NATASHA STOTT DESPOJA: Well, some of you may have seen that there’s a big debate going on in Federal Parliament yet again about same-sex marriage and two pieces of legislation are being debated in the House of Representatives. Today in the House of Representatives a report came down into the issue and a majority of Parliamentarians on that committee found in favour of the same-sex legislation. Of course, that’s not the end of the matter. Labor is allowing a conscience vote, the crossbenchers obviously have their own views and conscience votes but the Coalition is not in a position to grant that yet. We’re going to talk now with Senator Simon Birmingham. You’ll know that name well – he’s a Senator for our state of South Australia and he belongs to the Liberal Party and he has some strong views on this issue. He’s been quite outspoken about support for the issue of gay marriage but I’m wondering how that sits with his party’s position in relation to voting. Good afternoon, Senator Birmingham.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Good afternoon, Natasha; good afternoon to your listeners.
NATASHA STOTT DESPOJA: So, what’s the latest? We’ve obviously been in the studio since 4 o’clock. What’s happening with the debate in Parliament today?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, as you indicated, there are three bills across the Parliament – one that’s sitting in the Senate, and currently with a Senate inquiry, and two in the House of Representatives where there’s been some debate, I gather, today. I’ve been busy with Senate duties and haven’t followed closely the House debate but they handed down the report of a committee in the House of Reps into this legislation today and, broadly speaking, it did support changes and emphasised some important points about how we need to be very clear about the distinction between the civil institution of marriage and the religious institution of marriage and provide very strong protections for churches and religious components in terms of making sure that nobody feels forced into having to undertake any type of ceremonies they don’t want to do but all views are respected by this but that we end up with a situation where all relationships that are long term, loving between two people can be treated in an equal way.
NATASHA STOTT DESPOJA: Well, it sounds like you’re very respectful of both positions and you’ve indicated your support… in principle, I guess, support for the issue and legislation. What does that mean for you, though? Obviously you have to do the right thing, so to speak, by your party. Do you see that the Coalition’s position on the vote will change or at least a conscience vote will be granted or is that unlikely?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Natasha, these debates often take their own time and, indeed, Labor went through a very, very long process of debating this internally, of only changing its party platform to allow a conscience vote late last year and that was after not just days, weeks, or months of debate but, really, years of debate as people like Penny Wong and others sought to recognise that there are a range of views among Labor supporters and among the Labor MPs and Senators and they should be able to act on those views. I think the same occurs on the Liberal side of politics. There are a range of views among Liberal voters and Liberal supporters. I respect that diversity of views. The same exists amongst Liberal MPs and Senators and I hope that eventually we’ll get to the stage where this is a conscience vote across the Parliament. I think that is right in terms of how to deal with an issue like this where so many views are informed by religious and moral and ethical considerations and also in keeping with the traditions of the Liberal Party which has always afforded its Members and Senators a greater freedom than Labor and there’s never, in fact, been a substantive policy issue where there’s been a conscience vote in the Parliament where it has not been a conscience vote on the Liberal side.
NATASHA STOTT DESPOJA: Indeed. That last point is… you know… you’re not just making a… scoring a political point there. I mean, the Liberal Party has been quite, I guess, liberal… ‘small-l liberal’ in relation to conscience votes, certainly in my time and preceding my time in the Parliament, unlike, on occasions, the Labor Party which, of course, has a binding Caucus so I’m just a little surprised that you wouldn’t see that same liberal or liberalism or that same opportunity applied to this debate.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, I think it’s just a matter of evolution and understanding that we have come from a position where both parties had a very fixed stance on this over the last few years. We’re now moving into a more open debate, I think, in this regard. I’m very respectful of the fact that Tony Abbott is very clear in what he said before the last election and wants to honour that and I think wanting to keep your promises is a good thing in politics and I understand his desire to do that but I also think we need to recognise that this issue is moving along and that at some stage it will be appropriate that it really should be a conscience vote right across the Parliament. I hope that can be achieved. In the end, the Marriage Act itself was originally a conscience vote back in the 1960s, the Family Law Act was in the 1970s and, as you alluded to, in your time in Parliament John Howard granted conscience votes on numerous issues during the ’90s and 2000s.
NATASHA STOTT DESPOJA: Some of those debates I think are often the best ones but stay with us just a little longer if you can, Senator, because I’m going to ask you more a process question, if you like, in relation to the Senate but, first of all, joining us, the National Convenor of Australian Marriage Equality, Alex Greenwich is on the line.
NATASHA STOTT DESPOJA: Something you said today intrigued me. You talked about perhaps the possibility of this debate maybe being moved to, or having a better chance of success in, the Senate as opposed to the House of Representatives. What do you mean by that? Should it actually start… should it have originated in the Senate or is the House of Representatives, you know, just going through the motions right now?
ALEX GREENWICH: Well, I think supporters of marriage equality would want the bill to originate in the House where it has the best chance of getting through. When I look at the numbers, I think that’s probably going to be the Senate but I think that it would be similarly the right thing to do, to shortly start debate on it in the Senate. We find that when people start the debate, have the conversation, that their office is going to be won over and their heart and their mind will be open to the importance of this reform. I guess the key thing is that facts dominate the debate rather than fear but, whichever House the bill originates in or is voted on first – obviously something that’s completely outside of my control – I would obviously just like that to happen in the House where it has the best chance.
NATASHA STOTT DESPOJA: Alex, you’ve talked, obviously, about the benefits and the human rights and other aspects of this legislation. Can I just cut through and talk some process issues with you and maybe… I don’t know if this is the former politician coming out in me but talk about numbers. Have you done some calculations in recent times as to what you think the support for this legislation is, either in one or both Houses?
ALEX GREENWICH: Yeah, we have. I mean, we know the numbers in both of the Houses and we know that we currently have more Parliamentary support than ever before. I mean, I’m sure you remember from your days there were only a few voices in favour of same-sex marriage but now those are growing and across the Coalition and Labor. You know, in the House of Reps we probably have about 35 supporters, 55 people opposed but about 60 people undecided and in the Senate we have about 25 supporters, 19 opposed and 32 undecided and if you have a look at… I know those numbers may seem a bit low but look at the House, for example. We’ve gone from zero to 35 in a very short period of time and that’s more Parliamentary support than this issue has ever had and it just continues to grow.
NATASHA STOTT DESPOJA: Senator Simon Birmingham, I know you’re very busy and the Senate is sitting. You might need to go. I was just wondering what your views were of Alex’s estimates in terms of numbers but also that notion of whether or not this bill should have been debated in the Senate first as has been done with either Private Members’ Bills or Private Senators’ Bills in the past.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Natasha, I’ll leave the counting of numbers to perhaps the lobbyists and the proponents but I think we have a situation where there are bills in both Chambers. We’ll have… the Senate inquiry into this legislation will report next week, so, in fact, they’re both at a pretty similar stage of debate. It’s then, really, a case as to the time management in both Chambers and, indeed, the willingness and likelihood of success in each Chamber that will probably drive, as well, just how quickly things come on for a vote there and this is the type of reform, though, where I think it’s important to try to take people with you, to make sure that people understand there’s nothing scary about it, there’s nothing that undermines anybody’s existing relationship, there’s nothing that undermines the rights and freedoms of individual religions and churches. It is just simply a step forward that recognises a small group of the community who seek some recognition and equity.
NATASHA STOTT DESPOJA: Thank you, Senator Simon Birmingham, Liberal Senator for South Australia, and go and do some work in the Senate.