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Monday, 7 November 2016
Page: 1886


Senator RICE (Victoria) (10:38): I rise to speak on the Plebiscite (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill 2016. Defeating this plebiscite bill this week will be another step in the long journey towards equality.

Today, I am going to take you on that journey, which I am optimistic is going to have a happy ending, complete with wedding bells in the near future. This journey goes a long way back. I want to start by thanking everyone who has got us this far—those that have risked arrest and imprisonment in the decades leading up to the repeal of laws that outlawed male homosexuality. It is salient to remember that this occurred in such recent times: firstly with a repeal in South Australia in 1975, and in Tasmania not until 1997—such very recent times. I want to thank the Mardi Gras 79ers; the AIDS campaigners throughout the eighties; and people like Rodney Croome, who has been campaigning for equality for the LGBTIQ community for over 25 years. I want to thank people like Michael Kirby and Bob Brown, the first openly gay member of our parliament. I want to thank the pioneering same sex parents like the mums and dads of recently announced Tasmanian Rhodes scholar Bede Jones. I want to thank the huge number of people who have been part of the community campaign over the past year since this thought-bubble of former Prime Minister Tony Abbott was foisted on us and the campaigns run by Australian Marriage Equality, Australians for Equality, just.equal, Rainbow Families, Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, and the thousands of people, gay and straight alike, who have spoken out against a divisive, expensive, unnecessary plebiscite and who have said loud and clear that the plebiscite is wrong under any circumstances because people's human rights should not be subject to a popular vote. Thanks to the 92,000 people around the world who have signed All Out's petition against this plebiscite, which was described as 'the most pointless vote in the world'; the hundreds of LGBTI community leaders who have spoken out; and the 114 straight allies, from Noni Hazlehurst to Clover Moore, who signed a statement over the weekend calling on the government to ditch this plebiscite and to hold a free vote on marriage equality.

And I want to pay my respects and grieve for those who have not made it: those for whom the overwhelming guilt and self-hatred for their homosexuality or their gender identity led them to take their own lives; those who have lost their lives to hate crimes; who bore the ultimate price of the intolerance and hate of homophobia and transphobia. Such people have been in the front and centre in my thoughts during this plebiscite debate because they remind us starkly that it is people's lives and people's wellbeing which are at stake here. People stand to be harmed by a divisive and hateful debate.

We know this journey will have an end. We know it will. It has been hard, long and arduous, but the end is in sight. There have been massive legal and social changes over the last 30 years, removing most of the state-sanctioned discrimination and social opprobrium associated with being lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex. Achieving marriage equality is the last major leg of our journey that we have yet to travel—the biggest remaining state-sanctioned discrimination faced by LGBTIQ Australians and their families.

We have seen laws change all around the world: the Netherlands being the first in 2001; Canada, with such similar cultural background to us, in 2005; the US just last year; from strongly Catholic Argentina and Spain to Ireland just last year; and the UK, our mother country. For the royalists, the conservatives, those who champion our British history in this place, the fact that the UK achieved marriage equality in 2014 without a plebiscite surely means something. And New Zealand—ah, New Zealand!—three years ago, in 2013. How is it, when our two countries are so much alike and so similar historically, socially, geographically, that they can have achieved marriage equality and we have not? How is it that they get to have all the weddings and we are missing out on so much fun and celebration of people's love for each other?

You ask the average Australian and they say: 'Why are we still talking about this? Why haven't we achieved it long ago? Just let people marry the person they love and let's move on to the other issues we are facing in this country that are much trickier to resolve, like the inequality between rich and poor, like tackling global warming or like giving young people the chance of buying or renting an affordable place to live.' You will not be surprised to hear that we agree. The Greens have been advocating for marriage equality ever since John Howard, supported by the Labor Party, outlawed it in 2008, without a plebiscite and without any public consultation.

