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Wednesday, 31 August 2016
Page: 313


Senator SINGH (Tasmania) (19:29): I rise to speak on the Turnbull government's plan to hold a divisive and pointless plebiscite into marriage equality and to ask: why is the Turnbull government insisting on this unnecessary marriage equality plebiscite when Australians have already made their support clear and when the parliament could deal with this simply with a single vote? This plebiscite is nothing more than a delaying tactic with the potential to cause real, lasting damage to families. It is not just the LGBTIQ people who will be hurt by the abuse that will come from more extreme opponents of marriage equality; it is also their parents, their grandparents, their brothers, their sisters, their friends. There is no doubt that the opponents are already preparing to mount a well-funded campaign based on hurtful and divisive arguments.

Just this week Tasmanian comedian Hannah Gadsby spoke about the lasting damage she suffered as a result of the hurtful arguments put forward by conservatives in the lead-up to the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Tasmania. Gadsby revealed that the hurtful debate made her feel subhuman, sent her spiralling into depression and even led to her being assaulted. She has urged Australians to reject the idea of a plebiscite, which she rightly fears may not only ruin but end some young lives.

Another of my rural Tasmanian constituents has written about his well-founded fears that the plebiscite will be used as a platform by hateful people to spread their hate-filled messages about people like him. Not only will the plebiscite be hurtful and divisive; it will also be pointless, given that a number of Liberal members and senators of parliament have indicated that they will vote in parliament against marriage equality regardless of the plebiscite result. It says much about the approach of this new Turnbull government when it continues to prioritise former Prime Minister Tony Abbott's plebiscite to put off making any decision on marriage equality. The current Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, is personally in favour of marriage equality, but he is continuing with this divisive plebiscite anyway to appease none other than a small group of far-right MPs in the Liberal Party who want it. After consulting with members of the LGBTIQ communities in my home state, I do not support a process that I believe is unnecessary and that will drive hatred and harm.

Marriage is both a deeply personal and social institution. It is a commitment offered by a couple to each other as a means by which they value the dignity of each other's love and formally recognise it in the community. However, the legal definition of marriage currently denies same-sex couples the dignity of equality. I believe that is discriminatory and incompatible with the expectations of a fair society. We cannot argue that we treat all Australians equally when we keep discriminatory laws in place. While this discrimination continues, the clear message being sent to those in the LGBTIQ community is: your relationship and your sexuality are not equal in our society, and your sexuality is grounds for discrimination and vilification. This is a message that I, along with the majority of Australians, strongly disagree with.

I choose equality because equality matters. We as a society recognise marriage as an important institution for couples, but whether a couple chooses to enter into matrimony should be their decision only. Denying that choice to same-sex couples discriminates against people living in our community who identify as LGBTIQ. We have already seen the types of arguments used to vilify couples in same-sex relationships. The scare tactics have been detrimental to our LGBTIQ communities in Australia. These communities already have one of the highest rates of suicide and self-harm—well above the national average. With the cost of the plebiscite predicted to rise well above the estimated $160 million, wouldn't it be better to spend that money on suicide prevention for some of our most vulnerable people rather than on a plebiscite on an issue that the majority of Australians already agree on?

The greatest indicator that the plebiscite debate will not be respectful has been the recent moves by Tasmanian and federal Liberal MPs to change our state and federal discrimination laws, particularly the state discrimination laws. Why would anyone need to change these laws if they do not intend to vilify and incite hatred towards a group in our community? That is what our discrimination laws rightly protect against, and they have been working just fine at both the state level and the federal level. Leading LGBTIQ advocate Rodney Croome has pointed out the hypocrisy in these attempts to change our hate speech laws after the Tasmanian Liberal government recently indicated that it wants to ban Wicked Campers on the basis of the hurtful and denigrating slogans painted on its rental vehicles.

Former High Court judge Michael Kirby has also raised concerns about this plebiscite. He makes a strong argument that a same-sex marriage plebiscite sets a dangerous precedent in which the parliament refuses to deal with controversial issues and instead sends them down the costly route of a plebiscite each time. We have been openly discussing marriage equality in Australia for a number of years, and the idea that somehow Australians do not understand or need to be further educated on it is, quite frankly, insulting and a poor excuse for the lack of backbone from the Turnbull government on this issue. Parliament is the appropriate place to debate a change in the legislation on marriage, which is exactly what happened when former Prime Minister John Howard used his parliamentary majority to change the Marriage Act in 2004 to actually exclude same-sex couples.

We trust parliamentarians to make decisions on matters of significant national security, our nation's finances and our services. Why, then, should we accept that they are suddenly incapable of voting on marriage equality? The role of parliamentarians as elected representatives is to make decisions on behalf of the public. We should not be shying away from that role. In doing so, it diminishes the capacity of all parliamentarians. I have received a massive amount of correspondence on this issue, and the letters, emails and phone calls are overwhelmingly in support of changing the law to enable marriage equality. And opinion polls consistently back it up. Almost every opinion poll on this issue has found that around two-thirds of Australians support marriage equality.

I want to see marriage equality in Australia just as it has been achieved in over 20 other countries in the world by their parliaments, but it needs to happen in a respectful manner. A plebiscite is not a pathway for marriage equality; it is a costly, hurtful and divisive proposal that opens the door for damage and discrimination against a minority group that quite frankly deserves more respect and support after decades of abuse, fear and disadvantage.