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Monday, 12 September 2016
Page: 415

Mr SHORTEN (MaribyrnongLeader of the Opposition) (10:03): I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

Today is a chance for our parliament to prove its worth and fulfil its purpose. Today we can bring a new measure of hope and happiness to the lives of tens of thousands of Australians whose love has been denied equality under the law for too long. Together we can vote to make marriage equality a reality.

I stand here today to echo the sentiments of so many of our fellow Australians, who cannot comprehend why their children, their brothers and sisters, their friends and neighbours are considered equal in every right but one: the right to marry the person they love. I speak on behalf of Australians like Wilma Lorne. Wilma is 89; she has 14 grandchildren. Three of her grandsons are gay. After her husband of 62 years marriage passed away, Wilma wrote to me about her grandsons and their partners, saying: 'I see the same love and commitment that my husband and I shared, just as much as all my other grandchildren, who are happily married. Nothing would give me greater pleasure than to attend their weddings.'

I speak for Tony Rogers and Ken Armstrong from the Blue Mountains, who have shared each other's lives for 23 years. When Ken needed a kidney transplant, Tony was the donor. Both men are proud Australians—they love our country. They can trace their ancestry back to the First Fleet. And there is nowhere else in the world they want to get married.

Today I speak for Sophie Meredith and Alison Gerrard, who have been together for eight years. They wear rings. They have two children, whom they adore. They fulfil all the obligations of marriage: care, respect, love and family. Yet they are excluded. Their relationship is, in the eyes of our laws, somehow different—somehow less.

Go down any street in Australia and you can hear these stories: hardworking people, raising children, building communities and serving the country made to feel like second-class citizens through one last, lingering relic of legal prejudice. It is in our power in this place to change that once and for all. That is why Labor promised to deliver marriage equality within our first 100 days. Today we seek to honour that promise.

I live in a blended family. I have step-children, who I love as my own children. Part of the reason Chloe and I chose to remarry is because we wanted a sense of formal equality between our other children and their baby sister. And, of course, from time to time you still hear people talking about the superior moral value of a traditional family. It is a narrowness I have learned to live with. But for LGBTI Australians and their families those criticisms are far more common, far more cruel and they are backed by actual legal discrimination. Why should the children of LGBTI Australians be denied the formal recognition of their parents' relationship?

Some might say that marriage equality is a second-order issue: identity politics—mere symbolism. But what they need to understand is that if you already enjoy a legal right it is easy to take it for granted. For me it is as simple as this: in delaying marriage equality we are not just falling behind the rest of the world—21 countries who we consider our legal, cultural and social peers have already moved ahead of us—we are falling short of our own national sense of self: the country we want to see in the mirror, the Australia we tell our children to believe in. How can we call ourselves the land of the fair go if we discriminate against our citizens on the basis of who they are and who they love?

And we who sit in the parliament, trusted with the great privilege of representing all the Australian people—not just some of the Australian people: how can we call ourselves leaders if instead of acting to correct this unfairness we put the responsibility back on to the people who sent us here, with an opinion poll which will cost at least $160 million? The Prime Minister and the member for Warringah are both fond of quoting 18th-century Conservative Edmund Burke. They would know what he told the people of Bristol about the job of a parliamentarian:

Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.

A plebiscite would represent a fundamental failure of this parliament to do its job.

In 115 years of our democracy 44 parliaments before us have declared war, negotiated peace, signed trade deals, broken down the White Australia policy, opened our economy, floated our dollar, built universal superannuation, passed world-leading gun control and legislated several changes to the Marriage Act without recourse to plebiscite. And, of course, they have done all of this with no recourse to a non-binding public vote. How can we look Australians in the eye and say that a piece of legislation three pages long—a straightforward change, which a majority of members in both houses support—is too much for us to handle?

How do we say that every question of human rights can be decided by the parliament but a special exemption—a new hurdle—must be imposed upon LGBTI Australians? As Justice Michael Kirby has said, the plebiscite in itself is a discriminatory step driven by hostility. And how can anyone justify spending at least $160 million on a compulsory vote when members of the government will not be compelled to respect the result?

The plebiscite is not a real vote—it is a straw poll—but it will cause real harm and real waste. The true cost of a plebiscite is far greater than $160 million. Putting the question of marriage equality to a national vote risks providing a platform for prejudice and a megaphone for hate speech comparing homosexuality to bestiality, bigamy and paedophilia. And on Sunday we learned the Prime Minister has already promised the 'no' case millions of taxpayer dollars.

Now, I respect that there are people of faith, Australians of good conscience, who do not support changing the Marriage Act, but it is not their voices that will be loudest in advocating a 'no' vote. Instead, there is a very real risk that LGBTI Australians will be subjected to a well-organised, well-funded campaign of vitriol and prejudice, denigrating their relationships and attacking their identity.

And nor should we forget the Australians who will not even get a vote in the plebiscite: the children of same-sex couples watching TV ads saying their parents' love is not real and the relationship that they have is second-class, and hearing the hurtful words from those ads thrown back at them in the schoolyard and on Facebook. And then there are the teenagers who are gay. Growing up is hard for everyone, but, for young Australians who are grappling with their sexual identity, it can be so much more difficult. Every piece of expert advice tells us young Australians who are gay are more likely to contemplate suicide and more likely to take their own lives. The idea of young people, perhaps yet to come out, seeing the legitimacy of their identity debated on the national stage—that is not an ordeal which we should inflict on any citizen when we have a better path. Let me be as blunt as possible. A 'no' campaign would be an emotional torment for gay teenagers, and, if one child commits suicide over the plebiscite, then that is one too many.

Achieving marriage equality should be an occasion for joy, a unifying moment of celebration. That is why the Deputy Leader of the Opposition and I have brought this proposed legislation forward today. I say to the Prime Minister: this is an issue you said you cared about. You have been Prime Minister for a year now. You can get this done and, instead of a private member's bill introduced by the opposition, let marriage equality be a truly cooperative achievement. Join with us and sponsor this legislation, or bring in your own and we will second it. We are prepared to work with the crossbench as well. We do not mind who gets the credit. A year, even a week, from now no-one will care whose name was on this bit of paper, but what will stand for all time, to the credit of the 45th Parliament, will be extending equality under the law to all Australians. What will stand for all time is this parliament's statement that marriage is about love, not about gender.

It is up to us to summon the courage and to show the decency to make this happen. It is up to us to prove the parliament can lead and keep faith with the people. It is up to us to make marriage equality a reality.

The SPEAKER: Is the motion seconded?

Ms Plibersek: I second the motion and reserve my right to speak.

The SPEAKER: The time allotted for this debate has expired. The debate is adjourned and the resumption of the debate will be made an order of the day for the next sitting.