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Thursday, 20 September 2012
Page: 7442

Senator WHISH-WILSON (Tasmania) (09:45): I rise to support the Marriage Amendment Bill (No.2) 2012 and I would like to congratulate members of my party, especially Senator Hanson-Young for her leadership on this issue over a number of years and bringing this bill before parliament. It has been mentioned in debate in previous days that this may not be the last bill that we see.

I have enjoyed listening to the debate in the last few days and to people speaking from the heart. Of course there have been some speeches that I have not enjoyed; however, it has been a great opportunity to put politics aside in some senses and listen to what people really want to say. I think that is what a lot of Australian voters want to hear from their parliamentarians.

I thoroughly enjoyed listening to Senator Faulkner the other night—I even tweeted how much I enjoyed his speech, and the passion and the eloquence that he displayed on this subject. In particular, he talked about how this debate is about one simple thing—that is, governments discriminating against people. It is as simple as that: it is about discrimination. It is not necessarily about religion, sexuality or sexual behaviour; it is quite simply about governments treating all their citizens equally.

While that is obviously true, it is instructive to scratch a little below the surface and see perhaps why governments or the parliament may not pass this bill. What are the reasons behind our lack of support for same-sex marriage in this country? I will get around to that shortly but first I want to highlight the words from the very fine man whose shoes I have stepped into and perhaps let his words echo in this chamber one more time, although spoken by me.

Bob Brown spoke on the 7.30 Report last night. It is well known that Bob has been in a loving relationship with his partner Paul for some years. Bob said on Q&Ajust prior to his departure from federal parliament that as, a 26-year-old practising Methodist, a Christian, he used to self-administer electric shocks to try and change his sexual behaviour and desires. I know that this is something that he feels very strongly about. I would like to read Bob's words on how he sees this debate: simply, it is about leadership. Last night on the 7.30 Reportwith Leigh Sales, Bob said:

This is about leadership and Julia Gillard, Tony Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull, Kevin Rudd, Wayne Swan all failed that leadership test. We're in a nation where the polls show 80 per cent of young people, a majority of Christians, four out of five Labor voters, a majority of conservative voters wanted this legislation passed, but that leadership of the nation failed and the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition take that fair on their shoulders. They're responsible for this failure in the Parliament today.

He went on to say:

… people will remember that at the elections next year where it was the Greens who solidly stood up with the majority of Australians to get rid of this discrimination against people in marriage. And, you know, hearts are broken all over Australia today. We just saw a mother lamenting the discrimination which has been delivered by Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott against her child and partner, or potential partner, today in the Parliament. Look, it's - and Labor engineered this. They knew that if the Prime Minister were to go at the last Labor conference for a conscience vote rather than to take the lead and say, 'I am leading the country into getting rid of discrimination in marriage,' you'd get this result. The Christian lobby might be happy - they don't represent the churches or the majority of Christian voters. But it's a very poor outcome for democracy and that failure of leadership.

On the topic of leadership, my home state of Tasmania, which most people would be aware, was the last place in Australia to override laws that made homosexual behaviour illegal. Before parliament at the moment is a bill to legalise same-sex marriages and remove discrimination. I would like to say, firstly, to the Tasmanian Labor and Greens MPs who sponsored this bill—that is, Labor Premier Lara Giddings and Nick McKim—congratulations for showing that leadership and getting the bill through the lower house in Tasmania.

I would also like to say to the members of the upper house in Tasmania, the MHAs, that they had an opportunity to show leadership here and take the state forward. Aside from the very simple and important concept that we should not have discrimination anywhere in this country, let alone in the world, this is a chance to show leadership on that issue. It is no secret that Tasmania's economy needs a boost. Given the importance of tourism to our economy—it is nearly 15 per cent of the workforce in Tasmania and it is a major contributor to gross state product, and like a lot of industries it is suffering under a high dollar and a fall-off in tourism numbers—being the first state in Australia to legalise same-sex marriages would provide a significant economic opportunity for the state exactly when it is needed. We know it is not just Tasmanians thinking about this; our South Australian friends across the 'great ditch' have also identified in state parliament the potential economic boom this could bring to their state.

