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Monday, 7 November 2016
Page: 1902


Senator URQUHART (TasmaniaOpposition Whip in the Senate) (11:54): Today, I rise to speak against the Plebiscite (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill 2016. This is the government's plan to put same sex couples' basic right to relationship equality to a popular opinion poll.

I have spoken many times in this place about the need for marriage equality and the onus on us in this place to deliver it. Most recently I shared the story of Lee Bransden and Sandra Yates from Devonport, who were forced to fly to New Zealand to get married. Lee and Sandra would love to have legally sealed their love in Australia among all their family and friends, but they could not because Lee suffers from an incurable lung disease and they simply could not afford to wait for us in this place to get our act together. The fact that the responsibility for this lies with us is nothing short of shameful.

There are many reasons why this plebiscite is wrong, just one of which is the multimillion dollar hit to the budget that it will levy. Just last week, it was revealed by the Parliamentary Budget Office that, under Mr Turnbull, the deficit from 2015-16 to 2018-19 has deteriorated by $14.9 billion. It also projected that net debt will grow to $356 billion in 2018-19. Already, the credit-rating agencies have put Australia on notice that, if the government does not get its books in order, our AAA credit rating could be at risk. But so deep, so entrenched and so intransigent is the fear that same sex couples may be joined in marriage that those opposite are willing to further threaten Australia's financial position to prevent it.

Mr Morrison likes to tell us that we have a spending problem, and yet he does not blink an eye at throwing over $160 million at a ridiculous, divisive public opinion poll. And that is just the direct implementation cost. PricewaterhouseCoopers has estimated that the full hit to the Australian economy could be over half a billion dollars. Not only that, but the rabid Right wanted to hand over another $7.5 million of precious taxpayers' dollars to give a publicly-funded voice to the vicious anti-marriage-equality lobby.

Gallingly, it was recently revealed by the Advertising Standards Board that these publicly-funded hate campaigns would be exempt from current advertising standards of truth and accuracy. The Prime Minister's suggestion that it would be a respectful, civilised debate shows that he is either ignorant or deliberately misrepresenting the situation. My money is on the latter. Let's be clear: Mr Turnbull's plebiscite would be an open invitation for the right-wing activists to launch into a vicious and damaging campaign. Already, we have seen the Australian Christian Lobby appealing for the repeal of antidiscrimination laws for the plebiscite campaign period. To my mind, if you need to suspend antidiscrimination legislation in order to make your argument, there is a good chance that your argument is actually wrong.

But the real kicker is that, once all is said and done—once Australians have voted in good faith—the result will not even be binding on the conservatives in this place to vote in accordance with that vote. Already some in this place and in the other have refused to commit to vote in favour of marriage equality if this is what the country decides through the plebiscite, and yet they are willing to throw away millions of dollars in the process of denying the will of the Australian people.

But if the cost to the federal budget is enormous, the personal psychological toll on the LGBTI community would be immeasurable. In September, the co-director of the Yes Equality campaign in Ireland, Dr Grainne Healy, urged the Australian government to reverse its plans for a plebiscite, describing the Irish plebiscite experience as 'brutal' for gay and lesbian people and their families. Dr Healy explained how volunteers needed counselling after enduring abuse and hate speech from anti-marriage-equality campaigners.

Of course, children will be among the most vulnerable if this damaging plebiscite proceeds. No-one knows the hurt and pain of cruel words as much as a child who has experienced them firsthand—like 13-year-old Eddie Blewett, who visited Canberra last month with his parents, Claire and Neroli. Eddie has been ruthlessly bullied this year. It got so bad that his parents were forced to enrol him in a different school, a situation that Neroli believes was heavily influenced by the government's plan for a plebiscite that has legitimised cruel and heartless commentary on the issue.

Today I would like to share Eddie's words from his personal letter to the Prime Minister about the plebiscite. It reads:

Dear Prime Minister,

That really upset me!!! Please do your job. We want same sex marriage without hearing in the playground that I am not normal.

