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Monday, 7 November 2016
Page: 2020

Senator GRIFF (South Australia) (17:29): The Nick Xenophon Team will be opposing the Plebiscite (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill 2016. We are elected to this place to act in the best interest of our respective communities, and this bill does not do that. It is both a waste of taxpayer money and a mechanism that will provide intolerant people and organisations with a government-funded opportunity for hate speech. When the Prime Minister stood in the other place and said he would be spending $170 million of Australian taxpayer money on this plebiscite, I was incredibly dismayed—not just by the sheer amount of money the government was prepared to spend but the fact that they were willing to spend it at all when an alternative, far less costly and far less harmful option exists: a free vote in the form of a marriage equality bill.

Australians live in a representative democracy, and it is our job as parliamentarians to debate and deliberate legislation. We were elected to make decisions and not to outsource them. We did not need a plebiscite when Indigenous Australians were recognised as equal in the eyes of the law, or when we dismantled the White Australia policy, or when we advanced women's equality or even when we advanced disability equality. We certainly do not need it now. A quick look at the Australian plebiscite history shows that from the early 1900s there have only been three plebiscites held in Australia, the last of which was in 1977 on the choice of Australia's national anthem. It made me think, 'Surely we're not placing the question of equal rights on the same footing as the choice of Australia's national anthem?'

We have voted on legislation that begs moral questions in this place before. When John Howard amended the federal Marriage Act to explicitly state that marriage be between a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others he did not insist on a plebiscite; he took it to parliament. Our current Prime Minister could and should have put forward legislation, just like John Howard did in 2004, and allowed parliament to vote on the issue of marriage equality. This would have been the least expensive and least harmful way of ensuring all people, regardless of their sexual orientation, are equal under the law, but the reality is the Prime Minister does not want to alienate his far Right supporters.

Representative democracy exists because the model state is too complex to be run by a direct democracy. Important issues are not decided by a mass 'yes' or 'no' vote, because if they were we would spend all of our time voting on plebiscites and referendums. It is our job as community leaders to make decisions in line with community needs, aspirations and, indeed, expectations. It is completely unnecessary to go down the path that the Prime Minister has chosen, particularly when we know that two-thirds of Australians support legalising same-sex marriage.

The recent Irish marriage equality referendum is but one example of just how divisive and pointless a public vote can be. The end result was that a majority supported marriage equality in almost identical terms to opinion polls undertaken prior to the referendum. This further demonstrated that it was not at all necessary to waste taxpayer money and bring about the severe distress and prejudice LGBTI people experienced throughout the campaign. It affected people in all aspects of their lives: in their workplaces, in their local communities, in their schools and in their churches. People were even afraid to travel on public transport or walk to their local shops. We should not be putting Australians through such a divisive, hurtful process. It will hurt individuals, parents and children—all who want to do no more than love those they cherish. No child deserves to see their parents' relationship devalued on the national stage. No child deserves to be told that their parents' love for one another is not recognised or that their family is second-class. No family member or friend should have to see their loved ones subjected to hate and discrimination.

I worry about the impact this plebiscite will have on our young people—teenagers who are struggling with their sexuality and making the decision as to whether to come out or not. We know that young LGBTI people experience twice as much abuse and violence than their heterosexual peers. We know that more than four in 10 young LGBTI Australians have thought about self-harm or suicide. Why would we want to subject our young to more hurtful, derogatory and discriminative discourse? I fear that this plebiscite and the millions of taxpayer dollars that would be put towards any campaign will divide our great nation and give a licence to hate speech. We should not give air to those who already have the lungs to yell the loudest. Let's have a civilised debate here in this chamber, as has been done on many thousands of equally important pieces of legislation since our parliament was formed.

People are people, and LGBTI people are no different; they are just like everybody else. They live and work in the same community as all of us; they contribute to our diverse society. They are not a danger to society, as some would suggest; they enrich our society and have done so since the beginning of time. There would not be a field or community where LGBTI people have not made a significant contribution, and this will be the case until the end of time. Their desire to commit to their partners, like I have to my wife Kristin, is no different. They are equally good fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters and friends. They do not deserve to be vilified; they do not deserve to be treated differently. It is not my role nor the role of any other person in this place to tell a person that their relationship does not warrant equality before the law. The government should be there for the people—all people, regardless of gender, race or sexuality—and allow a free vote for marriage equality. This is what the majority of Australians want, and it is incumbent on us to deliver this in this parliament. This bill needs to well and truly be relegated to the history books and replaced by a bill that allows a free vote.