Let’s not forget that the reason we had that survey was the leader—the leader who would outsource the decision-making on a reform that he had already expressed personal support for, because he lacked the courage and the authority to stand up to the conservatives in his party. But I am pleased that we’re finally on the verge of legislating for marriage equality. We’ve taken far too long to get here and we could have done it without that survey.

During my time in this place, I’ve had the opportunity to debate two other bills to legislate for marriage equality. I also participated in the debate on the government’s plebiscite bill. The first marriage equality bill I debated was in 2012. Since that time, a number of senators in this place and members in the other place have publicly declared that they have changed their position from one of opposition to marriage equality to one of support. I’m really proud to say today—and I’ve said it previously; people have known for a long time now—that I am one of those senators. I came to the view, after a very long period of consultation and some deep contemplation, that marriage equality is a necessary reform. I did not take my decision lightly. Marriage equality is one of the issues I’ve received the most correspondence on. It has given me an opportunity to read detailed arguments both in favour and against. I’ve also had the opportunity to talk to family and friends—some of whom would be affected by this change—and to hear what marriage equality means to them. So I’m no longer convinced by the argument that marriage is some immutable institution that has stood the test of time; it is one that should reflect the values of contemporary society.

In the brief history of Australia since colonisation, there have been shifts in our attitudes to marriage rights. I recently came across an article published on ABC online by prominent Tasmanian and LGBTIQ rights activist Rodney Croome AM, who came to see me in my office last week. We had a great meeting about the issues here this week. Rodney outlined Australia’s history of marriage discrimination. For example, certain governors of Australia’s penal colony used permission to marry as a reward for convicts who conformed to certain behaviours. After the end of World War II, Australian servicemen in occupied Japan were denied permission to marry Japanese women, because they would be unable to return to Australia with their Japanese wives due to the White Australia policy. In 1959, while the House of Representatives was debating Australia’s first Marriage Act, they erupted at news that the Protector of Aborigines in Darwin had refused an Aboriginal woman permission to marry her white fiance, leading the Menzies government to promise that such discrimination would never be written into marriage law.

These examples of discrimination, which I know would be abhorrent to all of us today, show that we have accepted change to our law and our understanding of the institution of marriage over time. I believe the shift in attitudes on marriage equality by members and senators in this parliament is symptomatic of a shift in the attitude of society as a whole. The 2004 amendment to Australia’s Marriage Act, defining marriage as the union between a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, was only considered after it was suggested that the word ‘marriage’ could mean anything else. Up until then, a definition had not been considered, because, for many decades, society had simply assumed without question that marriage was an exclusively heterosexual institution. I doubt that the idea of marriage between couples of the same sex had been contemplated by the authors of section 51 of Australia’s Constitution or by the parliamentarians who voted the 1961 Marriage Act into law, but the idea reflects our changing attitudes towards same-sex relationships.

We once had state and territory based laws targeted at same-sex couples that outlawed certain sex acts, and I doubt there is anyone in this place today, including opponents of marriage equality, who thinks that laws such as these are now acceptable, yet there was a time when very few in society questioned or challenged these laws, which have now been repealed in every jurisdiction. These repeals have been followed by further Commonwealth, state and territory reforms conferring equal rights on same-sex couples in areas like adoption, estate law, superannuation, immigration, taxation and social security, and I’m proud to have been part of the Labor government that made significant reforms to repeal discrimination against same-sex couples. I’m proud that, despite dragging its feet on decriminalisation of same-sex acts, my home state of Tasmania then led the way on same-sex law reform in 2003.

Over time, Australians have come to accept that same-sex couples do not pose a threat to our society or our way of life, and our laws have caught up with this understanding. It has taken a bit more time to accept that same-sex couples have equal rights, and once again our law has caught up. But now we’re at the point where we can accept not only that same-sex couples should be granted equal rights but that they deserve equal recognition. Today, in this place, with this bill, we are presented with the opportunity for our law to catch up with a truth that is widely acknowledged by Australian society.

My husband, Robert, and I didn’t marry just to have legal recognition of our relationship. We married each other because of a deep love and the desire to publicly express that love through a lasting commitment. Thinking back to that commitment, which was a few decades ago, and considering everything we have been through together since—and we’ve been through some pretty tough times—I can’t help but wonder how we would feel if we had been denied permission to marry. Then I think about the same-sex couples I know. I can see their love and commitment is just as deep and their shared life together is just as profound as ours.

Marriage is symbolic as well as legal, but couples being allowed to marry can lead to their relationships between treated very differently by society, including by people in authority. This was well illustrated a few years back, in 2015, when Hobart man Ben published his story in the Tasmanian Examiner. I know it has been mentioned before in this place, but I just want to reiterate it. Ben’s partner took his own life and the police notified him that his partner’s mother would be recognised as his next of kin. Ben was advised by the coroner’s office that he could not be recognised as his partner’s next of kin if their relationship was not registered. Ben was denied access to his partner’s body in hospital and, despite his partner expressing a wish to be cremated in Hobart, he was buried in his hometown of Ulverstone. Ben found out when the funeral was by word of mouth. When he got in touch with his partner’s family, they agreed to let him attend on the condition that he sat up the back and didn’t say anything. This was in 2015.

