Same-sex marriage plebiscite

Mr STEPHEN JONES ( Whitlam ) ( 13:24 ): Right now in my electorate there are young kids who are looking for jobs. There are schools scraping around for funds to buy books and basic teaching equipment. There are parents who are wondering whether they can afford to send their kids to university and students who are wondering whether they can afford to pay for the fees that are going to accrue to them if they undertake a university degree. There are jobseekers who are wondering whether they can afford to enrol in a TAFE course because, with the introduction of TAFE fees, they are wondering whether they can afford the bills for redoing their skills.

In Shellharbour, we have a hospital in severe need of an upgrade, yet the New South Wales government's answer to this is to privatise the hospital instead of investing in a new hospital which is fit for a growing community. We have a freight line which hangs in the air half-built, with that vital last 10 kilometres which would connect one of the great inland railway systems to the port of Port Kembla unbuilt for want of investment. We have a home of football planned and approved; there were funds set aside in the 2013 budget to build it. A meagre $6 million would get the project underway. But, for want of money, the fastest-growing sport in the Illawarra and Southern Highlands does not have a home where kids can play their favourite sport. These are the issues that we should be supporting. These are the issues that we should be talking about. These are the issues on which we should be spending the $200 million that is the price tag of this plebiscite. These are the things we should be spending the money on.

One of the many reasons I oppose this plebiscite bill is that I fear that, if it passes, for the next nine months we are going to be engaged in a conversation about that instead of these important issues and the other important issues that I am confident every single one of our electors sent us here to parliament to consider. That is our job as parliamentarians—not to engage in this destructive fantasy which was put in place to resolve a disagreement in the coalition party room. If this plebiscite bill gets up, if the vote goes ahead, we will spend the next nine months talking about nothing more than the sexuality of people who choose a different partner to me, and that is not what the Australian people are after. That is not why we were sent here to Canberra.

I have listened carefully to the impassioned speeches of those opposite. I listened to the impassioned speech just now from the member for Canning. He puts forward a classic and well-articulated conservative view on the role of marriage in society. He talks about marriage as one of the oldest institutions in the world. He is right: it is one of the oldest institutions in the world, but it is not as if marriage itself has remained unchanged over the millennia. Let us not forget, in the memories of many who are still alive today, it was prohibited for a black man to marry a white woman. My grandparents, when they were married, had to be married behind the altar, because there was a Protestant marrying a Catholic—something that was frowned upon by society, by their families and by the churches. It is not so long ago that, when a man wanted to marry a woman, he had to go and ask for the permission of that woman's father. It is not that long ago that, when reciting marriage vows, the woman would take a vow to be obedient to her husband. I can tell you that if I demanded a vow of obedience from my wife when I got married I would have walked out of there without a ring on my finger and with two black eyes—it simply would not have happened. So, to stand there and say that this great institution of marriage—one that I enjoy—has remained unchanged for aeons is simply not true. And we did not hold a plebiscite to make all of those changes. We have a job to do as parliamentarians. It is what we are elected to do.

I find the subject of marriage equality fascinating. I support it. But I have to say that I think I have the ear of the majority of people in my electorate when I say that there are dozens and dozens of things that they want us to spend the next nine months talking about—and spend $200 million of public money on—than a marriage equality plebiscite. So, for these reasons, I will be opposing the plebiscite bill—not because I oppose marriage equality. I reject that proposition. I reject the well-meaning and passionate arguments put by the conservatives on the other side. But I call on the true liberals on the other side to stand up for their principles, stand up for the principles that you joined the Liberal Party for, and exercise a free vote.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Mr Coulton ): The debate is interrupted in accordance with standing order 43. The debate may be resumed at a later hour.

 

Mr STEPHEN JONES (Whitlam) (16:15): The history of attempts at achieving marriage equality in Australia will not be a tale of courage or conviction—certainly not in this place. It will not be a story about how this parliament came together and ended discrimination against same-sex attracted people and it will not be a story about the will of the Australian people being given effect to by their representatives, for those of us seeking to achieve an end to discrimination are hostage to those who seek to delay, obstruct and frustrate. The Plebiscite (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill 2016 before the House today is evidence of that strategy.

