Marriage Law Amendment Bill (Marriage Equality)

House of Representatives on 4/12/2017

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

It is with pride and joy that I second the motion. I rise to speak on the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017. On 15 November 2017, just past 10 am local time, celebration erupted on the streets of Brisbane as the Australian Statistician announced that the vast majority of Australians had said yes to allowing same-sex couples to marry. At a large gathering in Queen's Park in the CBD, and in cafes and workplaces across Brisbane, people clapped and cheered. They hugged complete strangers, and people cried with a mixture of relief and joy. My partner, Roger, and I shared in that emotion. The 'yes' vote in Brisbane was almost 80 per cent. It was 79.5 per cent, meaning that Brisbane recorded the highest support of any government seat across the country except for the Prime Minister's seat of Wentworth.

When the Statistician was giving his speech that day he also announced in passing that the ABS later that day would be releasing Australia's labour force statistics. Now, it is thought-provoking to imagine a nation tuning in and erupting with the same level of celebration at the release of our employment statistics. They were pretty good job figures after all! But that comparison does reveal the importance of the postal survey results and the significance of marriage equality to so many Australians. It underlines the responsibility that this parliament now has in front of it to respect the clear will of the Australian people by passing this bill this week in a business-like fashion.

That comparison between the postal survey and other statistical releases reveals another serious point: that in the hustle and bustle of life there's possibly too few occasions when Australia stops and pays attention to the operations, the decisions and the news of government. When a national moment like this occurs, there are lessons to be learned for those of us who ponder things like the operation of our democracy, policy-making processes and concepts of good governance.

Why did it take so long for this reform to be achieved when public opinion had shown that the majority of Australians have supported marriage equality for almost a decade?

What precedent did the postal survey set for our parliamentary democracy? And what has the postal survey taught us about how Australians can engage with each other and our parliament?

I wouldn't be the first to observe that reform has been difficult for Australia in this decade. About a year ago, I was on my feet here speaking of my sadness and disappointment that yet another Australian parliament looked set to fail to achieve marriage equality. Despite these years of national debate, this government's plebiscite bill was actually the first time in history there was a government-endorsed bill sitting on that table in front of me. We were the first government ever elected with a mandate containing a path to achieving marriage equality, and we had our Prime Minister—the first in Australia to be consistently in favour of it. And yet, despite all those firsts, that bill was headed for defeat by the usual blockade in the Senate. And those who voted against it had no plan for what would happen next. Essentially, they were content to run the risk that this reform would stall for a long time—possibly, for many years. And of course, that was after some of them had done nothing to achieve marriage equality when they had their chance in government. Now, history, not I, will be the judge of that.

As for me, I'm proud to stand up here today and say that I've played a small role in ending the stalemate on same-sex marriage. It was a path that contained some risks, and, for their strength and their courage on this topic, I want to pay tribute to some of my colleagues: to Senator Dean Smith; to the member for Goldstein, Tim Wilson; to the member for North Sydney, Trent Zimmerman; the member for La Trobe, Jason Wood; and to the irrepressible and legendary member for Leichhardt, fellow Queenslander Warren Entsch.

Those members I just named and I didn't come to this place to focus on same-sex marriage. I came here with a background in small business, with experience in economics and industry, to focus on many of the other important challenges and opportunities that lie ahead of us today. But sometimes one could have been forgiven for thinking otherwise. I can't count the number of times that news stories introduced me as 'the gay MP' before even referring to my seat or my party or my achievements or other attributes.

It's true that this topic does have a deeply personal aspect and I feel very, very strongly about it. But this isn't about me, and it's not about any of us in this parliament. This is about a million other people out there around Australia. For them, we have just created a national watershed moment. Every person out there who might have been questioning themselves or their value, or feeling isolated, lonely and vulnerable, knows now, without any doubt, that the majority of Australians support them and they want them to be equal. Equally, any person out there who might be inclined in the future to say something hurtful or offensive or derogatory to someone in the gay community also now knows that a majority of Australians do not support those views. That's what this means. Australia has just said yes to the inherent worth of every human being who shares our wide brown land. So every Australian who completed their postal survey, and all of us voting here, should know that their vote has contributed and is contributing to a national watershed moment. In this moment, our votes probably do more to beat stigma, homophobia and vulnerability in our society than any rally or any debate we could possibly have contributed to. That's the power of a vote.

