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Wednesday, 19 September 2012
Page: 7314


Senator BILYK (Tasmania) (11:19): Last night when I began speaking on this bill I only had a minute and some 20 seconds to speak, so I am going to start again from the beginning to give clarity to my speech. Given the significance of this bill, members of the government have been given a conscience vote. That means the vote of individuals from the government is not dictated by focus groups and is not poll driven or determined by the caucus as a whole. It is a matter of personal conscience. It should also mean that there is some respect shown to people with differing views and that opposing sides can achieve disagreement where both sides of the argument understand the other's arguments and understand why they disagree.

I have heard some gross exaggerations and some very silly comments by people on both sides of the debate. I think that serves to discredit the debate and the argument, whichever way those arguments go. But, unfortunately, many who do not support this bill have had charges of hostility, unreason and bigotry aimed at them. In fact, I have witnessed some and had some aimed at me.

I do not oppose this bill on the basis of religious zealotry, fundamentalism, hatred, bigotry or homophobia—contrary, as I said, to some of the comments made to me and about me. I oppose discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and I have no issue with the legislation on civil same-sex unions. But what I do believe is that the traditional and current definition of 'marriage' should remain as being between a man and a woman. As I travel around Tasmania I find most people in the community are more interested in everyday aspects, such as health, education and child care or whether they have a job—the day-to-day-living issues—than they are in this issue. Indeed, the issue of GST payments to Tasmania looms larger, certainly at the moment, in general discussions than discussions on same-sex marriage.

The institution of marriage precedes governments, parliaments and written laws. It is an ancient institution and holds special and unique status and, I believe, deservedly so. In our culture and in most others the act of marriage, as we know it, has always been between a man and a woman. This bill aims to profoundly change that traditional meaning and understanding. It disconnects from the issue that male-to-female married relationships are different from other kinds of relationships, sexual or non-sexual, and it disconnects from the issue that marriage deserves its unique legal and cultural status because it is based on real differences between marriage and other relationships.

I do not hold with the argument that it is discriminatory to treat two different things differently. To claim that two different kinds of relationships are the same does an injustice to both. Contrary to what those in support of same-sex marriage tell us, there is no injustice in recognising the obvious claims between a same-sex relationship and a male-female relationship.

Various social goods are denied to all sorts of people for all sorts of reasons. If a driver is too young or inexperienced or had too many accidents, they will not meet the obligations to buy low-cost insurance. Similarly, there should be no obligation to bestow the term of 'marriage' on those who do not meet the requirement—that is, one person must be a man and one a woman. To say that relationships are different is not to demean them and to say that a relationship is not a marriage is not to say that it is not important. I am afraid that argument has been used time and time again to me. People say, 'You don't think that the relationship is important.' To me, that is not the issue. I have never not supported same-sex civil unions.

I have received many phone calls, letters and emails regarding this debate. I have met with representatives, individuals and couples from both sides of the argument. And I had no hesitation in assisting a local lesbian Vietnamese couple who were applying for humanitarian visas after fleeing persecution in their homeland for their sexual orientation. The couple were seeking ministerial intervention after their appeal had failed in the tribunal. I am pleased that we had a successful outcome for them. They now live happily in the Huon Valley. A large proportion of emails have come from interstate and overseas and many were proforma emails in support of same-sex marriage. I suppose they hope that the squeaky wheel gets the oil and I cannot knock their marketing techniques.

But those on the other side of the debate have been very good at the emotive aspects of the debate but, to me, they fail to get to the crux of the matter and that is that, traditionally, marriage is a fundamental concept that refers to a particular relationship between a male and a female; therefore, changing the definition of 'marriage' fundamentally changes what a marriage is. Abraham Lincoln liked to pose this riddle:

How many legs does a dog have if you call the tail a leg?

After receiving the answer 'five,' he would correct it with:

Four. Calling a tail a leg doesn't make it a leg.

We could choose to change the definition so that 'leg' becomes 'any appendage capable of independent movement that hangs off a body'. Then a tail is a leg, but what we lose is the specific characteristics of what we understand to be a leg. The same goes if we change the definition of 'marriage' to include same-sex relationships. Why should the permanent, exclusive union of a man and a woman not have unique status?

To clarify where I come from personally, I would like to point out that I have family members and friends who I love, care about and respect who are in loving and caring same-sex relationships. I fully support and am proud to be a member of the government that has amended 85 pieces of legislation to ensure that their partners are not discriminated against in any way in areas including health, taxation, aged care, superannuation, immigration, taxation and family law. What gets forgotten in this debate is that same-sex couples in Australia have the same legal rights that those in opposite-sex de facto relationships have, and each state and territory in Australia has some form of formal recognition of people in same-sex relationships.

The concept of marriage being between a man and a woman is deeply ingrained throughout history. This concept and culture is understood and accepted across most of the world. The United Nations recognises 193 member states, with 13 others yet to be fully recognised, and over 200 countries competed in the recent Olympic Games, but same-sex marriage is performed in only 11 of those countries. Same-sex marriage is not recognised in over 195 countries, which cover about 95 per cent of the world's population. In Australia, 53 per cent of people over the age of 18 are in heterosexual marriages, and the 2011 Australian census showed that only 0.7 per cent of people identified as being in a homosexual relationship. Although those supporting this bill have been very loud, it is not the majority view of Australians. Same-sex relationships should be recognised and valued in their own right, and this government has already put structures in place to support this. Changing the definition of 'marriage' will not add anything more to this. It is not some silver bullet or panacea that is going to fix all ills.

I will end with a quote from family law expert Professor Patrick Parkinson in his submission to the Senate inquiry into the Marriage Equality Amendment Bill 2010:

In Australia, functional equality has already been achieved. I am not aware of any legal rights and obligations that arise from marriage that do not also apply to registered same-sex unions, other than the right to call the relationship a marriage. Certainly that is so in federal law.

It is my belief that the majority of Australians do not support any change to the law at this time, and I will not be supporting the bill.