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Thursday, 20 June 2013
Page: 3504


Senator WONG (South AustraliaDeputy Leader of the Government in the Senate and Minister for Finance and Deregulation) (10:27): I rise to make a brief contribution to this debate, an issue on which I have spoken previously. It is an issue of principle that is before us which I support. This bill is one aspect of a broader principle. Whilst I do support it, it is obviously not the central issue. The central issue that this parliament will not deal with but a future parliament must and will deal with is the principle of equality for all Australians. It is a principle that is as simple as it is enduring and a principle which I have supported all my life.

I do want to respond very briefly to some of the comments which have preceded me in that debate, in particular from Senator Madigan and Senator Brandis. I acknowledge that Senator Madigan, whilst I disagree with his views, at least contributed them in a respectful way. It is disappointing that Senator Brandis did not follow suit. Both Senators Madigan and Brandis talked about the importance of recognising that there are differences of opinion on this issue here in Australia—and, indeed, there are. Whilst I do not agree with those who have an opinion contrary to mine, they have a right to hold it.

What I do disagree with, however, is their right to impose that opinion upon me and upon others in my situation—that is, upon gay and lesbian Australians who wish to demonstrate, through ceremony, their love and commitment to their partner. The issue here has never been whether or not people have different opinions about the institution of marriage. The issue is whether a secular state should impose a particular set of opinions in order to exclude some Australians from the institution of marriage.

My view is that equality is a fundamental right. Whilst Australia has not always been an equal society, over the span of our social programs, it is ultimately the direction in which we have moved. Calls for equality in this nation have been persistent and, generally, they have ultimately been successful. Over the decades we have seen changes to ensure that Australians are not discriminated against, at least explicitly, on the basis of their gender, race, religion or age. To me, this demonstrates the resonating power of the principle of equality, of saying and affirming that all of us are equal and society should treat us as such, of believing that we should judge people on their principles, their ethics, their capacities and such characteristics rather than on the colour of their skin or the gender of their partner. Embracing diversity and inclusion and knowing that our community is diminished by marginalisation is a principle in which I believe.

So pursuing marriage equality is part of an ongoing struggle for a more equal Australia, because if you subscribe to the principle of equality, and I am sure that most in this chamber would say that they do, then simply substitute words such as 'interracial' or 'different age' in lieu of 'same sex' in this debate and see if it changes your view. Can you imagine if anyone in this parliament actually asserted that a couple in Australia could not get married because the person that they loved or one of them was of a different skin colour? Can you imagine if we as a parliament told Australians that they could not get married because the person they loved was of a different religion? These notions are not only anachronistic; they are in fact offensive. So, in 2013, it is sad that the freedom of an Australian to make a commitment to the person they love through marriage is not permitted.

I do not want to spend too much time on the argument that has been put in this place that marriage is unique, but I would say: it is unique, it is special, it is a bedrock institution and that is why those of us who are in same-sex relationships also want to be able to demonstrate our love and commitment through marriage. When the right of entry to such an institution is barred to some of us, it is nothing other than discrimination. It is a discrimination that will one day come to an end but it will not be this parliament, the 43rd Parliament, that rights this wrong. Let us not forget while we are debating the bill today before the Senate that we are debating this bill because the 43rd Parliament has already failed in its obligations to serve all Australians. Last year, we had an opportunity to right a wrong that had continued for far too long and, in failing to do so, we failed to live up to the expectations of millions of Australians. We failed to call discrimination what it is and remove a highly discriminatory law. We failed to deliver marriage equality.

In my speech on the marriage equality bill last year, I hoped for a better Australia—an Australia where division and hurt were no longer features of the public debate in this the most personal of debates. It is deeply regrettable that the debate on this issue has, if anything in that time, become more hurtful and more divisive. When members of the Australian parliament seek to do things such as link marriage equality with polygamy and bestiality, they are doing nothing other than promoting bigotry, and we should not shy away from calling it what it is. And when the political party of those who speak those words elevate them to the top of the Senate ticket, it speaks volumes for their leadership or lack thereof. We should never overlook the fact that words spoken by people in this place, people who have the privilege to be in this chamber, carry a special weight. We should not overlook the hurt and the distress these statements can cause. So I say to young gay and lesbian Australians and those in the LGBTI community who are still struggling with their identity who hear these words: these words do not reflect the views of the overwhelming majority of Australians. They do not speak to the Australia we want. They may hurt, but do not take them to heart.

The bill before us today seeks to recognise the marriages of same-sex couples in foreign countries here in Australia. As I said, I support this bill not as an end point but as another step on the road to equality. It would recognise the progress made in other countries and ensure that Australians who are married in other countries can be accepted and recognised in full here in Australia. But we should be clear on the chances of this bill passing the parliament. When those opposite denied a conscience vote on this issue—an act of deliberate obstruction from their leadership—this bill was always going to fail. We know ultimately that change on these issues can only come with a bipartisan approach, and we know that it is only when both the opposition allows a conscience vote and members on that side exercise their conscience in favour of equality that this issue will have a chance to succeed. Putting up legislation that is doomed to fail will never be enough. What we will need to do in the years to come is build cross-party support to work within our own parties and across the parliament. That is the approach I will take and that is the approach I have taken.

I am a proud member of the Australian Labor Party, and I understand that change is won by carrying the many. I am a member of a party that has done more to progress the interests of gay and lesbian Australians than any other, a party that in my own state first decriminalised homosexuality in 1975 and has consistently continued to reform legislation since that time. I am very glad to have been part of a government that: in 2008, amended so many Commonwealth acts to give equal rights to same-sex relationships and greater legal recognition to children of these couples; allowed the same-sex partners of those in Commonwealth superannuation schemes access to superannuation; allowed the issuing of certificates of nonimpediment to same-sex couples wishing to marry overseas; announced the development of the first LGBTI Ageing and Aged Care Strategy; extended paid parental leave to same-sex couples; and, this week, in the South Australian parliament, with the support of the Premier and my friend Dr Susan Close, again argued for marriage equality legislatively.

I remember in 2004, inside the federal Labor caucus, arguing against the position that was then ultimately adopted by the federal Labor Party to support the amendments to the Marriage Act that Prime Minister Howard moved. Whilst that was a difficult time, one of the things that does give me hope is that, since that time, a number of people in our party who at that time opposed the position I was arguing have since changed their minds and opened their hearts to the principle of equality. This is the nature of political change and this is what reform demands.

I look forward to the day when the substantive issue that is before us, the recognition of equality, receives broad support across this parliament and across all political parties, because it is only then that we will see progress, it is only then when the Australian parliament will live up to the expectations of our community and it is only then that we will be able to deliver equality. In doing so, we would give expression to the best of who we are—a nation confident and proud in our diversity, as well as our unity, and a nation unafraid of equality.