It is with great pleasure and a real sense of history that I rise to speak today.

In 1999, when speaking in support of the superannuation entitlements bill of the member for Grayndler, I described that law as a law which:

“… does not provide for special rights for gay and lesbian couples. It provides universal rights, equal rights, for those people.”

And so it is the case today.

The bill before us is about universal rights, about human rights and about an inclusive and a fair Australia. During the 2004 debate, when the Howard government rushed through laws amending the Marriage Act, I said:

“Some time in the not too distant future, people will look back on this desperate attempt at wedge politics and treat it with the contempt it deserves.

Some time in the not too distant future, there will be formal recognition of same-sex couples, and the sky will not fall in, and we will not be destroyed … and life will continue.

The main difference will be fewer violent or abusive attacks on gay men and lesbians, and fewer teenagers suiciding, because they will not be taught to feel shame about their sexuality as many are now.”

How privileged I am, how proud I am, to be able to stand today and speak in support of this bill.

My regret is that it has taken so many years to get here.

I wish that debate on a bill like this could have happened without an unnecessary, divisive and expensive postal survey.

But Australians proved themselves better, braver and more decent than their government, and worlds away from the hate and the fear that was being pushed by some elements of the 'no' campaign.

I wish that the Prime Minister had assisted in bringing this bill to the parliament without putting Australia through the expense and division of this survey. It required his leadership and the courage of his convictions, but these were sadly missing.

Instead of the debate happening here, as it should've, it was pushed into, shoved into, lounge rooms across Australia, where children were asking their parents for support, for basic acknowledgement, and some parents were saying no. I don't know if any of us can imagine, really, what a hard thing it is to hear that from your own parents—that they wouldn't be voting to recognise you and your relationship. That could've been avoided if the debate had happened in here, as it is now.

I wish this parliament had done its job and legislated earlier. I'm proud of the fact that I was one of those 42 who voted in favour of the Jones bill in 2012. And I'm sorry it has taken until 2017 for this law to be in this place with the likelihood that it will pass this week.

I'm sorry for all the pain that the LBGTIQ community has faced in having themselves and their relationships debated in this way in recent months—in having their relationships put on trial. But love won in the end, and the opponents of marriage equality could not defeat it.

The democratic tradition runs deep in our country. Even though many disagreed, as I did, with this postal survey, the democratic impulses of our people were strong, and about 80 per cent of voters turned out. And they overwhelmingly voted yes.

My electorate of Sydney shared the highest yes response in the country, with 83.7 per cent of my electorate voting yes.

It's not surprising: in many ways, my electorate is the cultural heart of LGBTIQ Australia. It has a long history of activism and political engagement that emerged around Oxford Street, Darlinghurst and Kings Cross.

While there are LGBTIQ Australians in every community, in every city, in every suburb and in every town right across Australia, many have chosen to make their home in my electorate. It is a tolerant, safe, welcoming and diverse community and I'm proud to say that I've got two very special constituents here with me today, Izzy Perko and Collin Lyon, who exemplify for me this sort of activism and relationship. Izzy and Collin have been together for decades and just want to be treated like everybody else in my community—allowed to marry legally and share their commitment with their friends and family.

Earlier this year, after a detailed inquiry, a Senate committee agreed on draft marriage equality legislation. This legislation was backed by Labor, the Liberals, the Nationals, the Nick Xenophon Team and the Greens. This is the consensus bill that is before us today.

It's very simple.

Firstly, it allows same-sex couples to marry. Secondly, it protects religious freedom by allowing clergy and a new category of religious celebrants to choose who they will and will not marry.

It isn't complicated and I'm disappointed that some are seeking to make it complicated. There is talk by the Prime Minister and others of substantive amendments to this bill on the grounds of protecting religious freedoms.

As the Leader of the Opposition has said, Labor is absolutely committed to religious freedoms. We are absolutely supportive of Australians having the right not to be discriminated against on the basis of their religious practice or observance in this country.

But I would say to those people who are concerned that there is no attack on freedom of religion in this bill. Indeed, the bill strengthens religious protections; it does not weaken them. Of course, we have no difficulty with further discussion about religious protections—indeed, about protection of human rights right across the spectrum of human rights, including religious freedom—but that is best done next year, noting that the government's newly established panel, led by the Hon. Philip Ruddock, is yet to report.

I'd also say that, just as there are those who are concerned that religious protections don't go far enough in this bill, there are others who are concerned that they go too far. This shows that this bill hits the right balance. There are some concerned that there shouldn't be a new category of religious celebrants, for example. So there is a time to discuss these issues of religious freedom, but we shouldn't complicate the bill that's before us today, which has already achieved a cross-party consensus.

There are so many people whose work needs to be acknowledged in the long fight for this next step in equality for LGBTIQ Australians.

