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Monday, 7 November 2016
Page: 2025


Senator PRATT (Western Australia) (17:53): I rise today to speak very firmly against the Plebiscite (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill 2016. I cannot fathom why those in the coalition in favour of marriage equality have accepted this as a path forward to equality, because it is not. It is simply untenable that those in favour of equality should put forward such an unequal process. The very idea that the civil rights of Australians should be subject to a popular vote, when other Australians who hold those rights were not subject to such a process, is complete anathema to those who believe in the rights and privileges of this place and our parliament. Indeed, no set of rights other than those required by the Constitution has ever been subject to a test such as this: the status of one's relationship and family life being subject to what amounts to a popular vote, which is not binding on the parliament in any case.

Make no mistake; this is a deal done to secure the leadership of the current Prime Minister, a condition put forward by those who are anti marriage equality. It is, I feel, an utterly demeaning act to determine by popular vote whether my relationship or those of other LGBTI people are of a status or value equal to those of already married couples. It is a ridiculous and upsetting notion. I do believe that the people of Australia would vote yes, but I also truly believe that a plebiscite is very much the wrong way to get there, and the means does not justify the end.

I would like to highlight a University of Queensland survey of some 5½ thousand LGBTI Australians. An overwhelming 85 per cent of those people said no to a plebiscite, and 65 per cent said no under any circumstances. There are good reasons why they and people like me put this view forward. When you look at the kind of debate we would have in the context of a plebiscite, you see that those opposed to marriage equality are actively framing their arguments around issues that do not actually relate to the substantive nature of a relationship between two people. They do this because they have already lost, in the eyes of the community, the substantive debate. When you look to the arguments that would be put forward in a plebiscite here in Australia, you see that the arguments prosecuted by those against marriage equality—as was demonstrated in the recent experience in Ireland—make it about children. Indeed, the Australian Marriage Forum headline their website with the words 'Think of the Child', arguing that marriage equality deprives children of a mother or a father. They are out to portray families headed by a married mother and father as real, ideal, acceptable and respectable, and others, like my own, as less so. It is utterly vile to have a public debate which one side at least wants to make all about the status of children.

I have my own lived experience of these issues. This example is not from my current family life but from an experience I had as a child, which I sincerely ask senators in this place to reflect on. My mother had a difficult divorce from my father and re-partnered with a delightful man, Greg. Since I was aged seven, Greg has been my dad. We were delighted, as a family, to welcome my younger brother Nicholas. But I was confused, dismayed and hurt as an eight-year-old child to hear a number of children claim that my brother was a bastard. I had to ask what it meant but I knew it was bad. No child should have their family status subjected to public debate like this. 'Bastard children', 'illegitimate children', 'half-caste children'—all are pejorative terms used in the past to comment on families and their origins. I thought we had moved on from those times, and this plebiscite should not be used to drag us back to them.

The dominant message in the Ireland referendum was that children raised by other than heterosexual, married parents are damaged and disadvantaged in some way. As a mother and as someone in a same-sex relationship, I certainly do not want children like my own son to be subjected to a public debate about the status of their family. I know what that feels like and it is not right. The simple fact is that our families already exist, and no plebiscite changes that. I said in this place some four years ago during the 2012 marriage amendment bill:

Stop pretending that our relationships are not as real as yours, our love not as true, our children not as cherished, our families not as precious—because they are.

This plebiscite is an extension of this pretence that, in some way, our families are not real and are not of equal value. It gives licence to those who do not support our families to condemn them as if by passing this bill they can somehow prevent our families from coming into being. Well, you cannot.

If the coalition really cared about children they would drop this bill and direct the $200 million they want to spend on this divisive plebiscite to protecting the interests of children who do not have any reliable adults to care for them, rather than targeting the relationship status of children of same-sex couples who could not possibly be more loved or cared for than they already are. Two hundred million dollars would put in place a whole suite of early intervention child-care programs for our nation's most vulnerable children. Instead, this government is currently effectively cutting funding to many of these programs within its new jobs and families package. Your priorities could not be more wrong.

So those in favour of a plebiscite are deliberately and blindly overlooking its damaging effects. Instead, you are targeting families and children, and also you are targeting the need to keep our young people safe in our schools. You are targeting the family status of children and raising unfounded concerns regarding free-speech. Again, I quote the Australian Marriage Forum. This is from their website: at the heart of those against marriage equality is a debate about school education where 'the normalising of homosexual marriage will be used to further normalise homosexual behaviour'. That is what they say is at the heart of this debate. It is not about marriage; it is not about whether my relationship with my partner is committed and true. It is a clear message to young LGBTI people that you are not normal. That is what the proponents of this plebiscite who are anti-marriage equality are trying to say. That is the argument that they will put forward in the context of a plebiscite.

I do not believe that any young person in our schools, especially a young person dealing with an emerging same-sex attraction who could, for example, also be attending a conservative Christian school, should be subjected to people actively campaigning around them against their identity. It is an appallingly damaging thing to do to their self-esteem and identity.

On this note, again I reflect on some of the work that the University of Queensland have done. They researched 1,600 LGBTI people in Ireland to ask them what their experiences of the referendum were. Here are a few quotes from people who experienced that referendum.

Seeing your parents have to seek approval or beg for human rights scared children and made them insecure. If the basic rights of your parents can be questioned and voted upon the children feel it could be the same for them!

