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Thursday, 20 September 2012
Page: 7486

Senator THISTLETHWAITE (New South Wales) (12:30): I have approached this issue of marriage equality in the terms of the Marriage Amendment Bill (No. 2) 2012 with an open mind, conscious of the complexity of views in the community and aware of the values and beliefs that many hold—some quite passionately—regarding this issue. I have considered the views of constituents, the opinions and circumstances of family and friends, whose opinions I value, and I have studied the approaches of other nations to this issue. I have resolved that I support marriage equality and believe that Australian law should be amended in the terms of this bill.

I consider myself to be a typical Australian male; I am a lover of sport, proud of our nation, protective of family and friends and a member of many community groups—a typical Aussie bloke, if you like. But I was first a typical Aussie child; I grew up in a community. Children in this country are born with innocence; They do not know what discrimination is. They do not care that people may have a different sexuality. This is taught to them by society and by interacting with others.

Growing up in the Eastern suburbs of Sydney I, like many young Australians, witnessed incidents of homophobia that were discriminatory and degrading to the homosexual community. I regret that, during my younger days, I did not stand up and speak out against such incidents of homophobia. I acquiesced. But my acquiescence changed when my brother told me that he was gay. At that time my beliefs about gay marriage had been formed by blokey Australian culture; but my brother's revelation made me strongly question that belief, to see things from a different perspective and ultimately reach the view that the current definition of marriage is discriminatory and outdated. His situation made me think about what it must feel like to have your sexuality ridiculed in the jokes and comments reflective of the time, and how much more difficult that made it for people like him to reveal their sexuality.

Now, on the question of marriage equality, I ponder what it feels like to have the right to an expression of love through marriage denied by our law; a right that our law grants exclusively to all heterosexual Australians. I understand that for those in loving, same-sex relationships there is an element of nonfulfilment and of incompleteness that I believe Australian law should no longer deny. It is time for Australian law to grant true equality to same-sex couples in reflection of the modern, open and welcoming ethos of our nation. It is time for my brother and thousands of other Australians to be granted the same rights as me.

My brother has been in a stable relationship with his partner longer than I have known my wife, and longer than my sister has known her husband. Yet when it comes to an expression of that commitment, his rights are inferior to mine; to me that no longer makes any sense. It is illogical that two people who have been in a relationship for over a decade, who own a house together, who are legally entitled to adopt children and betroth real and financial property to each other cannot solemnise that relationship through marriage at law, but that two heterosexual Australians who have known each other for a brief period of one month are able to marry. Such an unreasonable paradox should no longer be left to endure. The human rights of all Australians when it comes to marriage should be equal.

In reaching my view on this subject, I have been conscious of, and considered, my Catholic faith. I am an active Catholic and involved in my parish. I do not consider my decision a breach of faith or a betrayal of spirituality. I believe my views on this issue are commensurate with the themes of acceptance, tolerance and love that pervade Bible scripts and preaching. I take comfort in the fact that many fellow Catholics share this view.

We must be conscious that this legal reform we debate today does not oblige the churches, religions or spiritual organisations to offer marriage to all Australians. An exemption to such groups, which I support, is enshrined in this amendment to the Marriage Act. But I do not believe that the canons of religion should be used to deny rights to Australians at law. We are a secular nation; our constitution promotes this principle and our laws must as well. It is fine for the laws of the churches to reflect the teachings of the Bible, the Koran or the Torah, but the laws of our nation must reflect the will of the people. At this time, when it comes to marriage I believe most Australians support a secular approach, consistent with our principles of coming together as a nation through federation.

The question of legal reform to grant marriage equality arouses deep beliefs and passions. Many Australians have expressed their views publicly and privately. Many of my constituents and others have contacted me and outlined their views and beliefs on this issue. Most have made thoughtful and passionate remarks, and I have read and considered all of them because I believe this issue, this debate and the reform we consider now to be important for our nation. I thank all the Australians who have contacted me and made their views known on this issue. I thank them for the respect and dignity they have shown in making their views known. I believe this demonstrates the maturity of our democracy and the great interest that Australians have in public policy issues.

