Speech on Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017


We don’t often enough acknowledge, in this place, in our country, that we live in extraordinarily fortunate times. We are fortunate to live in 2017 in Australia. We enjoy, as a people, overwhelmingly, standards of living that those who went before us could never have dreamt of. We enjoy life expectancies that those who went before us could never have dreamt of. We enjoy freedoms and tolerances that those who went before us would never have dreamt of. These are things that we ought to celebrate. We ought to spend more time dwelling a little on the positives that we have in our lives today—and, particularly, perhaps, in this place, we ought to spend more time doing so.

I—like, I think, everybody here—live a most fortunate life. Perhaps the most fortunate gift of all was to have been born in Australia, in these most fortunate of times—to have been born in an era in which, despite the conflict that exists, we face none of the real threats that prior generations have faced, in terms of their lives and their being dragged to war. I’ve been fortunate in terms of my upbringing. Not all of it was without its bumps: the divorce of my parents when I was two; the death of my father when I was 12—all bumps in the road of life. But I was fortunate to have still had a very supportive, loving family, who helped me to achieve and to do the things that I dreamt of doing. I am fortunate to have had and to be enjoying a career that I love. The opportunity to be here is of course one of the greatest gifts that any of the handful of individuals who’ve served in our parliament can ever have received.

But the greatest fortune, no doubt, in my life today is my wife, Courtney. My wife—who is, of course, my life partner, the mother of our two gorgeous little girls, two girls almost the same age as Penny and Sophie’s two little girls, and a mother who works so hard in her career—is my greatest advocate and, equally, my greatest interrogator, in her challenging of me. It is nearly nine years since we wed, and I still have extraordinarily vivid memories of our wedding day. We welcomed our family—with family members, like all families, who don’t always get along with each other as much as you might wish. We welcomed them together with our friends and our colleagues, Senator Payne being one of them on that occasion. We welcomed them all with a glass of champagne to a winery in the Adelaide Hills where, indeed, we celebrated all afternoon and well into the night. We affirmed our love and our commitment to each other. We did so in front of those friends and family. It meant much to us. It still means much to us. It, of course, was one of the most seminal moments in my life. We have been blessed in the following nearly nine years to have welcomed two beautiful children, to have enjoyed further twists and turns of life but to have been able to do so together, and to know that when we hit the bumps along the way we could turn to one another for support and for stability.

Over the years, as I have spoken out in favour of marriage equality, many have asked: ‘Why, Simon? It doesn’t affect you. You’re a heterosexual man in a happy marriage going about living your life. Why have you done so?’ The answers are fairly simple: to provide the same opportunity for all Australians to enjoy the love and commitment to one another that Courtney and I enjoy. Everyone should be able to share their life, to share in the mutual vow of marriage, to share their commitment to the person they love. They are simple propositions—simple propositions that I am pleased this parliament is now moving to provide to one another. I equally do so for good policy reasons: not just the policy of equality, which is spoken of much in this debate, but the policy of stability. I was taken many years ago by an editorial in The Economist magazine—hardly a source of fluffy love and literature, but a hard-nosed policy-thinking journal. That editorial said:

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 …

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.

That editorial was written in 1996 in The Economist magazine. It has been a very, very long journey to get to this change.

We have already heard in this chamber of the 2004 legislative change to the Marriage Act. It was a bipartisan change, but I join those opposite in reflecting that it was wrong. It was the wrong thing to do at the time. It was wrong then, and it is even—if I can say inelegantly so—more wrong today. It has been quite a path to right that wrong: a long and winding path for this parliament, for the parties within this parliament and for this country. Senator Wong spoke of the path within the Labor Party. We ought to remember that, yes, the 2004 change was bipartisan and that a decade ago the policy position of both parties was not to vary that change. Senator Wong and others in the Labor Party worked to change the position within their party. They had fights to do so, and they had to make sure that, ultimately, they prevailed.

On this side, too, many have worked to ensure change in our position, and it has been a long process. I was reminded last night of the 12 November 2010 media story in which I first spoke publicly about my views that marriage equality was something that should be delivered in Australia and that the Liberal Party ought to have a conscience vote—a free vote—in delivering it. I said at the time that there was a certain inevitability to it occurring. Labor at that stage were still debating whether they should have a conscience vote. Indeed, in the same article the now Leader of the Opposition, Mr Shorten, was quoted as saying he was not yet sure whether he supported a conscience vote. We know that the parliament did indeed have a subsequent vote and that many Labor members who voted against marriage equality then will vote for it now—just as many Liberals who then were bound to vote against marriage equality, if they were to accord to our party policy position, will now vote for it.

I’ve been proud, ever since that moment in 2010, to argue for change to our party policy, and to do so both internally and publicly. I’ve been proud to do so in a way that has delivered us to this final position albeit not in the way I would have liked us to get there. There have been many allies along the journey. Senator Smith spoke about the longstanding commitment of the member for Leichhardt, Warren Entsch, to equality and his championing of equal rights back in the era of the Howard government—indeed, his delivery within Commonwealth law of equality of recognition and support in legal treatment.

