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Monday, 7 November 2016
Page: 1882

Senator WONG (South AustraliaLeader of the Opposition in the Senate) (10:21): I rise to speak on the Plebiscite (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill 2016. Fourteen months ago Australians waited with bated breath. We all waited as the coalition gathered in their partyroom meeting to decide whether their members and their senators would be allowed a free vote on marriage equality. This debate, brought on by moderate Liberals, gave hope that marriage equality would finally become a reality in this country—hope that the party which prides itself on championing the freedom of the individual would finally and belatedly give expression to that principle on this issue in this parliament. But the Liberal moderates were scuttled, first by the ambush of a joint party meeting and then with the outcome of a marathon six-hour debate. What eventually emerged was the former Prime Minister Tony Abbott's latest delaying and blocking tactic: the plan to hold a plebiscite.

The outcome was met with immediate public disappointment. It was clear that the plebiscite was simply yet another hurdle, another obstacle, another delay—an obstacle designed by hardline opponents like Senators Abetz and Bernardi to make the path to marriage equality more difficult, more fraught and more contested. The Abbott-Abetz-Bernardi plebiscite was a cynical and cruel political tactic which was rightly opposed by the Liberal moderates and by the man who is now the Prime Minister, Mr Turnbull. How times change!

Australians overwhelmingly support marriage equality. Yet now Mr Turnbull is asking them to do as opponents of that equality demand—to take a path he did not support. This Prime Minister is asking all of us to deliver on the Faustian pact he made with those who will never support equality. That he struck such an agreement against principle and against his own judgement diminishes him. That he is demanding that we deliver it disrespects all of us.

This parliamentary debate ought not to have been about process; it ought to have been about progress. LGBTIQ Australians have been fighting for social and legal equality for decades. Our fight for equality has come a long way. Only 41 years ago, consensual sexual acts between two male adults were illegal in all Australian states. In 1975, my home state of South Australia became the first to decriminalise homosexuality. The fight for decriminalisation in all Australian states continued for a further 22 years—another generation—when your state, Mr President, Tasmania, finally decriminalised homosexuality in 1997.

From those first wins, the community has continued to fight for reform to laws in states and territories across the country. Of course, at the federal level, substantial progress was made in 2008 when the Labor government amended over 80 pieces of legislation to remove discrimination against same-sex couples. This provided overdue relief from discrimination in the areas of taxation, superannuation, health insurance, social security, aged care and immigration.

But whilst our nation once led the world on social reform, today we are laggards. Spain, Canada, South Africa, Norway, Sweden, Argentina, Denmark, France, Brazil, England, Scotland, the United States and Ireland, amongst others, recognise marriage between same-sex partners.

Opponents of reform use a number of refrains to suggest that discrimination in the Marriage Act should be preserved. The immutability of marriage is a favourite argument but, as we know, whilst marriage has been around a long time, it is constantly evolving. Marriage laws have changed over time. Different classes of people have been excluded from the institution of marriage based on their social or their legal status—for example, slaves, prisoners, and women and men of different races. In Australia, many Aboriginal Australians were not allowed to marry without permission from the state—in fact, a policy that persisted into the 1950s in some parts of Australia. Today, gay and lesbian Australians are excluded from the institution. It is true that marriage is an enduring institution, but it has never been frozen in time. Earlier generations have sought greater equality, and often with each change came warnings that the institution would be irreparably damaged and that the fabric of our society would unravel. It is the case that these dire warnings were unfounded. In fact, marriage has endured precisely because it has evolved, adapted and embraced change.

Opposition to marriage equality is often expressed using the language of religion. I respect people of faith, but I do not support the proposition that the state—the secular state—should impose the theology embraced by some on all. In any event, the argument that all people of faith do not or cannot support marriage equality does not reflect reality. Speaking personally, I do not think the God of my faith would be affronted by who I am, my relationship or my family.

