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Wednesday, 16 September 2015
Page: 7037


Senator LUDWIG (Queensland) (17:14): The Australian Labor Party supports recommendation 1 of the majority report of the Legal and Constitutional Affairs References Committee and believes that a bill to provide for marriage equality should be debated and voted upon in the parliament as a matter of urgency with all parliamentarians being allowed a conscience vote. Labor senators note that a cross-party marriage equality bill has been introduced into the House of Representatives by the member for Leichhardt, the Hon. Mr Warren Entsch MP, and the member for Griffith, Ms Terri Butler MP. This bill enjoys the support of like-minded members and senators from all political parties and those from the crossbench, and could be progressed in the parliament immediately if the Prime Minister were willing to facilitate debate in the House and the Senate.

The Australian Labor Party recognises that marriage equality is an issue in relation to which people possess deeply held personal views and upon which reasonable people acting in good faith will reach differing conclusions. If a conscience vote were granted to all parliamentarians, members and senators who do not support marriage equality would be free to express their view against it. The Australian Labor Party strongly opposes the proposal to make marriage equality the subject of a plebiscite or a referendum.

It is unnecessary to hold a plebiscite on marriage equality. The High Court has made it abundantly clear that parliament's power to make laws with regard to marriage under section 51(xxi) of the Australian Constitution extends to same-sex marriage. The question of marriage equality is clearly one which ought to be dealt with by this parliament. Australia operates under a system of representative democracy whereby the people of Australia elect representatives to the House of Representatives and the Senate to make policy decisions affecting the future of our nation. To abrogate this responsibility by deferring the question of marriage equality to the people by way of a plebiscite represents, in my view, a dereliction of duty and a breach of the public trust. A plebiscite would also be of no legal effect. It would be no more than an exorbitantly expensive opinion poll. The Australian Electoral Commission has advised that a plebiscite could cost up to $148.4 million. The government is yet to explain how it would pay for such a costly exercise.

The proposal to make marriage equality subject to a popular vote is not offered in good faith. It was invented by the recently toppled former Prime Minister, the Hon. Mr Tony Abbott MP, and his colleague the member for Cook, the Hon. Mr Scott Morrison MP, as really nothing more than a cheap tactic to delay progress on marriage equality and, if possible, frustrate it altogether. Whatever your view on marriage equality, the parliament should not allow itself to be used by the Liberal Party for its political purposes.

It is disappointing that the Greens party has decided to get on board with Mr Abbott and Mr Morrison on the plan for a plebiscite, because once you make it your default position, even if you prefer a different position, it becomes the position. The Greens party decision to sponsor the bill only serves to legitimise Mr Abbott's and Mr Morrison's cynical proposal. The plebiscite proposal which this bill seeks to facilitate was foisted on stakeholders without any consultation. The submissions to the inquiry make clear that the LGBTI community opposes putting marriage equality at the mercy of a popular vote, and experts at public law make clear that it is a legally pointless exercise. I cannot speak for the Greens as to why they would support Mr Abbott's and Mr Morrison's plan for a plebiscite. I think it is questionable and disappointing. It may be that they felt they were failing in their efforts to own marriage equality. But I do not want to cheapen that debate. Given the growing level of cross-party support, it may be one of those areas where they want to regain some lost ground. The Greens party should distance itself from Mr Abbott's and Mr Morrison's plebiscite proposal.

The greatest criticism in relation to the plebiscite must be reserved, though, for the newly appointed Prime Minister, the Hon. Mr Malcolm Turnbull MP. I think Mr Turnbull has deserted the LGBTI community on marriage equality. That desertion surpasses even his betrayal of former Prime Minister Mr Tony Abbott, who he deposed in a back-room political coup. It exposes him as the ultimate hollow man on this issue. Mr Turnbull has repeatedly, I think, made overtures to the LGBTI community and espoused his support for marriage equality, in an effort to present himself as a moderate alternative to Mr Abbott and gain the support of progressive voters. Mr Turnbull encouraged the Australian people to believe that he was committed to dealing with marriage equality through a conscience vote in the parliament. He expressed dismay that Mr Abbott had forced the government to adopt the plebiscite proposal through the procedures of the joint coalition party room.

However, in a deal to secure the support of hard-right Liberals and wrest the prime ministership from Mr Abbott, Mr Turnbull has renounced his support for marriage equality. He has abandoned the commitment to a free vote and embraced the plan for a plebiscite. When the Deputy Leader of the Opposition, the Hon. Ms Tanya Plibersek MP, asked Mr Turnbull about his support for marriage equality during his first question time as Prime Minister in the House of Representatives on Tuesday, 15 September, Mr Turnbull said he had:

… decided that the resolution of this matter will be determined by a vote of all the people via a plebiscite to be held after the next election.

The member for Isaacs interjected that Mr Turnbull was a 'sell-out'. Whatever language you use to describe Mr Turnbull's behaviour and whatever your view on the question of marriage equality, on which reasonable minds will differ, one thing is clear from the behaviour of Mr Turnbull: you would have to say he is the ultimate hollow man when it comes to this issue. What has made it abundantly clear to me that a plebiscite would not be the best course is when you look at the work in the submission by, in particular, the Rainbow Families Council. I quote from the report, where they say:

… in particular the Council is extremely concerned about the impact of such a public debate on our children and young LGBTIQ people living in our communities.

No matter what explanation is provided about the need for a 'people's vote' by way of a plebiscite or a referendum, no matter what assurances or agreements are made to ask that the debate be respectful or must stick to the topic of marriage equality between two adults, we strongly believe our children and our families will always be dragged into the fray.

The Australian Psychological Society added their weight to that same argument, when they said:

Recent evidence from a suite of studies confirms that the process of putting marriage equality to a public vote can be harmful to the psychological health of gender and sexual minorities. The findings highlight that lesbian, gay and bisexual people (LGB) not only have to contend with the possibility of having rights to marriage denied through a public vote but also the stress associated with the campaign itself.

For those reasons, and for the reasons I have articulated today, I do not think a plebiscite is the right course for this debate. I know that some people, particularly the coalition, think it is the right way to go. I think it is simply a way to defer the issue to ensure that we do not get to have a proper debate in this place. It is not an argument to simply say the debate has come on many times and we have not been able to resolve it. We do have the ability to resolve it in this place. I also do not think it is an argument to simply say that a plebiscite is allowing the people to speak—we are representatives of the people, we have the ability to have these debates. People argue that debates such as this are too complex for us to deal with in this place. We have had many debates, for example on RU486—particularly tough issues and it has taken many times to deal with them and many hours have been utilised to ensure everyone gets to put their view, but what we have done is debate them in here and we have found a resolution.