Marriage Equality

Adjourned debate on motion of Hon. I.K. Hunter:

That this council—

1. Notes the Irish public have overwhelmingly voted 'yes' in the referendum on the 34 th Amendment of the Constitution (Marriage Equality) Bill 2015; and

2. Congratulates the people of Ireland for voting in favour of legalising same-sex marriage.

(Continued from 28 October 2015.)

The Hon. S.G. WADE ( 21:55 :22 ): I rise to indicate that I support the motion. I have consistently supported non-discrimination in the recognition of relationships by government. In relation to the institution of marriage, I would prefer that the government stepped back from legislating marriage, and allowed faith and other communities to solemnise marriage within their own communities in accordance with their own religious beliefs, customs and understanding of marriage, subject to the general constraints of community standards, such as minimum age and prohibition of abuse.

As a Christian I know that the commonwealth Marriage Act of 1961 does not reflect the teachings of Christ in relation to marriage. If the consecration and oversight of marriage by a faith community were separated from relationship recognition by government, Christian churches and communities would be able to more effectively and more clearly communicate our understanding of marriage. Some faith and other communities accept same-sex marriage and relationships and others do not. That is a matter for each of them. But, as for government, it is my view governments should recognise same-sex relationships and not discriminate against them.

Having restated my general view, I now turn to this motion. To be blunt, I consider this motion is irrelevant. It is irrelevant to this parliament, because in the Australian federation it is the commonwealth parliament that has constitutional responsibility for marriage, not the legislatures of the states. Further, I think the motion is condescending to the Irish people, as if their democratic decision needs validation by a regional parliament of another nation.

Perhaps the key noteworthy element of this motion is that the Honourable Minister is in conflict with the federal leader of his own party. The Minister is embracing a popular vote on marriage equality in Ireland, while his leader is rejecting one for Australia. Nonetheless, as I have said, I support non-discrimination in relationship recognition. I will support this motion as a reaffirmation of that principle.

The Hon. T.A. FRANKS (21:57:26): I rise to support this motion and to congratulate Ireland on moving forward on equality and to look forward, hopefully, to the day when Australia might be similarly congratulated by other countries around the world. As we know, Ireland did have a constitutional referendum and did vote yes to marriage equality. It is quite timely that this motion comes to a vote in this place because this very week we have seen the first marriages begin to take place in Ireland.

One of the very first couples to tie the knot there, according to the Irish Independent, is Delores Murphy and Mabel Stoop-Murphy. They will be one of the first couples, because they were already joined in civil union, so therefore they do not have to wait the three-month long betrothal process, which is the case in Ireland. Those already in civil partnerships, which had been available since 2011, only had to give five days' notice.

So Delores and Mabel will finally have legal rights for their two-year-old son and also will have a joyful wedding day, but a wedding day tinged with sadness. As Murphy told the Irish Independent, 'It will be bitter sweet because there will really be just the two of us and our two witnesses', and of course their son. The reason is that Murphy's father, who was present to walk both women down the aisle during their civil partnership ceremony some years back, died in 2013. Murphy goes on to say, 'My dad knew Mabel for more than 10 years, and he adored her. We are both so sad he won't be here to share this special day with us.'

That is the consequence of governments dithering on this issue where we know popular opinion is on the side of marriage equality. We know that the majority of Australians support marriage equality, and yet we continue to see dithering from leaders who toy with the idea of an expensive plebiscite—a plebiscite which would cost $158.4 million if held outside of a general election. This would be an incredibly expensive $158.4 million opinion poll, when opinion poll after opinion poll tells us what we already know, which is that the majority of Australians support marriage equality.

The only people who will be affected by marriage equality are those people who wish to get married and who are currently prevented from doing so and, of course, their family. We do not want to see more family members like those of Mabel's pass away before they can see their loved ones join their family through marriage.

Momentum continues to build for marriage equality in this country, and I commend new Greens Senator Robert Simms's efforts recently to get the Senate to reject a plebiscite. I note that that motion that he put to the Senate passed on the voices there with the support of Liberal, Labor, Greens, Independents and crossbenchers. Indeed, the Senate joins parliaments in New South Wales and WA in rejecting a marriage equality plebiscite. As Senator Robert Simms says, 'Australians don't want another opinion poll on this issue. They want the Parliament to legislate.'

There was no need for a referendum when the Marriage Act was changed under prime minister Howard; there is no need for a plebiscite now. With those few words, I commend this motion to the house, because these discussions mean that marriage equality will not be dropped from the agenda. We will not give up until this fight is won. The white flag is not the rainbow flag. The rainbow flag is not a flag of surrender.

