Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS (New South Wales—Minister for International Development and the Pacific) (16:33): I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this debate on the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017. In doing so, I echo the sentiments of almost five million Australians who, like me, voted no. Some senators have touched on the history of the Marriage Act. You would think that the traditional definition of marriage commenced only in 2004, conveniently overlooking the fact that the amendment passed the parliament with barely a whisper of opposition. In fact, the division on the final bill even showed Senator Wong as listed among the ayes.
The Howard amendment, of course, merely confirmed what common law—a near universal understanding—had known for centuries: that marriage is the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others voluntarily entered into for life. Today, even to suggest this point of view quickly leads to cries of bigotry or to being labelled homophobic or fascist.
The coalition government went to the last election with a commitment to the Australian people to hold the plebiscite on this matter. The plebiscite was blocked by a cabal led by Labor and the Greens. Why? Because they feared going to a general election at the same time that Australians would be asked to vote on changing the definition of marriage. Eight of the top 10 ‘no’ voting electorates were Labor-held seats, mostly in Western Sydney. This highlights Labor’s hypocrisy. They knew their MPs, including those on the Right, who in the past had supported the views of their electorates, had given in to Labor’s Left flank and were compelled to vote yes. There was no way that Labor would expose their MPs to a vote at a general election when those MPs were advocating the opposite of what many of their constituents believed and wanted, and, more importantly, by those constituents who had been stacked into their Labor branches. Labor cynically opposed the plebiscite. We saw sanctimonious and false protestations of concern for the feelings of same-sex couples. This was just a smokescreen. Sussex Street knew very well the sentiment on the street of these electorates.
The Turnbull government, faced with the defeat of the plebiscite bill, opted for a non-binding and voluntary postal survey. The survey provided the ignition of intense passion from both sides. Regrettably, the vitriol seemed to have been primarily directed at the ‘no’ camp. Most of the calls to my office were rude and abusive. Whilst no federal moneys were provided to the respective camps, we did see taxpayers’ money and resources used. You could not walk through the CBD of Sydney without seeing the sea of ‘yes’ campaign flags, all funded by the City of Sydney ratepayers. You could not walk around Canberra without seeing the rainbow-coloured buses funded by the ACT taxpayer.
The campaign to redefine marriage was well-resourced, funded and campaign-hardened. It had advocated its position for more than a decade. Their campaign website boasted support from 884 corporations, including iconic Australian brands such as Qantas, CBA and the NRMA. CEOs were anxious to join the rainbow message, giving little or no thought to the views of their shareholders, workers, or, for that matter, using their money to fund a political cause like this. A conveniently overlooked statistic is that 16 million voters were eligible to participate and of those just 7.8 million returned a ‘yes’ on this survey form. This represents 48 per cent of the voting population. This is not the enormous majority that the elites are spinning. Indeed, it is not a majority at all. In fact, 52 per cent of the voting population either voted no or did not vote at all. In my home state of New South Wales, the figure was higher, with 54.2 per cent of eligible voters either voting no or not voting at all. I do not mention this to undermine or belittle the result. I do so to merely provide context and underscore the irrefutable fact that more than half of Australia has not embraced this issue in the way in which we have been led to believe.
Since 1945, we have welcomed 7.5 million migrants to Australia. We have grown to a population of over 24 million people, with half of us either born overseas or having at least one parent born overseas. A quarter of us speak a language other than English at home. Indeed, some don’t speak English at all. No region in our country better reflects this than Western Sydney. Of the 17 federal electorates that voted no, 12 were in my state of New South Wales, with the majority falling within Western Sydney. As I said earlier, eight of the top 10 ‘no’ voting seats are currently held by Labor. According to the 2016 census data, each of these electorates has a population born overseas, exceeding the national average. Most of these electorates have second language speakers at levels almost double the national average. Many of these seats have been my patron seats during my time as a senator. I know these communities. As I said at the National Press Club two years ago and as I have repeated on other occasions, in an ageing, culturally and religiously diverse Australia the polls were not reflecting the ‘no’ sentiment of many of these communities.
Some have suggested that the swell in the ‘no’ result is due to the rising influence of Islam. This argument might have credibility if we looked at just Blaxland and Watson, with Islamic populations of 29.2 per cent and 23.4 per cent respectively. But what of the other electorates? How does this reconcile with the result in Parramatta, with a Hindu population almost double that of the Islamic population, or in Fowler, where the Buddhist population totals more than three times that of the local Islamic community. Let’s look more closely at some of these seats, not just in terms of the participation rate but at the actual eligible voters in those seats who voted no.
