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Thursday, 20 September 2012
Page: 7463

Senator CHRIS EVANS (Western AustraliaMinister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Science and Research and Leader of the Government in the Senate) (11:24): Firstly, in speaking on the Marriage Amendment Bill (No. 2) 2012, I thank those senators who have contributed in a respectful and thoughtful way to what is a complex and highly contested issue. I am particularly proud that the Labor senators have handled themselves in such a respectful way in dealing with this issue; I think both sides have conducted the debate in an appropriate way. I also thank those Liberal and Green senators who sought to do the same thing. I think this parliament has a great history in recent years of dealing with these issues in a mature, respectful way, be they issues to do with euthanasia, the RU486 debate or what have you. I think we have dealt with it really well. I think this is, though, the first time where one of the parties has not been allowed a conscience vote. As we know, the Liberal and National parties have on this occasion not allowed their members to exercise a conscience vote. I am very proud that the Labor Party has given that right to its senators as well as, of course, its members in the other House.

I also want to make the point that I think this government's record of ending discrimination against gay and lesbian people is one of its proudest achievements. I know that when I was shadow defence minister I ran up against the terrible discrimination that still existed in the mid-2000s against gay and lesbian people inside the Defence Force. Issues such as housing, transfers and superannuation were all impacted by the terrible discrimination against the quite large numbers of people who made a contribution to the defence of this nation. It was a blight on Australian democracy, and I am pleased to say that the work led by then Attorney-General Robert McClelland saw an end to much of that discrimination and that the parliament supported an end to that discrimination in a bipartisan way. I think that was very appropriate.

I do want to briefly refer to Senator Bernardi's comments, because I think it is important that people make it clear that they regarded—certainly I regard—those comments as outrageous, hurtful, bigoted and reflecting a prejudice that has no place in a modern Australia. I think his remarks were terribly insulting to gay and lesbian people. Hundreds of gay and lesbian people work in this parliament, and I am sure they were all offended and hurt by the comments. Tens of thousands of Australian gay and lesbian people would be hurt and offended by those comments. That sort of denigration and lowering of the debate has done him no good and, quite frankly, has brought an edge to this debate that was absolutely unnecessary and, as I say, not reflective of the contributions other senators have been making.

Senator Bernardi has, unfortunately, a reputation for association with the lunatic fringe of the right wing of politics in this country. We have heard his comments on issues from climate change to the wearing of burqas to the attack on the religion of Islam, all of which have reflected a prejudice and an encouragement of some of the lunacy and hatreds that exist in our society and internationally. As I say, I think his support for some of those groups and their contributions has been quite outrageous.

I think the other point to make in that regard is that Mr Abbott, in dealing with that issue, failed the test of leadership. He never condemned Senator Bernardi's remarks in the way that he should have. I think the real question here is not why Senator Bernardi was dismissed, or why his resignation was accepted. The question is why he was ever appointed. Mr Abbott made him his personal parliamentary secretary—his representative—knowing the sort of view he has expressed over many years.

Senator Scullion: That's why he sacked him.

Senator CHRIS EVANS: No, he appointed him knowing those views. These views have been articulated by Senator Bernardi on a range of subjects for many years, and Mr Abbott made the decision to make him his personal representative—his personal parliamentary secretary. I think the handling of the so-called resignation of Senator Bernardi again calls into question again Mr Abbott's judgement. I read that he really did not sack Senator Bernardi for what he said, but thought that the offence of interrupting Christopher Pyne on radio was serious, or that the issue of a lack of discipline was the cause of his having to go. I think it is of huge concern that it took Malcolm Turnbull and Joe Hockey to make clear their repugnance at the remarks he made and Mr Abbott did not seem to express the same comments. In fact, he praised Senator Bernardi, thanked him for his resignation and seemed more focused on the issues of the processes rather than on the original remarks.

