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Thursday, 20 September 2012
Page: 7491

Senator McEWEN (South AustraliaGovernment Whip in the Senate) (12:50): I support the Marriage Amendment Bill (No. 2) 2012 and I thank my Senate colleagues for introducing the bill. I also thank the Prime Minister Julia Gillard for allowing those of us in the Labor Party to have a conscience vote on this issue.

I acknowledge and appreciate the hard work of all those who have campaigned over many years for the right for same-sex couples to marry. Unfortunately, I do not think this bill will secure the support of the Senate, so the campaign will continue and I will continue to support the campaign.

My views on this bill spring from my firm belief that people should not be discriminated against on the basis of their gender or sexuality. I am old enough to remember the process of reform of antihomosexual laws in South Australia in the 1970s. Like most South Australians, I was horrified by the death of Dr George Duncan on 10 May 1972. Dr Duncan was a gay man, a visiting academic at the University of Adelaide, who was thrown into the River Torrens by other men just because he was a homosexual. Dr Duncan could not swim and he drowned. It was a shameful time in Adelaide. I was 17 at the time and a bit naive. I was unaware that such levels of prejudice existed in our community. I could not understand why someone else's sexual preferences could engender such vitriol and violence in others. I still do not understand that attitude. I am glad it is an attitude less prevalent in Australia now, but it still shocks me when I hear and see such hostile discrimination against gay people.

After the drowning of Dr Duncan, the campaign to change anti-homosexual laws in South Australian gained momentum and eventually the South Australian Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Amendment Act was passed. I was proud of the Labor government and of the leadership of the former Premier Don Dunstan in that long battle against discrimination and for equality. I was proud that South Australians, in the end, accepted that inevitable change. This federal Labor government has also removed bias against same-sex-attracted persons in federal legislation, and I acknowledge that the opposition supported those changes. These were significant changes and it was interesting to see how those changes were passed without much rancour. The general attitude from most Australians these days is that that was the right thing to do and that people should not be discriminated against because of their sexual preferences.

I am not so naive as to believe that just changing laws will remove all the discrimination that gay and lesbian people and same-sex couples come up against all the time. That battle will go on for a long time. However, changing the Marriage Act to allow same-sex couples to marry is an important step in a long campaign for equality and for fairness. Changing the Marriage Act in the way proposed in this bill simply recognises that gay and lesbian people are like the rest of us. Their relationships mean just as much to them. They love each other. Their families are just as important to them. Their wish to have public and legal recognition of their relationship through marriage is no different to those heterosexual people who also want that recognition and demonstration of commitment. Not every same-sex couple will want to get married, just as many heterosexual couples choose not to get married. Marriage is not a precondition for setting up a family or having children. People will do those things whether they are married or not, whether or not they are straight and whether or not they are gay.

I do not accept the arguments that changing the act in the way that this bill proposes causes any harm to anyone else or will harm our children or destroy our culture. Marriage between a man and a woman does not, unfortunately, guarantee that children will be protected from harm or will always be loved or have a better life. Those conditions are set by other factors. It will not diminish anyone else's marriage or relationship with their partner and their family if gay and lesbian people choose to marry. I can find no credible evidence to support the assertions that some opponents of this bill make about the alleged harm that will be done if the act is changed. Indeed, some of the arguments against marriage equality that I have heard and read in this debate have been unnecessarily extremist, untrue and deliberately hurtful to gay people.

I respect those people who come right out and say that they oppose this bill on the basis of their religious beliefs and who do not resort to vilification and misinformation to support their position. I agree that churches and religious organisations should have the freedom to determine who they will and will not marry. This bill does not change that and, if it is passed, it will not be the slippery slope to forcing churches into marrying people who do not meet the beliefs and criteria of the church. Australians well understand the difference between a civil wedding and a church wedding and respect the right of religious organisations to set their own boundaries. No-one is challenging that right. Australians also understand, and value the fact that Australia is a secular society. Australians expect governments to resist attempts by religious organisations, of whatever religious persuasion, to unduly influence the laws that apply to everyone who lives here regardless of their religion. Our secularity is precious and we should defend it.

Later this year I will be in the joyous position of attending the wedding of my daughter and her fiance. It is an exciting time for our families, and it will be a grand celebration of a marriage between two young people who love each other and who are able to demonstrate their commitment to each other through marriage. I am very happy that my daughter and her fiance have been able to make the choice to be married or not. I wish all our children had that choice and were not precluded from that choice because of the gender of the person they love. I am sure that eventually the time will come when we will look back on this debate and wonder what the fuss was about. As the Hon. Michael Kirby, former justice of the High Court, said:

Change will come, including in the matter of marriage equality in Australia. And when it does, we will look back on the current state of the law that expressly enshrines inequality in the Australian federal statute book (as we now do on the old criminal laws against sexual minorities) with embarrassment, shame and ultimately astonishment.

I look forward to that time. It cannot come soon enough.