Sep 19, 2012

Marriage Amendment Bill 2012 – Second Reading Speech

Today I rise in this chamber to support marriage equality.  I do so because I believe it is the right thing to do.  It is the fair thing to do.  All individuals are entitled to the right to participate fully in our society and to receive the support and protection of the law, regardless of their sexuality.

Let’s be clear.  The inequality and the intolerance that many lesbians and gay men face will not immediately stop if this bill is passed.  No law can deliver that.  It will take time to pull down the prejudices that have built up over time.  What laws can do is remove institutional injustice.  That is what gays and lesbians face today.

This bill will also send an important message.

It sends an important message about acceptance of individuals in our society, regardless of their sexuality.  There are many young people right now struggling to come to terms with their sexuality.  There has been too much tragedy in the past as a result of issues relating to discrimination.  Indeed, a failure by society to offer full acceptance has led at times to people being less than frank—often with themselves, let alone with the people around them—about their sexual orientation, with consequences as a result of that.

We need to send a message that it is surely a basic right for each of us to be able to marry the person that we love.  I fail to see how the institution of marriage is weakened if more people have the right to participate in it.  My view on this comes down, essentially, to one fundamental disagreement with those who will not support this legislation, and that is that giving one group of people the rights that they have been denied does not in any way diminish the rights that currently exist for the rest of us.

That is why I have been fighting for equality for same-sex couples ever since I was elected to federal parliament 16½ years ago.  Indeed, fighting for equality is what led me to join the great Australian Labor Party more than 30 years ago.  I am proud that Labor governments were the ones to decriminalise homosexuality.  Labor governments were the ones that had the courage to confront the deadly HIV AIDS epidemic and set an example for the rest of the world.  Labor governments were the ones to advance same-sex adoption.  On each of those occasions there were people of goodwill across the political spectrum who supported equality, and I know that there are many people in the coalition who would like to vote for this legislation but who will not be able to.  I think that contrasts with the leadership that has been shown by Barry O’Farrell, the NSW Premier, in acknowledging the importance of a conscience vote on this issue in the NSW parliament.

When I first arrived in this place in my first term of parliament, I moved the same-sex superannuation legislation to remove discrimination when it came to superannuation.  At that time, that was seen as a radical piece of legislation.  I had to re-introduce it time after time.  There was no debate allocated in the chamber, and a number of times it lapsed—just a short period of time when we look at the extent of the human condition.  That legislation, coupled with another 84 pieces of legislation, passed this parliament without opposition during the last term of parliament.  Eighty-four pieces of legislation to remove discrimination: it went from being an issue of controversy to an issue which was essentially a consensus in this parliament.  That, to me, is indicative of the way in which society does move forward on issues, not just in terms of equality for people regardless of their sexual preference but on race and gender issues as well.

We as a society, particularly under liberal democracies such as we cherish here in Australia, are moving forward to embrace diversity and difference and to respect people on that basis.  So I have no doubt that in the near future the removal of this final frontier of discrimination will occur, and then I think people will recognise immediately afterwards that the sky has not fallen, that people have not suddenly changed their sexual orientation as a result of that legislation and that the institution of marriage has in fact been strengthened by the fact that more people are prepared to engage in an institution which celebrates lifelong commitments between two people who love each other.  That is what we are talking about with this legislation here.

I very much respect the views of colleagues who disagree with me on this issue.  I respect their right to say it and to participate in this debate in a constructive way.  I must say that I do not respect some of the views that have been expressed that promote intolerance and reinforce prejudice, and I know that people across the political spectrum in this parliament will agree with me on that.  I think that, regardless of what position people will take on this final legislation, overwhelmingly this debate has been constructive, and I congratulate the member for Throsby on his initiative in putting forward this legislation.  I say also to those people who support this legislation that we need to be inclusive in the way that we conduct ourselves in this debate.  We should be tolerant in the way that we conduct ourselves in this debate.  We cannot argue that we are about inclusiveness if we do not act that way ourselves, because I believe that this change is coming, just as we have removed other areas of discrimination in a range of areas.

I come down to a fundamental view: extending the right to marriage to same-sex couples in no way detracts from the rights to marriage that heterosexual couples currently enjoy.  I have had the opportunity to be married.  I see no reason why someone who happens to want to marry someone of the same sex rather than the opposite sex should not have the same right that I enjoyed.

I also think that in this debate we need to be very careful about the nature of all of our relationships.  As someone who was raised by a single mother, I say that those people who speak about the family unit as if they know exactly what is right, to the exclusion of other family relationships, need to think very carefully about the messages that they send to families who are not nuclear in their composition.

I was in a two-person family.  It was a loving family, and my mother gave me everything that a parent could give their child.  Some of the views that have been promoted in this debate question that when they question the diversity that exists in our society.

The fact is that Australia is moving forward on these issues.  Most of us have siblings, children, neighbours, friends or work colleagues who happen to be gay or lesbian.  It is a simple fact of life.  The way that Australians deal with it is just to get on with it, treating each other with respect and as equals.  We should not pretend that marriage is an unchanging institution that has been around forever, because it has not.  It has evolved just as relationships evolved, just as society evolved.  Today we recognise that couples in de facto relationships should have the same rights as married couples.  That was not the case a few years ago.  Our values and our relationships have evolved and they will continue to do so.

Many relationships, both heterosexual and homosexual, are committed, loving relationships.  It is not up to me to judge whether a relationship between a man and a woman is more important, more significant or more loving than a relationship between a man and another man or between a woman and another woman.  We do not know what goes on inside relationships.  Surely people recognise that life is more complex than that.

We need to face up to the realities of modern Australia.  We need to have faith in our fellow Australians wherever they might live.  We should have faith that Australians can and have overcome prejudice, intolerance and injustice.  Importantly, we should have faith that members of this parliament can make the decision to vote for or against this bill for themselves, which is why I supported this being a conscience vote issue at the ALP national conference—a position that put me in some disagreement with some of my colleagues.  I argued that consistently.  I argued for equality consistently.  I am very pleased to be able to support this legislation, which will be voted on today in the House of Representatives.

I look forward to the day when legislation similar to this is passed and discrimination is removed.