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Wednesday, 19 September 2012
Page: 7317


Senator SMITH (Western Australia) (11:27): I rise to add my views to the debate on the Marriage Amendment Bill (No. 2) 2012 and its desire to extend the definition of 'marriage' to include couples in same-sex relationships. My views are my own and have been formed after years of discussion, observation and careful consideration. I accept that to some the idea of an openly gay man rejecting a proposition to extend the definition of 'marriage' to same-sex relationships seems unusual or counterintuitive. In response, I say that it speaks to the often overlooked fact that opinion on the issue of extending the definition of 'marriage' is heavily divided, even among gay and lesbian Australians. I do not doubt that there are many gay and lesbian Australians and their families and friends that support the legislation, but there are also others who do not.

It is true that my party has taken a decision to honour the commitment it took to the last federal election to oppose proposals to amend the Marriage Act. This is a noble and commendable position and one that provides a powerful point of contrast between the coalition and the Australian Labor Party. One is a party in government that regularly breaks the bond of trust between it and the electorate and the other is a party that aspires to government, committed to honouring its pledges. I am grateful that on this issue my position aligns with that of my party, for I have long held the firm belief that on matters such as these, so heavily guided by moral, ethical and, for some, religious values, individuals and, most particularly, parliamentarians, should be free to act in accordance with their conscience.

The issue before us is more than a matter of moral, ethical or religious world views. It goes to the heart of our constant debates about the role of the state in the personal and private affairs of its citizens. I will come to this particular point a little later.

The debate on same-sex marriage has been a complex and controversial one. It is complex because, I would hope, as a community we want to continue to encourage the acceptance and contribution of gay and lesbian Australians in our community. It is complex because we want to end the trauma and isolation that is all too often felt by gays and lesbians as they negotiate the heart-wrenching pathway towards authenticity and acceptance of their sexuality, a process of sexual identity and acceptance that can be as painful and traumatic for the families of gay and lesbian Australians as it can be for the people themselves. The matter is also controversial. It is controversial because some in the debate, most notably the Australian Greens, want to suggest they know best the minds of the Australian electorate, better than anyone else in this place, perhaps even better than the members of the electorate themselves. It has been controversial also because many have confused the religious institution of marriage with marriage as a civil institution. It is marriage as a civil institution that should demand the primary concentration and deliberations of parliamentarians. I believe any future deliberation by the parliament on matters regarding the legal treatment of same-sex couples should make as its focus the task of creating a starker distinction between marriage as a civil institution and its role for some as a religious institution.

My primary opposition to this proposal is born from my strong regard and faith in the cautionary, conservative and traditional approach to these matters. As I have said previously, I distrust sentiments and actions that seek to dismiss, modify or reject as relics our institutions and customs—institutions and customs that have evolved to serve our community well. I believe that cautious and considered change is critical if we are to bring about stability and continuity for our community.

I reject the suggestion of marriage equality. Marriage equality has been a slogan; it has been a campaign. The claim to equality ignores the widely accepted fact that marriage is an institution that has a long and well-accepted definition—a definition that is heavily laden with cultural meaning and values crafted by custom and by law over the years. It is an institution that has a common and well-understood meaning in Australia. I dispute the commentary in this place and others suggesting that the majority of Australians are ready to extend the meaning of marriage to same-sex relationships. I also dispute the view that the inability to utilise the Marriage Act restricts in any fundamental manner the quality of life experiences of gay and lesbian Australians.

The case for equality for gay and lesbian Australians was a battle too-long fought. It must be acknowledged that on the substantive matters of equality in Australia, gay and lesbian Australians can live at law without discrimination. This important achievement was won in 2008 with the passage of the Same-Sex Relationships (Equal Treatment in Commonwealth Laws—Superannuation) Bill 2008 and the related bill, the Same-Sex Relationships (Equal Treatment in Commonwealth Laws—General Law Reform) Bill 2008. Those bills captured an important principle, that nobody should be discriminated against on account of their sexuality. The bills repealed or amended provisions in Commonwealth law which treated homosexual couples less favourably than heterosexual couples. The support of the Liberal Party for these legislative initiatives was described by its spokesman at the time in the following manner:

… support for this legislation reflects our deep commitment to the intrinsic dignity of every human being and our deep commitment to their fundamental right to lead their own lives in their own way. Like gender, race and religion, sexuality is intrinsic to identity. It is simply no business of society’s to dictate to its members about matters which are so private that they define a person’s very sense of self. But it is the obligation of society to ensure, as a basic principle of fairness, that its members are protected from unlawful discrimination and enjoy the right to equal treatment.

The passage of the bills provided for equal treatment and responsibilities for same-sex couples in areas such as social security, veterans entitlements, employment, taxation, superannuation, immigration and workers compensation. These proposals passed with the support of all parties, meaning there is now no substantive issue that treats same-sex people in relationships differently than opposite-sex people in a relationship. Let me share with you the view of at least one other gay Australian who has challenged the current marriage equality movement. This comment was recorded in April this year in OUTinPerth, a community newspaper based in Perth, my home town. It said:

The other thing that’s irritating I suppose about it is that it has become this orthodoxy within the community. Dissenting voices are not allowed, it’s just assumed that if you’re gay you’re for it, as it’s clearly a human right - which it’s not.

The article goes on to what I regard as the most important, but all too often forgotten, critical element in the debate when it says:

The right is to have our relationship recognised equally by the State; the right is not to marriage.

