Senator SESELJA (Australian Capital Territory—Assistant Minister for Social Services and Multicultural Affairs) (11:45): I too rise to speak on the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017. This is, as we all know, an important bill and an important debate. It’s one we’ve been having for some time in this country. It’s important to go over how we got here. In the 2016 election the coalition took to the Australian people a clear commitment to give them their say on whether or not to change the Marriage Act to allow same-sex marriage. We have honoured that promise. We did it because giving people their say reflects the fact that the question of marriage is about the nature of one of the most foundational institutions not only in our society but in societies and cultures throughout the world. We should also note that advocates here in this place and indeed around the country said that this should just be left to the parliament. It’s worth reflecting that the parliament has actually considered this issue four separate times between 2010 and 2013, and every time a bill to allow same-sex marriage failed.

Let’s not forget as we debate this bill today that there are people in this very chamber who in the past have called their opponents bigots or suggested that those opposed to same-sex marriage hold those views. Those very same people will celebrate what they say is a great victory, knowing full well that in many cases, when given the opportunity, they said no in the parliament as well. We are reminded of Senator Wong’s words in 2010 on the issue of marriage:

… I think the reality is there is a cultural, religious, historical view around that which we have to respect.

Now, of course, Senator Wong is entitled to change her views, as is anyone else. But I make the point, as I made during much of the discussion, that simply because some people have changed their views—and even a majority, as we found in the survey—it does not mean that the millions of Australians who hold a different view are somehow doing it as a result of bigotry, any more than Senator Wong was doing it as a result of bigotry in 2010. Former PM Julia Gillard has also changed her views subsequent to being in political life. It’s important that we don’t let the Labor Party rewrite history. They were in government when those bills came before the parliament, and many of their members and senators said no.

We pursued the option to give Australians a say—firstly, through a plebiscite and, then, because we weren’t able to get support for that in the Senate because of Labor and the Greens opposition, through a postal survey to give Australians their say. I should note of course that this all could have been over with nearly 12 months ago had we had a plebiscite from the outset. With a turnout near enough to 80 per cent, it’s clear that Australians did indeed want to have their say and they embraced the process.

I believe it was a largely respectful conversation. Unfortunately, despite that, there were some ugly examples of extremism. I was concerned to see at the University of Sydney a group of students who offered a free barbecue and an invitation to engage in conversation about these issues from the ‘no’ perspective physically and verbally abused and shouted down by yes campaigners and the police needing to be involved to calm the situation. Heidi McIvor, one of the mums who featured in the no campaign TV advertisements, received threats to burn down her church, the City Builders Church in Sale, where Heidi and her husband are both pastors. Their names and phone numbers were splashed all over Facebook and her husband was targeted with a steady stream of abuse. Dr Pansy Lai, who featured in the no campaign TV advertisements, was targeted by a petition calling for her medical registration to be reviewed. She was threatened by people who called her medical clinic and said that they would turn up at her practice and that she had better ring security. A launch event in Melbourne was interrupted by gay marriage protesters yelling, ‘Crucify the Christians,’ and waving a banner declaring ‘Burn churches not queers’.

I understand that there were examples of extremism by some people opposed to the change, and we saw a few examples of that. Can I say, though, that I didn’t see during the debate any organisations arguing against the ‘no’ campaign in any way employing some of those tactics that groups like GetUp!, when it came to Pansy Lai, engaged in. I think that was an unfortunate part of some people’s response. But, that said, the vast majority of Australian people didn’t engage in that kind of behaviour, didn’t engage in that kind of speech. In fact, the Prime Minister was absolutely right when he said we trusted the Australian people to have a respectful debate, to do the right thing. There will always be fringe elements in our society who, regardless of what the debate is, regardless of the legal framework, will unfortunately do the wrong thing. But we do have faith in the Australian people.

Personally, my views on marriage are well-known and on the record. I supported the ‘no’ campaign and, while I remain firm in my convictions, I will, as I have said all along, accept the will of the Australian people, and the law will now be changed to allow same-sex couples to marry. My views on marriage have been well-known for a long time. While all legal protections and rights should be afforded to same-sex couples, as the parliament has previously done, there is a place for preserving the unique nature of marriage between a man and a woman as the ideal situation to raise children. I said in an opinion piece early in the campaign that that doesn’t mean that other families aren’t able to provide stable and loving homes for their kids, or that married men and women aren’t sometimes neglectful or abusive. But there is a uniqueness to the male-female relationship that as of today is still expressed in Australian law. It soon won’t be as a result of this survey. In the end, I disagree with that. I voted no in the survey, but at the outset I said I would respect the will of the Australian people. If we are going to go to the trouble of asking them what their view is on this very important issue, we need to respect it.

