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Thursday, 12 August 2004
Page: 26530


Senator CHERRY (3:21 PM) —I seek leave to incorporate my speech in Hansard.

Leave granted.

The speech read as follows—

The Marriage Amendment Bill is a most unfortunate piece of legislation. It is an attempt by the Howard Government to denigrate the status of a significant part of the Australian population by implying that, in some sense, gay Australians, and the relationships they form, are worthy of lesser recognition than heterosexual relationships.

I think we need to separate out two issues in dealing with this bill. The first is we must set aside religious convictions. Australia does not have a State religion, indeed section 116 of the Constitution expressly forbids a State religion. Thus, we should not be talking about a `religious' view, whether it be a Christian or Islamic view, of what marriage is.

Rather, in dealing with the Marriage Act, the question for this parliament should be about legal and social aspects, not the morality of what we are discussing. I think many people in this debate have forgotten that.

Religions should be free to recognise marriage within their own communities consistent with their beliefs. The State, however, has a wider responsibility for the proper regulation of the legal, financial and social aspects of personal relationships right across the community.

I can't move on without noting the shameless politicking associated with this bill. Let me make it clear —there has been no concerted lobby from the gay community for marriage rights. The legislation is not in response to some urgent legal or social issue —rather it is a rather pathetic attempt by John Howard to emulate the political tactics of his good friend President George W Bush and try to `wedge' his political opponents on a `moral' issue.

Labor of course has panicked, with Shadow Attorney General Nicola Roxon throwing any sense of human dignity and freedom out the window by backing this discriminatory and unnecessary law.

The gay community has not asked for gay marriage in Australia. It was not on their very reasonable list of social and legal recognition that they were chasing.

As a gay community leader said at a community forum I attended recently, “Why should we ask to parody a patriarchal heterosexual institution being increasingly rejected by many heterosexual couples?”

But, what offends the gay community, notwithstanding the `non debate' about gay marriage in Australia right up until Prime Minister Howard started it, is the Prime Ministers' implicit assertion in bringing forward this legislation in saying that they are unworthy of marriage or recognition of their relationships. And that, rightly, makes them, angry.

I should acknowledge those Government MPs who argued in the party room against this legislation, arguing that it was unfair, discriminatory and out of date. Warren Entsch from my own state, Trish Worth and Chris Pyne from Adelaide, Petro Georgiou from Melbourne, Judi Moylan and Mal Washer from Perth, and Peter King from Sydney on speaking out against this legislation in the party room according to press reports.

I agree with Trish Worth's view in a letter to her constituents in Adelaide that the bill is “completely unnecessary and could be seen to marginalise a section of the community for no sensible reason.”

Of course, that didn't stop her and her colleagues voting for it in the House.

Ms Worth and her colleagues argued unsuccessfully to their party room that the world has moved on, that social acceptance of gay relationships is widespread, and that it is time for the Government to catch up. Unfortunately, too many Government and Opposition MPs seem to have their minds still stuck in the social system of the 1950s.

But, I'll make an attempt at least at trying to educate them. One of the world's great bastions of conservative thought, quoted regularly by the Treasurer and other Ministers, is “The Economist” magazines found in the waiting rooms of many ministers.

I wonder if those minister saw the cover story on February 26 this year which was entitled “The case for gay marriage”. The editorial argued:

“The case for allowing gays to marry begins with equality, pure and simple. Why should one set of loving, consenting adults be denied a right that other such adults have and which, if exercised, will do no damage to anyone else? Not just because they have always lacked that right in the past, but until the late 1960s, in some American states, it was illegal for black adults to marry white ones, but precious few would defend that ban now on the grounds that it was `traditional'. Another argument is rooted in semantics: marriage is the union of a man and a woman, and so cannot be extended to same-sex couples. They may live together and love one another but cannot on this argument be “married.” But that is to dodge the real question—why not—and to obscure the real nature of marriage, which is a binding commitment, at once legal, social and personal, between two people to take on special obligations to one another. If homosexuals want to make such marital commitments to one another, and to society, then why should they be prevented from doing so while other adults, equivalent in all other ways, are allowed to do so?”

It is a pity that such clear and compelling arguments are lost on the Howard Government and the Bush Administration in their efforts to round up votes among fundamentalist Christians.

Last month, Nobel Laureate and former Anglican Archbishop of Johannesburg Desmond Tutu contributed an article for a new book published by Amnesty International entitled “Sex, Love and Homophobia” arguing that apartheid and homophobia are both crimes against humanity.

He wrote:

“Opposing apartheid was a matter of justice. Opposing discrimination against women is a matter of justice. Opposing discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is a matter of justice.

“It is also a matter if love. Every human being is precious. We are all, all of us, part of God's family. We all must be allowed to love each other with honour.”