From Eddie.

Ps. Thank god for Tanya Plibersek.

I would like to acknowledge the courage it took for Eddie and his parents to come to Canberra as part of a Rainbow Families delegation and speak on this issue. And I truly hope that we in this place will take the time to reflect on their experience and the experience of thousands of people who would be subjected to cruel arguments about the worth of their relationships and the legitimacy of their families. In failing to deliver marriage equality, we are not just making a statement about marriage; we are making a statement about the value of individual relationships and families. For those who say they are opposed to marriage equality on the grounds of concern for children, I say that it is the cruel attitudes and words that are damaging, not the prospect of marriage between two people who love each other.

Of course, Mr Abbott's decision to hold an expensive, non-binding plebiscite begs the question: why is it that it did not require a popular vote for John Howard to restrict the Marriage Act in 2004 but suddenly the parliament is incapable of doing its job now? Former High Court Justice Michael Kirby hinted at this question when he urged a rethink. He said the plebiscite would create a dangerous political precedent where the parliament can avoid making decisions on difficult issues by running unnecessary and expensive popular votes.

Why is it that the parliament has been able to float the dollar, send Australia to war, legislate on immigration, enforce a goods and services tax and strike binding international trade deals but now we are suddenly incapable of holding a simple vote on whether two people who love each other have the right to get married? Of course, we all know why. It is because this whole thing was dreamed up by Mr Abbott and the conservatives as a means of avoiding marriage equality.

Sadly, Mr Turnbull has proven that he has absolutely no qualms with being the willing puppet of these right-wing masters and has submitted wholeheartedly to his predecessor's plan. Lacking the backbone to stand up to the Abbotts, Abetzs and Christensens of the world, Mr Turnbull has chosen his quest for power and position over his long-held beliefs and his personal integrity. In fact, only three years ago last week, Mr Turnbull called for exactly what Labor and the LGBTI community knows Australia needs to have—a free vote in the parliament. In 2013 the Prime Minister was clear about his opinion on the matter. He said:

But my view, as you know, is that we should have a free vote, and if we do agree to have a free vote, I will vote in favour of same-sex marriage …

Well, what a diminished man we see before us today, what a shadow of his former self. This is the man who fought so strongly for real action on climate change. He rightly pointed out that Mr Abbott's direct action plan was:

… a con, an environmental fig leaf to cover a determination to do nothing.

before mutating before our eyes into the government's chief attack dog on clean responsible renewable energy. This is the man who told us that the days of the three-word slogan were over—right before dragging us to an eight-week election campaign with little more than a $50 billion tax cut for big business and the endlessly repeated 'jobs and growth' mantra. And now this man, who rightly backed a free vote, may be personally responsible for holding off marriage equality for yet another term.

Mr Turnbull promised us he would be different from the man he replaced—right before morphing into Mr Abbott's ideological doppelganger. No wonder Australians are asking themselves: 'Who is this man who calls himself our Prime Minister and what on earth does he stand for?' What does he stand for? The bitter truth is that our Prime Minister stands only for his personal ambitions—never mind the needless damage that he has done to the federal budget and innocent members of the LGBTI community.

So here we are debating a marriage equality bill designed by the extreme right to try to stop marriage equality. You could not make this stuff up. But Labor will not leave the matter there. We understand that marriage equality is what the Australian people want. But they do not want to spend tens of millions of dollars on a damaging, divisive, non-binding opinion poll to get it. I can say this because I have received hundreds of pleas from Australians rejecting the plebiscite and calling for a free vote in this parliament. In fact, I have received thousands of emails and letters calling for exactly this. In contrast, I have only received 43 from people who want the plebiscite to proceed.

Unlike the Prime Minister, Labor will not sacrifice our values nor will we reject the clear message coming from the Australian people. And, unlike the Prime Minister, we will not submit to the will of the deeply unrepresentative hard-right conservatives. No, we will fight. We will continue to prosecute the case for a vote in the parliament and we will not give up until that happens.