The outstanding element there, the one that had been left behind, was of course marriage. Warren, like me, kept up that fight. There have been many conversions along the journey to join us. Indeed, Senator Smith himself was a conversion early in 2015. That was a turning point in the debate within the Liberal Party, for we had a champion who wasn’t just somebody like me, arguing from a position of believing it was right, but somebody for whom it directly impacted on their life. In the arguments that Dean put, it meant that anybody who looked Dean in the eye and argued against him was arguing that he did not deserve the right of marriage equality. It was no longer an esoteric or theoretical policy argument; it was a real and live one.

Subsequently, Dean was joined in his championing by the member for North Sydney, Trent Zimmerman; the member for Brisbane, Trevor Evans; and the member for Goldstein, Tim Wilson. All of them, of course, further agitating and pushing to see change, and all of them showing, particularly in this parliament, enormous courage in their commitment to make that change happen. But they were not alone, and I and the member for Leichhardt were not alone in that battle. I acknowledge in particular Kelly O’Dwyer for her work and for her advocacy over pretty much the same period of time that I was frequently agitating— as I marched into the offices of different prime ministers and said, ‘Change needs to occur,’ Kelly would be by my side. We didn’t always win those arguments—that’s obvious for all to see—but we did manage to shift the position over time. I also acknowledge the staunch work of the Attorney-General, Senator Brandis, to deliver the equality that Mr Entsch had championed, and, internally, his work to shift our position—along with Senator Payne, Mr Frydenberg and, of course, our current Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull.

None of us preferred the postal survey that was undertaken. But the postal survey has proven to be a means to an end. And I like to think it was a much more positive means to an end than perhaps many had expected it to be. I hope that despite the misgivings that so many Australians had, and particularly gay and lesbian Australians, the actual result of the postal survey will for them be a real affirmation of their rights, of their place in Australia and of the fact that Australia views them equally and that they are no more and no less than any of the rest of us. Of course, it is that equality that they have fought so hard for, that they deserve and that, happily, the overwhelming majority of Australians gave their seal of approval to.

Despite the misgivings of many, one of the consequences of that postal survey will be that when this legislation passes this parliament before Christmas—for it will pass this parliament before Christmas—it will do so not by a narrow margin in this parliament but by a comprehensive margin in this parliament. It will do so not in a way where Australians contest the validity of it because only one or two votes got it there but where Australians accept and embrace the result, for it has not just the legal legitimacy of passage through the parliament but the seal of approval of the Australian people. That, I trust, will make it a much more positive change than perhaps otherwise would have been the case.

I want to touch on those who voted no, the reasons they voted no and the fears that caused them to vote no. There will be many, many reasons that those Australians who chose to vote no did so but, obviously, profound amongst those reasons are matters of religious rights and freedoms. As Senator Smith rightly identified, the bill before us takes away no rights. People will still be free to worship as they choose and to hold the beliefs that they hold dear in their religious practice. Their churches, their synagogues, their mosques and their ministers of religion will still be free to practise their faith in accordance with their faith and their doctrines. There is no direct threat posed to any religious practices as a result of this legislation. It will not undermine the rights or freedoms of any Australians; it will simply extend the right of marriage to those of all genders and all sexualities. To those who have concerns, I urge you to take the time to understand that your liberties will not be compromised. When this bill passes, my marriage to Courtney will be the same then as it is today. When this bill passes, no other relationship will be compromised; it is only that those of gay and lesbian Australians will be enhanced. When this bill passes, we will have taken a great step on the path to equality.

There will, of course, be further debates in this chamber about particular amendments, and I will reserve my right until I see the nature of those amendments. But I will not be supporting any amendments that extend inequality or discrimination when we as a government are opposed to such discrimination. I will not be supporting any amendments that extend discrimination when the Australian people have spoken so comprehensively in their voice that we ought to end discrimination by providing for marriage equality. I want us to make sure that the bill we pass through this parliament achieves the simple aim of giving to loving Australians the equality that they deserve, regardless of their sexuality; the simple aim of ensuring it does so in a manner consistent with all of us who already enjoy the right to marriage; and the simple aim of ensuring that it doesn’t undermine anybody’s religious freedoms but nor does it compromise other freedoms to protect anybody’s religious freedoms. This should be able to be achieved quite simply. I believe it is achieved by the bill that is before us, and I pay tribute to those who have worked so hard on this bill to get it to this point.

As a parliament, we will be much better for having dealt with this issue. Many Australians will breathe an enormous sigh of relief when it’s all done and dusted. Many are, frankly, fed up with the debate. Some argued to me that perhaps the greatest campaign slogan for the yes case could have been ‘Just get it over and done with!’ But there was a bigger picture at play and Australians responded to that bigger message in support of equality, in support of love, in support of respect for one another across our nation. I am thrilled that we have come to this point where we will vote together as a parliament, where we will act on the will of the Australian people, where we will deliver the equality that Australians deserve. I am incredibly proud today to commend this bill to this Senate.