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Monday, 20 March 2017
Page: 1367


Senator RICE (Victoria) (14:22): My question is to the Attorney-General, Senator Brandis. Polling today has shown that more than half the people in 12 of the most conservative seats held by the coalition want marriage equality and that it is very important that the issue is resolved by a parliamentary free vote this year. When will the coalition stand with their constituents, ditch their damaging plebiscite thought-bubble and allow a free vote in the parliament?

Senator BRANDIS (QueenslandAttorney-General, Vice-President of the Executive Council and Leader of the Government in the Senate) (14:23): Senator Rice, can I begin by saying that I acknowledge and I accept your good faith on this issue. But I would respectfully remind you, Senator Rice, that if you, your party, and the Australian Labor Party had not combined to block the plebiscite legislation at the end of last year, we would have marriage equality in Australia today. There is no doubt about that whatsoever. I say that as a person who, for some years now, has been a public advocate for marriage equality. We would have had marriage equality today, because under the plebiscite legislation, which you and the Labor Party decided to block, there would have been a plebiscite on 11 February, some five weeks ago. Very few of us in this place have any doubt that the result of that plebiscite would have been a yes vote. I would have introduced into this chamber the marriage equality legislation—an exposure draft of which was produced by the government late last year—within the week or two after that outcome, and it would be through the parliament by now.

Senator Rice, I began my answer to your question by saying that I acknowledge your personal good faith on this issue, but, sadly, I cannot say the same thing of Senator Wong or of the Australian Labor Party, who used to support a plebiscite. They are on record supporting a plebiscite, but they decided to play the politics of this issue. They decided to play with gay people's lives for the sake of trying to cause political division within the government—and, by the way, they failed. Senator Rice, if you worry about a divisive debate then why would you prolong that debate, because, if we had had a plebiscite on 11 February, the debate would be over and done with today.

The PRESIDENT: Senator Rice, a supplementary question.

Senator RICE (Victoria) (14:25): I refer to a letter sent to the Prime Minister last week by 34 business leaders, including Qantas CEO Alan Joyce, that urged a free vote in the parliament, saying:

By supporting marriage equality, businesses send a powerful message to their customers that they think fairness, equality and dignity should be available to all Australians.

Will the government listen to these business leaders, or does that only occur when the business agrees with policies like repealing the mining tax?

Senator BRANDIS (QueenslandAttorney-General, Vice-President of the Executive Council and Leader of the Government in the Senate) (14:25): Senator Rice, we accept that Mr Joyce and the other business leaders who signed that letter—all of whom, by the way, have said that they did so not on behalf of their firms and companies but expressing a personal point of view as community leaders—are entitled to their point of view. They are perfectly entitled to their point of view. One of the great differences that divides the two sides of politics in Australia these days is their attitudes to freedom of speech. Those on my side of this chamber support it; those on your side of the chamber only support it when the people say something that you approve of. But the fact is, Senator Rice, that if we had had a plebiscite we would have given to every single Australian the right to have their say—the very right which you defend in the case of Mr Joyce and the other 33 business leaders.

The PRESIDENT: Senator Rice, a final supplementary question.

Senator RICE (Victoria) (14:26): Over the weekend, immigration minister Peter Dutton said:

I'd prefer publicly listed companies stick to their knitting and that is delivering the services for their customers and providing a return for their shareholders.

Does the minister agree that business owners should stick to their knitting? And regardless, should we parliamentarians stick to our knitting and actually have a free vote in the parliament and knit together the support that we know is here in this parliament to deliver on marriage equality? (Time expired)

Senator BRANDIS (QueenslandAttorney-General, Vice-President of the Executive Council and Leader of the Government in the Senate) (14:27): Senator Rice, as you know, we did have a vote in the parliament last November, which had it been resolved in favour of the legislation the government brought forward for a plebiscite would have meant this issue would be behind us, over and done with. That is a very clever stunt, Senator Rice. You must have been speaking to Senator Xenophon, who is a past master of these stunts. In any event, I do not understand Mr Dutton to be questioning the personal right of Mr Joyce or any other business leader to express a personal point of view. What I understand him to be saying is that, as corporate leaders, their primary focus ought to be on the affairs of their companies, as indeed it ought to be. But there was not a word, not a syllable, that came from Mr Dutton that called into question the right of Mr Joyce and any other corporate leader to express a point of view in favour of same-sex marriage. If only you had not blocked the plebiscite legislation, every Australian would have had that right.