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Monday, 7 November 2016
Page: 2054


Senator BRANDIS (QueenslandAttorney-General, Vice-President of the Executive Council and Leader of the Government in the Senate) (21:09): At some time or another over the past three years, the leaders of every major political party in Australia turned their minds to the question: how should the issue of marriage equality be dealt with? And at different times every single one of them arrived at the same answer: by a plebiscite, as the best way of engaging the whole of the Australian community in what everybody accepts would be a profound social change.

In 2013, Mr Bill Shorten, the Leader of the Labor Party, said that he supported dealing with this issue by a plebiscite. He said:

Personally speaking, I'm completely relaxed about having some form of plebiscite.

He went on to say that in terms of a plebiscite:

I would rather the people of Australia could make their view clear on this than leaving this issue to 150 people.

So whatever Mr Shorten might now say against a plebiscite, one thing we know for sure is that he has no objection to it in principle. Similarly, as recently as last year, the Leader of the Greens, Senator Di Natale, said that he supported a plebiscite. Indeed, Senator Rice and Senator Xenophon sponsored legislation for a plebiscite in this very chamber only last year. And also last year in the coalition party room, after a long and thoughtful debate, the coalition parties decided that they, too, thought that there ought to be a plebiscite. So every side of politics, from the most conservative side of politics to the radical Left, both mainstream parties—the Liberal Party and the Labor Party—had all decided that the right way to deal with this matter was to deal with it by a plebiscite. So, this year, the government took that policy to an election. Nobody can deny that it was an issue in the election campaign, particularly in the final week. We won the election and we intend to deliver on our promise to the Australian people to deal with this issue by a plebiscite—but for the fact that, in one of the more cynical exercises in politics that I have ever seen, the Labor Party has now decided to play the politics of the issue rather than progress the very course of action that is a plebiscite that Mr Shorten said only three years ago that he was supportive of.

Support for a reform of the Marriage Act to give same-sex couples the right to marry is at an all-time high in this country. More than two to one of the population favour it. There is hardly an electorate in the country in which there is not a majority in favour of change. So the one thing we know in this chamber—every one of us: those who support the plebiscite and those who oppose it—is that, if there were to be a plebiscite on 11 February, as the Plebiscite (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill 2016 provides for, it would be carried, and we would have marriage equality within three months. The Australian Labor Party went to the last election promising that, if they were to be elected, there would be marriage equality within 100 days. It is 96 days from today until 11 February. If this bill were to be passed by the Senate tonight then we would have marriage equality in this country in less than 100 days. Yet the Labor Party and the Greens and some on the crossbench have conspired to make sure that that does not happen. I say again to the Labor Party and to those that have decided to play the politics of this issue rather than seek the outcome which they claim to believe in: stop playing politics with gay people's lives—because that is all that you are doing. Stop playing politics with gay people's lives, get out of the way and let us have the plebiscite that would deliver marriage equality within less than 100 days.

I want to deal with some of the intellectually dishonest and spurious arguments that have been made against the plebiscite by those opposite. But, before I do, let me deal with the one respectable argument that has been made against it—by my friend Senator Dean Smith. As those of us who know him know, Senator Smith is a constitutional conservative and he is a man of integrity. He is of the view that because resolving an issue of this kind by a plebiscite is constitutionally unorthodox or unusual it sets a dangerous precedent and it is not something that we ought to sanction. But I say to Senator Smith that there is something unique about this issue: no-one can say that any individual who sits in this chamber or in the other house has any greater insight into, investment in or appreciation of what a marriage means than any other citizen of Australia. If ever there was an issue that is not an issue for the political class, an issue in which every member of society is entitled to have a view and an issue in which every member of society has an equal stake and equal ownership, then surely it is this. And that is why I respectfully demur from the view of my colleague and friend Senator Dean Smith. But at least he has a principled argument, which is more than can be said for those opposite.

Let us look at the arguments that have been raised in opposition to the plebiscite to give a cover, a veneer of sincerity, to what is a deeply cynical exercise in playing politics with gay people's lives. First of all, unbelievably, the Labor Party—of all people—counsel fiscal prudence and say that this plebiscite would cost too much money. The estimate is approximately $170 million. Australia pays more than that every four days in interest on the debt the last Labor government left us, so I do not think we will be taking lessons in fiscal rectitude from the Australian Labor Party.

And then there is the argument that the result of a plebiscite would not be binding on the parliament. And that is true. But what that argument entirely leaves out of account is the fact that almost every conservative member of the coalition, from Mr Tony Abbott down, who is opposed to changing the Marriage Act has declared and publicly undertaken that, if there were to be a yes vote in the plebiscite, they would either vote for it in the parliament or they would abstain. So, were there to be a yes vote, as surely there would be, there is no doubt whatsoever that the marriage reform bill would pass. There would be more votes for it after a plebiscite than there would be for such a bill today. So the argument that the plebiscite result is not binding is a spurious argument. If you care about this issue, you care about the outcome; you do not sacrifice the end to the means.

But what underlies the Labor Party's real outlook was given away by many of their speakers. I heard Senator Catriona Bilyk's speech and this is what she said: 'I have a fundamental problem with popular opinion being used as a decision-making tool.' It is almost unbelievable to hear that said, isn't it, in a democratic chamber—'I have a fundamental problem with popular opinion being used as a decision-making tool.' Well, we in the Liberal Party, we in the coalition, do not have a problem with heeding popular opinion or regarding popular opinion as something that ought to instruct us in our decision making. In fact, that is what democracy is all about. Underlying the Labor Party's—and the Greens'—opposition to the plebiscite is the kind of sneering Left elitism that says the Australian people cannot be trusted to have a decent debate, the Australian people cannot be trusted to have a civilised respectful debate about a vexed social issue. Well, I do not share that pessimism about the decency of the Australian people.

