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Thursday, 12 August 2004
Page: 26533

Senator BARTLETT (Leader of the Australian Democrats) (3:21 PM) —In my view, the Marriage Amendment Bill 2004 degrades marriage and is anti family. It encourages and reinforces a decline in moral standards and decency that will strike at the heart of our society if we do not stand against it. It will obviously pass today, but that will not be the end of the battle. There have been plenty of immoral laws passed in the past. That does not mean you just say, `Well, we lost that one,' and give up; you continue to fight until the immorality that it represents is overturned. The Democrats will continue to do that.

This bill will prevent people from being able to marry. It will prevent people from being able to marry the person they love, and for the romantics here amongst us marriage is first and foremost an expression of love. Perhaps the lawyers amongst us would remind us that marriage is first and foremost a civil contract—a piece of paper that you sign and a contract into which you enter. That civil contract is what is reflected in the law, and what we are actually debating here today is an amendment to the civil law. It is not a debate about religion, and any attempt to legislate in respect of a religion would almost certainly be unconstitutional and would not be acceptable. If a particular religion wants to set up a particular set of criteria for people who choose to follow that religion, whether it is to do with marriage or various other codes of behaviour, that is one thing. But to seek to apply those religious criteria to the entire community and to prevent some people being able to marry at all is totally unacceptable and totally discriminatory.

A law is a lot more than just a legal document, in the same way as a marriage is a lot more than just a civil contract. It is for that reason that, whilst it has been good that the debate from various sides to date has been measured, it has also been narrow in a lot of respects because it has looked at definitions of marriage and the nature of marriage as an institution. I want to ensure that also reflected in this debate is the impacts that this could have on some people—the impacts of our validating certain views by passing a law that reflects them, as this does.

This bill is part of a range of matters currently before a Senate committee that is looking at not just the narrow legal components but a lot of those consequential matters. The committee received a lot of interest from the community and received a range of views. The committee was not able to hear the public's views on it; it was not able to consider the range of matters. The public and those perspectives were silenced and the Senate has decided to make a decision on the bill anyway, without taking those views into account. That is a shame, because it may have led to a more informed decision, if nothing else. People may have had a broader understanding of what it is that they are actually doing here.

It is extremely inappropriate, in a parliamentary sense and in terms of the undermining of democracy, to put a bill on for debate when it is before a committee. We have said to the public, `The Senate believes this is sufficiently important, we will have an inquiry and we will let you put your views. We will explore the substance of those views. We will have public hearings and then they will be on the public record. We will at least have a richer outlining of the issues and we can hopefully have a more informed debate when we finally get to it in the Senate.' There has been none of that. What has been decided today, apart from anything else, is a spit in the face to that entire process and another spit in the face to democracy, which we are getting used to from this government. I do not know how many more times they are going to spit in the face of democracy, but I do not think it ever gets enjoyable or acceptable.

Causing extra outrage is the fact that the Labor Party has consented to subverting that absolutely critical part of the Senate process, which we often laud as one of the great pluses of the Senate and one of the most valuable components of the entire Senate committee process because of the opportunity to engage the public. Labor has not only acquiesced by ignoring that; it has sent an extra message that this is not just a simple procedural vote but a matter of urgency—it is a matter of priority above everything else and it must be passed today and with a curtailment of debate, even amongst senators, let alone the public. That is bad in itself but the message it sends is far worse.

For that reason, I will read a little bit from a few of the emails I have received. I am sure all of us have had many emails on this issue from all sides of the debate. Because those people have been in effect silenced it is appropriate to at least read a few of them, without mentioning names. One person wrote:

As far as marriage goes, it should be a simple human right to marry the person you love. It is that simple. To claim that allowing gay marriage in some way diminishes heterosexual marriages is to claim that a gay relationship is not as important or loving or valid as a heterosexual relationship. This is simple homophobia. How can a few gay people committing themselves to each other for life hurt this society? Surely it would have the opposite effect.

How can extra people wanting to commit themselves through marriage somehow hurt marriage? Another couple, from whose email Senator Nettle also read, so I will only touch on it, make the point that they have been in a relationship for nearly 10 years and have a couple of children. They are in that respect, as in many others, just a regular family bringing up their children and, as they say:

... hoping for the best, trying our best, renovating our home, sharing our lives with those close to us. We live in a democratic society where equality is fought for virulently.

These people end by saying that, despite everything that is happening—obviously they oppose this legislation—they are married in the eyes of their friends, themselves and the universe, and they are just waiting for the law to catch up—and that is great. Clearly they are married in their own minds and obviously would love one day to be able to be married in the eyes of the law but they are not going to let others' prejudices prevent them from feeling strong in their love for each other. Another email is from a woman—a 43-year-old mother of eight children—who is a resident of the ACT. One of those children is a lesbian. She says she, her husband and all family members are very proud of their daughter. She goes on to say that, when her daughter first talked about being a lesbian:

... as a mother my reaction was an immediate fear for my child as I knew her sexuality would make life harder for her and that she could be the victim of discrimination.

She speaks of how proud she was when she sat with her daughter in the ACT Legislative Assembly as the local government here in Canberra overturned the discriminating phrase in the ACT Adoption Act that precluded adoption by same-sex couples. I am pleased that the Democrats, through our local member, Roslyn Dundas, were part of ensuring that happened. She speaks of how that was important not just in a legal sense. In one sense it was affecting a very small number of people, but it was a clear signal to her daughter that society was changing and that she should not be judged solely on the basis of her sexual orientation. I will not read all of the email, but she talks of her distress that straight after that we get the federal government coming in, not with the dog whistle but with the megaphone and the loudspeaker, once again reinforcing `those perceptions and encouraging those perceptions of discrimination'. She talks about her greater awareness, gained from her daughter, of the impact on other young people. I spoke before of the couple who are quite comfortable with themselves. Their view is that, if others in the community have a problem with our relationship, that is their problem.

