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Wednesday, 16 September 2015
Page: 7032

Senator RICE (Victoria) (16:53): I wish to speak to the report of the Legal and Constitutional Affairs References Committee on the marriage equality plebiscite. The Australian Greens completely support the recommendation that the issue of marriage equality be decided by a vote in the parliament. We believe the committee report is an excellent articulation of the reasons as to why it is the case that marriage equality should be resolved by a vote of the parliament.

We were convinced by the evidence from witnesses and submitters who voiced really serious concerns about the potential harm that would be caused by a popular vote and agree that it is undesirable to amend the definition of marriage in this way. The evidence that was given to our inquiry by LGBTIQ members of the community and their families showed what the possible consequences of a public campaign accompanying a plebiscite might be. There were some really powerful points made to this inquiry both in submissions and at the public hearing that was held last Thursday.

It really struck me as I listened to the firsthand evidence of human rights and mental health experts, researchers and LGBTIQ community representatives that any form of public vote on the issue of marriage equality could have irreversible mental health and public health implications for many LGBTIQ community members and their families. For example, we heard from Dr Paula Gerber from the Castan Centre for Human Rights Law at Monash Uni, who said:

… I do not think a plebiscite or referendum should be held from the perspective of children's rights. We are, as you know, a state party to the Convention of the Rights of the Child and that requires us to act in all matters concerning children in the best interests of the child. There are two groups of children that are likely to be harmed if a plebiscite or referendum is held on marriage equality, those two groups being the 6,000-plus children who are being raised by same-sex parents … and also LGBTI youth. All the research demonstrates that LGBTI youth are vulnerable, have a high incidence of mental health issues and higher rates of suicide.

At the hearing last Thursday night we heard from Amelia Basset from the Rainbow Families Council. She talked about the potentially damaging impact on children with lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex or queer parents or carers if there was a public vote. She said:

It is our strong belief that a lengthy public campaign would be a particular risk because it is so much in the community … It brings the debate into the streets, the schools, the swimming pools, these sports clubs and neighbourhood houses—all the places and spaces where our children hang out. I think it would be impossible in this media-saturated age for parents to enforce any kind of a media blackout as a way of trying to minimise the exposure of their children, including young children, to a publicly funded no campaign.

She spoke of an example from Ireland. She said:

We have a very powerful example from Ireland, where a young boy said to his mother, 'Will I still be your son if the no campaign wins?' For him, that very deep sense of stability, identity and security in his family was absolutely being challenged by the discussions he was hearing in the media.

So the evidence was very strong and very convincing that a plebiscite is not an appropriate way to decide on the issue of marriage equality. We have the power in this parliament to make that decision, and we should be making it as soon as possible.

But, of course, we are in a scenario where we have a government saying that they are determined to proceed with a plebiscite. The dissenting statement from the government members of the committee put that very strongly on the record, and our Prime Minister said very strongly that a plebiscite is the government's proposed way of making a decision on this issue following the next election.

So we wanted to explore, if we are in a situation of having a plebiscite, whether there were any ways to minimise the damage. Going down the path of a plebiscite does not have to be a decision of this parliament. It could be a decision made by the executive power of the Prime Minister. He could say, 'We are having a plebiscite,' and the parliament would have no say on the form of that plebiscite or what question could be asked. So in our additional comments to this report we wanted to note some of the criteria that would have to be in place to minimise the potential damage that could be caused if a plebiscite was proceeded with.

We feel that a plebiscite should only be considered in conjunction with the next federal election in order for it to be done quickly and to minimise the cost. To have a plebiscite at the next federal election would cost only $44 million compared with an estimated cost of over $150 million to have a stand-alone plebiscite. We believe, if it were to occur, that: the framework for its conduct should be the subject of a bill agreed to by parliament; voting should be compulsory; a joint select committee should be established to consider all aspects of the conduct of the plebiscite; and the question for the electors should be researched and developed by the Australian Electoral Commission. To ensure that the views and human rights of all participants are respected and upheld, we firmly believe that appropriate parameters must be established around: public advertising for the plebiscite and regulation of the media, including social media; appropriate limitations on campaigning, including the period of time during which campaigning is allowed; and taking into account what the impact of campaigning could be on vulnerable people, particularly those in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer communities. There need to be social support services available to them.

In conclusion, this inquiry and the report very firmly collated the evidence to show that the most appropriate way to make a decision on the issue of marriage equality, to end discrimination against LGBTIQ Australians, is for parliament to decide. We should be deciding it with a free vote available to all members of parliament as soon as possible. That was the evidence presented very clearly. A plebiscite has the potential for considerable harm and is very much only a second best option.