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Thursday, 20 September 2012
Page: 7454


Senator THORP (Tasmania) (10:44): Equality before the law is surely a fundamental tenet of any great society—a society where every citizen feels truly valued and respected, where every member of our community is able to go about their day to day lives in the comfort and knowledge that they are looked upon no less than any other person because of inherent traits of their humanity; a society that promotes social cohesion and justice for all.

Governments, parliaments and courts should never be in the business of denying citizens their basic right to be treated equally among their peers. The struggle for equal rights, for full recognition of citizenship and to wipe out the scourge of discrimination has never been an easy one. Every milestone that has been reached has come with bitter opposition. More often than not several attempts to remove discrimination have had to be made before change has come about. The entrenched forces of the status quo are often hard to weed out and it takes community campaigns and dedicated crusaders many years to realise the outcome of their cause.

In 1902 Australia become only the second country in the world to grant women the right to vote at a national level and the first to allow women to stand for parliament. At the time much of the opposition to this change centred on the fear that a happily married man would be effectively given two votes—that of his own and that of his wife. After all, a woman could not be expected to show an understanding or appreciation of such important matters as voting. No, she could be expected to dutifully follow the instructions of her husband. Many feared this would put single men at a disadvantage.

Yet at the same time that enfranchisement was expanded to women, it was specifically removed for indigenous Australians and those citizens with Asian, African or Pacific Islander background with the exception of Maori people. The legendary Tasmanian politician King O'Malley reasoned at the time:

An Aboriginal is not as intelligent as a Maori. There is no scientific evidence that he is a human being at all.

We have seen great strides forward since that time. In the last 110 years our nation has removed discrimination and equalised our laws in many fields. We have repeatedly risen to the challenge and resolved debates that posed many questions about our core values and the manner in which we organise our society. Many of these changes overturned thousands of years of doctrine that ran to the bedrock of the foundations of our society. Today too many of us take these cherished rights for granted. For example, in 1907 the judgement that established the right to a basic wage was handed down. In 1946 the Australian people voted in a referendum to allow the Commonwealth to grant through legislation a basic set of economic rights—that the sick, the elderly, the infirm, the unemployed, war veterans and widows should not be forced to live in poverty due to circumstances out of their control.

We also played a significant role in the international development of human rights. In 1967, just 45 years ago, we finally decided to right a heinous wrong and treat our native populations as human beings with the full right of citizenry. It took us 66 years of Federation to recognise their connection to country that had been evident enough to them for more than 40,000 years. Then, like today, popular opinion was overwhelmingly on the side of change. Indeed, if anything, the change in public opinion forced political decision makers to catch up.

In 1972 we signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. In 1975 Australia ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. The Whitlam government successfully passed the Racial Discrimination Act, a piece of legislation that received bitter resistance then, and it would appear there are some, even to this day, even in this parliament, who would like to see it revoked.

In 1981 we established the first Australian Human Rights Commission. In 1983 we ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women and in 1984 we passed the Federal Sex Discrimination Act. In 1991 Australia adopted the First Operational Protocol to the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which granted individuals a right to complain directly to the UN Human Rights Committee if they believed their rights had been violated. The first Australian to do so was a Tasmanian, Nick Toonen. The United Nations Human Rights committee ultimately agreed with his complaint that Tasmania's criminal code violated his right to privacy by criminalizing his sexual preference. In 1992 we passed the Disability Discrimination Act and appointed a Disability Discrimination Commissioner.

Today we are considering yet again whether we should remain in the past and continue to practice discrimination against those in our community who we deny the right to marry. Do we continue to discriminate simply because it has until now been that way, or do we open our hearts and support yet another change in our laws to promote equality, tolerance and respect—another step towards a fully inclusive society that we can all be proud of? I can find no logical argument for continuing to impose legislative discrimination specifically to deny the human rights of our fellow citizens.

Denying marriage equality is discrimination, plain and simple. There is no way around this basic truth and it must end. I implore the Senate to look at our history of adaptation and change and to grant and not deny our fellow citizens their rights.