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Monday, 7 November 2016
Page: 2049


Senator CAROL BROWN (Tasmania) (20:44): I rise to speak on the Plebiscite (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill 2016. This bill represents a complete abrogation of our responsibilities as elected representatives. Instead of spending our time debating this bill, we should be spending our time considering any of the many bills that have already been brought before this and the other place and which would actually legislate for marriage equality, bills that would give us, as parliamentarians, the opportunity to do our job. Parliament is the place where the issue of marriage equality can and should be dealt with—it is incumbent upon us as elected representatives. But instead of granting a free vote to Liberal members, the Prime Minister continues to support a damaging and wasteful plebiscite on marriage equality. Instead of allowing the parliament to do its job, Mr Turnbull presses ahead with a plebiscite to appease the ultraconservative wing of his party. But what Mr Turnbull does not seem to understand is that those waging this crusade against the same-sex attracted and gender diverse members of our communities cannot be appeased. Instead they will continue to attack and marginalise LGBTI Australians, their families, their friends and their supporters.

To say that Mr Turnbull's approach to marriage equality is a farce would be an absolute understatement—it is a tragedy. Mr Turnbull has repeatedly failed to show any leadership on marriage equality, an issue he once claimed to passionately support. Mr Turnbull has said that he does support marriage equality, but it appears that that support is well and truly eclipsed by his political ambition. He has become hamstrung in trying to appease the conservative wing of his own party on this issue. Mr Turnbull has lashed out at those of us who have concerns about the tenor and nature of a no campaign. Mr Turnbull has tried to reassure us that Australia has nothing to fear from the plebiscite because the debate will be respectful and civil. However, anyone who has followed this debate would be well aware that Mr Turnbull cannot even guarantee a respectful debate from his own party room. The comments and arguments that have been put forward by marriage-equality opponents in this place should give some indication of exactly what is to come if the government's planned plebiscite goes ahead.

The debate about the Safe Schools Program has already given us a bitter taste of the hurtful and damaging arguments that we can expect to see. The damage caused by a taxpayer funded no campaign in a marriage equality plebiscite would be significantly more devastating. PricewaterhouseCoopers examined the impacts of the proposed plebiscite and warned that it would do more harm than good, leading to high levels of social tension, discrimination and mental health and mood disorders, and would cost taxpayers and business far more than previously understood. In all, PricewaterhouseCoopers estimated that the cost to the economy would more than likely be around $525 million in direct expenses and lost production. The CEO of PricewaterhouseCoopers, Luke Sayers, described the plebiscite as:

… a massive waste of time and money that will remove focus on the economy, growth and jobs which is the real priority for Australia.

The fact that this government has agreed to provide taxpayer money to fund the public campaigns means that the government not only is providing a platform for bigotry but also is now proposing to fund it.

The emotional impact of a plebiscite would be truly immeasurable. The true cost would not be counted in dollars. It is exactly for this reason that the LGBTI community, their families and their supporters have called on us to oppose the plebiscite. After receiving material from the group Marriage Alliance, one Tasmanian wrote to me urging me to oppose the plebiscite, saying:

I've been dealing with this kind of hurtful and offensive material for over 50 years but, even so, I am not immune to being hurt by it. And l really fear for young people today who are confronted by this ignorance and hatred.

No-one should have to endure a national debate on the validity of their relationship, on the worth of their love. And, most significantly, it is not necessary. None of it needs to happen, because the federal parliament has the ability to deal with this issue. The power is here. The means are here, with a couple of bills in this and the other place. But what is clearly lacking from the government is the will. If the Prime Minister had the courage—if he stood for anything other than his own personal and political self-interest—then he would grant a free vote to his party room and lend his support to a bill for marriage equality. Mr Turnbull has the power to stop all of this. Mr Turnbull has the power to abandon plans for this plebiscite, to do something that would go a long way in curtailing the rise of damaging and outright offensive debates on issues facing gender diverse and same-sex attracted Australians, which has been shockingly exacerbated under Mr Turnbull's leadership.

