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Monday, 7 November 2016
Page: 1879


Senator RYAN (VictoriaSpecial Minister of State and Minister Assisting the Cabinet Secretary) (10:10): I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

Given my extensive involvement in the Plebiscite (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill 2016, I plan to speak to it. When the Prime Minister introduced this bill into the other place, he noted that marriage is a much cherished institution in our society. It is an institution afforded significant respect and, at the same time, an institution about which many people hold different views. I know many people who strongly believe that access to marriage should be open to all adult couples in our community regardless of their sexual preference or gender. I know many others who believe equally strongly that marriage should only be entered into between a man and a woman. Indeed, there are many in this chamber who, at one time or another, have held to both of these views in the last several years. So it should come as no surprise to us that same-sex marriage is a matter of widespread public interest, with deeply held views on both sides of the debate. People on both sides of the debate have a right to express their views.

Accordingly, at the last election the coalition committed to holding a plebiscite so that all Australians could have their say and resolve this issue for themselves. This is the first occasion on which any Australian government has had the courage to address this complex issue. Indeed, Labor made no effort to resolve this issue during their six years in government. In returning the coalition to government this year, Australians endorsed the government's plan to hold a plebiscite. With this bill, we are honouring our commitment to voters to hold a plebiscite as soon as is practicable.

I now turn to the specifics of the bill. As Special Minister of State, I have worked with the Attorney-General to develop a plebiscite framework that is fair and transparent. The Plebiscite (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill is the result of consultation with stakeholders on both sides of the debate. The bill sets out a framework for a national plebiscite to ask the Australian people whether the Marriage Act 1961 should be amended to allow same-sex couples to marry.

The bill authorises and provides funding for the Australian Electoral Commission to conduct the plebiscite. This will be in the amount of $170 million. To ensure a voter experience consistent with federal referendums, the bill incorporates provisions contained in the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918, the Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Act 1984 and other relevant Commonwealth legislation.

The provisions in the bill provide for a compulsory attendance ballot on 11 February 2017, with normal access to pre-poll voting, postal voting and declaration voting. The result of the ballot will be determined by a simple national majority. The simple majority will be achieved when either the yes or no vote receives more than 50 per cent of the votes cast, disregarding informal ballot papers. Materials will need to be authorised, as is normal in elections, and these requirements will also be expanded to include new communications mechanisms such as robocalls and SMS messaging.

'Yes' and 'no' advertising committees will be established based on the precedent of the 1999 republic referendum. These committees will be composed of parliamentarians and citizens, appointed jointly by the Attorney-General and me. Each committee will include up to five Commonwealth parliamentarians and up to five members of the public. The opposition will be invited to nominate two of the five members, and the crossbench will be invited to nominate one member. The $15 million will be divided equally between the 'yes' and 'no' advertising committees. The bill enables me, as Special Minister of State, to issue, by notifiable instrument, guidelines to the committees' advertising to ensure that there is proper accountability for the use of public funds and that advertising meets appropriate standards. Again, this is based on the precedent and practice of the 1999 republic referendum.

The bill specifies the plebiscite question: 'Should the law be changed to allow same-sex couples to marry?' It is a simple and fair question. It does not presuppose any particular view. Each side of the debate will be given reasonable opportunities to pay to broadcast material about the plebiscite. Broadcasting rules in the Broadcasting Services Act 1992 and the Special Broadcasting Service Act 1991 will be extended to apply to conduct relating to the plebiscite. This, too, is consistent with the framework for federal elections. These rules will also include a blackout period during which broadcasters will be prohibited from broadcasting advertisements about the plebiscite. If this bill is passed, and if Australians vote in support of same-sex marriage at the plebiscite, then the government will move quickly to respect the outcome and introduce into the parliament amendments to the Marriage Act. The government's bill provides the framework for a fair, transparent and democratic public vote so that all Australians can have their say and resolve this issue. It deserves the support of senators who want this issue to be resolved, including those—like me—who have changed their mind in recent years and think that it is now time to allow same-sex couples to marry.

Holding public votes to resolve contentious issues is not without precedent in Australia. The ABC's Antony Green has tallied some 35 such votes since Federation, at various levels of government. These include public votes on the payment of parliamentarians, hotel licensing, prohibition, trading hours, and religious instruction in schools. Voters in the ACT have been asked to vote on the question of self-government, and Northern Territorians have voted on statehood, while Queenslanders have voted on daylight saving. And of course, at the federal level, the very contentious and serious issue of conscription was the subject of two plebiscites. A plebiscite on the matter of same-sex marriage is consistent with this tradition. Indeed, this is perhaps an issue uniquely suited to resolution through a plebiscite. As I have said, marriage is an institution that is both held in high regard and about which many people hold different views. It plays an important and critical role in our society, as it has for thousands of years. It is an institution about which parliamentarians can claim no special knowledge or insight. Importantly, putting this issue to a vote would allow all Australians to conclusively resolve this issue for themselves. I have met with advocates of change who know the Irish example well. One of the architects of Ireland's yes campaign told The Australian in June that the vote in Ireland was 'an astounding and unifying moment for our country'. They also said that it 'brought people together instead of tearing them apart'. Contemporary newspaper reports at the time captured the same celebratory mood, as well as the validation and acceptance felt by many same-sex couples. I see no reason why an Australian plebiscite would be any different.

