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Wednesday, 16 June 2004
Page: 30577

Mr MARTIN FERGUSON (6:35 PM) —I rise to speak in this debate on the Marriage Legislation Amendment Bill 2004, which makes amendments to the Marriage Act. In doing so I indicate to the House that, as far as I am concerned, this bill is motivated by the politics of division and hate. It is clear to me that this bill will pass the House, but it is also clear to me that this bill is motivated by the Prime Minister's affection for the politics of hate and division in the Australian community.

The Prime Minister was at long last driven by the will of the community to fix the blatant discrimination inherent in our superannuation laws. He was driven to concede that gays and lesbians should have the right to nominate the beneficiary of their own hard-earned and accumulated superannuation. I commend him for finally relenting on this issue, albeit a relenting that was long overdue. But I also suggest to the House that, having made that concession, the Prime Minister was so petty and small-minded that he could not make that reform without soothing his own moral conservatism. The Prime Minister could not make a progressive reform for our gay and lesbian Australians without giving them a commensurate kick in the guts. I think it is about time we accepted that gay and lesbian relationships should be recognised.

I take this opportunity as an elected representative of the Australian people to condemn the government for this regressive and unnecessary legislation. I condemn the Prime Minister for not bringing forward a constructive package of reforms for the gay and lesbian community in Australia. In the same way that gay and lesbians now have the right to bequeath their superannuation funds to their partner, so should we move forward legal and community recognition of their relationships. That is an issue that calls for leadership and bipartisanship to remove discrimination, create equal rights and responsibilities and move on to fix problems that genuinely concern Australians. Modern Australia in the 21st century has moved on beyond the gutter politics of the Prime Minister. Do not just think about the bill before the House but think about the motivation of the Prime Minister who brought the bill before the House. I say that because I genuinely believe that Australians in the 21st century do not want a community where the state is peering into bedroom windows, judging the behaviour and free choices of consenting adults. Australians would prefer to see the time and resources of their government spent on fixing problems and healing division, not creating and fuelling them.

This bill enshrines the common law position that the institution of marriage is reserved for heterosexuals, but let us be honest: the bill will have no practical effect on our daily lives except that it acts as a political tool for the Prime Minister to exploit differences and forge division in the Australian community. The bill and all its intended publicity sends the message to gays and lesbians that the law and society will not recognise their relationships under the institution of marriage or under—and this is an important point—any alternative legal or social framework or structure. That is something that ought to be explored.

To leave this void saddens me. It saddens me because I cannot fathom a reason to continue to deny rights, in whatever form, to decent Australians who are merely after a fair go and a sense of recognition. Australians in same-sex relationships lead normal, regular lives and want to be treated that way by all their fellow citizens. They are not asking for special treatment. In fact, their campaign is simple—it is similar to campaigns that have been pursued by a lot of other groups throughout the history of the Australian parliament. It is simply about removing and avoiding special treatment. Gay and lesbian Australians want to live their lives as valued Australian citizens and to be criticised against the same criteria as all other Australians. That is a fair request in a modern society. I believe that sooner rather than later we as a community and as legislators must cut down the straw men and afford rights and responsibilities to all partnerships, not just straight partnerships as the Prime Minister would define them. In that regard, the work of the Tasmanian and Australian Capital Territory parliaments must be commended by this House, but other parliaments, including our own national parliament, must start to think about biting the bullet and removing discrimination in all its forms against gay and lesbian Australians.

I very much agree that a majority of Australians believe that families are a key fabric of our stable society, but we also have an obligation as members of Australian society to wake up and smell the roses. Australian families come in a massive range of shapes, sizes and constructs. A broad and diverse range of family circumstances is a fact of life and is widely accepted in the Australian community today. It is about time we understood that society today is very complex. Perhaps there are some who have an ideal model in their minds, but who are they, or we, to judge that families that differ from that mould are less valuable, less legitimate or un-Australian? To do so unfairly and illegitimately condemns people on the basis of their personal circumstances. I believe that it is an ignorant stance that causes unnecessary pain to fellow Australians. Loving, respectful relationships and families are to be recognised, valued and celebrated. Sexual preference should not be a ground to deny that celebration and acceptance. There is clearly something very wrong with a society that turns a blind eye and rejects a union on those grounds alone.

I also believe that we as a community must accept that we suffer by not being inclusive and by not being tolerant of others. Therefore, this evening I also call for more acceptance and inclusiveness in our views of parenthood. Parents have a great responsibility to their children to love, nurture, educate and develop them to be great people, great citizens and respectable contributors to the society that we live in—to do the best that they can within their means and circumstances, which are very varied in Australian society, to assist others in the community. I can attest that, along with those responsibilities, parents receive a great learning and pleasure from the experience of parenthood. Yes, it is exceptionally difficult to be a parent, but it is a wonderful opportunity.

I therefore also believe that to adopt children is a very big decision for anyone to make. The state has a great responsibility to protect the interests of children by ensuring that adoptive parents have the means and the wherewithal to meet the needs and aspirations of those children. Australian legislators therefore have a fundamental obligation to ensure that the checks, balances and tests to protect these children are rigorous in ensuring that adoptive parents can provide the best opportunity for the children's development.

