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Thursday, 12 August 2004
Page: 26514

Senator NETTLE (2:45 PM) —When I hear these issues debated in the Senate chamber, and hear some of the arguments put forward—and we have just heard many of them—I feel like I have gone through a time warp and am back in the Dark Ages. The Marriage Amendment Bill 2004 legislates official discrimination against a section of our community because of their sexuality or their gender identity. It seeks to define marriage as:

... the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life.

The Australian Greens will be moving an amendment to the bill to define marriage as:

... the union of two persons, regardless of their sexuality or gender identity, voluntarily entered into for life.

That way, marriage will be open to all people regardless of their sexuality or gender identity. Whether they be lesbian, gay, transgender, bisexual or intersex, this option will be open to them if they choose to take it. The bill we saw before this one came into the parliament, the Marriage Legislation Amendment Bill 2004, sought to ban not only same-sex marriage but also overseas adoptions by same-sex couples. It was sent off to a Senate committee for inquiry, but instead of waiting for the committee to report, or even for the submissions to be made public, the government—and the opposition in giving their support—decided that if same sex marriages were not banned this week then the world, or marriage, as they knew it would cease to exist. The government and the Greens agree that this is a simple piece of legislation. It simply discriminates against same-sex couples. The Prime Minister said last week:

You don't need a Senate inquiry on ... that. It's not a complicated issue.

It is not a complicated issue to discriminate against a section of the community. The government seems to have been able to convince the opposition because, having previously agreed to an inquiry into this legislation to allow for public debate, the ALP now is not even going to wait until those submissions are made public before it supports the government's move to ban same-sex marriages. The government announced its intention to re-introduce this bill to ban same-sex marriages at a forum organised in Parliament House by Christian fundamentalists, and the opposition chose this same forum to reaffirm its intention to support the bill. The Howard government has successfully wedged the opposition on this issue of fundamental human rights. Now the ALP is tying itself in knots trying to justify its position. The federal member for Sydney recently addressed a rally in support of same-sex marriages and said:

Labor didn't vote for this legislation. We allowed it to pass the House of Representatives so it could go to a Senate inquiry ...

What a set of weasel words we have there. The bill passed through the House of Representatives with the support of the Labor Party and, because the government has the support of the Labor Party to make it urgent and to guillotine debate, we are debating this legislation right now. The shadow Attorney-General is quoted in the Sydney Morning Herald as stating:

... Labor had “no intention now, after the inquiry finishes or after the election of advocating for gay marriage”.

That is pretty clear, and it is clearly discriminatory. Labor had the option of opposing the bill and standing up with the Greens and others for the rights of all citizens to marry if they chose, but instead they are playing these ridiculous word games. Equal rights for same-sex couples is not a radical proposition. Countries like Canada and the Netherlands and the state of Massachusetts have legislated to recognise the right of same-sex couples to marry. A recent decision by that radical left wing institution the British House of Lords recognised the right of same-sex couples to be treated as married. Lord Nicholls described the situation this way:

A homosexual couple, as much as a heterosexual couple, share each other's life and make their home together ... There is no rational or fair ground for distinguishing the one couple from the other in this context ...

On this issue the Howard government is even more conservative than the United States Congress. George Bush could not get the support of the United States parliament for a ban on gay marriages in the United States. But here today in Australia the opposition has fallen over itself to gag debate and help the Howard government put in place more conservative and discriminatory legislation than exists in the United States. Across the world, nations are enshrining the rights of same-sex couples in legislation. Yet Australia is desperately swimming against this tide. It is difficult to estimate just how many same-sex couples live in Australia. We know it is well in excess of the tens, and likely to be in excess of the hundreds, of thousands.

This legislation does not offend just those couples who cannot marry. It offends every Australian who holds dear the values of equality, human rights and decency. I recently met with a young father of Portuguese descent, and he told me of the outrage his entire extended family felt because of the discrimination he faces as a gay father. The Howard government's homophobic attitude insults everyone who does not fit neatly into its picture of white, middle-class, picket fenced suburbia. To vote for this legislation is to vote against equality, decency and the need to celebrate and embrace diversity. The Greens recognise the wide range of opinions on the validity of marriage as an institution. We recognise that there are many couples who do not feel any need to enter into this traditional union. But that is a separate issue. Regardless of the debate over whether marriage is relevant or appropriate, it is every couple's right to access it if they choose.

Greens offices across the country have been inundated with thousands of emails, letters and phone calls from people who are angry about this issue, particularly from people who are angry about the opposition letting down the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex community on these issues. I will read some of the emails we have received. We received one from a mother in New South Wales who wrote:

As the mother of a gay son, I am finally doing something that I should have done a long, long time ago. That is to speak up on behalf of my son and his partner and all gay people regarding their basic human rights and their human dignity ... To everyone who wants to deny gay people their basic human rights and dignity—to these people I offer this challenge. Have the compassion and the humanity to sit quietly for a while and search your own heart and soul to see how you would feel if you, yes you, had been unfortunate (or perhaps fortunate) enough to be born as one of those `different' people and try to truly understand how it would feel to have to face the obstacles that society will undoubtedly impose upon you ... Why deny the status of legal and accepted marriage relationship to gay and lesbian couples who are just as worthy of this same happiness as heterosexuals? Their love for each other is real, just as real as the love between a heterosexual couple and some of them may feel the need for a marriage union, as do many heterosexual couples.

