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Thursday, 20 October 2016
Page: 2724

Mr KEOGH (Burt) (12:19): I rise today as a person who went through high school where the word 'gay' was used as a term of insult and where boys were bullied for displaying feminine qualities. Indeed, as it turned out, some of the people bullied did come out after we had all left school. I look back now and think about how they were treated and I hang my head in shame, not necessarily for anything I did, but definitely for what I did not do or was unable to stop. I could say that this is what happened in another time, another era, but let's be fair: this was only in the mid- to late 90s; it was not that long ago.

It is in this context, then, that I do heed the grave concerns of the LGBTI community that this plebiscite will be damaging and harmful to their health and wellbeing. A survey of more than 5,000 LGBTI Australians conducted by the Parents and Friends of Lesbian and Gays Australia earlier this year found that 85 per cent of LGBTI people oppose the plebiscite. The two most common reasons for opposing a plebiscite were: anxiety over hate campaigns and the belief that minority rights should not be put to a majority vote.

One of my constituents from the suburb of Camillo, Chris, emailed me after the 2016 election. He has been with his male partner for seven years, yet during the 2015 Canning by-election he received a flyer from an anti-same-sex marriage organisation. In Chris's words:

I don't think this was directed at my home specifically, but nonetheless it was a very weird and invasive experience to receive anonymous political literature on what is—for me—a very private and personal subject.

If a plebiscite is held I think this experience will be repeated constantly for many weeks or months and I don't look forward to it.

The Australian public backs the LGBTI community. In September, Newspoll found 48 per cent of respondents favoured a vote in this place on marriage equality, while just 39 per cent backed a plebiscite. An Essential poll from just this Tuesday showed that 55 per cent of respondents believe that the government should now hold a vote in the parliament on allowing marriage equality. There is a wider issue here of whether the majority should have the overriding say on the rights of a minority.

As I said in my first speech, it is the role of our parliament to protect minorities from the tyranny of the majority. For better or worse, we do not have a Bill of Rights in this country. Instead, we have inherited a tradition that it is our sovereign parliament that is responsible for the protection of human rights and making fundamental decisions between competing rights.

But there is no competition between rights here in the debate about marriage equality. While many have tried to argue that the introduction of marriage equality will infringe on the rights of those that believe that marriage is only between a man and a woman, this is a complete misunderstanding of the real issues. Indeed, as I have participated in discussions and fora on this topic, I am beginning to believe that there is a degree of deliberate misinformation being promulgated on this issue.

The issue to be determined is whether a minority group in this country should have the same recognition and treatment under the law of this country, along with the social recognition that comes with that, as the majority of people in this country. As such, the proposal to hold a plebiscite on this issue sets a terrible precedent for our democracy and the way in which we govern ourselves. In fact, WA Liberal Senator Dean Smith has said he cannot support throwing out one of the key principles of our democracy for the sake of political expediency. He thinks parliamentarians absconding from their duty to vote as elected representatives in parliament is wrong.

Parliament has voted on tough issues in the past. Parliament has made changes to the Marriage Act in the past. Parliament has introduced conscription, voted on euthanasia and considered abortion medication in the past. The Parliament has even legislated on traditional land ownership and native title recognition, going to the fundamentals of land ownership and conquest at the time of European settlement, without going to a public vote. We are elected here as members of our parliament to do the job of representing our electorates and to vote on the laws that apply in this country. We cannot and should not outsource that work or responsibility.

To top it off, the proposed plebiscite will not even be binding on members of parliament. We will go to all the trouble of forcing every Australian to vote on this issue, then conservative coalition members and senators will ignore the result anyway. For a government that bangs on about having to fix debt and deficit—a problem that they have made astronomically worse—this is a pretty wild waste of taxpayers' money.

We have also heard in this place, as well as read elsewhere, the view being put about of marriage as a 'pre-political' institution. It has concerned me that this myth has not been properly confronted. I do not have time today to take the member for Canning through chapter and verse on this; however, suffice it to say that the High Court considered precisely this type of argument when considering the ACT's 2013 marriage equality laws. In doing so, the High Court considered all the evidence on the nature of marriage over history and explicitly stated that marriage is not immovable or locked to the social institutions as they stood at federation. To quote from the High Court judgement:

The status of marriage, the social institution which that status reflects, and the rights and obligations which attach to that status never have been, and are not now, immutable … One obvious change in the social institution of marriage which had occurred before federation is … that the union be "the voluntary union for life of one man and one woman to the exclusion of all others."

The High Court goes on to note that even at the time of federation marriage could be dissolved by the civil courts.

This also highlights the difficulty with the member for Moore's contribution that:

Marriage is not a romantic notion; it is an important social institution that deals with progeny.

Actually, historically, marriage was a legal contract that determined who inherited property. We have clearly moved on from this being the primary notion of marriage a long time ago. I think this is very important, because it goes to demonstrate that for a long time the nature of marriage has not been something constrained by the view of a particular belief structure. More importantly, it is not even something determined by one or a group of belief structures. We have divorce and we have civil marriages—not religious marriages—in this country.

I am a practicing Catholic, and for me this point is very important. Just as Catholics have fought for centuries against the imposition of Protestantism, and other religious groups have suffered persecution at the hands of various Christian groups, we should not now revert—nay, regress—to becoming a nation that determines its laws based on specific religious views. To do so cuts across the fundamental nature of our pluralist, multicultural society.

But of course religious freedoms are also important in this context, and it is for this reason that the Marriage Act expressly states and will continue to state that there is no obligation on a minister of religion to solemnise any marriage. Rightly, it is the churches and religions that decide who, within their beliefs, may marry within the sacraments of those churches and religions. The Act even provides a mechanism for groups to become recognised denominations under the Marriage Act. These protections would remain.

In this context I relay my great excitement at learning the news late last year that one of my best mates, Drew, would be marrying his partner, Liam, earlier this year. You see, Drew and Liam are lucky, because Liam holds a British passport, so they were able to be married at the UK High Commission in Sydney. This was followed by a lovely ceremony and party, which both their families and many friends attended. Alas, their UK marriage is not recognised here in Australia. Not only is this discriminatory and unfair—it is frankly absurd! We are the last English speaking nation to make this change.

The people want a change, and I want my friends Drew and Liam, Stephen and Dennis and many, many others around Australia to have their loving relationships recognised and acknowledged by the state and our society, just as they recognise that of my wife Annabel and me.

And finally, this is not just me, it is not just my Labor colleagues, or Labor and the cross bench. We are presently playing out an absurd farce in this place—a tyranny of a minority within a majority. A majority of the members of this House, as well as a majority of those in the Senate, want to vote to make marriage equality a reality. And yet, in the institution that should not just embody and represent our democratic ideals but also live and breathe them, we cannot have a vote to make marriage equality law because the Prime Minister is too gutless to stand up for what he actually believes in and allow the one thing that apparently defines the Liberal Party to occur—a free vote. We have a Prime Minister that is scared of his party room and scared of our democratic institutions and so is prepared to deny equality to LGBTI Australia. Shame, Prime Minister, shame!