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Thursday, 23 August 2012
Page: 6300

Senator URQUHART (Tasmania) (17:35): I stand in this place as one of many strong supporters for marriage equality in the Labor Party. Marriage equality for many in our party fits with our values of fairness, equality, family and compassion, as well as reason, logic and progress. Values of fairness include fairness to all in our community, fairness for all those in our society who are doing it tough for many reasons, fairness to those who have a disability, fairness to those who are less fortunate, and fairness to have the opportunity to succeed regardless of circumstance. Values of equality include equality to all those in our society regardless of gender, religion, race, sexual orientation and age; and equality for those in our society about how they live their lives and the opportunities they should receive.

Values of family stand whatever the make-up of that family is. Families today are very different to what history would define a family to be. Regardless of how a family is made up, the support from a family unit is now as important to individuals and to the community as ever.

A close, caring, loving, respectful family network is something that we should all support and foster regardless of what a family's makeup is. It is about values of compassion, respect and tolerance. If a friend or a stranger stumbles in the street, we do our best to help them out but we always respect their choices and decisions—not prejudging people for whatever reason. I believe in respecting people for what and who they are, not what others like them to be. I respect people based on their actions unto others and values of reason, logic and progression. I endeavour to approach issues with reason and logic. Prejudice consistently results in poor outcomes. Attempting to use reason and logic to progress our society for the betterment of our grandchildren and their grandchildren is at my core.

Australians now overwhelmingly want our parliament to amend the Marriage Act: to allow any two adults, regardless of sex, sexuality or gender identity, the honour and privilege of standing in front of their family and friends and making a commitment to each other; to allow the children of people in same-sex relationships the stability of knowing that their family is just as special as all other families; to allow the community to celebrate the love and commitment of two Australians who are no doubt good citizens who pay their taxes and abide by the law of the land.

I read for senators a motion passed at the 2009 Tasmanian state Labor conference supporting marriage equality:

This Tasmanian state Labor conference believes that all couples who have mutual commitment to a shared life should have their relationships treated equally and without discrimination on the basis of their sexual orientation. The conference believes in equal access to marriage under Australian law, regardless of the sex of the parties. The government should reform the Marriage Act to allow same-sex couples the right to marry, therefore fully recognising their relationship and removing discrimination. The conference believes the government should recognise the change in the community attitudes regarding this issue and bring full equality to the law.

That motion was passed in 2009. It was the first of its kind from a state Labor conference. Tasmania, a state that in 1997 amended its criminal code to remove homosexuality, is also the first state where a major party clearly voted in favour of marriage equality. It is testament to the values of our Labor members in Tasmania that they wanted to continue the long and proud history of delivering change—a proud history of giving effect to the principle of equality and ensuring that inequality is not sewn into the fabric of our community. It was Labor governments that introduced the first land rights legislation, introduced the Racial Discrimination Act, recognised native title through the Mabo legislation, enacted the Sex Discrimination Act, repealed the ban on gays and lesbians serving in our armed forces, introduced the Disability Discrimination Act, and will soon amend the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency to become the improved and more encompassing Workplace Gender Equality Agency.

Tasmanian Labor has led the nation with progressive change, upholding values of equality and fairness. Tasmania is the only state to provide compensation to the stolen generations and was one of the first states to apologise. It is the state with the most progressive anti-discrimination laws in the country, it was the first state to introduce a relationship register, and it was the first state to recognise same-sex marriages recognised in other jurisdictions. Just recently, at our state Labor conference, Premier Lara Giddings passionately moved a motion, and I quote:

This state Labor conference believes that in the event the federal parliament fails to end discrimination in the Federal Marriage Act, the state of Tasmania should step in to do the right thing and pass a state based gender-neutral marriage act. The conference believes that this will provide fair and equitable access to marriage to all Tasmanians and urges the Tasmanian government to act immediately to draft legislation in the event a vote to change the Marriage Act fails in the federal parliament.

The conference believes the state of Tasmania should allow marriage licenses to be granted to couples outside of Tasmania and notes the economic boon this would provide to the state.

In just three years, our state went from being the first to support national marriage equality to being the first to support state based marriage equality. I congratulate Premier Giddings for her courage in taking on this challenge and I urge all members of the Tasmanian parliament to support fairness and marriage equality.