I received another email, from a gay man in New South Wales, that said:

Why should any[one] choose to support gay marriage? I am gay and I don't think I will if allowed choose to marry but I will fight to support my friends who have lived for over 30 years together hoping to see the day when they are recognised for who they are.

Each and every one of us deserves the same rights and freedoms to love our loves the way we choose and the right to expect tolerance and respect from others.

Another email, from a couple in South Australia, said:

We are a same-sex couple and have been in a relationship since January 1995 (yes nearly 10 years). On the 24th of February 1996 we had a commitment ceremony in front of all our friends, I wore the white fairytale wedding dress that I had always dreamt of, and after we celebrated with our friends with a dinner and honey moon. Sounds relatively common doesn't it? But apparently our situation seems to embroil some politicians to the point of making a public point that we as a couple do not deserve the respect and right to celebrate and confirm our relationship in the eyes of the law. We cannot understand why, as tax paying citizens, who [have] always [taken] our right to vote VERY seriously, we are being treated like second rate citizens. We contribute a great amount to our society through employment, and I volunteer not only in the Gay and Lesbian community but also in the great community by running our local playgroup, chairperson on a kindy governing council, and now a member of the local school governing council.

So why don't we have the same rights? Isn't it about time we got out of the ignorance of what the minority, (yes believe it or not), believe is the abomination of same sex couples and how we are going to ruin the core of our society!! Don't you feel that if we were going to do that we would [have] done it a long time ago!!

Our point today is to let you see very briefly that we are just a regular family, bringing up children hoping for the best, renovating our home, and sharing our lives with those close to us. We live in a democratic society where equality is fought for virulently, we wish that you think about your situation and think what it would be like to be told that your relationship (as much as you believed in it and worked at it) doesn't count. You must tick the single box on any government paperwork, you can assume that your partner will not be automatically the person called if you have no next of kin assigned at a hospital, family will not accept your commitment ceremony papers because “the law does not agree”.

We live in a society that takes the laws of the country VERY seriously, and when something has been accepted by the government of the day we are more prone to allowing that to enter our conscience and often adapt and accept.

These are quotes from people who have had to endure eight years of this government trying to undermine the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people.

The Greens have amendments to this legislation that will ensure that same-sex marriages that have been entered into in another country will be recognised in Australia. We also have another amendment to ensure that marriages that have been entered into under Australian law where one partner has undergone gender reassignment surgery will still be recognised under Australian law.

Last year the Prime Minister weighed in to the same-sex marriage debate when he made the ridiculous claim that gay marriage threatened the survival of the species. In July 2000, after the Federal Court ruled in favour of allowing lesbian couples to access IVF treatment, the government announced that it would amend sex discrimination laws to overturn that ruling. In 2002 the Family Court recognised the validity of the marriage of a person who was born female but then underwent gender reassignment surgery. Not content with letting the court do its job, the federal government appealed that decision. That appeal was thrown out of the courts. Earlier this year four separate government ministers, including the Deputy Prime Minister and the Prime Minister himself, felt the need to publicly condemn Play School's recent depiction of Brenda and her two mothers going off for the day on an activity.

This ban on same-sex marriages is part of a long list of gay bashing by this government. This bill is legislated discrimination. It legislates for the creation of second-class citizens with second-class relationships and fewer rights than heterosexual couples. One constituent who wrote to me said:

[These changes] will only provide tremendous encouragement to the minority of Australians with homophobic attitudes who will feel a little more justified next time they decide to discriminate against someone who they think looks like a poofter.

This Prime Minister has presided over some of the most repressive and regressive legislation and acts of this century. The Prime Minister through his actions has shown disregard for the core values of our society—equality and humanity. And the opposition is content to stand idly by while the government courts the reactionary Right with this type of legislation. Any opposition that does that is not worthy of calling itself an opposition at all.

Yet some members of the Labor Party are trying desperately to deny their party's own lack of action and cling to a semblance of credibility with the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex community. One Labor member last week letterboxed a leaflet about this legislation. The leaflet said:

Sometime in the not too distant future people will look back on this desperate attempt at wedge politics and treat it with the contempt it deserves ...

That is absolutely right. People will look back at the way that every member of the Labor Party—in this place and the other place—has been part of legislating discrimination against a section of our community, and they will treat the actions of every member of the opposition and the government with contempt. So much for Mr Latham's claims that gay and lesbian people are now part of Labor's `circle of mateship'. This is a blatantly discriminatory, unnecessary and homophobic act on the part of a government that is desperate to shore up the votes of the moral conservatives in the run-up to an historically tight election. It saddens and appals me that the opposition has been complicit in this.

The Greens will not stand by and just let this happen. We recognise that freedom of sexuality and gender identity are fundamental human rights. We believe that the acceptance and celebration of diversity, including sexuality and gender diversity, are essential for genuine social justice and equality. I am extraordinarily proud to represent a party that will not roll over on these core values and that has been loud and vocal in continuing to speak out for communities such as the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex community that we represent. We will reject the bigotry, prejudice, division and homophobia that are driving this legislation. We, unlike the opposition and the government, will have no part in it. We will always stand up for human rights and we will always stand up for an end to this bigotry, division, homophobia and prejudice.