The highest ‘no’ vote in the country was in Jason Clare’s seat of Blaxland. It returned a 73.9 per cent ‘no’ vote, with a 75.2 per cent participation rate. Of it’s 104,000 or so eligible voters, almost 58,000, or 55.5 per cent of the electorate, voted no. The second highest was in Tony Burke’s seat of Watson: participation, 77 per cent; ‘no’, almost 70 per cent. In this seat, 53.5 per cent voted no. The third highest was Chris Bowen’s seat of McMahon, returning an almost 65 per cent ‘no’ vote. Of its 107,000 or so voters, 50.4 per cent voted no. The pattern was the same in Anne Stanley’s seat of Werriwa. Next was Chris Hayes’s seat of Fowler, where the vote certainly reflected the views of the local member. However, people like Chris Hayes will be stifled. Fowler returned a 63.7 per cent ‘no’ vote, with a 72.4 per cent participation rate. Of its 106,000 voters, 46 per cent voted no. And the story goes on in other seats, like Parramatta, Chifley and Barton.
As the most recent census reveals, Australia is increasingly a story of religious diversity, with Hinduism, Sikhism, Islam and Buddhism all increasingly common religious beliefs. The reality is that the support for traditional values transcends all faiths. Importantly, we must understand the values that come with this cultural diversity. Migrants have come from the four corners of the globe, bringing with them a fierce determination to succeed but also a set of values and beliefs based on family, faith, hard work and self-reliance. But, above all, a respect for the traditional family unit has become the cornerstone of success for so many migrant families. Call it traditional values, call it conservative values: these are the building blocks upon which millions of migrants in this country have built their success story. For me, they are the values that shaped my upbringing as I was growing up in working-class Wollongong.
Those who seek to dismiss these values and beliefs in contemporary Australia fail to take into account the influences of that diversity. Those who advocate a rich and diverse immigration program must ponder the consequences of silencing these values. Our diverse and pluralistic society will be put in jeopardy if we ignore the views of our religiously and culturally diverse community. Unless we provide for religious freedoms we are risking alienating those we seek to include and grow strong with. The strong vote in Western Sydney also demonstrated the strength of our interfaith dialogue. Faith leaders from across the entire religious spectrum worked very closely together to defend the fundamental tenet that is common to all their religions: that marriage is between a man and a woman.
Let me say to the people of Western Sydney, to our rich and diverse migrant communities and to the almost five million Australians who rejected the notion of redefining marriage: we hear you, we have supported you and we will continue to support you. Many of you have in the past placed your faith and trust in Labor. Indeed, at the ‘no’ campaign in Sydney I urged community and religious leaders to ignore any pressure that may be put on them by those pushing for a ‘yes’ vote and to stay true to themselves and to the communities they represent and continue to advocate a ‘no’ vote. Labor has ignored your views. They are not listening to you. They have abandoned your values and are seeking to crush what you hold so dear. You should never be made to feel that your values are wrong or your concerns insignificant.
Since the release of the survey result, the leading ‘yes’ campaigners have dismissed the need for the protection of basic freedoms that would be lost should this bill be passed in its current form, and this really worries me. This bill provides protections surrounding the wedding ceremony, but only to ministers of religion. It fails to address protections for speech, conscientious objection and broader religious rights. Freedom of religion is a broader concept than mere freedom or worship. Religion is a whole-of-life concept. For some, it shapes their entire world view and how he or she interacts in daily life. I believe the alleged religious safeguards in this bill are not adequate.
Whilst we commonly refer to Australian values encompassing freedom of speech and freedom of religion, it is unclear to what extent there is an implied right to religious protection under section 116 of the Australian Constitution. The most relevant case dates back to 1912, Krygger v Williams, where the High Court upheld the law requiring attendance at compulsory peacetime military training by an individual who conscientiously objected on religious grounds. The court held:
To require a man to do a thing which has nothing at all to do with religion is not prohibiting him from a free exercise of religion.
If this reason were adopted by the contemporary High Court then, arguably, section 116 might offer a very limited constitutional protection for a person who may be required by Commonwealth law to carry out acts which conflict with his or her religious beliefs.
