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Monday, 13 February 2012
Page: 798


Mr STEPHEN JONES (Throsby) (11:01): Today I introduce a bill for an act to amend the Marriage Act 1961 to establish marriage equality for same-sex couples, and for related purposes. If enacted, this bill will permit a minister of religion, a person authorised under a state or territory law or a marriage celebrant authorised under the Marriage Act 1961 to perform a marriage between same-sex couples and will permit that marriage to be recognised in Australian law. But it will not require a minister of religion to solemnise a marriage where that is inconsistent with their religious beliefs.

I believe that God made us all equal but different—not differently equal. The object of the bill is to remove discrimination and advance equality. It will ensure that when same-sex couples make a voluntary commitment to be together for life, to the exclusion of all others, and they choose to have that relationship solemnised, it will be recognised at law in the same way that my marriage is.

While marriage is an old institution, it is not immutable. For example, it is now a voluntary union but it was not always so. Young women were betrothed against their will or with little say. Our concepts of marriage have changed in accordance with societal norms and they will continue to do so. This is reflected in the fact that the Commonwealth laws with regard to marriage have been amended by every single government since their inception, and there are many past aspects of marriage that we now look at with amusement, if not horror, including betrothal, dowry, a wife's vow of obedience, the prohibition on certain inter-race or religious marriages and the whole concept of conjugal rights.

In recognition that societal norms change, the Australian Labor Party changed its national platform on 3 December 2011 so that it now reads:

Labor will amend the Marriage Act to ensure equal access to marriage under statute for all adult couples irrespective of sex who have a mutual commitment to a shared life.

The platform was also amended to include the following:

These amendments should ensure that nothing in the Marriage Act imposes an obligation on a minister of religion to solemnise any marriage.

These amendments to our national platform were the result of many years of campaigning and work by activists from all sides of politics. Within the Labor Party, today I recognise the efforts of the many hundreds of members of Rainbow Labor.

We are not acting alone. This bill follows an international trend to end discrimination when it comes to marriage. Around the world there are now around 10 countries and even more places that allow same-sex marriages, including the Netherlands, Belgium, Canada, Spain, South Africa, Norway, Sweden, Portugal, Iceland, Argentina and Mexico City. In the United States, nine states have changed their laws to permit the recognition of same-sex marriage, including Massachusetts, California, Connecticut, Vermont, Washington DC, New Hampshire, Washington state and New York state.

Here, as in the rest of the world, the introduction of this legislation follows decades of community debate and changes in public opinion. Opinion polls in Australia show that a majority of Australians are in favour of the changes contained within this bill. Popular opinion is of course critical to this change. But I believe there is a stronger force which guides us in matters like this. It is the right to equality—the human right not to be discriminated against on the grounds of sexuality. Human rights are inalienable rights, recognised and protected by governments, not created by them. They should never be qualified by fear or prejudice.

The Australian Labor Party and this parliament have a proud history of enacting legislation to eliminate discrimination. In 1975 we established the Racial Discrimination Act, in 1984 the Sex Discrimination Act and in 1992 the Disability Discrimination Act. And, in its first term of office, the ALP amended 85 separate pieces of legislation to remove remnants of discrimination against same-sex couples. To the great credit of all members in this place, these changes were supported by the coalition parties as well.

The bill before the House today continues this project. It will end discrimination against same-sex couples who wish to have their relationship recognised by the state. In practical terms it will give same-sex couples the same rights and obligations in their marriage as I have in mine. But it also sends a powerful message that our belief in equality and a fair go is not limited by a person's sexuality.

Item 1 of schedule 1 of this bill will amend the definition of marriage that is currently in section 5 of the Marriage Act 1961 to read:

marriage means the union of two people, regardless of their sex, to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life.

The bill also amends subsection 46(1) of the Marriage Act to reflect this new definition of marriage.

Religion plays an important part in Australian life. We respect and celebrate our freedom of religion. This extends to the rights of churches to participate fully in public debate, including debate around this particular matter. In some countries churches do not have that right. Theocracies and dictatorships around the world have sought to suppress those voices of dissent, those voices which speak out in opposition to their particular creed. In Australia, the separation of church and state extends to the law of marriage. Yes, it is an institution of religious import, but it is also a civil institution. Our marriage laws are governed by civil law but recognise and respect the role of religious bodies to practice their faith in accordance with that faith.

For this reason the bill inserts a new subsection into section 47 of the act to reinforce the existing provisions that ensure that a minister of religion is under no obligation to solemnise a marriage where the parties to that marriage are of the same sex. This provision will ensure that the principles of religion and religious freedom are maintained when it comes to the laws of marriage in Australia. God made us all equal, but different—not differently equal. That is why I believe it is our duty as legislators to make this change and to do it with the support of all sides of this House and in the best traditions of this parliament. I commend the bill to the House.

Bill read a first time.