I thank the Rainbow Labor Network in Tasmania for their phenomenal lobbying work to put marriage equality on the agenda in Tasmania; to keep us, as a state branch of the ALP, reaffirming our commitment to marriage equality; and to push for state based marriage equality in the event of failure at a federal level, because marriage equality marries so well with so many Labor values.

At last year's Tasmanian state conference, there was a contribution in support of marriage equality from a man who formerly looked upon homosexuality as wrong. He spoke of his struggle when his son 'came out'. It was a struggle to comprehend his son's sexuality that soon turned to how he could best support his son. As his son is now in a loving relationship, he spoke of his wish for his son to be able to marry the partner that he loves in front of his family and friends. The tide has turned in Tasmania. A survey conducted by Senator Carol Brown in 2011 of over 1,000 Tasmanians, a clear majority of 55 per cent supported marriage equality.

In 2008, in one of our first actions as a new government, Labor amended over 85 pieces of Commonwealth legislation to remove discrimination against same-sex de facto couples. These amendments provide financial equality, assisting with the day-to-day financial security issues that were faced by same-sex de facto couples in Australia. Some Labor state governments have also provided fair access to assisted and reproductive technology such as IVF and have made same-sex couples eligible for adoption. These are great achievements.

We must celebrate Labor achievements that have comprehensively removed discrimination towards same-sex de facto couples, making their day-to-day lives easier and opening opportunities that all Australians should have the right to access.

I follow the logic that if we can recognise and accept a couple as a couple and provide all couples with equal access to legal and financial benefits then we must also be able to support the symbolic and ceremonial recognition of same-sex couples by amending the Marriage Act. With regard to relationship recognition, the key issue here is no longer the ability to access legal or financial benefits; it is primarily a symbolic issue and is, as can be seen from the fierce debate it elicits, an extremely important one.

Same-sex couples want the same public, symbolic and ceremonial recognition of their commitment to each other. For those who say there can be state based registers—and I clarify that I mean those who say state based registers and not marriage—most relationship registers are intended as a non-ceremonial certification of same-sex couples. This fails to encompass one of the most important elements of relationship recognition. We can see this evidenced in Queensland, where the newly elected Liberal National government watered down the relationship register to such a degree that some marriage equality advocates have described it as like registering a pet or a car. To do anything but amend the Marriage Act continues to deny rights to members of our community and says to our community at large that same-sex couples are not equal. It says to our community that their relationships are of lesser value. It says to some young Australians that they are lesser members of our community—and for no good reason. Same-sex couples are not looking for any special treatment. They are not looking for anything more than anyone else. They are just asking for the same rights and to be treated as everyone else. They are just asking for their kids to have a fair go.

A child in my home town does not tell his friends about his mum's relationship. Although this nine-year-old boy should be worried about the games he will play with his mates and how to pass his tests at school, he is burdened with a fear that he will be bullied if his mates find out about his mum, who is in a loving relationship and does everything for him. Not being able to marry is very sad for her, but what is sadder is that her son cannot tell his peers about her relationship, because even at his young age he realises that he will be bullied. He does so many amazing and exciting things with them like camping, birdwatching, hiking and boating, just like any family, but it concerns him that he has to censor his life. It is so sad that a little boy already knows and has to live with discrimination.

Marriage equality can help to put an end to this for this boy and many others in the same situation. He is a boy whose childhood should be about instilling in him the skills and dreams that will see him become a good Australian. He is a boy who should be worried about the games to play with his friends, about what he needs to do for his next school assignment and about whether he got a few kicks in his last footy game—a boy who should not be burdened with the fear of bullying if he shares stories of his weekend with his mum and her partner.

Opponents of marriage equality use the pretence of protecting children as one of their major arguments. I challenge them to look a child like this brave boy in the eyes and say that the current laws are protecting him. I challenge them to move beyond their belief of what they see as a traditional family unit to accept that our society comprises so many family structures and that we must enshrine in our laws a safe environment for all of them.

Changing the Marriage Act will give us a future where all people are treated equally with dignity and respect, but it needs to be amended in a comprehensive and thorough fashion. There are currently a number of bills before the parliament on this issue. Labor members have moved to co-sponsor a comprehensive marriage equality amendment bill that addresses some technical concerns with this bill before us today. I understand that the bill will be given substantial time for debate during the September sitting period. I will support that bill when it comes to this place. It reflects that the party with the majority of supporters for marriage equality in this place should be the party that introduces the bill. It reflects that this bill as it stands will need to be amended, as all votes on marriage equality bills are the subject of conscience votes as lobbied so vigorously for by the Greens.