The Hon. K.L. VINCENT (22:01:48): Just very briefly, I would like to put on the record my support of this motion. I doubt that that will come as a surprise to anyone in this chamber, given that I have supported marriage equality for many years, and I have also supported other measures to fight discrimination against same-sex attracted people and same-sex couples in this state and in this country.

I would take small issue with something that was said by the Hon. Mr Wade. He seemed to suggest that moving this motion was patronising to the people of Ireland. I think he said words to the effect that we were trying to validate what they had achieved there. I do not think that is what we are doing at all. I think what we are doing is recognising that the people of Ireland, like the majority of people of Australia, support marriage equality.

I think that to be good policymakers we have to look outside of our own state, outside of our own country and toward what other countries are doing and draw inspiration from them. For that reason, I do not find it patronising. I think it is quite reasonable to notice and congratulate other countries for implementing progressive policy.

Like previous speakers, however, I am not convinced that a plebiscite is the way to go. In fact, I have read several articles in the last few weeks that suggest that public support for a plebiscite drops significantly once people are made aware of how much running a plebiscite could cost. I would also argue that it should not be up to an expensive resource-intensive plebiscite to enact something that we have known for a long time now the public already supports. It should not take this hugely resource and finance-intensive measure for us to do something that the public has already been calling on us as a parliament to do for many years now. With those few brief words, I indicate my support for the motion.

The Hon. T.J. STEPHENS (22:04:17): I do not support the motion. Marriage is a matter for the Commonwealth and, although similarly to the Irish situation, the Australian people will have a say through a plebiscite, I do not think congratulation is needed. The Irish marriage law is a matter for Irish people under the Irish Constitution, and Australian marriage law is a matter for the Commonwealth Parliament under the Australian Constitution. I would prefer the Minister to turn his attention to job creation, given that we are the highest rated unemployment state in Australia, and dealing with things that are out of our jurisdiction I think is a waste of the Parliament's time.

The Hon. I.K. HUNTER (Minister for Sustainability, Environment and Conservation, Minister for Water and the River Murray, Minister for Climate Change) (22:05:04): I would like to thank all honourable members who have spoken on this motion. An awful lot has happened, of course, since this motion was moved, not the least being the fact that, as the Hon. Tammy Franks mentioned, the first Irish same-sex marriages are happening right now. In fact, I think the first one was celebrated on Tuesday of this week. As the Hon. Kelly Vincent alluded to, the genesis for moving this motion was really out of an overwhelming desire to celebrate the great triumph of the Irish people in supporting love.

The public sentiment supporting marriage equality following that referendum in Ireland has also had quite a ripple effect in Australia. I think the public sentiment around marriage equality here in Australia was boosted by the Irish result and it certainly caused some issues for the federal government and the Prime Minister at the time and his position on the issue. I understand that this, in a roundabout way, led to a six-hour joint party room meeting that not only resulted in the ire of pro marriage equality Liberal members of parliament but, also, a rather confused statement committing Australia to a plebiscite or a referendum some time in the future. I will come to those issues in a minute. I think there are many reasons why a plebiscite is the wrong way to go in Australia. That is my firmly held view.

I think it is important that we distinguish the Irish experience from that which pertains in Australia, just in passing. The Irish constitution enshrined the definition of marriage so they had to change that by a referendum. That is not the case here in Australia, and I actually agree with my colleague the Hon. Terry Stephens that marriage is an issue for the federal parliament, so let us get the federal parliament to do what it is supposed to do, and vote on marriage, not fob it off in some confused issue around a plebiscite or referendum.

One of the key reasons I think a plebiscite is wrong for us in Australia is that, simply, human rights should not be subject to a vote, I believe. I can recall a wonderful TV ad as part of the campaign in Ireland that involved a man knocking on a front door saying to the chap who opened the door, 'Hello, I'm here to ask for the hand of Siobhan in marriage,' and the rather confused looking bloke at the door says, 'Yes, okay, sure.' Then he went next door and did the same thing. He knocked on the door and said, 'Hello, I'm here to ask for the hand of Siobhan in marriage.' And so on, and so on all the way down the street and, in fact, all the way around Ireland. He was asking every Irish citizen (those who could vote) if he could have permission to get married.

Of course, the key point the ad was making was, in fact, how would you feel if you were in Ireland and you had to ask for the permission of every Irish citizen so that you could go off and get married to the person you love? I think that brought home, very clearly, to people that having to ask for permission to marry the person you love is, in fact, patronising. It is degrading. It does not reflect on human rights that we would expect to be honouring in our society today. I think it was a very humorous way of driving home a very important point.

