I regret that I am not able to be in the Senate to make a contribution to today’s debate on same-sex marriage, but write this article to ensure my views and position are understood.
The reason for my absence from the Senate is perhaps poignant, as I am taking some short leave following the very recent birth of my second child.
So it is family that prevents me being present for a debate that many, on both sides of this debate, will argue is about family.
They are right, up to a point. The success or failure of this legislation will impact on some families but it will not, contrary to the arguments of many, change the nature of families.
The debate about same-sex marriage is not about whether it changes the nature of families, but a debate over how our laws treat relationships that exist and will continue to exist, regardless of what our legislation says.
Whether this legislation passes or not, heterosexual couples living in married or de facto circumstances will continue to go about their lives unaffected. New Zealand Prime Minister John Key has succinctly addressed this fact with a personal example:
“My view is that if two gay people want to get married I can’t see why it would undermine my marriage with Bronagh.”
I feel the same way about my marriage and would hope that all Australians would recognise that the recognition of another couple’s relationship should have no impact on their own relationship.
Equally, while this legislation has real meaning to those in same-sex relationships about how their relationships are recognised, the success or failure of this legislation won’t have any material impact on the existence of such relationships.
Whether this bill passes or not, there will probably be no more or no less same-sex relationships in existence. The passage of this legislation will have no bearing on the number of such relationships involving children as such matters are impacted by personal decisions and governed in state legislation, which already permits access to adoption or IVF for same-sex couples in numerous circumstances.
This legislation may be important to many families, but we should not confuse that importance with a belief that it will change the nature of families, because it will not.
We should instead view this as a debate about a change to our civil laws regarding how government regulates relationships and, in particular, whether it applies principles of equality in such regulation.
The first question many will ask is why government even regulates relationships, especially marriage. Contrary to much said in the public debates surrounding same-sex marriage, government did not get into the business of regulating marriage to protect it, but government got into the business of regulating marriage so as to facilitate its smooth dissolution.
The first statutory definition of marriage occurred in England in 1754, driven largely because of challenges the courts faced in dealing with matters of divorce or allegations of bigamy. Even in Australian statute law, the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1959 predated the Marriage Act of 1961.
As I wrote in the additional comments co-authored with Senator Sue Boyce in the recent Senate inquiry into same-sex marriage laws, there are several distinct roles the act of getting married plays, not all of which are applicable to all marriages. These include:
i. a public declaration and celebration of love between two people, who make a lifelong commitment to each other;
ii. a commitment made before God and/or in accordance with religious beliefs; and
iii. a legal agreement between two people entered into in accordance with the laws of Australia.
The first of these roles involves a decision that is intensely personal and maintains the likeness of a private contract between two people. It is not the role of the Marriage Act to regulate love, nor is it possible for governments to do so.
The second of these is also a personal matter between the two people getting married and their church or religious institution. It must be recognised and respected that for many Australians marriage has a special religious meaning. For many, the terms of entering into a marriage and dissolving a marriage are governed as much, if not more so, by the rules and beliefs of their church than the laws of their country.
It is important to be crystal clear on this point: no religion or minister of religion should be expected to recognise or conduct a marriage that is not in accordance with their teachings and faith, including same-sex marriages. Any change to our marriage laws must protect these religious freedoms.
In a free and secular society like Australia, the role religion plays in a marriage should be respected and protected by our laws, but it should not dictate how our laws are shaped.
The last of these roles – the legal agreement between two people entered into in accordance with the laws of Australia – is the only role our laws or the parliament should deal with. It is for the Marriage Act to set the terms for a legal agreement between two people.
It is my personal view that the Marriage Act should set the legal terms for the commitment made by two people to each other on an equal basis, without any greater regard to gender or sexuality than is nowadays given to race or religion. As The Economist magazine argued in a 1996 editorial:
“Barring a compelling reason, governments should not discriminate between classes of citizens. As recently as 1967, blacks and whites in some American states could not wed… Even granting that the case of homosexuals is more complex than the case of miscegenation, the state should presume against discriminating—especially when handing out something as important as a marriage licence.”
An inequity exists in our current marriage laws, which facilitate the legal recognition of heterosexual couples in a way that is not available to homosexual couples. This is inequitable and is an inequity that should not continue within our civil legal structures.
I also believe that there is a social benefit in promoting and facilitating a marriage commitment between any two people in committed, long-term relationships. This case was also argued by The Economist in the same editorial:
“Marriage remains an economic bulwark. Single people … are economically vulnerable, and much more likely to fall into the arms of the welfare state. Furthermore, they call sooner upon public support when they need care—and, indeed, are likelier to fall ill (married people, the numbers show, are not only happier but considerably healthier). Not least important, marriage is a great social stabiliser of men.
“Homosexuals need emotional and economic stability no less than heterosexuals—and society surely benefits when they have it … For society, the real choice is between homosexual marriage and homosexual alienation. No social interest is served by choosing the latter.”
Marriage can strengthen interdependence in relationships, which leads couples to be more likely to rely on each other, or extended families, rather than requiring government support. Strengthening social bonds and minimising the risk of government reliance are good liberal and conservative values.
Former New South Wales Premier Nick Greiner acknowledged this when he said:
“Support for the proposal [same-sex marriage] is consistent with conservative support for marriage and for stable long-term relationships as well as individual freedom.”
While acknowledging the paramount role of equality in this debate, current British Prime Minister David Cameron has also mounted arguments about the conservative benefits of facilitating more couples to undertake the commitment of marriage:
“… we are consulting on legalising gay marriage, and to anyone who has reservations I say this: it’s about equality. But it’s also about something else: commitment. Conservatives believe in the ties that bind us; that society’s stronger when we make vows to each other and support each other.”
In my view same-sex marriage can only strengthen the relationships and ties within families of those couples who choose to make such a commitment. Marriage is, after all, the only commitment that is a widely understood and recognised bond entered into voluntarily between two people to support each other throughout their lives. The more people who make such a commitment, the more strong relationships our society should have.
Although I have hereto outlined my reasons for supporting the legal recognition of same-sex marriage I acknowledge that my vote will not be cast in support of it in today’s vote. I acknowledge that my Party made a commitment not to change the Marriage Act at the last election and I respect the decision of the Coalition to uphold that commitment to the electorate, despite my differing views.
Just as many in the Labor Party worked within their party over a period of years to change their position to one of allowing a conscience vote on the issue of same-sex marriage, I pledge to do likewise within the Liberal Party.
It is my hope that in a future parliament all Members and Senators will be free to exercise their consciences on this issue, which is so widely informed by moral, ethical, philosophical and religious influences.