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Monday, 21 November 2011
Page: 9019

Senator CAROL BROWN (TasmaniaDeputy Government Whip in the Senate) (15:53): I am pleased to have the opportunity to contribute to this debate and to again put on record my support for marriage equality. A lot of what Senator Hanson-Young said in her contribution today I support. But for the Labor Party it is our national conference, not this debate today, which will determine our position on this issue. I hope the national conference of the Labor Party will bring an end to discrimination against same-sex couples, something many of us in this place have been supporting for many years.

It is indeed heartening to see popular public opinion continuing to build in support of marriage equality. We are consistently receiving poll results and survey data from around Australia that indicate that the majority of Australians support a change to the Marriage Act to allow same-sex couples to marry. The national data from a Nielsen poll released on 15 November shows that 62 per cent of Australians believe that same-sex couples should be able to marry. This represents a five per cent increase in the figure from the 2010 Nielsen poll. The data also shows that 75 per cent of Australians believe that reform to the Marriage Act to allow same-sex couples to marry is inevitable. It is obvious that our support for marriage equality is growing and that Australians are ready to bring about change.

In my home state of Tasmania, a poll conducted in February this year by Enterprise Marketing and Research Services, EMRS, showed that 59 per cent of Tasmanians surveyed believe same-sex couples should be allowed to legally marry. The data I have personally collected also confirms that a majority of Tasmanians support marriage equality. In September I officially reported back to the Senate the views of the Tasmanian and Denison constituents who contacted me on the issue of marriage equality. As I reported then, I had 1,093 interactions on the issue of marriage equality, with 509 constituents from around Tasmania completing the online survey and a further 584 constituents contacting me to register their views on this issue. The data I collated indicates that 55.9 per cent of Tasmanians support marriage equality and an overwhelming 78.6 per cent of constituents in the electorate of Denison, where I live and where my office is located, support marriage equality and an amendment to the Marriage Act. It is significant that the constituent interactions on the issue of marriage equality in Denison show that 78.6 per cent of Denison constituents support marriage equality. Further, out of the 184 respondents to the survey, 83.1 per cent said they supported amending the Marriage Act so that same-sex couples can be married.

Whilst we continue to have this debate in the community and in the parliament, I am looking forward to the debate at the upcoming ALP national conference. As someone who has supported a change to the national platform on marriage equality, it is great to see the momentum growing in the lead-up to the Labor Party's national conference. It is also a huge boost, I believe, to the campaign to change the platform that the same Nielsen poll data I referred to earlier shows that an overwhelming majority of Labor voters support marriage equality. The poll indicated that 71 per cent of Labor voters supported the reform.

Recently there has been some debate around a conscience vote on the issue of marriage equality rather than a change to the ALP platform. Whilst I accept that there is division within the Labor Party on the issue of marriage equality, I do not believe that the issue constitutes a matter of conscience. In the past, conscience votes have been granted on issues such as abortions, stem cell research and euthanasia. These have been matters which have been questions of life or death. Marriage equality is a question of political and civil rights and legislative reform that will give two people who love one another the freedom to celebrate and define their commitment in whatever way they choose.

Labor has a proud history of championing change to remove discrimination against same-sex couples. We have amended over 85 pieces of Commonwealth legislation and executed reforms across Australia that have ensured that same-sex de facto couples have the right to receive fair access to assisted reproductive technology such as IVF and to adopt children. These historic reforms for greater recognition of equality of same-sex couples have all been achieved without a conscience vote. The issue of marriage equality is no different. If we acted to remove discrimination that riddled our legislation, we did so to ensure equality. The Marriage Act is no different. We need to amend the act to ensure that there is full equality. If we consider the context of the past debates on the institution of marriage, there was a time when inter-racial couples were not allowed to marry and when a wife was indeed seen as the property of her husband. Just as the institution of marriage has evolved over time, it is vital we legislate to represent the values of Australia today. The ALP National Conference will be the time for the Labor Party to take this final step towards full equality and recognition for Australians, and to allow two people who love each other to make that commitment public and official.

People of faith have nothing to fear from allowing same-sex marriage. Under any amendment to the Marriage Act all religious celebrants will remain free not to carry out same-sex marriages. Moreover, we have leading Christians, including Baptist and Uniting Church ministers, arguing in support of marriage equality. In my home state of Tasmania the public narrative of those opposed to marriage equality has been dominated by advocates in the Australian Christian Lobby. However, we also have some Christians, like Reverend David Hunnerup from the Uniting Church in Launceston, who have stepped forward as vocal supporters of same-sex marriage. Reverend Hunnerup has said that not amending the Marriage Act is dangerous and cancerous to social cohesion. (Time expired)