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Wednesday, 12 November 2008
Page: 6756

Senator MILNE (4:24 PM) —I rise today to enthusiastically support the Same-Sex Relationships (Equal Treatment in Commonwealth Laws—General Law Reform) Bill 2008. It has been a long time coming, and I think it is fantastic that at last this federal parliament has been prepared to end discrimination against people in this community who have been vilified for so very long. Ending discrimination against gays and same-sex couples is just fantastic. We ought to go further, as my colleague Senator Hanson-Young has said, and I would hope that, when we get to the committee stage of the bill and the amendment is moved in relation to same-sex marriage, both the government and the opposition might consider supporting a conscience vote on the issue, because it is absolutely critical.

I have followed the issue of discrimination in Australia in relation to gender and sexuality for a very long time. I have to say that it is terrific that at last that discrimination is being removed from 68 Commonwealth laws so that same-sex couples can be treated equally before the law. We are eliminating discrimination, and that feels like such a good thing to be happening. This removal of discrimination will flow to other legislation, including tax, social security, health care, superannuation, migration and so on. It is a great day in Australia that we are removing this discrimination and accepting that same-sex couples should be treated equally before the law.

I want to go back to some of the history in this because this year is the 20th anniversary of a shameful episode in Tasmania’s history. In 1988, the Hobart City Council banned the gay and lesbian community stalls in Salamanca market in Tasmania on the basis that they were inappropriate in a family market. One hundred and thirty activists were arrested, and there were large-scale protest rallies demonstrating against the actions of the Hobart City Council. I am pleased to note that that is going to be put right this year when the Hobart City Council apologises to the community in Tasmania for that action 20 years ago. At last things are being put right around the country in relation to discrimination against gay, lesbian and transgender people.

The last 20 years have been horrendous for many people in this community. When I was a member of the House of Assembly in Tasmania, gay law reform was introduced in 1990. It was actively discouraged and opposed by all others in the parliament. We brought the legislation in time and time again and, eventually, we got it through. There was much vitriolic antigay debate. Some members of parliament in Tasmania called for the forced removal of gay, lesbian and transgender people from Tasmania and the reimposition of the death penalty for homosexuality. That is the sort of nonsense that went on for so long in Tasmania, to the point that, in 1996, under a majority Liberal government, the penalty was increased under the Criminal Code for practising homosexuality. The penalty went from a 21-year jail sentence to a 25-year jail sentence. That was as recently as 1996, I repeat for the Senate. In 1997, under a Liberal minority government with the Greens holding the balance of power, I am very pleased to say that it was my bill that ended discrimination in Tasmania. We went from having the worst laws in the Commonwealth in relation to the severity of punishment for and discrimination against gay, lesbian and transgender people to having the best laws.

I would like to acknowledge the tremendous work and sacrifice of the activists in this community who have worked so long to end discrimination and who will continue to work until same-sex marriage in Australia is achieved. In particular, I want to name, of course, most prominently, Rodney Croome and Nick Toonen because of the campaigns that they ran for a long time but also high-profile Justice Michael Kirby for having the courage to speak out as he has done. I quote him when he was referring, in a speech he made, to the Freedom Charter in South Africa, where the ANC introduced that Freedom Charter. One of the noted freedom fighters in South Africa said at that time:

What has happened to lesbian and gay people is the essence of apartheid—it tried to tell people who they were, how they should behave, what their rights were. The essence of democracy is that people should be free to be what they are. We want people to be and to feel free.

This is what Justice Michael Kirby said of that:

Perhaps those who have felt the pain of discrimination on the basis of their race and skin colour (which they cannot change) understand more readily than many Australians the pain and wrong-headedness of criminalising people on the grounds of their sexual orientation (which likewise they cannot change).

Fortunately, that has been changed and the Commonwealth is moving today to end the discrimination under federal law against same-sex couples and their children. It is a great day and a great step forward, but we would like to see all of the recommendations of the HREOC report carried out. As I have indicated, I hope that the government and the opposition will consider a conscience vote when the amendment is moved to support same-sex marriage.