A recent report based on the economic stimulus from the passing of same-sex marriage bills in places such as Massachusetts in the USA has shown that the potential stimulus to the Tasmanian economy alone would be $96 million over a period of five years, creating potentially hundreds of new jobs. This is in an industry that already fits in very well with the structure of our state in the way the economy has been set up. Thousands of small businesses, including a business I used to run in Tasmania, are set up for tourism and the opportunities that it can bring to the economy. This is a totally new area; it is an area most Tasmanians agree with, as shown by looking at recent statistics on support for same-sex marriage; and it is a clear and present opportunity to stimulate our economy. I just want to highlight again that this has also been recognised by the South Australian government as an area for their economy—and potentially for the national economy if you refer to the report that has analysed economic stimulus over the rest of the world in places where these bills have been introduced. So to Tasmanian MHAs—in particular those who at this point are undecided, such as Jim Wilkinson—I say: I would urge you to take the opportunity to take Tasmania forward in terms of both social progressiveness and the opportunity that this can bring to the Tasmanian economy.

I would then like to say that based on what the media were discussing this morning in Tasmania the bill in front of parliament may not go far enough and some gay people in the state oppose the bill because they do not believe it goes far enough. I spoke to a leading advocate—one of the campaigners—this morning, and he said that is simply not true. They are not aware of who has been lobbying the MHAs and saying this bill did not go far enough. It has unanimous support from the gay community in the state, and it has been structured and delivered with consultation with the gay community in Tasmania. It is very important. If we fail in our leadership today, I would be very proud if my home state were to take leadership on this issue, pass that bill and make history.

I would like to say a little bit about myself here. I am happily married at the moment, and I hope that stays the case into the future. I have not seen much of my family in the last few months, but I have lots of gay friends. I also have lots of Christian friends. I used to be a practising Christian myself until my early 20s, and I am very comfortable with the concept of my friends and other gay people having the right to marry. It is in no way a threat to me. I am very comfortable with myself, my own sexuality and my own marriage, and I really do not understand where the push-back comes from. But I have tried to understand this issue.

In 2010, the second time I attended an Australian Christian Lobby forum in Launceston, I thanked them for inviting me as a Green candidate—because it is always important that Greens attend these events. When I attended that event in Launceston in 2010, I made it very clear to people there that I did not expect to get any votes that night. I literally came along to listen to what they had to say and to put the view of a Green candidate across. I learnt a lot from my evening with a number of local Christians. There was a stage where I was talking about banning same-sex marriage as being discriminatory, and at one stage it got fairly heated and there was lots of heckling and a bit of yelling. I had the microphone, and I said to the room, 'There's a lot of fear in this room, and that surprises me coming from Christians, since I understand love is the main basis of their faith.' After that forum, a very prominent and respected pastor, Dr Andrew Corbett, came up to me and said, 'Would you go out to breakfast with me so we can discuss this,' and I said I would love to. So we went out to breakfast a couple of weeks later, and we talked for nearly 2½ hours on this subject. I thank Andrew for taking the time to speak to me. We agreed to disagree on many things that morning, but a couple of things did become fairly clear to me.

The first thing that surprised me from my understanding, having had a Christian upbringing and having Christian friends, was that there seems to be conditional love in terms of the Bible and what it says about same-sex marriage. I would like to say that I do respect many Christians, and on this point I do disagree with them. I do not in my heart understand why you should have conditions on love, because, as Senator Xenophon pointed out so eloquently last night, there is not enough love in the world at the moment, and what we should be doing is promoting it. I know that is a subject a lot of men, particularly, are uncomfortable with talking about, but that is a simple fact. When I turn on the television at night and I look at what is going on around the world, we need more of it, and we need to encourage more of it. If sanctifying and formalising people's love for each other through marriage enhances that then personally I do not see the problem.