From our perspective it is a matter of human rights, of equality, of ending discrimination against people on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity. But we acknowledge that some people's religious beliefs mean they see it differently. That is fine. I am not bothered by people such as Senator Bernardi, Senator Abetz and Senator O'Sullivan having those beliefs, and no one is going to force them to marry someone of the same sex or force their religious practitioners to marry same-sex couples in their places of worship. All that we ask is that they do not impose their religious beliefs upon the rest of us. We live in a secular society. We do not have state-sanctioned religion. Legislating for marriage equality is a matter of live and let live.

Marriage, of course, has had many changes in our culture. It was not so long ago that racially mixed marriages were frowned upon—and outlawed in some cases—notably, those of Indigenous peoples under the control of the state with white settlers in our early years of settlement. It was not so long ago that it was quite unacceptable for Catholics to marry Protestants, let alone Jews, Muslims or Buddhists. It was not so long ago that a woman had to provide a dowry to her husband's family and that the wife was seen as one of the husband's goods and chattels, and where, once a woman was married, she was expected to not undertake any paid work—and, in fact, had to resign from the Public Service, for goodness sake—and settle into a life of having children and looking after her home and husband. But times change. We disrupted society. We worked hard to remove discrimination. And marriage has changed along with it.

When I got married 30 years ago, amongst my feminist friends and sisters marriage still had quite the taint of patriarchy about it. Most of my peer group were not getting married. But Penny and I loved each other and thought, 'Let's do it.' We walked down the aisle together, my father did not give me away and I kept my name. Of course, Penny and I confuse people because we are married, and we have been married for 30 years. The biggest personal touchstone for me in the whole marriage equality debate is that Penny and I would not have been able to get married if she had transitioned earlier in her life. We speak from personal experience when we say that gender identity and sexuality do not matter when it comes to love. We know that our same-sex marriage is just as important and valid and deep and wonderful and loving as our heterosexual one was. Our marriage highlights and underlines the ridiculousness of our current marriage laws in that, for us to stay married, Penny is not able to have a birth certificate that says she is female. If she did that, we would have to get divorced. That is crazy.

Equal marriage is the obvious evolution of marriage as an institution. At its most fundamental, allowing people to marry the person they love regardless of their sexuality or gender identity is affirming that people who are same-sex attracted or bi or trans or intersex have the same rights as the rest of society, that we are celebrated, that we are equal, that we are not second-class citizens. Fundamentally, people objecting to it are telling me that I do not have the same rights as others, that I am different, that I am not as worthy, that I should not be the way that I am, that Penny's and my relationship is not right, that our children should feel different, concerned and worried that they have two mothers. I have had many anti-equal-marriage people tell me that they do not discriminate against same-sex attracted people, rather it is just that marriage is different and sacred and not for them. Sorry, saying that one of society's most revered and established institutions is not appropriate for all my lesbian, gay, bi, trans and intersex friends—saying it is not for us—is discrimination. It is prejudice.

All loving and committed couples, regardless of sexuality, regardless of gender identity, should have the opportunity to express their love through marriage. Why not support this legislation, the argument goes, as a way to achieve such equality? Why don't we make the plebiscite the next step on our journey? The answer is easy. It is because we do not need to put our country through a damaging, divisive and expensive experience. It is unnecessary. And it is not even binding at the end of it. Although some may argue that it is a path to equality, they cannot deny that it is a diversion through difficult terrain, an unnecessary detour with the likelihood of considerable harm being done to people along the way.

If it were necessary, then the situation would be different. If it were the only path, then we would make the best of it. We would pull together and support each other through it, like they did in Ireland during their referendum campaign. But we are not like Ireland, because we do not need constitutional change. We do not need to put the LGBTI community and their families through the damage and harm and hate speech which would be unleashed by the plebiscite campaign. We can achieve marriage equality through a free vote in our parliament. We need to do that as a matter of urgency. We could achieve equality by Valentine's Day next year.

A stark summary of how damaging this plebiscite would be to LGBTIQ people and their families comes from the Irish experience. Yes, they won and they achieved marriage equality, but at a cost. Dr Grainne Healy, the co-director of the Irish Yes Equality campaign, wrote to all of us and told us this in no uncertain terms. It is worth quoting from her letter. She said:

The No side posters which declared that 'every child deserves a mother and a father' were deeply hurtful and upsetting for LGBT headed families—explaining to our children that they were ok and trying to hide the posters from them was awful for LGBT parenting families.