The public mood regarding this issue, reflected in national opinion polls, has also been reflected in the representations to me. It overwhelmingly reflects the views of my family and friends, whose opinions I value highly. Australians support marriage equality. Almost all national opinion polls on this issue in modern Australia reflect the view that the time has come for our nation, and this parliament as a representative of the people, to amend the Marriage Act to grant marriage equality. I believe we as a parliament should reflect the will of the nation on important human rights issues such as this.

I note that Australians are not alone in supporting marriage equality. Our people's views reflect those of most modern secular democracies, yet many such nations have taken the next logical step and reformed their laws to reflect public attitudes. These nations include the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, Canada, South Africa, Norway, Sweden, Portugal, Iceland, Argentina and Denmark. Six US states and one US district perform same-sex marriages. They are Massachusetts, Connecticut, Iowa, Vermont, New Hampshire, New York and the District of Columbia. Mexico City also performs same-sex marriages and those marriage certificates are recognised in 31 Mexican states.

And the nation on whose parliamentary and legal system our nation is modelled and who constitutionally—and unfortunately, in my view—provides us with an absent head of state, and that is Great Britain, has begun the process to move towards granting marriage equality. In February 2011 the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government expressed its intention to begin a consultation to allow both religious same-sex ceremonies and civil marriage for same-sex couples. In September 2011 the government announced its intention to introduce same-sex civil marriage by the next general election. If the mother parliament, with a head of state who is the head of the Anglican Church, can begin the process of legal reform to grant marriage equality, so too should its offspring parliament in Australia.

The Australian Labor Party has a proud history of removing discrimination from our laws and culture. Our legal reforms to break down cultural disadvantage and remove discrimination include racial discrimination laws, the anti-discrimination regime, native title and equal employment opportunity. More recently we have enacted a paid parental leave scheme to support working mothers. And in 2008 the then Attorney-General, Robert McClelland, amended 84 pieces of federal legislation to remove discrimination against same-sex couples relating to such entitlements as superannuation and social security.

Many of those reforms were as controversial as the reform we debate today. Yet, in hindsight, those reforms were necessary and now enjoy overwhelming public support. They advanced human rights and moved our nation forward. I consider the issue of same-sex marriage reform in Australian law to be in the same vein as those predecessor human rights reforms. This is the next logical step in the advancement of civil and cultural rights in our nation. Many Australians have expressed to me their view that our nation will one day allow same-sex marriage—but not just yet. To me this is an illogical approach. If the belief is that it should happen one day, then why not now? I believe 10 years after this reform is introduced Australians will look back and think, 'What was all the fuss about?'—just as they have with native title laws and other anti-discrimination legislation.

In reaching this debate today our party debated and reformed our platform to allow a conscience vote by Labor parliamentarians. I am proud that our party has approached this matter in such a mature, logical fashion. A conscience vote reflects the passions, the values and the differences in deeply held views of the Australian people and shows respect for their opinions. Debates that allow conscience votes are our parliament and law making at its best. They promote research, public consultation, engagement and personal expression. The speeches of many members and senators in this debate reflect this.

Unfortunately, it appears that this reform measure we are debating today will be defeated, not because it lacks merit, not because it does not reflect the will of Australians or sound public policy, but partly because the coalition will not allow a conscience vote on this important human rights issue. This is a great shame. The coalition has denied its members the freedom and liberty they so vigorously promote. They have been denied a true Liberal approach to this debate—a definite contradiction in their philosophy and their approach. It is a great shame for human rights in our nation.

I believe that Australia is a true social democracy; a nation that promotes freedom of expression and liberty for all citizens; a people who value and advance human rights. By passing this bill before the Senate we take the next step on the pathway to equality and justice for all Australians. As we have done in the past, let us defeat our fear and our prejudice. Let us overcome social inertia. It is time to remove discrimination in our marriage laws by passing this law. I commend the bill to the Senate.

Debate interrupted.