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Tuesday, 30 October 2012
Page: 8495

Senator SINGH (Tasmania) (20:14): I want to take a moment this evening to speak on the matter of marriage equality, for which legislation has twice come before the Senate in recent weeks. Unfortunately, other duties prevented me from being in the chamber at those times, so I want to take this opportunity to place on record my views on this issue. I do want to acknowledge at the outset that, although I was disappointed with the outcome of those debates, I remain optimistic that a fair and equitable outcome on this issue is not too far away in Australian society.

The movement for marriage equality has been brought to this stage as a result of the action and passion of progressive campaigners from across the political spectrum. They have advocated both publicly and privately that the right to marriage is one that should be universal, regardless of the sexual orientation or gender identity of an individual. I want to especially acknowledge the efforts of Rainbow Labor, who in my home state of Tasmania have been tireless advocates of the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people.

Similarly, Tasmania is home to some of the most dedicated campaigners for gay and lesbian rights in the country, and in that I must acknowledge the incredible efforts of our former Senate colleague Dr Bob Brown and my friend and colleague Rodney Croome, who have both fought for equal rights and risen to that task despite the risk, the insult and the injury of that role. It is their advocacy and the conscience and values of my state Labor colleagues which led to Premier Lara Giddings's pursuit of marriage equality for my home state of Tasmania.

There is, I think, amongst Tasmanians a very particular awareness of the impact of institutional discrimination, owing to the state's sad legacy of being the last jurisdiction to repeal anti-homosexuality laws. That awareness and closeness to this change means that Tasmanians now recognise, perhaps more acutely than many other communities, the need for justice and equality before the law. There is an awareness that the way we organise our community and our society has a profound impact on the personal lives of individuals.

And marriage is, of course, a deeply personal thing. It is a commitment offered by a couple to each other, a declaration that they will love, care for and respect each other in the most intimate way possible in any human relationship. It is a union entered into not just voluntarily but with a clear mind and a full heart. But it is also a historical and cultural institution which has been observed in the law of this nation since its inception. That is not to say that marriage has been a static institution. Marriage has evolved to reflect the expansion of other social and civil rights, and included rights and obligations that reflect the constitution of our social safety net.

Society is constantly in a state of flux. Since Australia became a nation, we have acknowledged the role of women in work and in public affairs, working towards equal pay and rights at work and offering suffrage and participation in all aspects of society. We have witnessed extraordinary discrimination against Indigenous Australians before finally understanding that citizenship and participation is a right of all Australians, especially our first Australians, and offering them suffrage. Slowly, after that formal recognition of rights, equality has filtered down into the dynamics of our community and, in very recent history, we have apologised for those past injustices.

Even in marriage specifically, we have acknowledged that our social and legal controls on interracial marriage were baseless and that marriage is a question of love rather than ownership, a relationship rather than a transaction. We can measure our progress by the extent to which we have been willing to modify our institutions on the basis of new understandings of community, humanity and inclusion. An often quoted phrase from Dr Martin Luther King Junior is one that is always pertinent in this place:

… the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.

One of the most important and enduring values of Australian society is its respect for difference based on the inalienable dignity of every person. That dignity, equal amongst people, persists regardless of race, colour, creed, gender, sexuality or any other arbitrary distinction we might make. We recognise this dignity by allowing all people to have equal opportunity to realise their dreams and equal access to community life: in cultural expression, in work and in the kinds of ambitions people are able to pursue in Australia.

For the majority of Australians, marriage is a way to recognise and understand a couple's love. It is a way to ascribe to a couple's relationship the value and dignity—the depth of commitment—made by two people to each other. Yet, at the moment, the Australian community has no comparable measure to recognise that same-sex couples are even capable of such depth of love, despite the thousands of loving, committed, stable same-sex relationships in contemporary Australia attesting to that fact daily.

The legal definition of marriage, as it stands, denies same-sex couples the dignity that Australian values would rightly accord them. It continues to say that the love between two people of the same gender is not worthy of the same recognition we grant a relationship between a heterosexual couple. We continue to deny the dignity of gay and lesbian couples, and the dignity of their love. I believe it is discriminatory and incompatible with the expectations of an equal society.

The Australian Labor Party has a strong record on removing legal discrimination against same-sex couples. It is important to remember that it was the Australian Labor Party which removed discrimination against same-sex couples in superannuation, social security, taxation, Medicare, veterans' affairs, workers' compensation and educational assistance. It was the Labor Party that chose to stand up for gay and lesbian couples to access the government services and support that all families in Australia should expect. But marriage equality is about recognising that near-equal is not equal.

Not equal is not good enough, because anything short of marriage equality will continue to contribute to an Australia in which same-sex couples are regarded as different—as not full or active participants in our communities. According to Psychologists for Marriage Equality in their submission to the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee, that separation leads to social prejudice and discrimination that eventually leads to adverse health outcomes. Minority stress, as it is called, causes people to experience higher rates of psychiatric disorder, such as anxiety and mood disorder and substance abuse. We must not pretend that this recalcitrance on the definition of marriage is a victimless attitude. The signal we send to the community by whom we include and whom we exclude from our social institutions matters. Equality matters.

Despite the fact that most people in Australia regard same-sex couples as everyday people, our laws give those who want to sew fear and ignorance that shelter of law that reflects antiquity rather than reality. Worse, as the law stands we are making young people doubt the legitimacy of their own identity. Through this debate we have the opportunity to send our young people a different message. We have the opportunity to say to young gay and lesbian people that we understand and accept that their lives and their relationships will be just as rich as other Australians: that they have so much to look forward to.

I will support the concept of marriage equality in any vote taken by the Senate on this matter of conscience into the future. Like all laws and norms, marriage has changed as society has changed. I believe that the time is right for Australia to leave behind discrimination and embrace marriage equality.