In June 1990, my courageous friend Paul O’Grady, a member of the New South Wales Legislative Council, came out as a gay man. He was most certainly not the first gay man elected to the New South Wales parliament, but it took until 1990 for someone to have the confidence to declare their sexuality openly. When I discussed this move with Paul, he said very clearly, ‘I am who I am.’ It was an act of courage that made it much easier for other people in the same circumstance as Paul to openly declare their sexuality. In 1993, three years later, he and his partner, Murray, were attacked and harassed on William Street. Paul O’Grady, a member of the Legislative Council, dialled triple 0. He tried to convince the person on the other end of the phone that he was being threatened by a gang of youths in what was known colloquially as ‘poofter bashing’, which occurred then and still occurs today. He was hung up on, a member of the Legislative Council.
When we talk about discrimination and the fear in society created by intolerance and hatred, it is important today to recognise the courage of those gay men and lesbian women over decades in which debate was far different to what it is today. People like Paul, I think, couldn’t have imagined us having a debate in the parliament with such broad support for marriage equality across the political spectrum. So today I begin by paying tribute to people like Paul; to people like Craig Johnston, a Sydney city councillor; to people like Lex Watson, the academic; to people like Julie McCrossin; to all those people who marched in 1978 in the first Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. They marched not in a parade that was being cheered and shown on national television; they marched in a parade towards a confrontation with police, who locked them up, who assaulted them and who abused them.
Part of the reason that today is so important is that today, in supporting this legislation, we are saying that we are a tolerant nation, that we are a respectful nation and that we are a nation that is stronger because of our diversity. I think it is unfortunate that we will be one of the last advanced industrialised nations to recognise marriage equality when this legislation is passed. Nonetheless, catching up with the rest of the world is a good thing. I pay tribute to all those who did the hard yards—the really hard yards—to get us to this place.
In 1996, in my first speech in this chamber, I mentioned removing discrimination on the basis of sexuality. In my first term of parliament, after consultation with the gay and lesbian community, I moved the Superannuation (Entitlements of same sex couples) Bill in this chamber. It says something about where the debate was then compared with now that we couldn’t even get a debate on that issue; that legislation wasn’t even supported by every member of my own party. But what it did was lay some groundwork for a debate within my party about the need to tackle discrimination. And, of course, eventually, under the first term of the Rudd Labor government, we removed some 84 pieces of discrimination that were in legislation. This was discrimination not just in areas like superannuation, but in social security, immigration and health care.
When I was first elected, there were very real circumstances of partners of loved ones being denied access to their partners when they were in hospital. There were issues whereby couples who shared houses were thrown out of the house that they had lived in with their partner because of non-acceptance by the family of that partner. The scourge, of course, of HIV-AIDS was still having a massive impact—including, of course, taking the life of Paul O’Grady, who showed his courage once again in openly declaring that he was HIV-positive and therefore being able to lead a campaign for the care that was required. Of course, Neal Blewett, as health minister in the Labor government, led the world in responding to the HIV-AIDS epidemic, literally resulting in thousands of lives being saved.
So, today, this is unfinished business on that march towards equality, in the march towards respect for each other. It is a reminder that society does move forward, although not always in a straight line. Opponents of progress do fight for the status quo. Reactionaries do seek to turn back the gains of the past. But here in this parliament progress is moving forward. Human rights are moving forward. Parliament is not leading in this case, of course; we’re following. We are following the voluntary postal ballot that was held.
I am very proud to support this legislation, and I won’t be supporting amendments to this legislation. This has been through the process of a Senate committee. This itself is a compromise to this legislation. It’s one that will not have an impact on religious freedom. I’m a strong supporter of religious liberty. People would be aware that, unlike many of my colleagues, at ALP national conferences I have strongly argued, even when I’ve been in a minority, for these issues to be dealt with as a conscience vote. I firmly believe that that’s the case. I’ve consistently argued that on the ALP national executive regardless of what people who I normally agree with have to say on those matters and I will continue to do so.
But the fact is that people’s religious freedom will not be impacted by this legislation just as marriage won’t be undermined by this legislation. Indeed, the institution of marriage will be strengthened by this legislation by more people being able to participate in it. During the postal ballot campaign, with people I had respectful discussions with, I indicated that I would support the Dean Smith bill, that it was the model that was there. Those who insisted on having a postal ballot should, I believe, accept the result. We asked Australians for their views, and they gave us their answer. As a result of this legislation, not much will change. All that will happen is that one group of Australians who currently don’t have the same rights that I had to marry my life partner, my wife, and other people have to marry their partner of the opposite sex will have the same right to celebrate their lifelong commitment to their partner in front of their family and friends. Weddings are joyful occasions when people come together to witness the affirmation of love, and won’t it be a good thing when more people can participate in it?
The issue of religious liberty is one that I take seriously, and I look forward to the deliberations of the committee that has been established under Philip Ruddock and will be reporting next year. I certainly have always been respectful of people who disagree with my position on marriage equality. That is why I’ve argued for a conscience vote to be the way that this issue and other issues such as this are determined. I don’t believe that people should ever be in a circumstance of having to choose between their allegiance to their political party and to their spirituality and their faith. I strongly believe that that’s the case. But this legislation will not have any such consequences. Indeed, once this legislation is carried, people will wonder what the fuss was all about, because it won’t undermine anyone’s existing relationships; it will just strengthen the relationships of people who choose to have their relationships solemnised in a marriage who are in same-sex relationships.
I do want to say this about some of this debate though. Some have sought to speak about how every child in the world needs a mother and a father. We’ve got a bit of a debate at the moment about citizenship in this parliament as well. People would be aware that I was raised by a single mother and in circumstances whereby, every time I hear that, what I hear is intolerance. What I hear is that somehow some families are better than others. What is truthful is that what matters in a family is love and care. I was in a two-person family and I got from my mother all the love in the world that I—that anyone—could have asked for. People in same-sex relationships with children of same-sex relationships are parents who have gone out of their way to have children and to care for them and love them, and what matters in a family is love. It’s as simple as that. No family structure is better than any other, and I really believe that one of the important things about the legislation before us today is that that will be formalised by the parliament.
In conclusion, can I say that this legislation is a good moment in this parliament. Some of the best moments since I’ve been here, whether I’ve been on the majority or minority side, have been conscience votes. I think we should have more of them, not less, frankly, whereby parliamentarians can make their contribution. I want to say that it’s particularly good to be with people like the member for Sydney, the member for Melbourne Ports and the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate, Penny Wong, in particular, who has shown such courage over a long period of time, in internal and external debates, to get us to the position we’re in today. The member for Leichhardt has also shown great courage in advancing this issue within his party, and I pay tribute to him and others who have been prepared to really push this issue and ensure this reform happens.
It is, however, of course, the Australian people who have led the parliament on this issue. I’ve been convinced for some time that a majority of Australians had shifted their view to favour marriage equality some time ago. I hear many Australians say: ‘I didn’t used to support marriage equality. I do now.’ I don’t know of anyone who has said it to me the other way around—who has changed their mind from ‘yes’ to ‘no’. Australians want us to live and let live. They’ve decided that as individuals we have no right to cast judgements on love as it is felt by others. I commend the bill to the House. (Time expired)