I want to comment briefly on those who talk about a weakening of the institution of marriage. If anything, it strengthens it, because there is an aspiration by all people who want to move to demonstrate their commitment and love for each other to do it through the institution of marriage. I really fail to understand how you can deny that to people who love each other in that way. I thought that was what we were trying to encourage more of in our community, rather than more discrimination, more vilification and more hatred. I think that one of the really wonderful things about what is happening today is this: not only does it end the discrimination under the law against same-sex couples but it actually increases pressure on the general community for people to rethink the sorts of things that they say and to recognise that any sense of a notion that they might have had of an institutional legitimacy backing what was a discriminatory and cruel point of view has now gone. There is no legitimacy for discrimination of any kind and there is no legitimacy to sneer at people because of their sexuality. So I do think that this will make such a difference to the attitude, hopes and aspirations of same-sex couples and those in the gay and lesbian and transgender community generally in Australia.

I would like to finish by saying that I was at a dinner celebrating gay law reform in Tasmania many years ago, after we finally achieved it, and at that dinner Justice Michael Kirby read from a poem called Song of Hope, by Oodgeroo of the Noonuccal. Oodgeroo was talking about an end to discrimination on the basis of race. I would like to read part of that poem today because it summarises how I feel about what this parliament is doing, about what an important day it is for the Australian community to end yet another form of discrimination and about how it follows from the apology earlier this year to the stolen generation and also the seeking of permission by the Prime Minister for this parliament to meet on Aboriginal land. We are, in this first year of the Rudd government, addressing a number of areas of discrimination, which makes us all feel better as Australians and helps to lift our self-definition of ourselves and to restore something that was lost for so many years under the last federal government. I remind my colleagues in the Senate that in June 2006 we had a debate in this house concerning the Australian Capital Territory civil union legislation and at that time I said to the Howard government members:

… you do have a Senate majority … but let me tell you that, after next year’s federal election, that Senate majority will be gone, because the Australian people are desperate to rescue the Senate from the intolerance and heavy-handedness that we are seeing from this government. People do not like the abandonment of multilateralism. Don’t you think Australians are humiliated today that on the London Tube people can pick up a free newspaper and see that Prime Minister John Howard has moved to overrule the civil union legislation in the ACT? The whole of London can pick that up today and see where Australia is going as the deputy sheriff to the United States—abandoning … even the principle of fairness and equal treatment under the law.

That was in June 2006, and so it has come to pass. It was obvious at that time that Australians were starting to feel ashamed of the values that the government of the day were putting out there and demonstrating to the rest of the world—values that were not shared in the Australian community. So today we are celebrating the values which are shared in the Australian community, values based on fairness and equality under the law. That is why today is so special. So I share the excitement that will be out there in the gay and lesbian and transgender community with the passage of the Same-Sex Relationships (Equal Treatment in Commonwealth Laws—General Law Reform) Bill 2008 and I look forward to supporting the rest of the package of this same-sex legislation as it comes through. I end by reading part of Song of Hope, by Oodgeroo of the Noonuccal, as read by Justice Michael Kirby at that dinner celebrating gay law reform in Tasmania back in 1997:

Look up, my people,

The dawn is breaking,

The world is waking,

To a new bright day,

When none defame us,

Nor colour shame us,

Nor sneer dismay.

Now brood no more

On the years behind you,

The hope assigned you

Shall the past replace,

…            …            …

So long we waited

Bound and frustrated,

Till hate be hated

And caste deposed;

Now light shall guide us,

And all doors open

That long were closed

See plain the promise,

Dark freedom-lover!

Night’s nearly over,

And though long the climb,

New rights will greet us,

New mateship meet us,

And joy complete us

In our new Dream Time.

To our father’s fathers

The pain, the sorrow;

To our children’s children

The glad tomorrow.