I speak in support of the bill. It is a view I have come to over the last few years that we ought to support the right of gay and lesbian people to marry. I think that, like many in the community, I have been on a bit of a journey in this regard. I have been very focused for many years on the question of supporting equal rights for gay and lesbian people and I am glad to see we have made huge progress in that regard. I suppose, like many, I took a view that it was much more important that we resolved issues like fair entitlement to superannuation for people living in a same-sex relationships and their treatment under the law in a whole range of respects that had been denied to them. But I stopped short, as many of us have and do, on the question of whether we should allow gay and lesbian people to marry. I suppose I did it on the basis that I did not see it as a discrimination but more as a respect for those of religious beliefs who saw marriage through that light as very much a union between a man and a woman. My view was: 'Why not respect that? Why not allow recognition of same-sex marriages but not go the full extent of supporting gay marriage?' My view was that that was an appropriate balance of the views in the community and allowed the gay and lesbian people to have the proper respect for their relationship without going as far as the question of marriage.

But I must say that view has changed. A couple of things have led me to that view. I have heard from friends of mine who have expressed the view as gay or lesbian couples that they wanted the right to marry and that it was important to them. I may not have understood how important it was to many of those people that they had that opportunity. Many others will choose not to seek to marry, but those who do want to see it as a real discrimination against them, and I have come to understand how strongly many feel about that. That has influenced my thinking.

But in the end I suppose it comes down to a balance of judgement. In preparing for this speech I actually reread some of John Stuart Mill because he, the great liberal thinker, had a lot to say on issues of liberty. I know it is generally more a reference for Liberal members of parliament than the Labor members of parliament to look at John Stuart Mill's writings, but in looking at them again they reminded me of the tests he recommended we apply when looking at questions of individual liberty—tests such as recognition of the desire to pursue the greatest happiness for people, the assertion of individual liberty, the principle of not interfering with a person's liberty unless they were doing harm to others and the opposition to any tyranny of the majority. All of these concepts, which were at the heart of his thinking, I sought to think through in terms of this debate. It brought home to me the importance of the principles at the heart of this debate and, for me, in the end it comes down to: what harm does it do to opposite-sex partners who are married to give the right to marry to gay and lesbian people? As a person who is married, I can see no harm. It seems to me it does my marriage no harm to extend to gay and lesbian people access to the right to marry. I know it upsets people's sensibilities. I know it upsets their religious beliefs or is in contrast to their religious beliefs but I cannot see how it does them harm. It seems to me that then to deny the liberty of gay and lesbian couples to marry cannot be justified. Why should they not be able to pursue happiness? Why should they not be able to have their relationships recognised in the same way? Why should they be denied the liberties that we straight people, for want of a better word, enjoy? When I think all those things through, I certainly come to the view that it would be discriminatory to deny gay and lesbian people the right to marry if they want to.

And so I have come to that view. It was certainly reinforced at a party last year to celebrate the engagement of one of my wife's nephews. One of the other nephews discussed with me the fact that he and his long-term partner, who live in a gay relationship, were considering travelling to Canada, where they would be allowed to marry. It struck me that this was a terrible situation where, to have the recognition they sought for their relationship, they would have to leave the country, to marry in a foreign country, without the attendance of their friends and family, a country they had never visited before—all in order to validate and have recognition of their relationship. I thought that is not a good place for Australia to be. It is not a good place to be where Australian citizens feel they have to go overseas, to a foreign country, in order to allow them the sort of recognition they seek for their relationship. That is just one of the interactions I have had with gay and lesbian people which confirmed for me that the balance of the recognition of their rights, of their liberties and of their love for and commitment to each other should not be denied because of the objections or the sensibilities of others in the community, however strongly held they may be.

I am pleased to support the legislation. I do not think this issue will go away. If this bill is defeated, I think the parliament will deal with this issue again in the next term of parliament. But I do respect the views of all senators on this issue and, as I say, with a few exceptions, I applaud the standard of the debate and the respect and tolerance that people have brought to the subject. But, for me, I think the rights of gay and lesbian people to marry are important—important to them and important to justice in our society, and the passage of this legislation would end the remaining legal discrimination against gay and lesbian people.