There are many criteria, but it is not a straightforward checklist. It is a highly skilled task to match children with parents and it is best left to the experts. But I am concerned that one criterion on that list must not stand alone, and that is the sexuality of the parent or parents. In my mind, if all things are equal—and that is what that means: they are equal—it means that there should be no room for an unsubstantiated bias, which is really what is in the mind of the Prime Minister and those who support him with the bill before the House this evening. To me, it is unconscionable in a situation where couples A and B have each been assessed to be fully capable, competent and prepared to responsibly care for a child to then say that couple B will be better parents because they are `straight' in the mind of the Prime Minister. Witnessing such blatant discrimination and ignorance offends me to the core and, as far as I am concerned, it is not the Australian way. It is really about the Prime Minister's desire and the nature of wedge politics to demonise the gay and lesbian community in Australia.

I simply say that gays and lesbians are part of Australian society. They are represented in the highest court in Australia. They are represented in the Australian parliament. They look after us from birth to death. They teach our children. They are in all aspects of Australian society because they are part of what makes up the Australian family. I think it is about time that, on behalf of the gay and lesbian community, this parliament said it is sick and tired of them being demonised by people who are not prepared to come to terms with the nature of Australian society in the 21st century. That is what this debate is about today. It is about wedge politics and a further opportunity for the Prime Minister and the small band of intolerant people who stand with him to demonise the gay and lesbian community. Australian gays and lesbians, whether in relationships or not, should not have been subject to this premeditated act of bigotry from the Prime Minister of Australia. If the Prime Minister and his inner court of social conservatives want to confront their feelings of hatred and intolerance of difference, they should confront them in private and within themselves and not seek to impose that view on the Australian society generally.

We as a community have to continue to move forward. For our success on the multiculturalism front we are held in high regard in the international community, because we move forward and embrace many people from different countries and cultures. In the same vein, it is about time that the legislators in this nation accept that the Australian community needs to keep moving forward towards a more tolerant, diverse and respectful community with respect to the issues before the House this evening. This is about leadership, and that is what the Australian community is expecting from us as legislators in debates concerning the matters before the House this evening. It has to be about an open, constructive dialogue—dialogue on areas of law that single out particular groups in consideration of any legitimate grounds for that different treatment. Surely we are mature enough as a nation to engage in discussion, in a progressive way, to move to foster mutual understanding of difference and further promote families and relationships that further bond our community and strengthen society and community in Australia. But I contend to the House this evening that is not what this bill is about. It is fundamentally opposed to that approach to life. It is fundamentally opposed to what is acceptable in any fair-minded society.

I say in conclusion that only a short time ago the AttorneyGeneral stood in this House and said the following with respect to the Marriage Legislation Amendment Bill 2004:

This bill is necessary because there is significant community concern about the possible erosion of the institution of marriage.

I simply say that the AttorneyGeneral and the Prime Minister must mix in different circles to the circles that I mix in. He then said:

The parliament has an opportunity to act quickly to allay these concerns.

What a load of codswallop. Where is the `significant concern' in the Australian community? It does not come up in the street talks that I have regularly in my electorate. People there are more concerned with talking about health, education, the lack of apprenticeship opportunities and the cost of living. The marriage act is never raised in those community consultations. Where is the demonstrated need to act so quickly that has motivated the Prime Minister to bring this bill before the House?

I am pleased to say that I represent a diverse electorate: the electorate of Batman. It is diverse in age, gender, ethnicity, sexual preference, incomes, ambitions and aspirations. But there is one thing that the electorate of Batman believes in, and that is tolerance and a fair go—which is completely contrary to the intent of the bill before the House this evening. There has been no rush to my office to express concern about the possible imminent erosion of marriage in Australia.

I am one of the few members in this House who regularly travels the length and breadth of the country in my capacity as shadow minister for transport, infrastructure, urban and regional development. During those visits and community consultations I meet with a range of people from a variety of backgrounds in those communities. Never in any of those consultations has there been, as the Prime Minister would have us believe, a growing, imminent fear that the institution of marriage is under attack from gays and lesbians married in other countries or from those choosing to adopt children. Where are the examples, Mr Prime Minister, Mr Attorney-General? Where are they evidenced in your so-called community consultations?

But I tell you what I do hear. I hear the concern that families are struggling because services are continually being eroded, our health system is falling apart, our schools do not have the resources they need, our kids cannot get apprenticeships, and our kids cannot afford to go to universities. They are the issues confronting and undermining Australian families—the pressures and stresses of life. That is what is destroying partnerships and marriages in Australia, not a so-called attack on the Marriage Act in Australia in the 21st century. This debate does nothing about helping those families and the institution of marriage in Australia. In no way will it protect the sanctity of marriage at all.

Let us be honest: when we look at legislation we should never just look at the bill before the House and the second reading speech that is associated with that bill. We have to look at the motivation that led to that bill and that second reading speech. In conclusion this evening, I simply say that the intent of this bill is to attack the gay and lesbian community in Australia, to demonise them and to say to them all that they are second-class citizens in what we fundamentally believe to be a modern, tolerant, forward looking Australian community. I say to our gay and lesbian friends, our colleagues, yes, our neighbours, and the people with whom we sit in the Australian parliament, that to score political points off the back of political division is un-Australian. The Prime Minister must be smarting at his wedge work. All I can say is that I am ashamed of the Prime Minister, and I am ashamed of the motivation that brought this bill before the House. It is about time that this House adopted the intent of the second reading amendment moved by the member for Gellibrand, which is that it is our responsibility as a national parliament to commit ourselves to finally removing all forms of discrimination against same-sex couples in Australia. (Time expired)