Peny Wong: I rise to speak on the Marriage Law Survey (Additional Safeguards (Bill) Bill 2017. This bill cannot cure a flawed process. It cannot stop all the hurt, all the prejudice that is being expressed, all the lack of acceptance that is being communicated to LGBTI persons and to same-sex-couple families. But it provides limited protections, and on that basis the opposition will be supporting it. I want to acknowledge Senator Cormann’s work with stakeholders, the opposition and others, the crossbench, to reach agreement on the matters contained in this bill. I also recognise the efforts of Mr Dreyfus and Ms Butler from the Labor Party.
Labor regrets that this bill is necessary. It wouldn’t have been necessary if the Prime Minister had shown some leadership on this issue—if he had been prepared to grant a free vote and have this parliament do its job. We all remember the origins of the plebiscite, which Senator Cormann has extolled the virtues of. In August 2015 there was a very long party room meeting to discuss a public vote on marriage equality, and what did we get?
This policy of a plebiscite was dreamt up—another obstacle, another hurdle, another delay; an obstacle designed by hardline opponents, Mr Abbott and Senator Abetz, to make it more difficult for equality to be achieved.
A plebiscite is a pretty cruel and cynical tactic. It is a mechanism designed by those who will never agree with equality in this country on this issue. It’s a policy that had its origins in the dying days of the Abbott prime ministership but it was taken on by Mr Turnbull almost as an article of faith. That, I think, has been to his detriment and to the great disappointment of many people in this country. I thank the Senate for its rejection of the plebiscite on no fewer than two occasions. It would have been good if that had led the government to recognise that it was time for parliament to do its job—to do what millions of Australians wanted, which was to get a vote done on an issue that has, regrettably, been unresolved for too many years. When this chamber did the right thing, did what the Australian people sought—to vote against a political tactic—the government turned to a non-legislative method, which is, of course, the flawed postal survey that we are now confronted with. We are having a $122 million survey because the Prime Minister doesn’t want a vote in the parliament. There are very few times when you get a number on someone’s weakness but we have one: $122 million. It is a waste of time and a waste of money. As I have said, we oppose this survey, but those of us who support marriage equality on all sides have to campaign to win it. We are where we are and we have to stand up for our values.
I do want to make clear that this bill doesn’t in any way legitimise the survey process. It is a government trying to clear up a mess of its own creation. In fact, I suggest the bill is itself an admission by this government that there is harm already being inflicted by this survey process, a harm which creates a need for protections. We didn’t want this process. We don’t agree with it. But now we’re in it we have to fight it. As part of that, Labor has negotiated in good faith with the government and we have secured important concessions from the government on this bill, including strong anti-vilification provisions. The aim is to stop LGBTI Australians and their families as well as Australians with religious convictions from facing attack. We thank the government for their work with us on this bill. It’s a shame they couldn’t have worked quite as hard with us on getting a free vote in the parliament. That would have been a better use of our time.
I won’t go in detail to the content of the bill. I understand there is a desire for us to progress this quickly, given the time frame. But I do want to make a few points about hate speech, which has been raised by the Minister for Finance. At the outset we said that we would hold the Prime Minister and the government responsible for the hateful speech, the hateful arguments, which are already being seen in the Australian community on this issue. I want to make it clear: this bill does not absolve the Prime Minister of responsibility for that. This bill provides limited protections but it is the Prime Minister and the parliament that have to continue to set the tone in this debate.
My father was a Colombo Plan scholar to Australia in the sixties, when the White Australia policy was still in place. He tells stories about being invited to the homes of very educated, very polite, eastern suburbs Adelaide people. He said, ‘They were very polite to me and gave me cups of tea, but they didn’t want me to take their daughters out.’ I am often reminded of that in this debate. I will come to some of the more hateful things which have already been said, but I want to make this clear: sometimes prejudice comes in very polite forms. Sometimes a lack of acceptance and disrespect comes with a great deal of courtesy—but it lands, nevertheless.
I think I’m pretty used to this debate, but I didn’t want to read John Howard on the front page of The Australian on the weekend, saying again what sorts of families were optimal, what sorts of families were good and why my family’s not. I don’t want to read that again. If I feel like that, how do you think it feels for the children in same-sex couple families or to LGBTI Australians everywhere to be told politely and courteously, ‘Actually, you’re not quite normal; your families aren’t as good’?