I do not believe you empower a gay and lesbian relationship simply by giving it the same definition of marriage. I believe that the only matter which this parliament should concern itself with is the matter of treating relationships equally before the law. This desire for equality before the law is a genuine and legitimate request. It is one that deserves to be heard and should be heeded. While not agreeing to extending the definition of marriage to same-sex relationships, I do believe Australians are ready to agree to a proposal for civil unions to acknowledge the union of same-sex couples. I would add to this that every Australian couple should have an opportunity to have their union acknowledged at law under the same arrangement—a mechanism that would provide for a civil union instrument to sit side by side with the Marriage Act.

In the same way that I accept the positive regard people have for the values, customs and traditions attached to the term 'marriage', I also accept that others in our community may not share the same sentiment or affiliation. On this basis, every Australian couple, heterosexual and homosexual, would have the opportunity to have their unions acknowledged at law without the heavy custom and meaning attached to the term 'marriage'. I appreciate that this is a view not likely to find satisfaction with either side of the current debate at the moment, but it is my considered view and it is genuinely held.

I am pleased that in the lead up to the 2010 federal election, the Leader of the Opposition, the member for Warringah, was reported in both the Australian and the Age as being open to exploring the merits of civil unions. The Australian reported on 23 March 2010 that on the question of civil unions for gays, he was:

… open to these possibilities, but at the same time I'm also keen to defend traditional marriage.

The Age reported on 26 March 2010 that he favoured formal recognition of same-sex relationships and that he was 'very happy to look at' civil unions. He said:

I'm in favour of stable, enduring relationships. I'm in favour of people keeping their commitments to people. I would be very sympathetic to some institutional arrangement which encouraged that across the board, rather than in just what might be described as the more common or traditional contexts.

I am confident that such a proposal—the coexistence of civil unions and marriage—would blunt the suggestions of some that acceptance of civil unions for same-sex relationships in Australia would be a Trojan Horse for same-sex 'marriage'.

It has often been remarked that we should be following the lead of political luminaries such as the President of the United States, Mr Obama, and the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Mr Cameron. Mr Cameron's judgement has been found to be wanting and not in sync with the attitudes of the British electorate, and reference to the attitudes of prominent Americans is mischievous and ignores the very real differences of jurisdictional authority on these matters between different layers of government in the United States of America.

I simply add that what some people believe to be good for them is not necessarily necessary for us. Even though I hold a strong, private commitment to a faith, religious considerations have been absent from my deliberation on this issue. Of all the arguments I have heard for opposing this initiative, I view the religious defence as the weakest. I doubt anyone in this place can confidently interpret God's law nor know the true will of God. As a distinguished person from this place once said, 'I cannot imagine it to have been a function of God's law to commit people who are built differently in some way from ourselves to live a twilight life of guilt and fear.' Many years ago, I chose to use as my guide the comment: 'Men judgeth men by their actions; God judgeth men by their hearts.'

In 1990, at a formative time in my life, I discovered a powerful story of one man's coming to terms with his sexuality. It was captured in the book Coming Out Conservative. The book and the story of Mr Marvin Liebman was a liberation for me. Marvin Liebman was the founder of America's modern conservative political fabric. In the autobiography he talks of his close friendship to Ronald Reagan and William F Buckley Jr, the former editor of the National Review. These names will be familiar to those who have studied conservative ideas in America.

After years and years building and fighting for the modern American conservative movement, Marvin Liebman came out to his friends, Reagan and Buckley. As a young man, about to come out, I admired his contribution to the conservative movement, but was saddened he had to begin his life as an openly gay man late in life. It was a life that had been richly lived, but one that had also been hidden. In coming out to his lifelong peers Reagan and Buckley, Liebman wrote a letter which contained significant motivation for my subsequent political activity. He wrote:

A personal note is in order. I am both gay and conservative and don't find a contradiction. There shouldn't be any 'shame' in being gay. Moreover, the conservative view, based as it is on the inherent rights of the individual over the state, is the logical political home of gay men and women. The conservative movement must reject the bigots and the hypocrites and provide a base for gays as well as others. The politics of inclusion is the model by which what we have achieved with Ronald Reagan can continue and flourish without the anti-Communist and the anti-tax movements of sustaining elements. Conservatives need to remind themselves that gay men and women, almost always residing in the closet, were among those who helped in the founding, nurturing, and maintaining of the movement. They should be welcomed based on common beliefs, and without regard to our response to different sexual stimuli. One's sexuality should not be factored into acceptance in a cause that is based on beliefs, no more than colour, or ethnic origin: because sexuality isn't a belief, it's a factor of birth.

For the most part this debate has been carried out with mutual respect and maturity. I would, however, urge some leaders of faiths and others to act with care and constraint in some of their remarks. While comments and attitudes may be sincerely held they can easily be misconstrued as cruel and lacking in empathy for our humanity. An eloquent argument can just as easily be the carriage of cruelty and homophobia as an uneducated one.

I want to acknowledge those who come to this debate in a similar context to me, but who have arrived at a different conclusion. I have listened to their contribution, admired the strength of their convictions and I applaud their courage. By not agreeing to same-sex marriage, I am not choosing to endorse discrimination against my fellow gay and lesbians Australians or to be disrespectful to their domestic relationships, or to lessen the value of their commitments, companionship, love and unions. Instead, for me, it is an honest acknowledgement, of the special and unique characteristics of the union described as 'marriage'.