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Monday, 17 September 2012
Page: 6993


Senator MARK BISHOP (Western Australia) (11:33): I had not originally intended to make a contribution to this debate, because my views are on the record. In fact there was a dissenting report by Labor senators published some months ago which arose out of a bill that had been referred to a committee. I was quite happy to sign up to that dissenting report so my views on this issue are known. One of my colleagues was unable to put off an appointment and he asked me to take his place, so I have come forward at relatively short notice.

Before I go to my more prepared comments, I must really respond to the argument led by Senator Milne, from the Greens, as to what she says is the inappropriate role led by Mr de Bruyn, in his own union, at the ACTU executive and at the national executive of the Australian Labor Party. I want to make one point for the public record and it really is indicative of the lack of truth in a lot of matters associated with this debate.

We know that Mr de Bruyn attended the Australian Christian conference because his speech was released, reported in the press and put on appropriate websites around Australia. We know of the deliberations of the ACTU interstate executive and we know of the deliberations of the ALP national executive. Indeed, we know in considerable detail of all of the deliberations of the national conference of the ALP because they are all reported in exquisite detail in very paper around Australia whenever those organisations or bodies meet. Indeed, it is all of the deliberations of those bodies, they being large public bodies that receive in some respects significant public funding. To every forum in every territory, state and national organisation of the Labor Party the press are invited to attend, they report on all debates, they mix freely with all delegates and they file ongoing reports as elected delegates to those conferences participate and make contributions to debate and eventually vote on proposed resolutions before the respective chairs.

We know all of that because, as I said, it is all reported in exquisite detail in the press. Compare that proper, open, democratic, public role pursued by the Australian Labor Party and the trade union movement since their foundations in the late 19th century with this modernist rabble at the end of the chamber, the Greens—this modernist rabble growing post 1988 when they came to power and to force on the death of the most totalitarian regime and ideology in history and yet they are proud to stand in this place and say they never ever admit the press and the public to any of their conferences. Like some useless, ignorant, backward Stalinist sect, they meet in private in little halls in the middle of nowhere. So there are 10, 15 or 20 people meeting in secret, discussing in secret, voting in secret, never allowing the press in. Yet this little group of Stalinists down here have the temerity to come into the Australian parliament and criticise union leaders and longstanding politicians because they have a considered, thought-out perspective, go to public forums, stand before hundreds of thousands of people, are on the TV every night and say what they think in their heart, their mind and their brain! But these useless Stalinists down here hide away and run away like little children ashamed and scared of their views and terrified they might be reported fully and openly and accurately. Useless Stalinists passed away in 1988 in Europe and useless Stalinists are sitting here now and criticising others because they openly participate in debate. What a terrible situation.

Let me now turn to the matter before the chair. What I wanted to discuss when I was considering and preparing my remarks in my office was three issues. They are issues of importance and priority, issues of equity, social justice and discrimination, and issues that go to the heart, the very nature, of the marriage relationship. Somewhat unusually for a senator with a heavy committee workload, I do an inordinate amount of campaigning and constituency work when I am back in Perth. I am duty Labor senator for three electorates we do not hold, Swan, Tangney and Pearce. So one of my responsibilities is to show our flag and, particularly in one, lead the charge to win them back to Labor at the next election. Those three seats cover city developed and established suburbs, developing outer suburbs, near rural areas and country towns with arguably close to 400,000 or 500,000 people in those growth corridors of Perth.

I checked my diary this morning and since July I have attended or been the principal guest at over 100 community functions in Perth—BER openings, TAFE training centre openings, immigration ceremonies, school openings, community centres, legal centres, council chambers, representational activities and university type functions. My office would handle up to 20 complaints per week on the issues of concern to ordinary people: childcare access and equity, immigration, boat people, fishing issues, education funding, utility bills, road funding, airport access, road trains, dental plans, veteran entitlement issues—the sorts of issues that individuals or groups want to raise and bring to the attention of a member of parliament. But the incidence of lobbying, meeting requests and discussions at public forums on the issue of gay marriage or related to gay marriage is absolutely minimal. I do not say nonexistent, but absolutely minimal—it is hardly raised at all. It is not on the horizon amongst all of those people in those three seats in Perth. I have received little lobbying at all. I have had the odd request for a discussion on this issue. I do not say that lobbying or correspondence is nonexistent but it is not on any significant scale at all. Frankly, this lack of interest, this lack of lobbying, has puzzled me for some time.

Personally, I have always had a very, very open mind on the issue of gay marriage. I do see it, at its heart, as a personal issue. Like everyone, I have friends, family and colleagues some of whom are gay, most are not. I treat them the same and they treat me the same. There are varying degrees of courtesy, cooperation, friendship, professionalism, love and attachment.