It is time for Mr Turnbull to recognise that this debate is not about him; that his leadership is not the central matter here—at least, it should not be. At the heart of this debate is love and the equality of the love of all couples, regardless of gender. At the heart of this issue are people like Melinda who recently shared her story with parliamentarians. She wrote:

I have served my community as a police office for 28 years. But I am not seen as an equal in my nation. My four sisters are married; I am not. The only reason is because I am gay. Marriage equality is about human rights. It's about treating all love as equal.

Eddie and his family visited Parliament House with Rainbow Families. Eddie asked:

Why should people who barely know us make an assumption on our families and vote on how we can live?

Eddie was one of 27 children from Rainbow Families who came to Parliament House to lobby parliamentarians to legalise marriage equality and block the plebiscite, which they argue would harm their families. As Co-Chair of Rainbow Families Ashley Scott explained:

Rainbow Families oppose a plebiscite because we know what the impacts will be, both for our families and for vulnerable people in our community. We elect our politicians to be decisive and to act in the interests of all Australians a plebiscite is a political fix that will do harm and put lives at risk.

Calling for parliament to deal with this issue should not be at all a controversial proposal. This should not be a shocking proposal. It should not be a stretch to say that we in this place should do our jobs, do the very thing we are elected to this place to do: debate and consider legislation and then vote on it. Marriage equality is an important issue but not one that is more complex than many of the other issues that we consider in legislation on a regular basis. The only complexity here is Mr Turnbull's attempts to manage his own party room. The government's expensive plebiscite proposal is nothing more than an attempt to delay the reform.

When Mr Turnbull seized the leadership of the Liberal Party, there was a considerable optimism that Australia now had a prime minister who would listen to the community on marriage equality. I have to say I was one of those people. I was optimistic that Mr Turnbull would listen, that he would be a prime minister who would listen to the tens of thousands of people who have joined in rallies across the country, have shared their stories, their lives and loves, like the thousands of people who have contacted those us in this and the other place through Australian Marriage Equality's Equality Calling campaign.

While the voices of these people might have been ignored by the government, I want to make sure that at least some of them get heard in this place. I want to share some of the messages that Tasmanians have left me so they are recorded in the Hansard of this place. These are the voices of gender-diverse and same-sex-attracted Australians, their families, their parents, their children, their friends, their co-workers and their neighbours.

A caller told me:

I believe that same-sex marriage is a human rights issue.

I grew up in a big Catholic family. Of six children two of us were gay. All my brothers and sisters are now married. They wish the same for me.

My gay brother sadly died at the age of 34. He experienced a great deal of discrimination during his life as a result of being gay. All he wanted was true love—he wanted to be happily married.

A parent said:

I have two beautiful daughters. One can get married whenever she wants to and one can't. I want to see equality come in as soon as possible and let my daughters decide when and where they want to marry. I don't want them not being treated the same. I have raised them to be beautiful people and I want them to be able to go and be with the person they love.

Australians have a deep-rooted belief in fairness and equality and this is clearly at the heart of their support for marriage equality, like the caller who argued:

Australia should respect all our citizens whether they are gay, lesbian, straight, black, white, Muslim, Christian, whatever. Equality is about everyone having the same rights including having the opportunity to demonstrate their love and get married.

So please vote for marriage equality to give people the opportunity to demonstrate and share their love the way that most Australians can.

Another caller reasoned:

It is about time Australia followed in the footsteps of so many other countries like ours and gave all Australians the same opportunities in life, including the chance to marry and raise a family.

It is about love and fairness. I believe my love is the same as anybody else's.

These are just a few of the many voices from my own community who have stated their support for marriage equality.

In addition to the thousands of individuals who have made calls to express their support for marriage equality, hundreds of organisations have pledged their support to equality through Australian Marriage Equality. The open letter from Australian business leaders in support of Marriage Equality in part said:

We support diversity in the workforce and recognise the rights of our lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) employees to live and work, free of prejudice and discrimination, with all the essential freedoms enjoyed by other members of our organisations and the broader community.