 

The history of social reform across the world shows that ending discrimination is only a matter of time. It is only a matter of time until marriage equality becomes a reality in Australia. It could happen very, very soon. When I first spoke about marriage equality in this House it was 15 November 2010; it was not long after my first election. I said:

…marriage is an important institution in our society. It is a special relationship where two people say to each other and to the rest of the world that they agree to be bound together in love, exclusive of all others, for life. I believe it would diminish us all as a society if we were to say that we may exclude gay and lesbian couples from this celebration. That marks them as somehow less worthy or even as biological oddities. I respect the right of religious organisations and others in our community to disagree with this view and to continue to practise in accordance with their beliefs. Indeed, no motion or act of this place can of itself change those beliefs. But it is an entirely different thing to ask of the state to enforce it.

As many in the House know, I had the enormous privilege of introducing the first bill to give effect to Labor's national platform, which was changed in November 2010 to recognise marriage equality. That private member's bill was just one of 18 bills that have been introduced into this House and the other place since that time. My own private member's bill was introduced on 13 February 2012 following a period that enabled all members to consult with their communities. It is a matter of history that my bill did not succeed. It was voted down in this place by a majority of 56 votes. Obviously many people abstained. This is despite the fact that polls then showed, and now show, that more than 60 per cent of Australians support marriage equality—so it seems that the 45th Parliament remains just as out of step with community attitudes as the 43rd Parliament was.

Labor rejects that the false choice that is being promoted by the government: that there is either a plebiscite or nothing when it comes to achieving marriage equality. We could make this a reality within the next 10 days. That would be possible. The plebiscite, as I said earlier in this debate, is a colossal waste of money. Just imagine what good we could do with the $200 million if it were spent on our health system, on our schools, on legal services, on mental health services or on domestic violence front-line services, just to name a few. That is $200 million which would otherwise be wasted.

From the experience of advocating for this from 2010 to this date, I have garnered some small exposure to the level of vitriol, hatred and fear directed against the LGBTI community that emanates from those who are strongly opposed to marriage equality. I am a privileged, white, heterosexual male. I hold a position within the community that gives me great privileges and benefits. I can say that I have never experienced the sort of institutional discrimination that many people who have come to me and expressed their concerns have experienced. However, the very limited experience of proposing a change to the marriage laws has led me to take their concerns very seriously.

When the plebiscite was first proposed, I have to say that I had an open mind to the question. This was before the issue of the cost was brought to my attention, but it was also before I sat down and spoke to many members of my community and to many people within my friendship networks and, in fact, around the country. I spoke to them about their very real concerns. I think it would have been an abrogation of my responsibility for me—as I have said, as a privileged, white, heterosexual male—to say, 'C'mon, we can toughen up; we need not be concerned about these issues,' and not listen to their concerns and their lived experiences. To a person, they were concerned about the impact of the plebiscite on their children or on young LGBTI people.

I can attest to the hundreds and hundreds of emails that I have received from opponents of same-sex marriage who thought it was fit and appropriate to commit to writing and to communicate to me and to many other people some of the most egregious statements and comments about our fellow Australians. That is a private communication to a member of parliament; I can only imagine what it would be like if this bill proceeds and that is let loose in a full-blown public debate. People say that we are a robust country and good people, that they have confidence and faith in the Australian community and that the majority of Australians will not stoop to that level of debate. I understand that. I actually agree with it. I actually agree that the majority of Australians will not engage in that sort of debate. But it is not the majority of Australians that I am concerned about and it is not the majority of Australians that raise the concerns the LGBTI community have made direct representations to me about.

As former Justice of the High Court Michael Kirby has said:

A plebiscite campaign unfortunately would be likely to bring out hatreds and animosities in our country that are bad for minorities generally and for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender minority in particular.

From my own experience, I have no reason to doubt this. Michael Kirby has put forward 10 reasons against the plebiscite, including this one. These are compelling reasons against the plebiscite, including the controversial precedent that it would set in our history as to how such matters are determined within our political system, in the view of former Justice Michael Kirby and in my view; and including advocacy that we have heard this week on behalf of Professor McGorry, who has warned that a public campaign could and probably would increase the risk of self-harm and suicide in an already vulnerable community. We cannot blithely dismiss these concerns.

The experience in Ireland has been pointed to as precedent within this debate. In my view, that is misplaced. There is a good reason why the people of Ireland conducted a national referendum to determine this question, and the reason is this: the provisions concerning marriage were entrenched in their constitution. Our Constitution is entirely different species, which gives this parliament the right to make laws in respect of marriage. And it is indeed this place where a bill will have to be considered at the conclusion of any plebiscite, were it to proceed. The Irish experience is pertinent. Australian researchers have identified that Ireland's same-sex marriage referendum 'no' campaign had a deeply negative impact on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people and their families. Dr Sharon Dane in from the University of Queensland School of Psychology found that over 1,600 people within the LGBTI community— (Time expired)

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