I acknowledge that a little over 60 per cent of Australians expressed a view in favour of changing the definition. I said before the plebiscite that if the Australian people voted to change the definition of marriage I would honour that in the parliament. I will, therefore, be voting yes at the second reading stage to allow the bill to go forward. I will then be supporting amendments which strengthen the legislation, because I firmly believe that this cannot be a blank cheque—changing this legislation does have consequences. The reality is that in countries where the definition of marriage has changed there have been flow-on effects on education, parental choice, freedom of speech and freedom of religion. These are the facts, but those on the ‘yes’ campaign have assured us throughout this debate that changing the Marriage Act will have no implications beyond marriage. I would hope that to be the case, but that hasn’t always been the case in other places.

After same-sex marriage was legalised in the UK we saw the Vishnitz Girls School, an orthodox Jewish school, fail three inspections by the education authority, Ofsted, and face closure because they refused to teach their students a Safe Schools type of curriculum. Once this became more public we saw lobby groups saying it was an untrue claim. However, an Ofsted spokesperson confirmed that they later amended the report on the school so it did not make any references to sexual orientation and gender reassignment, even though it initially had. In Canada, referring to a person other than by their preferred gender pronoun is now punishable by law. In Canada, programs like Safe Schools were optional before same-sex marriage was legalised but now have become compulsory, even for faith-based schools. There was a famous legal battle starting in 2010 involving Canadian parent Steve Tourloukis’s request to exclude his children from these programs. This was rejected by the school because the programs were embedded in the curriculum. The Ontario Superior Court acknowledged his parental rights were being infringed upon but sided with the school and refused his request. In Canada, the Law Society of Upper Canada refuses to recognise law degrees of graduates from Trinity Western University because the students sign a personal agreement to reserve their own sexual activity for heterosexual marriage. In 2016, in Ontario, the All Families Are Equal Act of 2016 has replaced all references to ‘mother’ or ‘father’ in the law to ‘parent’, and birth certificates now enable up to four parents with equal rights to the child to be included.

Some would say that just because this has happened overseas doesn’t necessarily mean it will happen here. That may be the case but that has often been the push. The question for us going forward will be: will we put in place protections to ensure that that sort of thing doesn’t happen? I think that that’s a very reasonable discussion for us to have. There’d be very few people who would defend many of those instances. There would be very few people who would want to see a situation where, in Australia, if you have a traditional view of marriage, you would somehow no longer be able to practise law. Those sorts of things would be a real concern if we saw the imposing of this view on the entire community. We can look at some concerning examples here in Australia which have happened before the law has changed, and we can consider whether or not those situations will get worse or better once the law is in fact changed here in the next couple of weeks.

During the campaign, we’ve seen activists and yes advocates try to bully people into silence and threaten the jobs and livelihoods of people who believe marriage is between a man and a woman. Here in Canberra, we had the story of Madeline the kid’s party entertainer who was fired because of a Facebook post saying she would vote no. We had the ACT education minister threaten the freedom of speech and religion of Brindabella Christian College because they advocated for traditional marriage during this campaign. We saw activists associated with GetUp! attempt to deregister Dr Pansy Lai after she appeared in an ad by the Coalition for Marriage. And, before this process began, we saw the attempt to drag Archbishop Julian Porteous before a tribunal because, as a Catholic bishop, he advocated for the Catholic view on marriage in a Catholic-school context. We must recall that Archbishop Porteous was expressing not just his faith but also the law of the land. His case is a stark example of the need to add protections into this bill to ensure freedom of speech and religion are protected. Of course, some of the efforts to silence people in Australia have thankfully failed. This has all happened before the law has changed, and advocates and activists have shown their intentions. Most people who voted yes don’t want to see activists using the law to stop people from expressing their views. Most yes voters don’t fall into that category. But examples, both here in Australia and overseas, show that this fact doesn’t necessarily stop the activists from seeking to do exactly that.