The experience made him feel worthless as a person. Ben didn’t realise until it was too late that, as a significant partner, he was entitled to be recognised as his partner’s next of kin under Tasmanian law and he’d been given the wrong advice. By the time he had received legal advice to this effect, his partner’s body had already been released to the family. The most difficult part of this experience was that he was dealing with bureaucracy at a time when he should have been grieving. As Ben explained then:

A marriage certificate would have put my legal rights beyond any doubt with no room left for prejudice or ignorance.

His story demonstrates that the love and commitment shared by same-sex couples is of no less value than the love and commitment shared by heterosexual couples. But the law as it still currently stands sends a clear message to these couples that their relationship and their love for each other is somehow inferior to that of mine and my husband and that their relationship is less worthy of recognition. When our law sends this message to same-sex couples, how can they help but feel like their country is treating them as second-class citizens?

I’m going to run out of time today, but I’d just quickly like to take a bit of time to address another argument that opponents of marriage equality often raise. That is the argument about the rights of children. I’ve had a number of constituents contact me recently pointing to a 2012 US study that found that children with same-sex parents fare worse on a range of emotional and socioeconomic outcomes when compared to the children of heterosexual parents. This follows correspondence from several constituents who have told me that children have the right to be raised by a mother and a father and that I should ‘think of the children’ when considering my vote on marriage equality.

The US study I referred to, called The new family structures study, and its peer review have been heavily criticised by academics and medical organisations, including the American Psychological Association. One of the key criticisms of the study was that it was unable to show that the observed differences were caused by same-sex parenting and failed—for children of lesbian couples, for example—to isolate effects of past experiences such as divorce, remarriage or living with a single parent. This study is at odds with the overwhelming weight of evidence that children of same-sex parents are no worse off. That was the finding of 75 out of 79 studies evaluated by the Columbia Law School’s literature review, which found that children of same-sex couples fare no worse than other children.

The published research aligns with my own personal experience. I previously worked for over a decade as an early childhood educator. My clients were children of heterosexual couples. Some of the couples lived together, some were separated, some were divorced and some were in de facto relationships, but they were all heterosexual couples—as far as I know—over that time span. I cared for a number of children who showed clear signs of abuse and neglect, and who were obviously deeply affected by their experiences at home. It broke my heart to see the trauma that some of these children were going through.

By contrast, I know a number of same-sex couples who are wonderful parents and they have happy, healthy, well-adjusted children. I could name Ollie and Dave, Steve and Hayden, and Senator Penny Wong and her partner. I’ve met all their kids. I know Ollie and Dave’s kids really well; I know Steve and Hayden’s kids well. They are well-adjusted kids. The truth is that gender doesn’t matter when it comes to raising children effectively. What matters and what is really critical is being a loving, caring, responsible and capable parent. If you can’t accept this evidence, at least concede this: surely it is better for a child to be in a family environment where they are loved and nurtured rather than an environment where they are abused and neglected, regardless of the gender of their parents.

The other flaw in the ‘think of the children’ argument is that thousands of same-sex couples are already raising children and will continue to do so even if the opponents of marriage equality get their way. Jo, who wrote to Tasmanian members of parliament back in 2012 in support of marriage equality legislation before the Tassie parliament, made exactly this point about her family. She wrote:

We find it strange to listen to conversations about hypothetical ‘children of same sex parents’, as they already exist and have done so for some time.

Our [son] is by no means rare or unusual.

… He knows that we are a family, and I wish there was a way to share with you just how typical we are.

We have a puppy, we sing songs in the car, cry when sad things happen, say grace at meal times, get angry about injustice, look out for our neighbours.

We are just like you.

Now that we’re on the verge of achieving this historic reform, the ‘no’ campaigners, the conservatives in the ranks of the Liberal and National Parties, are trying to throw up some red herrings under the guise of protecting religious freedoms.

This reform is well overdue, and the seven million Australians who indicated their support for it will want to see it happen as soon as possible. They are calling for marriage equality—no more, no less—but with no delays and no excuses. It would be extremely unfortunate, if not ironic, if we accepted the Australian people’s will to remove one form of discrimination only to replace it with another. Let’s be clear—if we were to accept what several conservatives from the government are proposing, then we would actually be taking a step backward when it comes to protecting LGBTIQ Australians from discrimination.

We know that some same-sex couples already hold marriage-like ceremonies to demonstrate their love and commitment to each other, and have done so for decades in the absence of marriage equality. Some of them even call it a wedding. Others call it a commitment ceremony. While these ceremonies may not result in a marriage under Australian law, they still require the services of florists, cake decorators, chauffeurs, DJs and a range of other suppliers. Should any of these suppliers refuse to serve a couple on the basis of their sexual orientation, they would be breaking the law. There is no argument for allowing suppliers to refuse service to same-sex couples wishing to get married, any more than there is for allowing refusal based on race, religion, disability, physical appearance or any other attribute on which discrimination is currently deemed unlawful.

What appears to have been broadly accepted in this parliament, across all parties, is that ministers of religion should have the choice not to marry same-sex couples on religious grounds. This exemption is in the bill currently before parliament, and I’m personally satisfied that this is sufficient protection for religious freedom. The provisions in this bill for protection of religious freedoms are those that were unanimously agreed to by coalition, Labor, Greens and Nick Xenophon Team senators in a Senate inquiry report. I see no need for exemptions that go beyond what is encompassed in that report, or the bill currently before parliament. Australia has sent a strong message, and that message is: get on with the job. It’s our job; we need to get on with it. The sky will not fall. The time for marriage equality is now, and I commend the bill to the Senate.