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Tuesday, 26 June 2018
Page: 4030

Senator DEAN SMITH (Western AustraliaDeputy Government Whip in the Senate) (18:10): I also would like to speak briefly on the report of the Senate Finance and Public Administration References Committee inquiry into the arrangements for the postal survey that is before us and, indeed, the government's response. Although I'm a member of the Senate Finance and Public Administration Legislation Committee, I'm not a member of the references committee so I didn't participate in this particular inquiry, but this does bring to an end a very, very important chapter in the political history of our country generally. More specifically, it brings to an end, it underlines, the very, very extensive and exhausting debate we had in our country in regards to how to give equal recognition before the law to same-sex relationships. I'm glad we ended with the outcome we did. I'm glad that the sun has continued to come up. Indeed, it goes down, comes up, goes down, comes up in a way that it did before we had the marriage debate and before we had the marriage legislation.

But it would be remiss of me, as someone who has come to the Australian Senate with a fervent faith in our parliamentary democracy, not to end this discussion with a reiteration of my strong and public view that plebiscites and, in particular, postal surveys have been a corrosive feature on our democracy. As I've been travelling the country since the marriage legislation passed, people have said to me, 'Senator Smith, you must agree the postal survey was necessary because we got the right outcome?' No. Not at all. Because the outcome could easily have been 49 to 51. What would that have done to the political debate? What would that have done to the social fabric of our country?

In coming to a very strong and clear view about why I opposed the plebiscite, as it was originally proposed, and why I opposed the postal survey was because, when you look at the history of our country and the plebiscites that were held in 1916 and 1917 on the very sensitive issue of conscription, when you read the history books—none of us were there, none of us can re-tell the stories from personal experience—it divided the country, it divided towns and it divided families. By the grace of God, this country pulled through and we got a wonderful result with the postal survey. I absolutely agree with the comments that the success of the postal survey process was because people endorsed the principles of fairness that underlined that marriage debate. It was not an endorsement of the process, nor was it an endorsement of the huge sums of money that were expended.

This country has much to be proud of in regards to its parliamentary history, and at the centre of that is the work of this chamber, the Senate chamber, and the other chamber in the House of Representatives. Plebiscites and postal surveys seek to undermine the work we do individually and collectively as parliamentarians. They are most definitely corrosive and undermine trust in the body politic. When people suggest that advisory plebiscites or, indeed, postal surveys can be used in the future to debate and come to a resolution on other important national issues, I will continue to oppose them with as much vehemence as I did the plebiscite and the postal survey in this case. Anything that undermines parliamentary democracy undermines the credibility and contribution of each and every one of us as senators and each and every one of us as federal parliamentarians. It is easier to hold your parliamentarian to account for his or her actions every three or four years, or in the case of senators, six. It is harder—near impossible—to hold your neighbour accountable for how they might conduct themselves in a postal survey or plebiscite. When people seek to hold their neighbours and the members of their community accountable, and not their federal parliamentarians, that great peace and stability that we've come to take for granted as a group of people is easily undermined and diminished.

This brings to an end a very, very important and historical part of our political process. It did bring pain to many families and to many LGBTI people. People who say that it didn't are either deliberately misleading or so far removed from the debate that their commentary is of little or no value. I was disappointed that the government didn't do more during the postal survey to support LGBTI people and their friends and family. That's a bruise that I take, as an LGBTI member of this government, very seriously. I'm deeply saddened by it, but this brings to an end an important chapter. I'm very grateful that, in bringing this chapter to an end, we were able to legislate for same-sex marriage in our country. I seek leave to continue my remarks.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.