“Yet all over the world, lesbian, gay , bisexual and transgender people are persecuted. We treat them as pariahs and push them outside our communities. We make them doubt that they too are children of God —and this must be nearly the ultimate blasphemy. We blame them for what they are.

“Churches say that the expression of love in a heterosexual, monogamous relationship includes the physical, the touching, embracing, kissing and the genital act —the totality of our love makes each of us grow to become increasingly godlike and compassionate. If this is so for the heterosexual, what earthly reason have we to say that it is not the case for the homosexual?”

American Episcopalian Bishop John Shelby Spong, in an open letter to evangelist Jerry Falwell in 2000 argued that loving relationships should always be recognised regardless of sexual orientation. Bishop Spong argued that:

“My study has convinced me that homosexuality is a given part of the broad spectrum of humanity, so I, as Christian, could never equate it with sin as glibly as you (Falwell) do.... There is certainly some homosexual behaviour which is sinful. But maybe you haven't noticed that there is also some heterosexual behaviour that is sinful. ...I regard any sexual activity that is promiscuous or predatory, forced or uninvited to be evil and sinful....

“But I also regard sexual activity which expresses love, which is lived out in a monogamous commitment, which is part of a relationship of trust and dedication, which does not violate one's word given to another personal and which issues in life, to be blessed by its own fruits and theirs to be ultimately holy. I believe that the benefits and sanctity of marriage must be extended by both church and society to faithful homosexual partnerships and the sooner the better. Not to do so is to continue the pattern of a killing prejudice based upon uninformed ignorance.”

I'll leave as I said at the outset the theology to the theologians, but I do want to argue that our society will be the beneficiary of any act, any law, that seeks to encourage more Australians to commit to each other.

My generation of Australians and the next one coming through is loath to commit to anything, particularly to each other. Between 1986 and 2001, the percentage of Australians aged between 15 and 35 living alone rose from 6.5% to 9.2%. The total percentage of households with a one person rose from 22% to 24.6% between 1993 and 2001.

As a nation, we are becoming less and less able to commit to each other, becoming more and more selfish and self absorbed. This is not healthy for our society. The National Marriage Coalition dropped a glossy document into my office this week entitled “21 Reasons why Marriage Matters”. I read it very carefully. And, while some of the reasons were a little poorly articulated, I agreed with its overall tenor that Australians are, for the most part, happy, healthier and economically and socially better off in long term, committed relationships than outside them.

But, if that is true for heterosexual couples, it is also true, as Bishops Tutu and Spong argue, for homosexual couples as well.

As a Senator, I believe our society is healthier is we encourage people to make long term commitments to each other.

Four months ago, I marched down the aisle myself and made my marriage vows in the Uniting Church. I didn't undertake it lightly. I believe that my marriage has and will continue to enrich my life.

I don't want to deny that right to stand in front of the community and make a public commitment to the person you love to any Australian person.

The proposition in this bill is objectionable in the extreme that stable, loving relationships should be demeaned by a Federal Act of Parliament.

The proposition that my relationship, being a heterosexual one is worthy of legal recognition but the longer term relationship of my colleague Senator Greig is not is objectionable.

As I said at the beginning, we need to separate issues of theology and law in this debate. I would be opposed to a law which forced the churches to :;solemnise gay marriages where this was contrary to their teaching. My personal faith tells me that Christianity should recognise long term monogamous loving relationship regardless of sexuality, but that is a matter for the churches to decide not me.

But while I oppose the State imposing on the churches its view of marriage, I also oppose the churches imposing on the State their view of marriage. The legal aspects of marriage—the care of children, the sharing of property, the aspects of health, welfare, superannuation, the issues to do with separation—these are matters for the State to regulate, and we are failing to do so in respect of gay couples.

Let's finally recognise that there are gay marriages in our country. There are gay people with children, with joint mortgages, sharing their lives, loving one another to the exclusion of all others. This law will not change that.

Let's give them the legal recognition they need to ensure that they can live their lives, and properly manage their affairs. Let's give them the community recognition that they can declare their love to be a beautiful thing. Let's give them the social recognition that commitment to another person is a positive thing in a society where commitment appears to be a dying concept.

.As Reverend Doctor Dorothea McRae McMahon said to the Uniting Church assembly last year:

“As a lesbian, I am not in moral decay. I am in one faithful relationship that brings me life and hope and that my family supports and which enriched my life as a Christian. I'll be 70 in a few months. I'm not on sexual adventure. Its about love, its about the freedom for people like me to love another person body, heart and soul as you—heterosexuals—are permitted to do.”

I hope that one day this Parliament will give to Dr McCrae-McMahon and the hundreds of thousands of other gay Australians the recognition as full Australians that they so richly deserve.

Regretfully, in this politically charged pre-election debate, the Labor, Liberal and National Parties will be denying them that just recognition here today, even to the extent of denying time for a proper debate of this discriminatory bill.