Of course, most of the big steps forward have occurred over the years under Labor governments, from Bill Hayden leading the charge on decriminalisation of homosexuality to Don Dunstan being the first Premier to legalise homosexuality 42 years ago; from Neville Wran banning discrimination on the grounds of sexuality to Kevin Rudd's government legislating to remove discrimination against same-sex couples from 85 federal laws in areas as diverse as tax, veterans affairs, social security and health.

I want to acknowledge the member for Maribyrnong and our Labor leader, Bill Shorten, who has pursued this issue as a priority and committed Labor to legislating for marriage equality within the first 100 days of a Shorten Labor government.

I thank all of my colleagues who've been long-time advocates for LGBTI Australians and for marriage equality: my friend Senator Penny Wong, of course; my friend Senator Louise Pratt; the shadow Attorney-General, the member for Isaacs; the shadow minister for equality, the member for Griffith; the member for Grayndler, my neighbour in inner-city Sydney and a long-time ally of the LGBTIQ community in this place; my state colleague Penny Sharpe MLC; and of course those opposite. We've worked so cooperatively in recent times.

Senator Dean Smith, I know that this has taken a personal toll on you, and I'm proud to be able to congratulate you today for your leadership. For those opposite who have spoken today and will speak later in this debate, I know that it is a brave thing to do to stand up in the face of not overwhelming support from your own side. It's gutsy, and it's appreciated.

I want to acknowledge Rainbow Labor. Rainbow Labor is a group of ordinary members of the Labor Party who have put their faith and their trust in Labor and have said that they know it will be Labor who can deliver on their aspirations. They have campaigned so hard for this win, and they have been part of changing history.

I also want to acknowledge the many other campaigners who've devoted years of their lives to the pursuit of equality: all of those involved with the AME campaign—Anna Brown, Tom Snow, Brooke Horne, Alex Greenwich, Janine Middleton, Tim Gartrell, Paddy Batchelor and many, many more; the community groups who have been fighting for this equality for years, including the Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby, Twenty10, ACON, Wear it Purple, Community Action Against Homophobia, Inner City Legal Centre, Rainbow Families and so many others; and the union movement, who, once again in our nation's history, swung behind the fight for equality. I can tell you it makes such a difference having the human resources of those unions backing a campaign like this—people out on the streets early in the morning and late at night, phoning, door knocking, standing at train stations and convincing their colleagues, their friends and their family members to vote yes. Individuals like Magda Szubanski, Kerryn Phelps and Jackie Stricker-Phelps, Rodney Croome, Father Frank Brennan—so many have stood up and joined their voices to the chorus of calls for equality.

Every person, every individual, who has had a difficult conversation with a friend or a family member or a complete strange at a train station in the morning, at a bus stop or during a door knock—this really would not have happened without this massive mobilisation of ordinary Australians committed to equality.

I know that many people over the course of this debate have actually changed their minds. They started out thinking that this wasn't an important issue or that marriage equality would somehow change our society in a bad way. Over the years, they've listened to their friends or family members or colleagues, and they've changed their minds. It takes a lot of bravery to change your mind. It takes intellectual openness and emotional openness to change your mind. It's a really big thing to do, and I particularly thank those people today.

There are so many people for whom this change means so much. I know the reason they stood up to speak out was not just for their own personal benefit but to help make the sort of country they want to live in.

This is a victory for my friends in Elizabeth Bay John Challis, 89, and Arthur Cheeseman, 85, who have fought for 50 years to have their relationship recognised and who will marry in January. Arthur said recently of seeing marriage equality become a reality:

“It gives us a new dignity, a new status, a new place in society. We are the same as everyone else.”

People like Eddie Blewett and his mums, Neroli Dickson and Claire Blewett, from Tathra on the New South Wales South Coast. Eddie is only 14 years old, but he is one of the bravest kids you could ever meet.

It takes real guts for families like his, rainbow families, to have made this case and in the public eye.

I think of the young Indigenous woman in Armidale who quietly took me aside when I was there last year to let me know the struggle she faces every day and to urge me not to give up. I say to her today, 'I didn't, and I'll never give up.'

I think about the teenage boy I met in Bathurst this year who told me how hard it was to come out in the country town if your friends and family aren't supportive. I think about the teenagers I met at headspace in Sunshine, Melbourne, who told me how many young people were suffering because they were being made to feel second rate by their government.

This change would not have been possible without the trailblazers in the community.

This is a victory for the 78ers who marched down Oxford Street into a wall of police brutality in the pursuit of equality. It is their struggle that this parliament honours today by passing this legislation.

I want to send a very special message to those people for whom this has been a decades-long struggle, people who lost relationships, lost connection with family and lost their jobs because they took a stand all those years ago.

Important issues like this capture the public's imagination because they go to something fundamental within us: the kind of society that we want for each other and for our kids—fairer, kinder, less judgemental and more accepting, a society in which we live and let live and in which we recognise that love makes a marriage and love makes a family.