A plebiscite would deal with this matter in a uniquely conclusive way. All Australians would have the opportunity to have their say, respect the result, and move forward together. Allowing only parliamentarians to have a say in the matter will shut out many Australians who tell me that they would like the opportunity to participate directly in this debate. Of course, there may be a small minority of individuals who behave inappropriately—on any side of the debate. But as anyone involved in politics knows, this is true for debates on every contentious issue, and it is a feature of debate, regardless of whether that issue is resolved by a popular vote or a parliamentary vote. We on this side of the chamber believe these to be exceptions to the fundamental decency and civility of our fellow citizens, not the other way around.

In 2013, the now Leader of the Opposition, Mr Shorten, expressed support for a plebiscite to allow the Australian people to make their views known on the issue. He said:

… personally speaking, I'm completely relaxed about having some form of plebiscite.

He also said:

But in terms of a plebiscite, I would rather that the people of Australia could make their view clear on this, than leaving this issue to 150 people.

Now Mr Shorten has an opportunity to do just that, by backing legislation for a national vote. In 2015, Senator Di Natale, too, supported a plebiscite, and just last year Senators Rice and Xenophon sponsored legislation for a plebiscite in this place. But now the Labor Party and the Greens say that the Australian people cannot be trusted to have their say. They say debate must be shut down due to the risks that a small minority may say very hurtful things. This argument is wrong, and it sets a dangerous precedent that is becoming—unfortunately—more prevalent on the left of politics.

Firstly, it is disingenuous to think that debate over same-sex marriage will cease if there is no plebiscite. Opponents of the government's plebiscite have cited examples of intemperate debate as a reason to deny all Australians their say. Yet the same examples they use have all taken place in the absence of a legislated plebiscite. Anyone who thinks that stopping a plebiscite means stopping discourteous speech is fooling themselves. Indeed, by delaying a resolution they are only ensuring that debate continues indefinitely. In the days since Mr Shorten announced he would no longer support a plebiscite, we have seen advocates of change launch a new campaign with new advertising advancing their position. And on the other side, advocates of the status quo have thanked Mr Shorten for playing a helpful role in stopping same-sex marriage, saying:

We now have more time to continue building our campaign, more time to build our coalition, and more time to win the hearts and minds of millions of Australians.

And on the same day he announced his opposition to the plebiscite, Mr Shorten sent an email to his supporters asking for donations to support continued advocacy on the issue. Clearly, this debate is not over. The advertisements and the arguments will continue in newspapers, on TV and online. Voting against a plebiscite does not stop this debate. It will only deny Australians the opportunity to bring a conclusive resolution to it themselves.

Secondly, Labor's argument sets a dangerous precedent, as it could logically be used to shut down any contentious debate in the future. In a free society, citizens have a right to express their views. How can we as a country resolve any controversial issue if parliamentarians can declare a topic out of bounds on the basis they do not trust their fellow citizens to have a civil conversation? If Australians cannot be trusted to discuss same-sex marriage, how will Labor and the Greens trust them to discuss other contentious issues or other issues that may be put to a referendum? As the member for Goldstein said of Mr Shorten's argument, Australians are apparently capable of deliberations to elect him to the highest political office in the country but not to discuss one of his policies. Labor's argument betrays a dim view of one's fellow citizens. Those who represent Australians in this place should not hold such a view. Rather, we ought to respect their intelligence and civility.

Finally, it must be said that I find this argument a touch hypocritical. It seeks to restrict participation in a public debate out of fear that a small minority may behave disrespectfully. Yet, in the same breath, some of those advancing this argument call those they disagree with bigots and homophobes. I do not think Labor senators were being bigots or homophobes just a few short years ago when they supported their party's position that marriage remain between a man and a woman. But I do think those in Labor who would lecture others on civility ought to demonstrate just a little bit of it themselves towards people advancing the very same position the Labor Party held when they were in government.

I conclude by reminding senators that this plebiscite gives every voting Australian a say on the question of same-sex marriage. The bill provides for a fair, transparent and thoroughly democratic way to conclusively resolve this issue so Australians can move forward together. A number of senators are on the record supporting a plebiscite to determine this matter. The bill deserves their support and the support of all senators. I commend the bill to the Senate.