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Thursday, 12 November 2015
Page: 8393

Senator URQUHART (TasmaniaDeputy Opposition Whip in the Senate) (09:58): It will come as no surprise to anyone in this place that I am an unshakeable supporter of marriage equality. This is an issue that is long overdue for legislation. The rest of the world is moving, and Australia is fast becoming an embarrassment and an international outlier. In June the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that same-sex couples could marry anywhere in the country. This progressive milestone comes on the back of another historic outcome in Ireland. Ireland is a deeply religious nation not known for its progressive values and actions, but last month it became the first country to put the issue of marriage equality to the people through a referendum. There was a great turnout for the vote. It even saw Irish ex-pats filing onto planes to head home and have their voices heard. The result of the vote was a decisive 62 per cent to 38 per cent in favour of marriage equality. If the vote in Ireland and the ruling in the United States have taught us anything, it is how far behind the rest of the world we are, and it has shown us how far Australia is now lagging behind, when the rest of the world has moved on. These milestones come on the back of the legalisation of same-sex marriage in many countries, including New Zealand, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Brazil and Sweden.

This issue embeds all of the fundamental values that lie at the core of my belief system and at the heart of the labour movement—fairness, equality, respect and support for families in all their different forms, dignity, inclusiveness and compassion for all. These are some of the key principles that should frame how we see the world and drive how we respond to it. Marriage equality will be a crucial step towards full legal equality and social inclusion for same-sex couples and their families. It will allow more Australians to enjoy the benefits of marriage and to uphold its values of trust, love and commitment—values that make our society stronger. It is my belief that marriage is a commitment between two people who love each other and who wish to celebrate their commitment to one another in front of family and friends.

I support marriage equality because I am against discrimination and because I believe there is nothing to lose and everything to gain by allowing same-sex couples to choose the commitment and happiness that marriage represents. The great misnomer that I hear from people is that allowing two committed, loving individuals to marry somehow detracts from the institution of marriage. I would argue that it only strengthens marriage, as it allows all Australians to marry the person that they love. By not allowing two Australians to marry based on their gender diminishes the institution. This is the time to remove the last piece of legislated discrimination that fuels homophobia in this country.

The most frustrating thing is that we could deal with this next week. We could remove this discrimination once and for all. Do you know what would happen? More people who love each other would be able to get married. Full stop. The world would continue to turn and the sun would continue to rise. We know our Prime Minister supports marriage equality, but we also know that he has done a deal to stifle, stymie, stonewall and, as his far-Right colleagues hope, block the issue. We know that he has agreed to sell out his long-held personal beliefs in order to secure the top job, and, in doing so, he has sold out the millions of Australians that want this to happen.

I share the views of the vast majority of Australians that the time for marriage equality came long, long ago. While our previous Prime Minister was backward and, quite frankly, mean-minded in his belligerent blocking of marriage equality, at least he was true to his beliefs. While these beliefs unquestionably came from another century and unquestionably still belong there, Australia knew what they were getting. But in Mr Turnbull we have a man who has clearly put his personal career ambitions ahead of doing what he knows to be right. He is a man who has shunned the national good in favour of personal gain. He is a man who purports to be a progressive, modern policymaker but, when it comes down to it, he is willing to keep Australia in the Dark Ages when it comes to this important issue. But don't take my word for it. Here are Prime Minister Turnbull's own words.

In September last year he was asked:

Let's get on the record here; do you believe the party must have a vote of conscience, a free vote, on this actually very important social signal issue of gay marriage in Australia?

To which Mr Turnbull responded:

I certainly think we should have a free vote and I've been very public about that...

The journalist then asked:

And if the party goes against that will you still feel comfortable serving in the Abbott Government?

Mr Turnbull replied:

Well it's a team business Steven, I would be disappointed if we didn't have a free vote, I think we will by the way...

So, over a year ago, Mr Turnbull was expounding his heartfelt, personal support for a free vote. What is the point of having a more enlightened Prime Minister if we cannot take him at his word? Clearly, he has stumbled and fallen on his face when it comes to one of his first fundamental tests of integrity. Has there really been any change at all in this government if the policy remains the same and this entrenched inequality is to remain?

The Prime Minister continues to parrot the words of his predecessor that a plebiscite will be held in the next term of parliament—a plebiscite that has been estimated to force a $160 million hit to the budget bottom line. This is a hit Australia can ill afford, given that those opposite have already doubled the deficit and hiked the debt by more than that. Legislation is our job, and it is what we get paid for. There is absolutely no reason that we cannot legislate on this now. I notice those opposite have not talked about asking people for their feedback on massive cuts to family incomes. They certainly were not keen on asking the Australian people if they wanted to pay $100,000 for university degrees. Nor did they take a poll before cutting the pension. So why marriage equality? What makes it so different?

I will tell you what I think is happening. I think they want a plebiscite so that they can create a divisive national campaign that will divide the nation and, they hope, put paid to marriage equality in this country. This is not about going to the people to get their opinion. This is about manipulating the conversation and demonising a group in our society to create a predetermined outcome. Those opposite know that referendums have virtually no chance of passing without the full support of the government, and they know that this is the best way to manipulate the outcome. Our Prime Minister and his party are happy to spend $160 million of scarce taxpayer dollars to deny people their fundamental right to equality. It is an absolute outrage.

We know Australians want this to happen and we know that there is a very high chance the numbers exist in this place to make it happen. In fact, it could happen in the next sitting week. We have a crazy situation where the rest of the world is moving to make this happen in their countries, the Australian people want this to happen, the Prime Minister wants this to happen and there are the numbers in this place to make this happen. Yet Mr Turnbull still persists with the plan to stage a divisive and expensive national debate that stands in contradiction to his own beliefs and will only serve to inflame tensions in order to give the far Right their best shot at manipulating the outcome and blocking marriage equality for years to come—and for what? In order to secure his own naked career ambitions.

We should not let the Australian people forget that the Greens party were early supporters of Tony Abbott's plan for a plebiscite. Senator Rice sponsored the Marriage Equality Plebiscite Bill 2015, which would have established the plebiscite in law. This was a foolish decision by the Greens, which only served to legitimise Mr Abbott's cynical proposal at a critical stage of public debate. I am glad the Greens have finally come to their senses and accepted the wisdom of the Labor Party's position on the plebiscite.

Labor believe that it is our responsibility to create legislation, and there is absolutely no excuse for squibbing it. Leader of the Opposition Bill Shorten has promised that, under a Shorten Labor government, a marriage equality bill will be introduced within 100 days of the next parliament.

This is the time to remove the last piece of legislated discrimination that fuels homophobia in this country. But instead Mr Turnbull has caved in to the hard Right of his own party to all but guarantee marriage equality cannot happen. Just like his strongly held convictions on climate change evaporated in an instant when the prime ministership was in his grasp, so his longstanding support for marriage equality was sacrificed in the pursuit of power. It is just not good enough. We should just get on with it and legislate.