As we now consider this change in legislation, I think it is time for those who want this change to make good on all those assurances they have given in the last three months—that is, that this change in the definition of marriage will have no impacts on personal freedom of conscience, religion and speech. This vote has shown that over 4.8 million Australians voted against this change, and, if we are to be a truly representative body in this parliament, we do need to take their concerns seriously as well as the views of the majority who voted yes. The yes side campaigned on a platform that was very clear: there would be no consequences to this change. Their mandate is to deliver this change, ensuring there is no deterioration of religious freedom and freedom of speech, nor changes to parents’ choice in how their kids are educated.

Shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus told a group of same-sex marriage advocates that Labor would be happy to water down religious freedom protections in a same-sex marriage bill, or certainly seemed to suggest that in the comments that were publicised. I haven’t heard whether he’s retracted those comments, but I would welcome it if he has. I think this is completely out of step with the Australian public, because it is interesting that the Newspoll, which pretty accurately predicted how people would vote on the same-sex marriage survey, also, at the same time, asked about religious freedom protections, and 62 per cent of those polled said that parliament should provide guarantees in law for freedom of conscience, belief and religion if it legislates for same-sex marriage. Importantly, many people were undecided. Only 18 per cent in that Newspoll said that they didn’t want to see those kinds of protections. The very same poll that suggested Australians would vote roughly 60-40 in favour of same-sex marriage had those very same people saying that they thought, if that change happened, they did want to see protections for religion and speech and parental rights. I call on those in the Labor Party and, indeed, others in the place who support changing the Marriage Act to repudiate these statements and stand by their commitment to protect religious freedom.

I note this bill includes protections for religious ministers so they cannot be forced to perform same-sex marriage ceremonies. There are protections relating to church buildings and halls. I welcome these protections. I know that in the committee stage further amendments will be introduced to extend these protections. These will be welcome and, I believe, should be supported by senators because these freedoms are fundamental to any democratic and free society, and they apply to everyone.

As experience overseas has clearly demonstrated, it’s not sufficient to take the narrow view of these rights and apply them only to ministers of religion and to church buildings. Freedom of religion and conscience is also important for what schools teach. It’s important for people who take a different view to what the law says about marriage to not have to suffer discrimination or detriment as a result of those views. These are practical concerns, and legislation in this parliament needs to be clear about protecting those people as well.

In particular, experience overseas has shown that with same-sex marriage comes issues around parental choice, and I have highlighted some of those already. I firmly believe, and I think it should be relatively uncontroversial to say, that most Australian mums and dads believe that they get to have a say in what their kids are taught about values, about sex education, about gender and relationships. I think we should protect that. I think that parents would agree that, if a school is introducing a program that teaches gender fluidity, they should be informed; they should know about it. They should have the ability to not have their kids taught those kinds of programs. The Safe Schools program was in many cases introduced into schools without parents being aware of its contents. It taught about sexuality and gender in a way that most parents would not be comfortable with, and of course this happened before the laws were changed. We’ve now got a situation where the law will be changed. In other countries we have seen flow-on impacts, and it’s been harder for those individual parents who object to be able to object, as I’ve pointed out. Again, those in the yes campaign said there wouldn’t be flow-on effects in education, so I think it’s important that we back that up, that we don’t just necessarily take it on trust, that we look at experience overseas and we look to avoid that. As I mentioned, in an orthodox Jewish school in the UK and in schools in Canada, we have seen those kinds of impacts.

In conclusion, I think that, overall, going to the Australian people and asking for their views on such an important issue—which, let’s face it, parliament had been deadlocked on in the past—was the right thing to do. I think that showing respect to the Australian people as a result of that is also necessary. I think, in respecting the views of the majority, who voted yes, we shouldn’t completely reject the views of the millions of Australians—the nearly 40 per cent—who voted ‘no’. Likewise, we shouldn’t be ignoring the fact that many voted yes expressing the very strong view that they wanted to see these kinds of protections; they wanted to see these additional protections beefed up.

We now have a choice, as this parliament considers this bill. This bill will go through the parliament. The question for us will be: will this be a unifying moment for us as a nation or will it be one where the views of millions of no voters, and in fact many yes voters, are simply cast aside because the numbers are there to do it? I would commend senators to consider very carefully those amendments so that we can in fact have a unifying moment here in this parliament and not one that simply brushes aside the millions and millions of Australians who have a different view or are concerned about what these kinds of changes could mean.

Chamber Senate on 27/11/2017 Item BILLS – Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017 Speaker: Seselja, Sen Zed/ Source: Parliment of Australia Website 2017 Transcript used for reporting News