That brings me back again to the very issue of why a plebiscite is not the way forward for Australia. As I said, human rights should not be the subject of a vote. That is why they are called rights in the first place. They should not be hostage to a majoritarian vote of a Parliament, for example, otherwise those rights could be taken away at the whim of the government of the day or those who command a majority in a particular parliamentary chamber. Equality before the law is a universal principle that should not subject a minority to the whims of the majority.

Unlike a referendum, voting in a plebiscite (which is the current thinking of the federal government, I understand) is not compulsory, neither does it bind parliament to make a decision consistent with the results of a plebiscite; and there are no guidelines (as far as I can ascertain, at least) for how plebiscites are to be conducted, and there are no rules of transparency when it comes to public or private spending on plebiscites or, indeed, public funding.

Plebiscites, as the Hon. Tammy Franks has alluded to, I think she mentioned a referendum, are hugely expensive, particularly when taken outside an election cycle. I understand the 1999 republic referendum cost Australian taxpayers about $66.8 million. In today's money that is worth about $105 million, I suppose, so that is a rough starting point for a cost, and of course estimates have been much higher for a plebiscite on this issue now.

There are those who are arguing that plebiscites can be very divisive and could provide a platform for the worst kinds of hatred that can lead to an increase in negative feelings in the community. I am not so sure about that. It is entirely possible, of course, but I would hope that the Australian public would be mature enough to have a considered debate and not descend into those scary areas, but there is that potential.

I think the most cogent argument in this regard is simply this: a plebiscite, or indeed a referendum, is just not required. The High Court has clearly confirmed that Parliament can enact marriage equality. After all, that is what happened when a former prime minister changed the act in the first place, he did it through legislation, a vote in parliament. As I said earlier, we do not need to have a referendum, unlike Ireland, which had to change its constitution.

Coming back to the genesis of the motion: it congratulates the Irish public on the success achieved from their public vote. I think it was a fantastic campaign, conducted in a very respectful way, but of course Australia is in a very different situation. The Australian parliament could legislate for marriage equality next week, if it chose to do so, if a cross-party free vote was granted. I understand that even the Liberal Party's preferred research company, Crosby/Textor, has found that 72 per cent of the public already support marriage equality, higher than many countries that already have marriage equality I would note. I understand that our new Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, conducted his own survey on marriage equality in his electorate of Wentworth and that confirmed those very figures for him.

We are increasingly becoming a bit of a stand-out on the international scene. International pressure is being brought on Australia in this regard. At a recent meeting of the United Nations Human Rights Council, members of the 23rd session of the Human Rights Council's Universal Periodic Review Working Group called on Australia to catch up with other Western countries on the issue of marriage equality. Indeed, we had a motion in this place tonight congratulating the work of the United Nations in Australia. We should pay attention to the United Nations when it reminds Australia that it needs to join the rest of the world—the parts of the world we like to compare ourselves to at the very least—in relation to this matter.

Ireland, continuing its great work advocating for equality, has urged Australia to change its marriage laws, and I thank Ireland for that. Iceland and the Netherlands have recently said that Australia has fallen behind other Western countries by failing to recognise marriage equality. The Netherlands recommended that Australia:

…revise the Marriage Act of 1961 in a way that ensures full equality with respect to the civil institution of marriage. As a strong advocate of marriage equality and equal rights for all, The Netherlands notes that Australia's Marriage Act de facto discriminates against LGBTI people.

While a referendum in Ireland was a necessity and we should applaud the Irish for taking this step and for their own overwhelming support of marriage equality, I believe our federal government also needs to heed the advice of its international colleagues, heed the advice of its own polling company and catch up to the overwhelming majority view of Australians—the federal parliament should just get on and do it, in my view. I think it is appropriate that we congratulate the Irish public for their courageous campaign and for their overwhelmingly positive decision.

 

The council divided on the motion:

Ayes10

Noes4

Majority6

 

AYES

Darley, J.A.

Dawkins, J.S.L.

Franks, T.A.

Gazzola, J.M.

Hunter, I.K. (teller)

Maher, K.J.

Ngo, T.T.

Parnell, M.C.

Vincent, K.L.

Wade, S.G.



NOES

Brokenshire, R.L.

Hood, D.G.E. (teller)

Lucas, R.I.

Stephens, T.J.

 

 

PAIRS

Lensink, J.M.A.

Lee, J.S.


Motion thus carried.

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