I think it is advantageous to the church that we are having this debate today, because I think it shows the importance of marriage as an institution. One thing I said to Dr Corbett was that marriage as an institution is already under attack, and it is not under attack from the potential for gay people to get married. Nearly a third of all marriages end in divorce. I have had friends who have committed suicide who have come from broken marriages. One of my best mates gets depressed every time it is his birthday because that is the day his father walked out on him when he was 12. So marriage itself is something that needs to be worked at and it is an institution that I value, as Christians do, but I do not think the threat to that institution comes from same-sex marriage. It comes from our lifestyle. It comes from a whole range of things that we confront today as a society. I think it is a bit of a sideshow to say that marriage as an institution is under threat from same-sex couples getting married.

The third thing that became very obvious to me was that perhaps some Christians believe that being gay is environmental, conditional, not genetic—you are not born that way. Obviously I am not gay myself, so I cannot say for certain, but my understanding and feeling is that it is something you are born with. It is the way you are. It makes a lot of sense to me that, if you believe in compassion, you should give everyone the opportunity to be the best they can be and be accepted in society. I do believe am encouraged by some statistics we have had recently that some people in the church—some leaders in the church—are offering an olive branch on same-sex marriage and 53 per cent of Christians do support the concept of same-sex marriage.

I would say that I do believe religion is an issue, although a lot of people who oppose same-sex marriage are not religious. I accept that. There are a number of reasons I have thought of that might underpin that. But I say to the church that this is also an opportunity to show some leadership. There are a lot of statistics—one was recently sent to me by the Doctors for Marriage Equality—that show that marriage itself as an institution can have very beneficial effects on gay people in terms of their satisfaction, their health, all these things we have already discussed at length in this chamber. There is also a lot of evidence that civil unions are not as effective in preventing social issues as marriages are. I think that is going to be an important point. I think the country has moved on from civil unions. We have them in a number of states, but the country, in our opinion, has moved on, and we would like to see marriage itself as an institution proposed and supported in parliament as the way forward for same-sex marriage.

When I think back to that forum with that anger and fear that was so obvious to me, I think we have seen a really good example of that in parliament, in the Senate in the last few days with Senator Bernardi's comments. I was wondering at first whether Senator Bernardi made that up or he was speaking his views there, but I have heard before the line that potentially giving same-sex couples marriage could lead to quite extreme measures. I have heard that before, so I know that has been propagated for awhile. I do not know exactly who is propagating those lines, but it is highly offensive. In fact, I cannot think of anything more offensive you could say to a gay person than that giving them the right to marriage and to have equality in love is the first step towards encouraging bestiality and other extreme things. I really cannot imagine a more offensive thing you could say.

I have heard non-stop since I joined the Green party and in this chamber that the Greens are seen as being extremists and wacky. I do not think there is a better example of extremism, hatred and fear than what I heard from Senator Bernardi the other day. I hope the voters of Australia realise that that is what you are going to get if you vote Liberal at the next election.

Opposition senators interjecting

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Obviously I have hit a raw nerve. He is a Liberal senator. He wears your colours and he has got up in the chamber and made an extreme comment.

This has now become an international affair. I would like to read a quote from the Daily Mail and the Guardian in the UK, where it says:

Labour said his appearance at the event was 'astonishing' and accused the Tories of paying 'lip service' to equality.

…   …   …

A party spokesman said: 'We haven't organised this event and are not in control of who attends.

'We strongly condemn Mr Bernardi's comments which don't reflect David Cameron's or the Conservative party's viewpoint in any way.'

David Cameron was also on the record as saying:

I don't support gay marriage in spite of being a Conservative. I support gay marriage because I am a Conservative.

I would like to finish on a positive point. We have a chance to show leadership. We have a chance to show the world and our voters that we do not discriminate in our law, that everybody is the same under the law and that we value everyone and we value their love that we have for each other. That is a very important message that we need to stay focused on.