SPEECH: Plebiscite (Same Sex Marriage) Bill 2016 Debate, Tuesday 11 October 1016









In 2004, I received a letter from a man called John Challis.

The letter was about superannuation.

It called on the then Howard Government to give same-sex couples the same legal rights to inherit superannuation as married and de-facto heterosexual couples.

John was concerned that if he died his partner Arthur wouldn’t be able to inherit his superannuation.

John and I lobbied the Howard Government for years for a change. Of course, our calls fell largely on deaf ears.

It wasn’t until 2007 when Labor was elected that changes around superannuation, taxation, family law, Medicare, pharmaceuticals, immigration, a whole range of other – more than 80 pieces of discriminatory legislation were changed for same-sex couples and their children.

A couple of weeks ago in Sydney, I caught up with John for a coffee.

John is now 88 years old.

His partner, Arthur, is 84.

They have been together for 49 years.

More than a decade after John first wrote to me about equal rights for him and for his partner Arthur, we talked about this campaign for one last, great change. One piece of unfinished business: marriage equality.

But while John and Arthur have already waited nearly half a century to have their relationship properly recognised by the community they’ve given so much to, they said that they could not support a plebiscite.

They are so concerned about the harm that a divisive debate would do to the gay and lesbian community, to same-sex couples, to same-sex parents and their children that they were prepared to wait.

They were also deeply concerned about how a plebiscite subverts our usual democratic processes.

Frankly, it tells you all you need to know about how serious the damage a plebiscite on marriage equality would be that a same-sex couple in their 80s, that have waited almost half a century, are saying that they would rather wait than take this path.

For John, for Arthur, I will not, and Labor will not support a plebiscite.

For the same-sex couples who would hear their relationships are second-rate, I will not, and Labor will not support a plebiscite.

For the children of same-sex couples who hear there’s something wrong with their family, I will not, and Labor will not support this plebiscite.

For young gay and lesbian people, who might be struggling with their sexuality, or are just thinking about coming out, I will not, and Labor will not support a plebiscite.

And that is why I am proud to have seconded the Leader of the Opposition’s amendment today that this Bill be withdrawn and redrafted to legislate now, today, in this Parliament for marriage equality. That would see a free vote. That would see this Parliament do its job.

For 14 months (August 2015), since Tony Abbott and the right wing of the Liberal party first proposed the plebiscite as a way of indefinitely delaying marriage equality – we have been debating this proposal.

To be fair, we haven’t been debating the legislation – we’ve only just seen that.

But the more closely we have examined the proposal, the worse it has looked.

I have received literally thousands of emails and letters about marriage equality, and I have spoken to many, many people who are deeply concerned about the plebiscite.

  • Leighton, who was deeply affected by homophobic hate speech as a young person, and who turned to substance abuse and self-harm.
    • He says that “children struggling with their identity…need to be protected and spared the hateful debate that this plebiscite will incite”.
  • Roberta, who fears for her 19 year old gay granddaughter and the impact that a publicly financed “No” campaign will have on her.
  • Damien who asks why the LGBTIQ community needs to have this unprecedented approach: it’s “as if we must reach a certain quota of suffering as a community before we are granted this fundamental right ….one last humiliating hurdle.”
  • Shauna, who is heterosexual but who finds the “concept of my ‘giving permission’ for equal access to the law to be disgusting”.


Last week the Leader of the Opposition and I met with marriage equality advocates in Sydney. The Leader of the Opposition has been doing a terrific job of consulting on this, as has the Shadow Attorney General, as has the Member for Griffith, as has the Member for Franklin who has been working very hard with mental health organisations, as have all of the Members on this side. And we have heard again and again from advocates saying “not this way”.

Geoff Thomas from PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) told the Leader of the Opposition and I, as a Vietnam veteran, who fought for democracy because his country asked him to, he could not understand why his son should not expect the same legal rights and obligations as any other Australian.

“That’s not the democracy and freedom I fought for”  he said.

That’s the question at the heart of this debate:   Why should some Australians face discrimination, or even vilification, because of who they are and who they love?

Every day it becomes more apparent that this plebiscite is a delaying tactic – a tactic designed by the opponents of marriage equality, in the hope they can take the majority support for marriage equality which unquestionably exists in the Australian community - as the previous speaker said - and twist and obfuscate this issue in the same way they did when it came to the Republic debate, and frighten people off voting for it.

There is a simple way to settle this:  The Marriage Act could be changed by the Parliament this week.

The Liberals are advancing this simplistic argument that somehow it is more democratic to have a plebiscite than for the Parliament to vote.

And yet Michael Kirby, a very distinguished jurist, has pointed out that three Prime Ministers – Menzies, Whitlam and Howard - who loved and respected this parliament and its processes, they didn’t choose to settle difficult social questions by using plebiscites.

Kirby recalls that Gough Whitlam always upheld the idea that Parliament itself should be the great institution of equality. 

Whitlam said “Parliament has been our great liberating force.  There is no freedom without equality.  To redistribute and equalise liberty has been one of the principal functions of Parliament”. 

