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Monday, 7 November 2016
Page: 2033

Senator WATT (Queensland) (19:33): I speak today not as an LGBTI person but as a very good friend of the LGBTI community. I also speak as a father, as a friend and as a husband.

As a politician I have voted on relationship rights before. When I was a state member of parliament in Queensland I was proud to be part of a government that passed a bill allowing civil unions in Queensland. That was as far as we could go as a state government. Back then, in support of that legislation, which was subject to a conscience vote, I said this:

I recognise that there are strong views in my community on both sides of this issue. I have heard from supporters and opponents of the bill. I believe that, more than anything, my community expects me to be honest with them and vote with my conscience.

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My conscience tells me that we should not prevent couples from celebrating and recording their commitment to each other merely because of factors such as their race, gender, or sexuality. For that reason, I will be supporting the private member's bill to allow civil unions in Queensland. I believe that my community expects their political representatives to reject all forms of discrimination. This bill removes a form of discrimination against same-sex couples and it has my full support.

That legislation, passed by the Bligh government in 2011, was cruelly repealed by the Newman LNP government on its election. Fortunately, things were set right by the Palaszczuk Labor government, which restored civil unions on its election last year.

It is now time for this parliament to set things right and make marriage equality law. This parliament has the power to make marriage equality legal. We do not need an expensive, divisive, nonbinding plebiscite to do the right thing.

Today I want to speak about families. I have my own family. My wife and I are fortunate to have two wonderful children. Families are vital to society, but no two families are the same. There are families like mine, with two kids and two parents. There are families with 11, 12 or 13 children. There are families with a single parent, and those single parents are no less capable of being parents. Their love for their children is the same. There are families with stepchildren, and step-parents who share parenting or who co-parent. There is absolutely nothing wrong with these families. The love they share for each other is exactly the same as the love my family shares for each other.

Our LGBTI community have families too. They are rainbow families. I have several LGBTI friends who are in loving relationships and who have children: rainbow families with loving mums or loving dads, with grandparents, aunts and uncles. There is nothing different about the love they share for each other—absolutely nothing. There is nothing unique or special that makes my family more legitimate than any of the other families I have mentioned. It is not our place to tell someone's family that there is something illegitimate about them, that there is something abnormal, wrong or unnatural about their family.

I respect the fact that marriage is a longstanding institution. It was with respect for that institution of marriage that my wife and I publicly recognised our own love through marriage. Some say that this institution cannot be changed, that it must remain the preserve of a man and a woman. The reality is that the meaning of marriage, the meaning of family, has changed before. This was pointed out by Beth Robinson, an attorney for the plaintiffs in the marriage equality case in Vermont, which started the push towards marriage equality in the United States. Robinson compared the case in Vermont to a 1948 decision by the Supreme Court of California overturning a law barring interracial marriage. She said:

The notion of a black person and a white person marrying was as antithetical to many people's conceptions of what a marriage was as the notion of a man marrying a man or a woman marrying a woman ...

…   …   …   

That California decision was controversial, courageous and correct.

It is correct to say that times have changed since 1948, and the world has moved on since interracial marriage was banned. In many other places, marriage for LGBTI people has also moved on. The United States, Spain, Ireland, the United Kingdom, Canada, South Africa, Norway, our neighbours in New Zealand and many other countries have moved on in relation to marriage equality. The world has moved on, and it is time that Australia moved with it.

Marriage discrimination is one of the last bricks in the wall that have stood in front of our LGBTI community and their rainbow families being recognised as full citizens in our country. I am very proud that very often it has been Labor governments in this country that have led the way in recognising LGBTI families and LGBTI people and conferring rights on them that have been taken for granted by many of us. In the mid-nineties the Keating government passed a law which essentially made it illegal for states to impose laws that discriminated against homosexual people in relation to sexual contact if they were over the age of 18. In 2008 the Labor government introduced historic legislation to provide equality to same-sex couples under all Commonwealth laws in areas including tax, social security, health, aged care and employment.

But equality that is not complete is not equality at all. A majority of Australians support marriage equality. They want us to make it happen, but a plebiscite is not the right way for us to do the right thing. Let us be clear: the plebiscite is not about trusting or not trusting the Australian people. The arguments made by the government in this respect are fundamentally flawed and show that they are completely disingenuous when it comes to making marriage equality happen. The plebiscite is about giving people a say in someone else's private relationship. Marriage is a decision between two people only. It is not a decision to be made by anyone else other than the two people getting married. In modern Australia, permission is not needed for straight couples to get married. When I got married I did ask my in-laws as a courtesy but I was not asking for permission. I did not have to go and poll the Australian people about whether my wife's and my relationship was worthy of marriage. I knew and my wife knew that our relationship was strong enough to take the next step. More importantly, when the Marriage Act was amended by Prime Minister John Howard in 2004, we did not hold a plebiscite then. We did not need a divisive, expensive poll then, and we do not need one now.