And also:

The No campaign were ruthless in their use of images and language towards LGBTI parents and their children. The biggest hypocrisy of the whole experience was their utter disregard for both young LGBTI people, and the children of LGBTI people. It was so hateful.

The researcher who did this work said very clearly that the results show that the euphoria TV audiences saw after the referendum hid the reality of the social and psychological impacts of the campaign on the daily lives of LGBTI people and their families.

What I found most disturbing about our results—

Dr Sharon Dane said—

is that younger LGBTI people, who are already vulnerable, were the ones who reported feeling the most anxious and afraid in the lead up to the referendum.

For example, the referendum gave community and family members who were not support of marriage equality a platform from which to express the hurtful views.

Dr Sharon Dane said:

The fact that their stories were told with such detail and emotion, almost one and a half years since the date of the referendum, suggests that the impact of the 'NO' side campaign was more than a momentary experience or something that could be simply rectified through a win for marriage equality.

Dr Liz Short said:

This research provides very clear evidence that significant social and psychological detriment results from holding a nation-wide 'debate' and focus on families, children and parents, and on whether all should have the same rights, recognition and options.

Many participants expressed that ''under the guise of equal debate'' and ''balance'', the 'No equality' side was provided with a ''megaphone'' for ''homophobia'' and ''hate''.

Numerous reports of strained, damaged, and broken relationships and bonds were made, including within families, friendship groups, workplaces, schools, and neighbourhoods.

I do not want this same outcome for our nation. This plebiscite bill would be utterly damaging in this regard. These are gobsmackingly appalling priorities on the part of the coalition—to think that they want to spend $200 million on such a divisive instrument in our nation.

Only 23 per cent of those 1,500 people in that survey of Irish LGBTI people said they would be happy to have the referendum again. For them the cost of the referendum at a personal level was simply too high. That was the view of the overwhelming majority. More than 75 per cent of people said the cost of that referendum was just too high. It had a deeply negative impact on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people and their families.

In making this speech today I really want to lay down the challenge to those opposite about their priorities. It is a real shame to me that they have put this forward as a priority, because, as a government, they are incapable of any real leadership on important issues in our nation. Those opposite are incapable of real leadership because we have a Prime Minister who is pro marriage equality but is held captive by the hard Right of his party—a hard Right who do not share the same values as the overwhelming majority of other Australians. I do not begrudge anyone in their party the right to hold those views. We can and should have religious freedom in our country. But it cannot be at the expense of other people's freedom—freedom for people like myself and my own family.

I have no issue with religious celebrants only choosing to solemnise the marriages that accord with their own religious beliefs—for example, Catholic priests are not currently forced to solemnise the marriage of someone who has previously been divorced, and nor should they be obliged to conduct same-sex marriages. But I do begrudge those opposite the right to hold the whole of our country to ransom in an attempt to legislate their views. It is a small minority rump of those opposite that is holding this whole parliament to ransom on this question.

There is no doubt in my mind that rejecting this plebiscite is the right thing to do. So what for the way forward? We already know, by a good look at the public record, that the majority of senators and members, including a majority in both chambers, are already in favour of marriage equality. Given this, there has to be a way forward. So what is now the best way forward for marriage equality?

For almost a year now the Turnbull government has been repeating its mantra: the only way forward is through a plebiscite. Well, this statement is a political talking point not a fact. The most obvious and simple way forward is with legislation in this parliament. Marriage equality legislation is about the simplest form of legislation this parliament has seen. The key parts of it are less than a page long—much less complicated than the plebiscite bill before us.

When Turnbull, Brandis, Abetz, Abbott or any number of other coalition MPs claim that it is a plebiscite or nothing, what they really mean is that their party policy is to proceed only with a plebiscite. However, there is a big difference between what a policy might reflect and how this parliament might respond to it. Politics is the art of the possible. The simple fact that the government does not have the numbers in the parliament to pass the plebiscite legislation is before us today, and I look forward to defeating the bill. It might be the end of the coalition's current policy, but it is not the end of the matter. While marriage equality does not exist in this country, it never ever will be.

The plebiscite was Tony Abbott's idea. It was designed to delay, frustrate and ideally sink marriage equality. Those against marriage equality know this, so the only way out for them was this costly, divisive and unfair plebiscite. When Mr Turnbull rolled Abbott in September 2015 to become Prime Minister he agreed to maintain the Abbott policy as part of a deal to deliver him the numbers for the top job. That deal saw Mr Turnbull commit to a plebiscite and to allow a free vote on the issue after the 2016 election. That policy did not take into account that plebiscite being knocked back in this place. It is silent on that.

Once this plebiscite bill is behind us, I want to look to my colleagues here to pursue something different. It is time for partnership and cooperation in our parliament on these important issues. The government has tried to lay the blame for the failure of progress on marriage equality at the feet of the ALP. This is absurd, and it could not be more wrong. It is time for a path forward, illustrating our mutual commitment to achieve the outcome we all want. It is time for us to reach out across the chamber to all parties and crossbenchers in a mutually agreed bill with multiparty support—and it is time to allow a conscience vote, a free vote, for all MPs.

Given the national support for marriage equality, it is time to see marriage equality pass this parliament with a free vote and the support of the coalition MPs that we know support it. I am keen to see this happen and will actively reach out to any MP who shares this vision and wants our parliament to do its job. It is time for marriage equality now.