When I first sought preselection in 1994 for the Labor Party in the Senate it was a very interesting affair. In those days we had an electoral college of 218 persons. I eventually gained preselection in a very heavy contest by a margin of one vote, so it was very close. After the vote was concluded and the emotion had died down, I took the trouble to ring around and I went to see of a number of individuals and groups to thank them and ask them why they had voted for me, because they were not traditionally lined up with the people I associate with in the Labor Party; indeed, they were mostly in trenchant opposition. This was the gay and lesbian lobby in the ALP which became the Rainbow Alliance, but they voted to me and got me over the barrier for a win by one vote. I said to them, 'Why did you do that? They said: 'Mark, it wasn't difficult. You're just a right-winger in the ALP, you're not homophobic. It didn't really matter to us.' They had had a meeting, they said plenty of other people were no good, but they said, 'You're not homophobic, you're just a right-winger, it wasn't a problem.' So I got here on the basis of that vote. I have never identified the individuals involved, but those in the know are those in the know.

It this context, former Attorney-General McClelland brought a bill into the House and the Senate some three or four years ago to amend about 80 pieces of legislation. The intent and purpose was to outlaw discrimination against gay men or gay women in relation to benefits, entitlements or whatever the case may be, and I think it is readily agreed around this place that effective discrimination against men and women on the basis of their sexual orientation is illegal in this country. They can dispose of their property as they think appropriate. They can dispose of assets as they think appropriate. They can enter whatever retail, entertainment, business or commercial venue they want to and be treated in all respects equally and in the same way as everyone else.

I am very, very proud that the Attorney at that time forced the matters through our party, through our conference, converted them into principles and into legislation, and brought them into this place and put them through. In fact, those sorts of antidiscrimination measures, non-discrimination measures to enable individuals to get on with their lives without hindrance by the law or legal forms in any respect, go to the heart and soul of a modern Labor Party trenchantly opposed to discrimination.

People supportive of this bill support equity as a ground for this bill. What they seek to do is to extend individual rights to a social group or a social construct. In doing so, necessarily the extension of that right to a new social group, a new social construct—that is, gay couples—impinges on the rights of another group of individuals: children. Children, as we all know, in their formative years are at their most vulnerable, impressionable and uninformed and most in need of assistance and guidance, primarily from their parents but from the wider institutions in society. So, for me, it is an issue about the right of natural-born individuals, the products of a lawful marriage or relationship, and the social group or construct which, for the first time in history, seeks to alter the fundamental nature of past received social, legal, civil or religious forms of marriage. That becomes the heart of the debate expressed in this bill before the chair today.

I am not under any pressure at all; I do not have any personal skin in this debate. I do not have any particular personal objectives. In fact, my own private, social view—which I have expressed to colleagues and friends over the years on issues such as this—is: 'live and let live'. On social relationships: live and let live. I have been hardly lobbied at all. It has been minimally raised with me in my responsible duty electorate. So, accordingly—and I say this without any degree of intensity at all—it is not a high or major priority for me, in respect of my private life, my personal circumstances, my family and friendship relationships, my work and my duties as an activist in the Australian Labor Party for over 40 years. It is not for me an issue of discrimination. It is not a major priority. But if the rights of children as individuals are going to be held by me as being superior to those of other groups, then I am honour bound to give consideration to what is still important in this debate as far as the rights of gay people or gay couples are concerned.

In a modern, democratic, progressive, evolving community or society, laws do need to reflect legitimate aspiration, changing values and emergent viewpoints. I never say that new forms should be just ignored or held down or done away with simply because they are new. A lot of the aspirations of persons who describe themselves as gay and want to enter into formalised gay relationships and want to have the respect of society and the support of the law are not merely aspirational; they are entirely proper—entirely legitimate.

On one hand, this is not an extant legalised form that has existed for thousands of years for heterosexual couples, but because the pressure is now on there is growing demand in society for proper, legal, lawful recognition of those modern aspirations. In those circumstances it should not be for those supporters of traditional marriage to deny those legitimate aspirations of gay people and gay couples who want to enter into voluntary relationships to the exclusion of all others for the lives of the partners.

It seems to me that we have too great a divide on that. Merely to take, or copy, something that has been in one form since recorded civilisation existed and extend it in the second decade of the 21st century is a bridge too far. But I support the extension of those groups who seek to have lawful protection and legal means for same-sex arrangements. I think it is worthwhile that they should have civil unions to give effect to their heartfelt personal relationships, not just take or copy the extant rites of other groups that have been recognised for thousands of years across countries, civilisations and cultures. If this is going to result in ongoing division in our community and our society, it needs to be properly resolved.

In this country in particular the law has high status. It is respected across the board. The way we resolve our disputes and social dissidence in this country is often, and generally, through parliament and the passage of laws. This is not so much the case in Europe and it is certainly not the case in the United States, which has a different system and a much more significant judicial activist space for changing social values. Here we do it in parliament, and members of parliament respond to lobbying, to community issues and to community concerns to bring laws generally of a topical nature. It is done in the open and in public and, if rejected, the reasons are on the public record, and everyone knows why.

My contribution is quite limited. I simply say: I have not been persuaded by those who are prosecuting this debate that the nature of the change sought is justified or warranted for the reasons I have outlined in my debate. Nonetheless, I have heard the arguments and the viewpoints. As I said earlier, it being live and let live, people have viewpoints, relationships and social groupings, and it is not for the law to say, 'No, no, no,' because we can say it. For the law to remain pertinent and relevant, and important to all groups, those aspirations can be achieved in the way to which I referred. They can be achieved in legislating for the right to civil unions done in a secular society. That is entirely proper, and I would not have a problem going down that path. (Time expired)