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Thursday, 20 September 2012
Page: 7459

Senator KIM CARR (VictoriaMinister for Human Services) (11:03): I will be supporting the Marriage Amendment Bill (No. 2) 2012 that is before the Senate. I will not speak at length; I think that all of us here appreciate the fact that this bill will fail. I think that this is essentially the direct result of the conscience vote that has been applied to only one side of the chamber.

Some in this chamber may see this as a second-order issue. Some will say that blue-collar people are not interested in these moral issues. I disagree. Similar things were once said about the apology to the Stolen Generations. However, once the apology was made it became a defining moment in the history of the 42nd Parliament. In that case, Labor saw the need and Labor acted. It highlights the fact that in the great public debates, attitudes change.

So let me explain the context in which I approach this bill. I take the view that our party has been involved in Australian parliamentary politics now for over 120 years. Throughout that time we have relied upon a fundamental premise of operations. That was summed up by one of Labor's earliest parliamentary representatives, George Black, when he talked about Labor's role as being 'the making and the unmaking of social conditions'. I know there is a view in some quarters that the same-sex marriage campaign is part of some elaborate left-wing plot to shake the foundations of capitalist society. It is argued that the legal recognition of same-sex marriage will undermine the family and social morality. I just do not share that anxiety. And, frankly, I do not think that the Left is that clever, to actually pursue these grand conspiracies!

This is a bill that involves the redefinition of the role of a secular institution—that is, the state regulated institution of marriage. It does not involve any issue of religious freedom. It is about the decision of the state to recognise the decisions of individuals to participate in that secular institution.

When it comes to morality, no-one in this place has a monopoly. The concept of role models has been given particular emphasis in the debate around this bill and these issues. But, of course, there is no monopoly—not only in terms of morality but on when it comes to making the perfect family, making the perfect parent or making the perfect citizen. And we certainly cannot legislate for perfection in human relationships.

Times will change and cultural mores will change. What I am certain of is that social institutions will adapt, as they have throughout human history. Marriage as a social institution has changed dramatically over time—on questions of race, for instance, and on questions of age. Similarly, the state's attitude to marriage has changed. We no longer allow the marriage of 12-year-olds and, of course, we no longer sanction violence in marriage. It takes a particularly ahistorical amnesia to ignore the march of progress.

However, while society is constantly changing, there are values that, in my judgement, endure. In the 18th century the proponents of the Enlightenment argued that human rights were inalienable. In modern political theory it is affirmed that the state does not grant human rights but has the task of preserving them and that a state that does not fulfil its responsibilities is rightly ostracised. One of the lasting legacies of the Enlightenment has been the seminal documents of modern political thought—for instance, the Bill of Rights penned in 1789. It has long impressed me that in the 18th century political leaders, such as Thomas Jefferson, had the greatness to see the pursuit of human happiness as a self-evident truth. These are sentiments that to my mind are as relevant today as they were in the 18th century.

If the pursuit of human happiness was a legitimate aspiration of the state back then, surely we can have the wit and wisdom to see that the same principle should be pursued in matters such as the state regulation of marriage. For me, parliament should be the place from where we contribute to the building of a society in which all are equal and in which diversity is respected, a society in which citizens have equal rights and responsibilities. There is a special role for Labor in this mission. While we have no franchise on ethical behaviour, Labor does have a responsibility to defend civil rights. It can be said that Labor has not always fulfilled its responsibilities—and when we have done so we have let this country down as a consequence. When Labor does not speak, the voiceless go unheard. When Labor does not act, the friendless suffer the most. Our history affirms this to be so. Whatever our failings on this matter, though, Labor does have a great history of extending social and human rights.

At the ALP National Conference in December last year I supported the national platform change on this matter. A month ago I reaffirmed my position to the relevant policy committee of the Victorian branch of the ALP on this matter. I made the following point, which I wish to reiterate here today:

Labor has a strong record in progressing the cause of the excluded, the marginalised and the vulnerable, dating back to the earliest days of our movement.

Labor legislated against discrimination on the basis of race, disability, age or sex.

That legacy has continued in the life of this government, through 84 pieces of legislation.

I digress here. I think we should acknowledge the extraordinary work of Robert McClelland in that achievement. I went on to say:

This great Labor tradition—our efforts to end discrimination in our workplaces, in our communities and in our homes—I believe extends to marriage.

I will therefore be supporting this bill.