The letter went on to say:

An equitable society, free of discrimination, also allows all employees to function at their best. Australia is a robust democracy however, we support seeing it treat all its citizens equally.

Legalised discrimination in one area allows discrimination to flourish in all areas.

The letter concludes:

We support the right for all our employees to have equal opportunities in life. We therefore support marriage equality.

This open letter has been signed by hundreds of Australia's business, industry and sporting leaders, and yet even their voices are being ignored by this government.

In another open letter to the Prime Minister more than 40 leaders have urged him to pursue a free vote in parliament. These religious leaders asked Mr Turnbull to drop plans for a plebiscite as they believe it will polarise the community and 'alienate LGBTI individuals within religious communities'. In relation to the impact of a plebiscite on gender diverse and same-sex attracted Australians, the letter stated:

After decades of legalised discrimination, and ongoing social stigma, LGBTI Australians will face an angry, drawn-out debate, one likely to multiply existing disadvantages and stigma.

Everyone, it seems, knows that a plebiscite will be divisive, harmful and an obscene waste of money. Everyone knows that the correct way to deal with the issue of marriage equality is through a bill in parliament. That is, it seems, everyone but those opposite. Instead, those opposite cling to this idea of a plebiscite as a way to protect Mr Turnbull.

As a result, Australia is in the shameful position of being isolated on the issue of marriage equality amongst countries with English as a first language. Globally, more than 20 countries have passed laws to bring about marriage equality—countries that are culturally and economically similar to ours, like New Zealand, the United States of America, Canada, and Great Britain. Australia has long missed the opportunity to be a world leader on the issue of marriage equality. We have missed the opportunity to move with other countries. It is time for us to take action to end our shame in continuing to uphold discrimination against gender diverse and same-sex attracted Australians. We do not need this plebiscite. We need a free vote in parliament.

Organisations and leaders of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex communities have issued a joint statement on the plebiscite, calling on the Australian parliament to ensure that every Australian is able to marry the person they love in the country they cherish. The statement sets out the groups' support for a parliamentary vote on the issue of marriage equality:

Our shared goal is simple—we want marriage equality as soon as possible at the lowest cost. The most efficient and effective way of achieving marriage equality is a vote in Parliament, a power confirmed by the High Court in 2013.

I have a number of other quotes I would have liked to have read into the Hansard, but my time is running out, so I will take up the last few minutes that I have to say this to the government: it does appear that the votes will be there to vote down the plebiscite bill. I hope that is what happens at the end of this debate.

I also say to the government that gay activists, parents and friends of lesbians and gay people—the broader gay community—and most Australians will be looking to the government after the plebiscite bill is voted down. They will be looking to the government to provide the leadership that should have been provided a long time ago. They will be looking to people that say they support marriage equality. They will be looking at Senator Brandis, who is part of the leadership team and who supports marriage equality. Senator Brandis, they will be looking to you to say: 'The ball is back in your court. Do not let us down. Let's debate the legislation in this parliament. Go back into your caucus and go to bat for our community.' That is what they will be expecting and that is what I hope will happen.

I hope, when this bill is voted down, that Mr Turnbull will decide to lead, that Senator Brandis will go back into his caucus and say, 'We tried to put this plebiscite bill through. We couldn't do it, but now it is time for us to take the lead and bring legislation into the parliament for marriage equality and deal with it there.' That is what is being expected of you. That is what is being expected of this government: they cannot say to the community that they support marriage equality but refuse to act. After this bill is voted on, it will be back in their court. There are thousands and millions of people counting on the government to do the right thing, to end the discrimination, to bring a bill into parliament that will give marriage equality to our LGBTI community.

Again, I say to the government: do the right thing. Provide the leadership that people expect of you and bring a bill for marriage equality into this parliament for debate. (Time expired)