The more people who feel like that the better, but we have to acknowledge that not everybody—particularly not every young person—is so self-assured and so comfortable. It is a simple fact—even a statistical fact—that young gay people are at a much higher risk of suicide—about a six-fold increased risk of suicide—than others. Around one in three suicide attempts by younger people relate to sexuality issues. That is wider than just sexuality in relation to being a gay or lesbian; that is about sexuality issues in general. We all know that sexuality issues not only are personal, by definition, but also are in many ways ones that a lot of people, because of the social environment that we are in, have difficulty working through, particularly when they are young. That six-fold increased risk of suicide among young people if they are a gay man or a lesbian is a statistical fact.

As to the other side of the debate, I am certainly not accusing those people who support this bill of encouraging, condoning or not caring about suicide. I am talking about the fact that the impact of these sorts of measures, let alone giving them priority and urgency, involves a lot more than just a little change to the law, because it reinforces signals and it gives legitimacy to the sorts of statements that were made by people last week in the Great Hall of our Parliament House. Some of them said that gay people were moral terrorists, they had vile passions, they were a sign of the moral decay of our society and they were undermining our society. If you feel strong about yourself, then you are likely to respond to that by saying, `Go get stuffed. I don't care. That is your problem.' And it is their problem if they believe that. But if you are not strong in yourself, that sort of thing can be unbelievably damaging at an individual level.

I still cannot get over my fury at walking into that meeting in the centre of our Parliament House, in the Great Hall, where our Presiding Officers would not permit an address by a world leader like the Dalai Lama because they did not want to upset or offend the Chinese communist dictatorship. Yet any persons—public visitors, and we all know we get many visitors from the public coming to Parliament House, as they should and as we would want them to—could walk into the upstairs area, as I did, and hear that sort of stuff being applauded in the middle of our Parliament House. That is permitted by our Presiding Officers but a few people that stay outside and hold signs expressing their disgust are breaking the rules by protesting!

I should say, because I take on board what others have said, that it is not fair for me and others to have vilified all of those people that attended that forum by saying that they are all guilty of this sort of hate speech, and I retract any impression of that. To be balanced, I have to say that some of the other speeches there—and I witnessed only about 30 minutes in all; that is all it took; God knows what else was said—among some of the other bits I saw were lovely. I remember in particular an elderly couple, who had been married about 40 years, just talking about their love for each other after 40 years of marriage and how wonderful it was. Nobody could complain about that. As Senator Boswell said, the people attending that forum were supporting marriage. I support marriage, and I am married. It would be a bit of a problem if I did not support marriage, seeing that I am married. But what do I say to a constituent that meets with me and says, `I want to get married too but it is illegal for me to do so'—which has happened to me. Do I just say, `That's a pity. That's just because of who you are, because of your “vile passions” or something'?

We should not forget that in our lifetime Aboriginal people had to get permission to marry—that interracial marriages were seen as wrong on the basis of race. Now people, quite rightly, would be absolutely disgusted. But that is what we are saying here. We are saying that, just because of who you are, if you are a certain way it is bad luck—you cannot get married—and supposedly that is not discriminatory. I wish people would think through what they are actually saying. The fact that it is something only a certain number of people in the community can have access to and others cannot, purely because of how they were born and who they are, devalues my marriage. That is why this offends me so much. This legislation is disgusting. To say that it defends marriage when it degrades it so much is something I find extraordinarily upsetting.

Earlier I used a quote from Edmund Burke—one which has been used many times by many people—that the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing. That is why it is so disappointing, when there are many people in this chamber who I know recognise how terrible this legislation is and how destructive it is to our basic humanity and decency, that they are going to let it go through. Another quote—one from Martin Luther King which was at the bottom of emails I, and probably a lot of other people, got from one woman—is another reminder that in debating the law we are not just talking about semicolons and sentences on bits of paper and about decisions for judges to make in their courts; we are talking about things that can go not just to the heart of our society but also to the human heart. As King said, `The law may not change the heart but it can restrain the heartless.'

That is a reminder of the much broader and in many ways much more powerful impact of our role as a parliament. It is not just about changing the law; we play a role in legitimising certain values and certain views. The law can restrain the heartless but, sadly, the reverse applies here. The law we are now passing will validate the heartless, the bigoted and the hate filled. I do not accuse everybody who supports this bill of being bigoted or hate filled but I do say that, by allowing the bill to pass, they are validating those messages and those statements, including some that were made—with permission and to applause—in the very centre of our Parliament House just last week. Not only does this law not restrain the heartless; it applauds, validates and encourages them.

I really do not think people recognise how severe the impact of their actions can be. I talked before about the much greater rate of suicide among younger gay people. I am not going to try to lay the blame for that on this bill but I remind people that, for those who have self-doubt or difficulty with who they are or their role in society or in life—all of the sorts of things that are swimming around in some of the dark areas the mind can go to—letting some of this stuff have any validity can be not only hurtful but also fatal. So, as I said at the start, this bill does not only degrade marriage and is not only antifamily; it is antihuman and is, in my view, a validation of a decline in moral standards and decency. (Time expired)