John Howard didn’t have a plebiscite when he last changed the Marriage Act last time, nor, incidentally, when he overturned the NT Voluntary Euthanasia legislation, to my mind a more controversial proposition than the one that is before us. It is our day job – it is what we do in this Parliament – it’s what we’re paid to do.

Unless it is constitutionally required, these matters should be resolved through the usual channels of responsible parliamentary democracy. Particularly when the High Court has already said it’s the job of this Parliament to legislate

Now the member for Goldstein was in here earlier and as a former Human Rights Commissioner, he provided exactly this evidence to the Senate Legal and Constitutional Committee in 2015.

In his advice he said that a plebiscite is not an appropriate method of addressing matters related to marriage, and will do nothing to resolve in a substantive way this issue.

And in fact, Solicitor General Justin Gleeson probably could have told the Government that for free if they has bothered to ask him.

No doubt he would have some very instructive views about the novelty of such an approach.

It’s also why Aboriginal leaders are advising Malcolm Turnbull to abandon the plebiscite, convinced that an ugly campaign will actually set back the real referendum before us at the moment: the proper updating of our constitution to recognise our First Australians.

Marcia Langton has said that a divisive campaign against marriage equality could "unleash the dogs" on Aboriginal Australia.

We will have a referendum on Indigenous constitutional recognition because the constitution requires us to update it in this proper way, not because Cory Bernardi tells Malcolm Turnbull, “your job depends on it”.

We know that this pointless plebiscite will be fantastically expensive.  $200 million by the Government’s own estimate. You would really think that the people who said we had a debt and deficit disaster would worry about that.

When we had a projected deficit of $4.7 billion for the 2015-16 year, that was a “debt and deficit disaster”. That has blown out under this mob eight-fold; it’s almost $40 billion, but they can’t think of something better to do with $200 million. Maybe pay down debt? Maybe properly fund our schools? Maybe properly fund our hospitals? Maybe build some transport infrastructure?

Do the Liberals really think that running this plebiscite is more important, and more valuable, than properly funding aged care? Or properly funding childcare? Yes, apparently they do.

But the most compelling argument is the harm the debate will do to the LGBTI community, their families and supporters.

Mental health experts including Professor Patrick McGorry, Frank Quinlan, suicide prevention expert Dr Jo Robinson, they’ve all said that the potential for harm here is real - we know that it will happen.

Two weeks ago I visited Twenty 10, a gay and lesbian youth counselling service in my electorate – they have already noticed an increase in demand on their counselling line.

Gay and Lesbian rights advocates have told me about physical confrontations that they have already experienced, even death threats, because they have been speaking out in favour of marriage equality.

Rainbow Families – again visiting our Parliament today talking about how difficult it is to tell their children that there are people they have never met who think there is something wrong with their family.

These families will not be “created” by marriage equality, despite what some of the most pernicious propaganda is already suggesting. These families exist now. They always have existed. And they have a right to the same protections and responsibilities that other families enjoy.

Why should the children of these families be told by complete strangers that their parents’ relationship is second rate and that is does not deserve the recognition that we accord other relationships?

The Liberals have said that our concerns are unwarranted – that we are somehow suggesting that Australians can’t have a civilized debate. There is nothing further from the truth.

I absolutely know that the vast majority of Australians first of all support marriage equality, and secondly that the vast majority of Australians can and will engage in this debate in a civilized way – if they engage at all.

But such a debate will undoubtedly hand the megaphone to the extremists in any discussion. And in this instance the government proposes to subsidies this to the tune of $15 million.

Of course, I’ve also met with constituents who oppose marriage equality, including representatives of the Greek Orthodox community and Catholic churches and a range of people across the community.

I truly want to reassure them once again that there is nothing in what Labor proposes that would require their churches to solemnize any relationship between a same-sex couple. There is nothing in this proposition that suggests that.  

They are completely entitled to live their lives and worship as they choose.  

But the simple fact is that we live in a society that separates church and state.

For many people marriage is a religious sacrament. But not for everyone. For others, however, it is still an important legal and social recognition of deep love and commitment – and that is something that really, most of us want in our lives.

I’d like to say to my colleagues in this place: none of us should assume that because someone has deeply held religious views that they are automatically opposed to marriage equality.

Indeed, there are many people of deep faith who make a strong Christian case in favour of marriage equality. Great leaders and compassionate leaders like the Reverend Dr Keith Mascord, who I have known for decades now.

I am surely not the only person in this place who comes from a devout family whose motto may as well be, “judge not lest ye be judged”, or my personal favourite, “take the splinter out of your own eye before you reach for the speck in your brother’s eye”

When I asked my Mum about this years ago, she said to me – just so simple - “there’s not enough love in the world – why would we want to deny it to anyone who has found it?”.

I want to finish with this –

One of my favourite poems is a love poem by W H Auden from 1937 – it’s called Lullaby.

A poem written by a gay man in a time, and from a country where being gay was illegal. It speaks of “universal love and hope”.

Marriage equality is a fundamental recognition of the universal character of love - that the way each of us love is not so very different. Our hopes and dreams for ourselves, for our families, and for our children are not so very different.

And our laws should not discriminate.