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Monday, 7 November 2016
Page: 2031

Senator McCARTHY (Northern Territory) (18:22): I rise to speak against this bill for a plebiscite. In my maiden speech I made a direct reference to an example that had impacted my family quite closely in the issues that first nations people struggle with in terms of their sexual identity. I also spoke about the call on the Prime Minister really urging him to replace this bill with legislation supporting a free vote on marriage equality. I stand again asking for the Prime Minister to do this—and why? Because we know Australians overwhelmingly support marriage equality.

In the Northern Territory people certainly pride themselves on giving others a fair go, and I know that the Australian community is very much like that. Territorians certainly do not need an opinion poll to tell us that we support marriage equality, and as part of the process of informing myself more on marriage equality and the views of the people of the Northern Territory I held a couple of roundtables in Darwin and in Alice Springs to canvass the views of the LGBTI community and the wider community, and I would certainly like to thank all those people who shared their views and experiences. It was very personal for many of the people gathered who shared so openly not only with me but, clearly, with all else who were present. Some of them knew each other; some of them did not. They spoke personally from the heart about how a plebiscite would impact their families, their professional lives and their personal space. Their concerns were largely about the division and what hateful and hurtful comments would surface—have already surfaced in some of the campaign ads they have already seen on the television—and that any plebiscite campaign would only accentuate the hurt and the hate for some of these people who feel it so deeply.

I have received numerous emails and messages on both sides of the campaign and I have certainly made it clear that I support marriage equality and that it should be made possible by a free vote in the parliament. Families have spoken to me about how hurtful the lead-up to the discussion and debate but also even any campaign would be. It would also be discriminating. The ad campaigns that have run so far this year caused deep concern when a rainbow coloured nurse was used in a campaign against same-sex marriage.

I heard also how people are worried about the plebiscite debate being a forum for haters and bigots. And then of course there are the parents of LGBTIQ members who fear the negative impact on their children. There was a teacher who told me that homophobia is a very real issue that has to be dealt with properly in schools. This teacher was concerned about the negative impact of a plebiscite on young people and their mental health and wellbeing. People also asked why the money to be spent on a plebiscite cannot go towards supporting much-needed counselling and health and wellbeing services that assist youth in particular, especially when we see the high rates of suicide and depression amongst the LGBTI community.

Many say the plebiscite is just a distraction from so many far more pressing matters. Members opposite talk about the proposed plebiscite date of 11 February, some three months away, as though the date is the golden pot at the end of the rainbow and as if at 11 February all will be well, but why should LGBTIQ people be subjected to the intrusion of whether their love is real when—hello—we could do it right now? The rainbow is right here. We could act today to make marriage equality a reality.

One of my favourite quotes from the recent NT election comes from the newly elected member for Namatjira, Chansey Paech, the first openly gay Indigenous parliamentarian in the country. This young man has broken new ground—young, gay, black—and he wears it all with pride while representing a largely Indigenous bush electorate. His opponents in the campaign for Namatjira tried to make his sexuality an issue, thinking that Aboriginal men in particular would react negatively to a gay candidate. But, as the result proved, it was not an issue for most of the voters in Namatjira. As one bush voter said to him, 'We don't care if you're a gay; we just want better houses.' As the member for Namatjira said himself in his first speech last month:

I look forward to the day when this country will recognise my rights as equal rights, when I too can marry in my country, on my country, as a recognised first Australian.

This is what this debate is about. It is about equality, recognising that it is not acceptable in Australia to discriminate against a group of people based on their sexuality or gender identity. Governments across different jurisdictions have administered marriage laws in Australia since European settlement. Restrictions were placed on Indigenous Australians' right to marry whom they chose, and there was variation in state laws regulating who we could or could not marry. Victoria's Aboriginal Protection Act 1869 gave the Victorian Central Board for the Protection of Aborigines the power to refuse marriage applications from Indigenous Victorians. In Queensland the Aboriginals Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act 1897 prohibited Indigenous women from marrying anyone other than an Indigenous man without the permission of an Aboriginal protector. In the Northern Territory, which was governed by Commonwealth law, the Aboriginal Ordinance 1918 restricted marriages between Indigenous women and non-Indigenous men. For example, the marriage of Indigenous or half-caste women to non-Indigenous men required legal permission.

In 1959 a young Indigenous woman, Gladys Namagu, was denied permission by the director of welfare in Darwin to marry her fiance, a white drover called Mick Daly. This became a celebrated case where Mick was convicted of cohabitation with Gladys.

Sitting suspended from 18:30 to 19:30

Senator McCARTHY: National media covered the love story of Gladys and Mick. It was taken up by the courts and eventually they won their right to marry when the Director of Welfare eventually decided not to oppose their union.

That was in 1959. Only seven or eight years later we had the 1967 referendum, and that was a tremendous outcome for first nations people in this country. A few years later, my father met my mother, and the difficulty of cohabitation and the laws and the stigma that still surrounded remote regions of Australia were very strong in their relationship. I share that small, personal part of my story because it impacted on the lives of my family.

I would like to actually acknowledge the very personal stories that have been shared in the Senate today during the plebiscite bill debate, in particular by Senator Wong and Senator Pratt. I think it is really important that we remember that we are speaking to so many Australians. We are talking about the lives of Australians whose basic, fundamental human right is being questioned. I note that when the power to ban interracial marriage was removed from Australian law it was not subject to a plebiscite.

In my maiden speech I also spoke about the hate that was levelled at one of our sporting heroes, Adam Goodes. The vitriol, the social media attack, the commentary—all Australians were transfixed on this one person. The emotion that came out from all Australians—some of it good and some of it horribly wrong. If we can see that kind of hateful and hurtful debate take place so recently in our memories over a sporting legend who was forced to retire, I am in no doubt that this is the example—just one major example, a most recent one—which families from the LGBTI community speak about. The fear, the hurt, the hate: it is unnecessary when we are talking about their basic human rights.

Given this, we need to ask the question: can we respectfully debate and discuss marriage equality when we cannot do this on issues of race in this country? I know personally that we struggle with that. It should not be a debate. Let's do our job as lawmakers and make marriage equality a reality now.