The people who should most have a say on whether we remove marriage discrimination via a plebiscite are the people this plebiscite will directly affect, and that is the LGBTI community. Labor have consulted the LGBTI community. The government say they have, but have they really listened? Over the past few months, I have met with members of the LGBTI community. I met with them here in Parliament House, I marched with them through the streets of Brisbane at the Pride Festival and I have sat down with them, along with other members of the opposition, and really listened to their concerns. They told me that their community overwhelmingly does not support a plebiscite. Even if the plebiscite would lead to marriage equality, they do not want a plebiscite. They have been fighting for this for all their lives and they are willing to wait longer, if necessary, to avoid the hatred and division which will be ushered in via a plebiscite. Why would they do that? Because they know more than anyone how hurtful and damaging a plebiscite will be.

The LGBTI community have lived the majority of their lives in fear, pretending to be someone else and afraid of what people might say. They hear constantly and are told every day by our cultural conventions that there is something wrong and different about them. I cannot tell you the number of occasions when friends of mine have talked about their partners and it is presumed that they are talking about someone of the opposite sex. At one level that is a normal reaction from people, but it does show that each and every single day LGBTI people run up against presumptions and assumptions that are very hurtful to them. It is why the mental health of LGBTI people is among the poorest in Australia. Beyondblue has called for this parliament to end marriage discrimination, saying that all Australians deserve the opportunity to express their love and commitment through marriage, regardless of how they identify. The sense of loss, hurt and discrimination experienced by those who are denied this opportunity is profound. Lesbian, gay and bisexual Australians are twice as likely to have a high level of psychological distress as their heterosexual peers. LGBTI people have the highest rates of suicide of any population in Australia. The elevated risk of mental ill-health and suicide among LGBTI people is not due to their sexuality, their sex or their gender identity in and of themselves but it is due to discrimination and exclusion, which are key determinants of someone's health. This is particularly an issue for the LGBTI community in regional parts of Australia, including regional Queensland. I have many friends who have suffered abuse. I have friends who have been violently attacked. I have friends who have been afraid to be who they are, because it has taken us so long to get to a point where we have silenced the notion that there is something unnatural or abnormal with gay and lesbian people. I have friends who are in happy, fulfilling relationships today but who still suffer now from years of being discriminated against. Despite the leaps and bounds made towards equality, our country is still not a safe place for LGBTI people. We are only now reaching a point where these Australians are able to feel safer, to come out and to feel proud of who they are.

Marriage equality will take us forwards. This plebiscite would take us backwards. Not content with facilitating division via this plebiscite, the government also wants the public to fund the campaigns against marriage equality. They want the taxpayer to give money that will be spent on television commercials, newspaper ads and letterbox drops distributing material that will contribute to the further suffering of LGBTI people. If there is some doubt or naivety from those opposite that the 'no' campaign will be civil and respectful when they seek to justify why LGBTI people should not be equal, then it is clear they have not been listening to what is already being said about this issue.

The Australian Christian Lobby has said they will spend the money on advertising that has nothing to do with marriage equality. Lyle Shelton, the ACL leader, told ABC Radio that 'there's been very little discussion about the consequences, how this might flow into schools through programs like the Safe Schools program when you take gender out of marriage'. He said: 'The money will go towards airing the concerns of a whole range of consequences that flow from taking gender out of marriage.' So, there you have it: the head of the ACL is saying that all of this public money will not actually be spent on the issue of marriage equality; it will be spent on what he considers to be the 'inevitable consequences' of gay marriage. Why should taxpayer money be spent on TV ads that tell LGBTI kids there is something wrong with them because they are gay, that they do not deserve to be parents, that they do not deserve to get married?

A debate cannot be civil or respectful when the premise of denying equality based on sexuality is not civil or respectful in the first place. I have heard my colleagues opposite say that Labor is standing in the way of marriage equality, that the only way to achieve marriage equality is a plebiscite, that the yes vote will get up anyway and that my colleagues on this side of the chamber are playing politics with the lives of LGBTI people. That is probably the most disrespectful thing that has been said in this debate so far. My colleagues on the other side know as well as we do that they are playing politics with this matter. We could have marriage equality now. The coalition is in government. Malcom Turnbull is our Prime Minster. When he toppled Tony Abbott, he had the opportunity to do away with Abbott's plebiscite policy. But he has not done that—because, despite saying that he supports marriage equality, he is hamstrung by the far right of his party. If Malcolm Turnbull wants marriage equality to happen, then he should put a vote to the floor of the parliament and let his party vote freely on this issue. There is only one person and only one party delaying marriage equality and that is Malcolm Turnbull and his government.

I love my family and I love my kids. No matter what they do when they grow up, or who they decide to love, I will love them always. I am not unique or special in that sense. No-one in this place has the right to say that my family is more important or more legitimate than anyone else's. No-one in this country has a right to tell LGBTI families that there is something different and wrong about the love they share. Marriage brings loving people together. Let's bring people together by making everybody equal.