The change in sentiment on this issue in our community over recent years is obvious. I can see it in the changes in attitudes since I was first elected to this place; the easygoing acceptance of our neighbours; the generosity of members of the public from all walks of life, who stop me in the street or at the airport and who tell me to press on; and in the good wishes received when our daughters were born, not only from friends but also from strangers. I see it in those who have joined the campaign for equality: activists, business leaders, unionists, sporting heroes and parents of gay and lesbian children, and so many more who have voiced their support for equality. And I see it in my own party and in my own caucus room, and I thank my colleagues for their movement on this issue over the years.

The fact is that now most Australians no longer ask, 'Why?' They ask, 'Why not?' Polls consistently show that the majority of Australians now support marriage equality. Most people recognise what our laws do not: that gay and lesbian Australians are just like everybody else. Our relationships are like other relationships and our desire to make a commitment to our life partner is no different either. The children that my partner and I run around after are no different from the children of opposite-sex partners, and the joy we feel as our children discover the world around them is no different from the joy felt by opposite-sex partners. I would hazard to say that the challenge of negotiating with a determined four-year-old is probably no different either! Our relationship is not different from the relationships of opposite-sex partners, but our legal status is not the same. We cannot get married in this country, no matter how much we love each other and no matter how committed we are to one another.

But the momentum for change continues to build. Support for marriage equality does not actually require political courage, nor is it an act of partisanship. The Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition and a majority of the elected representatives in this parliament support marriage equality. Our debate has shifted from the merits of equality to the method of achieving it. We cannot underestimate the significance of that shift, but nor can we underestimate the impact that choosing the wrong method may have. This bill represents precisely that: the wrong method—one that is divisive, expensive, non-binding and unnecessary. Instead of a free vote in this parliament on marriage equality, this bill offers us Tony Abbott's fig leaf. It is a $200 million plebiscite and an expensive opinion poll to tell us what we already know: that a majority of Australians support marriage equality. It is a mechanism dreamed up by those in the coalition who oppose equality, a mechanism which would cause division and damage, and a mechanism whose outcome the Liberal hardliners have said they would ignore.

My opposition to a plebiscite is not a decision I came to lightly. In June, I delivered the 28th Annual Lionel Murphy Memorial Lecture at the Australian National University in Canberra. In that speech I set out my personal reasons for opposing a plebiscite—and it came after much thought and much soul-searching. The conclusion I reached was that a plebiscite is not the right pathway to equality. A plebiscite is unnecessary. As I have said, we already know that around two-thirds of Australians support marriage equality. Recall, this nation did not hold plebiscites on the abolition of the death penalty, on the ending of the White Australia policy or on creating native title rights for First Australians. The Racial Discrimination Act and the Sex Discrimination Act were enacted without plebiscites. State and federal parliaments have legislated on abortion, voluntary euthanasia, stem cell research and many other controversial issues, without plebiscites.

We also know that a plebiscite is costly. It will cost taxpayers around $200 million. Importantly, we know that a plebiscite is divisive, because it will give those who oppose equality a multi-million dollar taxpayer-funded megaphone to spread a message of intolerance. This bill has not even passed the parliament, yet already opponents of marriage equality are resorting to what can only be described as hate speech. The minister called it 'discourtesy'. It is far more than that. There is hate speech in leaflets, posters and online materials. I want to say this to those in this chamber: for gay and lesbian Australians, this hate speech is not abstract. It is real. It is part of our daily life. And its impact can be very harmful. We know that the rate of suicide for LGBT people is between 3.5 and 14 times higher than the general population. LGBTIQ Australians are at a higher risk for a range of mental diagnoses and are significantly more likely to have depression or anxiety. The tactics that those who oppose equality will employ and are employing will, in a plebiscite campaign, do further damage to vulnerable people. As mental health expert Professor Patrick McGorry said when he called on this government to abandon its plebiscite:

Things will be said which will hurt people. Many of them are already vulnerable. There's definitely risk involved.

In September, 196 healthcare professionals wrote to the Prime Minister, warning that a plebiscite campaign could be damaging for vulnerable people in the community.

