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Wednesday, 15 February 2017
Page: 1037

Senator SMITH (Western AustraliaDeputy Government Whip in the Senate) (17:34): I liken my journey on the issue of marriage equality to that of many, many Australians. I started out unconvinced. I could not understand the arguments and the passion that many people had for the cause, but over the course of four and a half years now I have travelled a great distance, as the great bulk of Australians have.

This report today is important for a number of reasons. Of course, as we have heard, it is important because there is a consensus report. Of all the reports that have come to the parliament on this issue of marriage previously, this is the first that comes with a consensus position. This is the first that does not litigate the arguments for and against—they have been well litigated—but points to how we might give effect to this important reform. It is also powerful because it has demonstrated to the country—and, indeed, to the whole parliament—and to those in our community who have strong interests in this debate about marriage that parliament, and indeed the Senate, can demonstrate the necessary mature approach and the necessary collaboration, putting partisanship aside, to discuss and move forward on what is a very important issue.

It does identify areas of commonality and, of course, it does identify issues of competing concerns, particularly around the issue of anti-discrimination and religious expression, but, importantly, these are not new issues—they have not fallen out of the sky. They have been the focus of debate and discussion in other facets of our law. Importantly, as I said, this report now talks about how, and not if. The areas of contestability have been narrowed. Where there are issues, they are now clear and the position of people prominent in our community—prominent on both sides of the debate—have been put in one place for people to peruse. As I said, these issues are not new. They are not unknown to us. In fact, large parts of existing Australian law already provide a strong, clear and tested approach for balancing these issues. Importantly, as the report highlights, there are matters that parliament can and should resolve and, I am confident, will resolve. There is nothing to fear from changing the definition of marriage to one that gives every Australian the opportunity to share in this tried and tested institution.

This year, next month in fact, marks the passage of the Marriage Bill 1961 through the House of Representatives. It is worth reminding ourselves that, when it was introduced to introduce uniform marriage laws in Australia, it was contested. But it is also important to remember that, since then, it has been reformed by parliament on no fewer than 20 occasions.

Let me just share with the Senate a brief summary of the issues that have been canvassed in the report. Time won't allow me to go into them in any great detail. The summary of issues requiring careful consideration have been identified as follows: the definition of marriage; the exemptions for ministers of religion; the exemptions for marriage celebrants; the issue of exemptions for a religious body or organisation; international jurisprudence on the introduction of same-sex marriage; the issue of goods and services; the right to refuse on the grounds of conscientious belief; and, importantly, a broader protection for the right to freedom of conscience and religion. These issues have been canvassed in other jurisdictions around the world already, and much reassurance can be taken from the experience of those jurisdictions. It is worth remembering that Canada, the United Kingdom and New Zealand have already legislated for marriage in 2005, 2013 and 2015 respectively. Their experiences, I would argue, show again that there is nothing fear; indeed, there is nothing controversial.

Let me just briefly read from the report with regard to a number of popular issues or popular points of contention. On the issue of goods and services, I draw people to paragraph 3.78. I will read it into the Hansard. It says on the issue of goods and services:

… it should be noted that the Australian Parliament has previously determined the ability of religious organisations to discriminate in the provision of goods and services (including hiring of facilities for weddings or marriage related services such as catering) to discriminate where this discrimination would accord with the doctrines, tenets or beliefs of their religious order or would be necessary to avoid injury to the susceptibilities of adherents to their religion.

And importantly—

The amendments to the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 … that enshrined this position were passed with support from the Labor Government and Coalition … led by Tony Abbott.

So we have an experience in our country where partisanship can be put aside, where the parliament can be its better self and come to an agreement about how these issues can be advanced.

Let me go briefly to the issue of religious freedom, which I personally think is a very important one. At section 3.129 the report states:

The Human Rights Law Centre were also strongly supportive about ensuring that religious freedom should be better protected in law—

The report goes on to quote the Human Rights Law Centre:

We are also very happy for the provision around religious freedom to be framed in a positive way. Religious freedom should be protected in law. Indeed, we are on record in a number of inquiries supporting the addition of religious belief to protections under federal anti-discrimination law.

That is important, because not only has the Senate this afternoon come to a consensus view but in the community people with different attitudes to the issue of marriage have united around what are the important issues. Indeed, on religious freedom, I would argue there is broad support in the community for the proper treatment of that issue.

The idea that the institution of marriage should not be shared with others does not make sense. There has been one other significant contribution to the marriage debate in the last six months, and that is the contribution of none other than Paul Ritchie, former Prime Minister Tony Abbott's speechwriter. Again, let me read into the Hansard what Paul Ritchie said in his book titled Faith, love and Australia: the conservative case for same-sex marriage. He says: 'Marriage in the words of the columnist David Brooks makes us better than we deserve to be. Our lives are always better when they are shared and they are more meaningful when others are at their centre. In life's dark times we are strengthened and in the good times our joys are multiplied. Surely they are joys that should be shared by all.'

Let me just make two other points. I want to reflect briefly on what I think is the misguided view that there are electoral consequences to dealing with the issue of marriage. I want to remind the Senate that the Conservative government in the United Kingdom legislated for same-sex marriage in 2013. Two years later, the Conservative government was re-elected with a substantially increased vote, achieving the first Conservative majority government in 23 years. Let me add to that. In New Zealand, the conservative National Party government led by John Key legislated for same sex-marriage in 2013. In the following year, his government was easily re-elected. But, more importantly, let me just reflect on this point. Even those who have previously been prominent opponents of same-sex marriage have indicated that the opportunity to see changed laws in practice has led them to reverse their position—most notably, the new New Zealand Prime Minister, Bill English, who opposed same sex-marriage in New Zealand. He noted:

I'd probably vote differently now on the gay marriage issue. I don't think that gay marriage is a threat to anyone else's marriage.

Finally, there is Nigel Adams. He is not known to us. He is a member of the House of Commons. Just this month he said to the House of Commons:

I thought at the time what I was doing was right but having now reflected and seen how that Act has made such a positive difference for thousands of couples around the country, I deeply regret that decision.

He went on to say:

… if I had the opportunity again, I’d vote differently. I want to apologise.

This is a very, very fraught issue because it goes to the core of people's identities.

But to go back to where I started: the Senate has lived up to and exceeded expectations. I congratulate my Senate colleague Senator Fawcett for his very, very careful, considered stewardship of the committee. I congratulate and thank all senators who made their time available to listen to the views of others and bring this consensus report to the Senate.