The nature of plebiscites is that they allow negative hurtful images and comments to be published in the name of 'fair canvassing'.

Likewise, listening to the untruths and ill informed hate speech on radio or tv during the campaign was damaging and unforgettable for some.

Dr Healy continued:

For our friends in Australia, I would ask that you do not underestimate how horrible and damaging an experience canvassing in such a campaign can be—even in a campaign like ours which was predicated on positive messaging and upbeat imagery and hugely successful social media campaign with national champions for marriage equality coming out—it was a gruelling experience—at least we knew that at the end of it, if we won, we would have full constitutional equality for LGBT marriage rights. To hold a non-binding plebiscite seems to be at the least insensitive to the LGBT community who will bear the brunt of the negative campaigning and at best will lead to an experience of divisive, hurtful campaigning, with no guarantee of progressing marriage equality.

Dr Healy has also been one of the researchers studying the harm that was done by the plebiscite, which has shown major psychological and social impacts on LGBTIQ people and their families. The two groups reported to be the most negatively impacted were the children of LGBTIQ parents and young LGBTIQ people themselves.

This totally unnecessary potential harm and division is the fundamental reason why the Greens oppose this plebiscite legislation, why we oppose a plebiscite under any circumstances. It is why we listen to the Prime Minister's claims that the debate will be respectful and shake our heads and wonder what utopian world he thinks he is living in. He is off with the fairies. It is why suggestions that maybe we could make the plebiscite cheaper through electronic voting, for example, do not sway us.

The answer is simple. We do not need a plebiscite to achieve equality, and a plebiscite will do our community considerable harm. The plebiscite was thought up by Tony Abbott as a mechanism to delay marriage equality and as a too-clever-by-half way of papering over deep divisions in the Liberal Party on this issue. It has not worked. It is about to get voted down, and then we can move on. The pathway ahead is clear. What is needed is simple: a free vote in our parliament. That would see us catching up with the rest of the world. A free vote accommodates people's religious beliefs. The Greens will all vote for marriage equality, of course, because it is about human rights. We have voted for equality in every parliament, every time, every member of parliament.

The Greens have laid out three steps to marriage equality that will get us to the end of this long and bumpy road. The first step is to break up with the plebiscite. I am very hopeful that that is what we are going to do today. Step 2 is to get engaged with cross-party legislation for marriage equality, and step 3 is a vote in our parliament saying 'I do' to marriage equality. A free vote in our parliament would reflect the fact that all three leaders—the leaders of the government, the opposition and the Greens—support marriage equality; that the majority of the members of our parliament support marriage equality; and that we, as members of parliament, represent a society where over 70 per cent of the population support marriage equality.

The best way of moving forward on this is co-sponsored, cross-party legislation that recognises this support across party lines in the parliament and in the community. I call again on my colleagues today to come together, to work together, to put aside party allegiances, turf wars, point-scoring and oppositionality and to make this a reality. This is something that we can achieve together that would make our communities proud of us—working together instead of fighting each other. We can introduce legislation here in the Senate, because it seems that, even with the government's position against equal marriage, the numbers are here in the Senate for such legislation to pass—and what a big milestone on our journey that will be once it does.

This is important because it is about love: the love of Australians for each other. Australians for Equality are currently asking Australians why marriage equality is important to them. Dan and Mike, who are farmers from New South Wales, have shared their thoughts. They said:

"… marriage equality would make a change in Australia in that LGBTQI people would feel that their love is as important as anyone else.

"We don't want anything more than anyone else, we just want the same. We have now found our voice and we're not going anywhere"

Can I ask my fellow senators, the members of the other place, our Prime Minister, our opposition leader—all of us—to listen to these voices and act. Forget the diversion of a plebiscite. Forget the harm that would occur with a plebiscite. Move forward on a free vote in our parliament, so that we can allow people to marry the person they love. It is going to be a beautiful thing. I so look forward to helping to make that happen, so that the celebrations can begin.