Nor, by the way, was that the experience in Ireland, where there was a referendum, a popular vote, to change the Irish Constitution to allow same-sex marriage. In the last few months, I have had quite a lot to do with Mr Tiernan Brady, who ran the campaign for the yes vote in Ireland and has come to Australia to run the campaign for marriage equality in this country. I have a great deal of time and respect for Mr Tiernan Brady. This is what Tiernan Brady, a gay man, said about the Irish experience:

The referendum was an astounding and unifying moment for our country. In the Irish experience, a plebiscite is difficult, but our experience is that it also brought great rewards and it created a visibility of LGBT people and their families. It allowed the great cultural change in Ireland that flowed from the vote. It was a real moment of joy for the entire country.

That was the evidence of Mr Tiernan Brady, who is in a better position than anyone else to know the nature of a plebiscite.

If Mr Brady's observations about the Irish experience are not to be taken seriously, hear the words of a former American ambassador, His Excellency John Berry, the first gay American ambassador to Australia. Mr Berry said:

I think Ireland is a great example to look at where they had recently a plebiscite that was conducted very respectfully ... One of the LGBTI leaders from Ireland in fact is in Australia—

this is a reference to Mr Brady—

right now and made this very point that their plebiscite actually helped bring their country together on the issue. A plebiscite does not have to be a divisive technique.

…   …   …

It's part I think of your national ethos that everybody deserves a fair go. And we have certainly been given our fair go by everyone we've met in Australia in every state by every leader—

speaking of himself and his partner, Curtis.

So I certainly believe however Australia decides to move forward on this issue it will be done with great respect. I think Australia's one of the most rational countries in the world. You handle debate and discussion better than anybody quite frankly.

So there is the evidence of two well-placed foreigners: Tiernan Brady, who ran the campaign in Ireland; John Berry who represented the United States of America in Australia for the past four years. That is their judgement of, in Mr Brady's case, what it meant for Ireland and, in Ambassador Berry's case, what it would mean for Australia, as an observer with an acute interest in the issue.

But let us take at face value what the Labor Party say. Their speakers have said: 'We have a great deal of concern that harm would be done to gay people and their families by this debate.' If that is so, why do you want to prolong it? If you are concerned that this debate will cause harm to gay people and their families, why do you want to prolong it indefinitely? If that is your concern, why would you not bring it to a close? Why would you not bring it to a close in fewer than three months and have it over and done with? Because, as a result of the course that they are forcing upon this chamber, those opposite are prolonging what they say is a divisive, hurtful and harmful debate potentially for years and years to come. If that is what you do, let that be upon your head.

But we really know what is the motive of the Australian Labor Party in opposing the plebiscite that only three years ago their leader supported. Caroline Overington, the journalist, put it very well in an article in the Weekend Australian on 3 September this year. This is what Caroline Overington had to say:

Shorten seems to have decided that he would rather play games with people’s lives. And why? Because Labor is ashamed of the fact it didn’t bring it in when it was in office; and now the party is trying to go back in time. Labor wants to claim this victory as its own.

They are annoyed that it was Malcolm Turnbull who managed to get his party to agree to a plebiscite; and took that policy to the electorate; and got a mandate for it.

Will Shorten really put politics—point scoring—ahead of the right of Australians to have their moment—

their 'unifying moment', as Mr Tiernan Brady described it. I am very sorry to say that the answer to that question is yes. Mr Bill Shorten, Mr Mark Dreyfus and Senator Penny Wong cannot bear the thought that, while they in government did nothing to progress this issue for six years, at last we have a Prime Minister, a Liberal Prime Minister, who has progressed the issue. The truth is that Malcolm Turnbull is the first Australian Prime Minister to come into office with a commitment to marriage equality—the first. When Kevin Rudd was elected in 2007, he was opposed. He changed his mind later, but he was opposed and on his watch did nothing to progress the issue. When Julia Gillard came into office in 2010 she was opposed as well. No Labor Prime Minister has ever lifted a finger to progress this issue. In fact, every Labor Prime Minister has stood in the way. The first Prime Minister of Australia to progress the issue, to put marriage equality in the tangible reach of the Australian people, is Malcolm Turnbull.

I am very proud to be the first Attorney-General to serve in a government that has progressed the issue and the first Attorney-General to bring to the chamber a bill, the Marriage Amendment (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill, as an exposure draft, to show how that would be achieved. But it will only be achieved if we have the plebiscite—the plebiscite which only three years ago Mr Shorten said he supported, but only last year Senator Di Natale and Senator Xenophon and others on the crossbench said they supported.

So here we are. We are a minute away from the vote on the second reading of this bill. If this second reading is defeated, then the cause of marriage equality in this country will be delayed for years. If this second reading vote is supported, then we will have plebiscite in 96 days time. We all know what the outcome of that plebiscite will be and we will have marriage equality in this country by February. The choice is yours. The choice lies in the hands of those who have it in their power to give Australia marriage equality within less than three months or to delay it for years to come, because I say again: a vote against this bill is a vote against marriage equality. Those who claim to believe in marriage equality but nevertheless, for their own cynical, game-playing reasons, are determined to vote against it should hang their heads in shame.

The PRESIDENT: The question is that the bill be now read a second time.