Senator Fawcett will foreshadow five sets of amendments which I and other senators will be supporting. They represent (1) the definitions of marriage and traditional marriage celebrants and the basis for refusing to solemnise a marriage; (2) a new part VAA of the Marriage Act, ‘Protection of freedoms’; (3) chaplains and authorised officers; (4) charitable and tax status; and (5) amendments to the Sex Discrimination Act. These amendments, informed by extensive research and legal advice, cover key areas of concern including: that the definition of ‘marriage’ should separately recognise both man-woman marriage and two-person marriage as valid marriages in Australian law; religious and conscientious protections to celebrants; freedom of expression and recognising legitimate beliefs; an antidetriment shield provision protecting individuals and organisations with a genuine traditional marriage conviction from being subjected to unfavourable treatment by public authorities because they hold, express or lawfully act on that conviction; freedom from being required to express, associate with or endorse a statement or opinion about marriage which is inconsistent with a person’s or organisation’s genuine religious or conscientious convictions about marriage; protections for charities; nondiscrimination in government funding; protection of religious bodies and schools; and parents having the right to withdraw children from certain classes.
I welcome the decision by cabinet last week to establish a panel of eminent Australians led by Philip Ruddock to consider the adequacy of religious protections. However, the Ruddock committee will not report until March next year, and therefore it is vitally important that this bill be amended now. Any further legislative changes can be considered after the Ruddock committee reports.
The legalisation of same-sex marriage without adequate protections for freedom of religion and conscience will have very real and very serious consequences. We have already seen some of these consequences overseas where same-sex marriage has been made legal. In September this year, the English High Court ruled that a Pentecostal couple was ineligible to adopt children as the couple was unlikely to celebrate homosexuality. This was despite the court’s acknowledgement of the couple’s outstanding record of adoption, because equality provisions concerning sexual orientation should take precedence. This case is yet to run its full course, but it is easy to foresee the calamitous discriminatory effect it will have upon prospective parents of faith. Heartbreakingly, a number of faith-based orphanages and adoption agencies in the UK and the US have been forced to close due to the incompatibility of their religious tenets and the provision of their services to gay adoptive parents. The consequences of legalising same-sex marriage go much further than the mere act of marriage itself. Numerous organisations, particularly religiously affiliated ones, are threatened by vague protections: employment agencies, charities, social housing, refugee services, retirement homes and hospitals—the list goes on.
Worryingly, we have already begun to see the ugly beginnings of it here at home. During this survey campaign, we saw a number of doctors and medical staff being disparaged and accused of violating the medical Code of Ethics and even being threatened with deregistration by the ‘yes’ campaign simply because they voiced their objections to same-sex marriage. An 18-year-old Canberra girl lost her job as a children’s entertainer for holding traditional views on marriage. Last year a Green activist dragged Hobart’s Archbishop Julian Porteous through a lengthy legal process following the archbishop’s pastoral letter defending the Catholic Church’s teachings on marriage. We cannot permit those that hold values based on religious teachings to be silenced through our court systems with time-consuming, costly and stressful antidiscrimination suits. As a constituent recently wrote to me, the process becomes as much about a punishment as about any outcome.
Religious and conscientious exemptions in this critical area must be unequivocal and must be implemented nationwide. One issue I hold serious concerns about is the impact this bill will have on our schools. Parents, school administrators and teachers have raised these concerns directly with me. Any proposition to redefine marriage, whether or not we want to admit it, has implications for children, particularly in the school curriculum and especially in religiously diverse schools. In the UK, teachers with traditional religious beliefs have lost their jobs when refusing to teach about same-sex marriage and parents have been denied the right to withdraw their children from these classes. Independent schools—most recently, a Jewish girls’ school in north London—failed school assessments for inadequate promotion of homosexuality and gender reassignment as it failed to ensure a full understanding of fundamental British values. These examples highlight the validity of the principal concerns cited. They cannot be ignored.
Once this bill is passed it will be law. It will be part of our culture and an integral part of our civil rights. The opportunity is presented to us as parliamentarians to be part of a unifying piece of legislation that allows those wanting to be married to do so whilst allowing another significant part of our nation to hold true to their values and beliefs also. Let us keep this diversity, this tolerant and pluralistic Australian community where freedoms are strong and stable; where people can maintain and flourish in their culture whilst embracing this wonderful country; and, above all, where they practise their faith and where they can raise their family according to long-held convictions, beliefs and culture. This is what makes our uniquely multicultural society the envy of the world. As legislators we cannot abdicate our responsibilities and leave this to chance. We must ensure the inclusion of substantial religious protections for all Australians of faith in this bill. The 52 per cent of the Australian voting public who either voted no or did not vote deserve consideration. They deserve respect and they deserve inclusion of their fundamental principles and beliefs before passage of this bill.
Source: Chamber Senate on 27/11/2017 Item BILLS – Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017 – Second Reading Speaker: Fierravanti-Wells, Sen Concetta/ Parliment of Australia Website 2017 Transcript used for reporting News (CC Copyright Information)