I want to specifically thank all Australians—and, in particular, the people of Brisbane—for their strong support of this process. I couldn't be more humbled by or grateful for the support of Brisbane.

It's important to note—and it's a point I want to make very strongly—that the postal survey result was so comprehensive because Liberals and Nationals around the country voted yes. I've always maintained confidence that Australians would be responsible about exercising their freedom. And that faith in Australians was rewarded. I believe it's one of the salient lessons about our democracy to draw from this process. The vast majority of Australians wanted to have their say, clearly, yet it was a subject that only directly impacted a minority, and the majority of Australians wished to express their support for them. Almost all Australians did express their support. They engaged in debates and they discussed the topic of marriage in their workplaces and in their homes freely and constructively. And it was only a very small and atypical minority who didn't appreciate that their freedom of speech came with responsibilities and who crossed some lines with their individual conduct.

Our free speech doesn't force you to listen to other people or force other people to listen to you or agree with you. Freedom of speech isn't a shield from criticism and it's not a shield from other views. Reasonable people can disagree. And in this debate, the power of liberal democracy and the disinfecting nature of transparency have proved once again their enduring strength.

Also, very importantly, democracy doesn't mean that we always get what we want. It means that we respect the result. I profess to holding mixed views about the process of the postal survey, yet I must admit that it surprised me along the way, and credit must be given to the ABS and to the Acting Special Minister of State, Mathias Cormann, for their management of the process. Many fears thought-provoking, and the result was beyond question. And I do look forward to a future opportunity to outline my thoughts on how a plebiscite or a postal process might sit alongside our parliamentary democratic traditions. I note Menzies' eloquent words on his views on parliamentary democracy in some of his less-well-read speeches that he gave in the 'forgotten people' series. In particular, I think it's important for all of us to reflect on how such a mechanism might be used sparingly and in exceptional circumstances only into the future.

I want to make the point that thousands of young people around Australia enrolled to vote for the first time because of this postal survey. This was their first brush with democracy, and for some of them it might have been a confronting lesson. Yet I hope some younger people who haven't witnessed much of the alternative approaches to democracy around the world have had cause to pause and reflect about what this episode can teach us. It may have been a frustrating process for the time and the context that we find ourselves in, yet it was a process that unquestionably landed with the right outcome. I want to make a point for those young people who are growing up in a world where self-gratification is instant and we have iPhones, social media and credit cards to buy the latest fashion trends. Democracy is slow. Reform is sometimes frustrating. Democracy is a messy process. And yet, if you involve yourself in the process of democracy, as you have in this process, our democracy will be a stronger one.

This is a good bill, and I was pleased to contribute to its drafting alongside some of my colleagues and its principal architect, Senator Dean Smith. My signature has been on this bill since it was circulated to colleagues back in early August. This is a bill that started with an exposure draft prepared by our Attorney-General, Senator George Brandis, last year. It faithfully implements the findings of a Senate review and the unanimous findings by senators right across the political spectrum following the consultation they performed with the input and the agreement of a long list of religious and community organisations across Australia. This is a bill that finds a good balance between the need to protect important religious freedoms and still implement the clear will of the Australian people to change the Marriage Act to allow same-sex couples to marry.

This bill contains specific protections for religious organisations. It contains protections for individual ministers of religion even if they're acting outside the tenets of their organised religion. It contains protections for civil celebrants; for chaplains; and for businesses, organisations and other bodies if they're set up predominantly for a religious purpose. I accept that not all religious organisations agree with this bill and neither do all the gay advocacy groups, but this bill does have the blessing of many of the religious organisations and gay advocacy groups that are capable of reaching agreement on this matter. This bill has that support because it does not open any new forms of discrimination and, equally, it does not remove any religious freedoms or protections.

In conclusion, it's with pride, joy and love that I second this motion. It's a good bill. It strikes a good balance. And it enjoys wide support across our community. Now that the Brisbane community and the broader Australian community have voiced their strong support for same-sex marriage, it's time for us in this parliament to do our bit this week in a businesslike fashion.