The Labor Party has a different value set from that of the Greens political party—values built over the past 200 years from our working-class base, values built through the trade union movement, values that stem from a base that reflects all that we are and all that we do. The Greens political party say they support action on climate change but twice voted against the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme. They say they support refugees but they oppose population growth. They say they support science and fact based policy but with a sniff of opportunity jump straight on the fear bandwagon. What if we could look to transparency? No, the Greens political party conferences are all done behind closed doors. What about democratic internal party structures? Senator Thorp was elected by a vote of hundreds of rank-and-file members of the Tasmanian Labor Party. As far as I am aware, rank-and-file members of the Greens political party do not have the same opportunity. When many in the Labor Party were calling for a binding caucus vote on marriage equality, where were the Greens political party? They were out there demanding a conscience vote that would highlight divisions in the two major parties for political purposes. Today they have brought forward debate on this bill. What for? To pass it through parliament today. The Greens party must be judged by their actions on this issue.

I will share the story of a transsexual Tasmanian. If this woman were not honest with herself, she would be allowed to marry. She told me that twice she has been in love—once as a man and once since transitioning as a woman. Both relationships were exactly the same: both had highs and lows and both were founded on love. The first of these relationships was able to be celebrated publicly. They married, and the relationship thus gained society's blessing. After the death of his wife, who was the only person he had previously told of his struggles with his gender, he decided to transition. Since transitioning she has found love again, and again with a woman. But, no matter how this relationship is valued by her family, friends, colleagues and community, it is somehow less valued.

She explained that she is still the same person she was when she was married many years ago but that she is now more honest with herself and with her community. If the first relationship deserved recognition as a marriage it is only just that the second one does too. The only difference is her gender. In her current life, she has chosen to be more honest with society about who she is. Remarkably, if she had not undergone transitioning therapy and legally changed her sex she would be legally allowed to marry. This great country rewards people for their honesty. We must remove this barrier that prevents decent people from being fully honest with themselves and their community.

As Australians we pride ourselves on our ability on the sporting field. I have learned of the discrimination that a Tasmanian couple faced at their local golf club—a club that is always looking for new members—when they decided to join as partners. One was a successful golfer, and her new partner was keen to join as she knew quite a number of the members and thought it would be fun. The behaviour from some of the club members who had previously known her partner when she was a married straight woman was extremely hurtful to them both. Although they acted no differently to any other couple at the club, her partner was never welcomed as a new member. The club has a membership discount for married couples but, of course, these women could not qualify for that discount. They told me that it was not the money that hurt; it was the attitude that they were lesser members of the club. Even though one had been a club champion many times and the other was known and liked by many members outside of this setting, as you might expect, the burden of continual exclusion and snide remarks resulted in the women resigning from the club. This provides another example of how continuing to deny marriage equality instils discrimination within our society.

But attitudes change with time. Polls consistently show there is a majority support for marriage equality, and many countries around the world have recognised same-sex relationships. In Australian law there has always been a clear distinction between civil and religious marriages. People are able to be wed in a civil ceremony and a religious body is able to choose not to wed a couple and should remain free to have this choice. People of different religions are able to be wed and not all forms of marriage are permissible under law, even if they are allowed in a religious context. In recent years, two-thirds of marriages have been conducted in a civil ceremony with no involvement or mention of religion.

However, people are currently not free to have a wedding without discrimination. A marriage celebrant must, regardless of the wishes of the bride and groom, include in the monitum the Marriage Act's current definition of marriage. Without these words a marriage cannot be solemnised. A marriage celebrant highlighted to me the growing dissatisfaction from brides and grooms that these words must be used on their special day. That a phrase which a majority of our society feel is discriminatory and should be repealed must be recited in order for a marriage to be solemnised is so unfortunate. Is it not enough that same-sex attracted people are prohibited from marriage in this country? I acknowledge that this debate is difficult, that the community is divided and that, for many, overcoming long-held prejudices is tough. That is why I approach this debate with my Labor values at the fore, using values I derive from our Labor base. One of the Labor Party's great strengths is in fighting to promote equality, fairness and dignity for all. We must comprehensively move to end all legislated discrimination in this country.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT ( Senator Mark Bishop ): Before you commence, Senator Waters, I advise you that debate on this bill this evening will conclude at 6 pm.