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Wednesday, 13 September 2017
Page: 7096

Senator CORMANN (Western AustraliaMinister for Finance and Deputy Leader of the Government in the Senate) (11:06): I thank all senators who have contributed to this debate. At the outset, let me say that there are good people across Australia with strongly and sincerely held views on both sides of this argument. By giving Australians a voice on whether or not the law should be changed to allow same-sex couples to marry through the Australian marriage law postal survey, we give Australia the opportunity to more permanently resolve an issue which has been unresolved for some time.

The Australian people have clearly embraced this process:. If you look at the number of people who updated their details on the electoral roll and if you look at the conversation that is taking place right across Australia, overwhelmingly, in the respectful and courteous way that we would like to see this debate unfold. We believe that the parliament will respect the verdict of the Australian people as part of this process. I believe that bringing this issue to a resolution through this process will be a unifying moment. Whichever side is on the losing side of this argument will be better able to accept the outcome, given it is a decision of the Australian people, a decision that they were a part of.

I am disappointed that in parts of this debate today a number of speakers seem to be suggesting that offensive and inappropriate comments have come only from those in favour of the current definition of marriage. That is manifestly not true. Sadly, offensive and objectionable things have been said for many years by people on both sides of this argument, not because of this process, by the way, not because of our decision to give Australians a say and let them have a voice as part of this decision, but because some people will say offensive and objectionable things. What this survey does is draw some of these offensive and inappropriate comments from both sides of the argument out of the shadows and into the sunlight, where they will be subject to the scrutiny of the Australian people. We do trust that the Australian people can handle this debate. We do trust that Australians will judge harshly anyone from either side of the debate who puts forward inappropriate and offensive arguments.

May I say to those who are pushing for change: please empathise with those good Australians who do have sincerely and strongly held views that marriage is between a man and a woman. Please accept that they are entitled to their views. Please accept that, if there is a 'yes' outcome to this process, having gone through this exercise will help those Australians to accept that change.

This bill is not about protecting advocates or supporters of the 'yes' side from those arguing in favour of the current definition. This is about making sure this process is fair to both sides of the argument and ensuring that Australians can have their say in the right environment. This bill is not about protecting one side of the argument from the other. It is about making sure that the process is fair and has the usual protections that would be in place in the context of an election. Yes, there is one part of this bill, section 15, that goes somewhat further than we normally would in the context of an election campaign, in that we have put in place additional safeguards that seek to protect Australians from vilification, intimidation and the threat to cause harm. That is not just because of the comments or behaviours from one side of the argument but to be fair to both sides. It seeks to provide safeguards against vilification, intimidation and the threat to cause harm, not only based on the views that are held or believed to be held in relation to the marriage law survey but also based on religious conviction as well as on sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status.

Let me say very strongly to Senator Bernardi and Senator Hanson that this bill will not shut down public debate. All this bill is seeking to do is to try to prevent vilification and intimidation, and threats to cause harm. I don't believe that either side has to vilify, intimidate or threaten to cause harm in order to make their point in this argument. Let me also point out, as I've just indicated, that section 15 of this bill has been drafted in a way that is fair to both sides of the argument. Senator Bernardi raised the question of the role of the Attorney-General, and it is true that, in this bill, the Attorney-General has been quite deliberately included in the process as a gatekeeper on what action under this section will ultimately be able to proceed through to court. It's not for him to make the final decision, so he won't be judge and jury the way Senator Bernardi has indicated but, as part of this process, he will be the gatekeeper. Senator Bernardi has reflected on the fact that the Attorney-General is a well-known proponent of the 'yes' case. I would argue that this fact doesn't prevent him from doing his job as the first law officer of the land, with statutory responsibilities—in the same way that I, as somebody who is a well-known supporter of the 'no' case, am not prevented from putting in place this survey process, which has to be fair to both sides. I would also say that it is well known that Senator Brandis is a defender of freedom of speech, and I think that he will be able to fulfil that responsibility as the first law officer of Australia perfectly well.

Senator Bernardi has also talked about the rush to put this safeguard bill through this process. In relation to that, I would just remind the chamber that it's a matter of public record that this wasn't our preferred process. Our preferred process was to give the Australian people the opportunity to have their say in the context of a compulsory attendance plebiscite, which would have had in place, under the auspices of our electoral laws and other relevant laws, all the usual safeguards that apply to an election. That was not to be the case, because the Senate decided otherwise, so we went for plan B. We believe, and we've always said, that this plan B is a constitutional and legal way to keep faith with our commitment to give the Australian people a say before the parliament next passes judgement on this issue, and that was confirmed by the High Court last week. We respected the fact that, pending the decision of the High Court about the constitutional and legal validity of the process, a number of important stakeholders in this debate were reluctant to meaningfully engage with the government in relation to this legislation. It was only after the High Court made its decision last week that we were in a position to meaningfully engage with all relevant stakeholders in this debate.

We have worked in good faith with both sides of the argument. We've worked in good faith with other parties in the parliament. I would also like to put on record here my appreciation for the way representatives of the 'no' campaign and the 'yes' campaign have engaged with the government. I would also particularly like to put on record the government's appreciation for the way the shadow Attorney-General, Mark Dreyfus, the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate, Senator Wong, and Senator Di Natale and the Greens have engaged with the government. We have had engagements with members and senators across the board and stakeholders from both sides of the argument, as I've indicated, but, in order to facilitate a consensus on this legislation through the parliament as efficiently as is desirable, it was obviously important that we were able to reach a level of understanding, in particular, with Labor and the Greens, which I'm pleased that we've been able to secure. So on that basis, and having made those few remarks, I commend the bill to the Senate.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.