It is so disappointing, but predictable, that those who are opposed to marriage equality in this debate want to debate everything but the actual issue. They want to talk about our children. They want to talk about—what’s the phrase?—’radical gay sex education’. They want to talk about genderless societies. They want to talk about a whole range of quite odd, bizarre and unconnected things because they don’t want to say what they actually mean, which is: ‘We don’t think gay people should be equal.’ That’s actually what they think. But they know that doesn’t fly, they know that doesn’t work, so they’ve got to find a whole range of extraneous arguments to utilise instead.
What I would say to the decent people on the other side—there are some, and I count Senator Cormann among them—and to the Prime Minister is: you need to stand up on this. You need to stop our children being the collateral damage of the war against equality. You need to stand up and say, when people tell you that this is about the benefit of the children, that it’s not—that the value of parenting is not measured by gender or sexual orientation; it is in the love and care and stability and support and commitment that defines a family. So I would say to the Prime Minister: this bill does something, but it doesn’t do enough, and you need to stand up for those Australians who don’t have a voice. You need to stand up for our children. You need to tell them that their families are not lesser, are not abnormal, and you need to tell young, or all, LGBTI Australians that they, too, are accepted.
I do applaud the Prime Minister for being part of the I think it’s ‘Libs and Nats for yes’ campaign which I saw on the weekend, but his responsibility does not end there; nor does all of our responsibility, because those of us in this parliament have an opportunity to set the tone of this debate. It is in part set by this bill, but it is in greater part set by the way in which leaders across this parliament, voices across this parliament, speak about this issue.
Senator Cormann said, when he last tried to introduce the plebiscite legislation, that this could be a unifying moment for Australians, and I responded. What I would say today is, if we win this survey, it will be a unifying moment for Australians not because of this government but despite this government. It will be unifying moment despite this government and because of the goodness of the Australian people.
This will be a very difficult campaign. I said I’d come back to some of the things which are being said. We’ve got robocalls saying that marriage equality will lead to radical gay sex education; pamphlets into the Chinese community saying that homosexuality is the curse of death, that this is about terminating the family bloodline; and a whole range of other, more obscene things. And I say to the Prime Minister: you know what you should do? You should be out there condemning this. You should be writing to the Chinese community in those areas in Sydney and Melbourne where this misleading information has been put out. You should be using the authority of your office to at least ensure you say to people, ‘Whatever your views on marriage, the vote is not about these issues. It is not about a whole range of extraneous issues. It is about this one issue, which is whether or not we believe in equality for Australians when it comes to the civil institution of marriage.’
As I said I think in 2012, when I stood here—or I might have been there; I can’t remember!—and voted for marriage equality, we’ve come a long way on this. The Australian community has come a long way. Let’s remember it was my state of South Australia that first decriminalised homosexuality in 1975, and it took 22 years for that fight to be finalised across this country, when Tasmania finally did so in 1997. We made progress at a federal level with the election of the Rudd Labor government. We amended over 80 pieces of legislation to remove discrimination against LGBTI couples. Meanwhile, countries such as Spain, Canada, South Africa, Norway, Sweden, Argentina, Denmark, France, Brazil, England, Scotland, the US, Ireland and many others now recognise marriage between same-sex partners. But we are here, and I hope the next time I speak on this it will be after we have managed to win this fight and we can have a free vote in the parliament and get this matter dealt with.
But to return, in conclusion, to the campaign and its outcome, as I said, if this a unifying moment, it will be because of the good-heartedness of the Australian people. Amidst all of the hateful things that are said, politely and abusively, I take comfort from—I take faith from—the sort of open-heartedness and acceptance that I have experienced in my life: on the birth of our children, the generosity of so many strangers, sending gifts, sending cards, sending messages, sending flowers, sending lots of clothes; having people stop me and congratulate us; and the way in which, when we drop our daughter off at school, parents of other kids talk to us and ask us about the latest happenings, or, when they drop their kids off for playdates, sit down and have a cup of tea and talk about what the class is doing. In these simple acts there is an acceptance and a respect that I hope will win in a debate that, thus far, has been too much characterised by a lack of acceptance and a lack of respect. I encourage those on the other side to stand with us in providing that leadership about the nature of the debate to come.