Advocates of the plebiscite often point to the Irish experience, where the public overwhelmingly voted to change their constitution to allow marriage equality, remarking upon it as a moment of celebration—as Senator Ryan said before. But what lies behind the TV pictures? In a recent study conducted by researchers at the University of Queensland and Victoria University, it was found that during the Irish referendum campaign LGBTIQ people in Ireland were upset, angry and anxious. And younger LGBTI Irish people were particularly affected, scoring lower on psychological wellbeing, and being the group most likely to report negative psychological impacts of the campaign. Only 23 per cent of those surveyed would be happy to have a referendum again, if they could go back in time. That is one in five after a referendum that was successful. But, of course, a referendum was necessary in Ireland. Here, a plebiscite is entirely unnecessary. We do not need a plebiscite, because we can achieve marriage equality in Australia by parliament voting to rewrite a few words in the Marriage Act—and that is what it should do. It should amend the act to remove discrimination against same-sex couples who want to commit to each other for life.

My personal journey in opposing the plebiscite is not unique. It is mirrored in the experience of many Australians. While the plebiscite initially enjoyed public support, a clear majority of Australians now oppose one and want the parliament—those of us elected—to do our job and vote on marriage equality. A recent survey found that support for the government's proposed plebiscite had fallen to 38 per cent. In fact, support dropped further, to 20 per cent, when people were informed of its cost and the fact that government members would be free to ignore its outcome. LGBTIQ Australians overwhelmingly oppose a plebiscite. A survey conducted by Galaxy for Parents and Friends of Lesbian and Gay Australians found that 85 per cent of the LGBTIQ community oppose a plebiscite. And we are hearing this message directly from the Australian people. Thousands have written and called my office, expressing concerns. I know there are some who have dismissed these concerns, who have described our opposition as naive. Self-styled political hardheads claim we should toughen up or, alternatively, they suggest that if we could grit our teeth we could get through a short, sharp debate, even if it were uncomfortable.

I wish that, instead of rushing to judgement, people saying those things could instead have been curious—curious as to why the overwhelming majority of the LGBTI community in this country opposes this bill; curious as to why those most affected by the current discrimination in our laws were prepared to say no. I cannot speak for all, but I will say this: I and many others oppose this bill because we already know what hate speech feels like. We oppose this bill because we do not want our families and our children publicly denigrated; because we know that those opposed will stoop to any argument to prevent change; because we do not trust this Prime Minister and his government to stand up for us, our children and our community; because we have seen their silence when their own backbench speak; because we know their weakness in the face of prejudice; and because we know what damage can be caused in the light and heat of a national campaign.

As Dr Grainne Healy has said, the Irish marriage equality vote was 'brutal' for LGBTIQ people. Well, we have listened to the community. We have listened to LGBTIQ Australians and we have listened to the broader Australian community. That is why Labor will oppose this bill.

But that is not the end of the matter, and that cannot be the end of the matter. Despite the febrile rhetoric of the Attorney-General, there is a clear way forward—a clear way for the parliament to do what Australians want it to do: to resolve this issue, once and for all, by voting on a bill for marriage equality. All we need for that to happen is a free vote by members of the Liberal Party. All we need is for the Liberal Party to live up to its principles of individual liberty and choice. And all we need is for the Prime Minister to exercise leadership. I know there are some in this government, even some who support marriage equality, who are saying this bill's defeat closes the issue for years. So I say to all in this country who support marriage equality: we cannot allow this to be so. We cannot allow this government to continue to force its members to vote to not have a vote—to vote to stop a vote.

The LGBTIQ community has been fighting for equality for decades. We have done so with our friends and allies. We have won many advances, and we will win marriage equality; we will win this debate. Momentum continues to build, and the forces of change will not go away. Marriage equality supporters will fight for a vote in the parliament. We will do so because we know this: prejudice and discrimination can be overcome. We know that what Australians have in common matters more than the division and difference some wish to cultivate. And we know that understanding and acceptance will prevail, which is why we will keep working, we will keep campaigning and we will keep fighting until this parliament does what the community wants, and legislates for marriage equality.