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Monday, 18 June 2012
Page: 6840

Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (12:17): In joining this debate, I do intend to participate in a very respectful and moderate manner, which is the tone that I believe is required in our community on this very sensitive issue. For the record, I support the recognition of legal rights within same-sex relationships, but I do not support proposals to change the Marriage Act. I am also on the public record in the past as having expressed my support for all political parties to actually grant their members a conscience vote on this issue. My view of a conscience vote may be different from some other members, but it is my view that a conscience vote is not that straightforward. I believe that members should examine their own personal views on a topic but also recognise the views of their electorates, and recognise their role, duty and responsibility as members of parliament.

I think in all good conscience, as a representative of a particular seat, we need to recognise that different electorates have different views on this issue and we need to balance those two issues—our personal views and those of our electorates—and, if there is a conflict, maybe face a tough decision as an individual. I have previously sought the views of my electorate in relation to this issue in a community survey. Like other members, I have received petitions both for and against this topic. My own survey attracted about 700 responses. But I do point out that the survey was self-selecting; it appeared in a newspaper so it should not be regarded as a scientific opinion poll by any stretch. I did receive strong feedback and 64 per cent of respondents to that survey in my electorate were opposed to the same-sex marriage. I am not using that today as a reason to justify my position; I am just putting it out there as a matter of course that different electorates have different views.

The Gippsland electorate, overall, is opposed to same-sex marriage as it stands today, and they support the current system that is in place. I have received many emails both for and against the topic. The majority of emails from within my electorate have been supportive of my position—that is, to continue with the current system and to oppose to same-sex marriage. But that is not the sole basis of my opposition to the changes to the Marriage Act. I believe that as a matter of political consistency and as a reflection on my own role here and my own personal integrity, it would be inappropriate for me as the member for Gippsland to support any changes in this current term of parliament, because I expressed a view in opposition to same-sex marriage in the lead-up to the last election. Unlike the Prime Minister and her breach of trust in relation to the carbon tax, if I intend to change my position the only fair thing to do for the people of Gippsland would be to take a principled course of action and campaign on that basis in the lead-up to the next election, and then adopt that position in a future parliament, just as the member of the Melbourne has done in his own seat. The member for Melbourne, who has put forward this bill today, to his credit had a principled view. That is his view. He took it to his voters and they voted for him, so I have no grudge to bear against the member for Melbourne for taking his position forward. But the position I took forward—and I will be principled in that position for the people of Gippsland—is to remain in opposition to changes to the Marriage Act.

There is only a short amount of time to examine the issues here today, and I am sure there will be future opportunities to debate this issue, but I want to refer to one area of concern that bothers me in relation to these proposed changes, and that is this issue of retrospectivity. I believe there is an element of retrospectivity in the proposals to change the definition under the Marriage Act, and that is because there are millions of Australian couples today who signed up to marriage under the current definition. If we change the definition of marriage under the Marriage Act, we are fundamentally altering the nature of the contract that they have entered into, so I think there is an element of retrospectivity to this debate and to the legislation that is proposed. I know that for a lot of people that is of no consequence whatsoever, and I acknowledge that. They are completely comfortable with such a change, and that does not affect their definition or their own relationship. But for others in the community this is a very big deal indeed, and they have expressed that opinion to me quite strongly. They signed up for marriage under the current definition, and they believe in the sanctity of that definition and the traditional view of marriage as being between a man and a woman.

I also do not accept the view put forward by others that it is some form of discrimination against same-sex couples to maintain the consistent approach of the current definition and protect the position of couples who have already been married under the existing Marriage Act. I also do not accept the view of some people who have contacted my office, who try to infer that being opposed to same-sex means you are bigoted or homophobic. I do not believe that is a fair assumption to draw. I think it is possible to be opposed to same-sex marriage and still support the urgency of some ongoing efforts, both within my community and more broadly, to work together as a community to support same-sex couples, particularly in regional areas, where younger gay people are over-represented in the incidence of self-harm, mental illness and suicide.

So I will continue to participate in this debate. I believe it is an important debate, and I believe it is critical for members to be very moderate and respectful in their language and not to inflame what can be a very divisive issue in our communities. (Time expired)