The ACT legislation giving civil recognition to same sex relationships has been negated. The Senate failed today in its attempt to prevent the federal government from overturning the ACT law. Liberal Senator Gary Humphries voted against the government and in favour of the Senate’s disallowance motion. However, the Family First Senator voted with the government, meaning the disallowance motion failed 30-32.
My speech is below.
(10.52 am)—I suppose I have an interest in this debate. Like many people in this chamber, I am married. Amazingly enough, I do not feel like my marriage is being threatened or diminished in any way by the ACT enabling people who have same-sex partners to register their relationship under the Civil Unions Act.
I ask any member of this chamber who also happens to be married: can they seriously say that their marriage will be devalued one single iota by enabling people whose partner happens to be of the same gender to have their relationship recognised under civil law? There is absolutely no way that anybody, I believe, can sensibly say that their own relationship is devalued because of what some other couple wants to do with regard to recognising their relationship. If they do believe that then I suggest there is something wrong with their own relationship.
What is this all about? I suggest that, first and foremost, from the Prime Minister’s point of view in particular, it is about political point-scoring opportunities once again. I believe there is no doubt that the Prime Minister is not genuine on this issue. I do not make categorical statements like that unthinkingly. This Prime Minister has repeatedly said in recent times—and only in the last year or so, I might say; it is an interesting shift in his rhetoric—that he opposes discrimination against people who have same-sex relationships. He specifically said at the end of last year that he was in favour of removing any property discrimination and other discrimination against people who have same-sex relationships whilst nonetheless maintaining his opposition to gay marriage or gay adoption. But what has he done about it? He has done nothing. He has made the nice-sounding statement saying, ‘We are against discrimination on the grounds of property etc,’ but he has done nothing.
I wrote a letter to him after he made that statement, in January—as I was acting leader at the time, while my leader, Senator Allison, was on leave—congratulating him on his statements that he was in favour of removing property discrimination and other discrimination against people in same-sex relationships. He is so genuine about it that he has never even acknowledged the letter, let alone responded meaningfully. That is how shallow this Prime Minister’s commitment is to that issue.
I recall that, when I was leader of the Democrats, the party had to hold up the superannuation choice legislation for years before the government would agree to, very begrudgingly, allow some degree of equality on the basis of interdependency for people with regard to some of their superannuation entitlements. It was a significant reform. Seeing that Senator Coonan is in the chamber, I acknowledge her contribution in enabling that to happen. That was a significant achievement of the Democrats, which, I might say in passing, is rarely acknowledged by many of those who continually call for the removal of discrimination against people in same-sex relationships. They seem quite happy to ignore the Democrats’ achievements, persistence and actual gains in this area. Of course, the Democrats have had legislation before this chamber since 1995 that would have the effect of removing property discrimination and other discrimination against people on the basis of their sexuality, their gender status or the gender of their exclusive partner.
We have had no indications of genuine support from the government—or, until recent times, from the Labor Party, I might say—with regard to that area. It is nice to have the Prime Minister making this statement but forgive me if I believe that he does not believe it. If he believed it he would act on it. He has made the statement repeatedly now for many months. He has not acted on it. I acknowledge the efforts in recent times of Mr Entsch, the member for Leichhardt, in seeking to address this issue, but there has been no movement from the government.
We have seen continual inaction. There has been the occasional nice-sounding statement saying that the government believe that there should be a removal of discrimination and that we might need to have a look to see what is around. They know what discrimination there is. Democrats legislation on this issue has been before this place since 1995. A comprehensive Senate inquiry that tabled its report back in 1997 detailed all the discrimination that exists. We have had small gains in removing some of that discrimination in the area of superannuation and in some aspects of the Defence Force, but it is not complete even in those areas. We know where discrimination exists. There is now a human rights commission inquiry into it as well, which I also welcome, which will provide more detail about it and reaffirm the need to act. But the excuses about why we cannot move are continual.
We had excuse after excuse with regard to the superannuation legislation about why they could not move in that area. It was only because we refused to proceed on superannuation choice for years that they eventually agreed. The government were so determined not to move even in a small area of removing discrimination that they held up a major policy reform with regard to superannuation choice. Regardless of whether or not people agree with super choice, it was a major policy reform of the government that they were strongly pushing. They were willing to have that sit and not move for years purely because they would not make any concession on removing discrimination. It was only because of the Democrats’ insistence on also not moving that we finally did get some gains there.
The evidence is quite clear that the Prime Minister is not genuine. This debate we are having today is another example. Whilst we have had years and years of dragging the chain, of continual excuses for inaction, as soon as the ACT moved there was instantaneous action from this government to jump in and try to overturn the ACT parliament’s legislation. There was no pausing to look at reasons why it might not be a good idea. There were no delays or consultation. It was straight in, running the gay marriage fear campaign, running the political wedge and pushing the political point-scoring buttons. They immediately initiated this divisive, destructive and personally hurtful and harmful debate to many Australians. The Prime Minister is not genuine or sincere. He is quite willing to deliberately cause not only anguish and hurt but actual harm to many Australians purely for political point-scoring opportunities. His complete lack of interest in even acknowledging correspondence from people who offer to work with him in removing discrimination in areas that he says that he supports shows how insincere he is.
Obviously points have been raised by Senator Brown and others about how it is inappropriate to overturn a decision of the territory parliament and the territory parliament should be able to make their own laws. I understand that argument, but it is not one that I am prepared to use because, if you going to take that approach, you have to be 100 per cent consistent on it. You cannot only use that argument when you like the laws that you are trying to defend; you have to use that argument when it applies to laws you do not like. Whilst I like this law in the ACT—I am quite open about that—the Democrats in the past have introduced legislation, which also had Senator Brown’s and the Labor Party’s name on it, seeking to overturn the mandatory sentencing laws in the Northern Territory. They were laws that I very strongly disliked—laws that I am glad are no longer there, as I understand it. Personally, if I believe it is an important enough case—and I do not suggest that the federal parliament should willy-nilly overturn any law that it is vaguely dissatisfied with—and the power is there, whether it is the law of a territory or a state, I have to say that, to be consistent, I would be willing to overturn it.
So I am not using that argument in this case; I am using the argument that the law in the ACT should be upheld because it is a good law. It is obviously also a law that the people of the ACT supported. I think the mandate theory of politics is grossly overused. But, inasmuch as it can be used, the ACT Labor Party did run with this as a policy. It was not only voted in but voted in in its own right. That was not something that I was overly happy about, in broader terms, but nonetheless there was a mandate, as far as it goes. But I am not willing to use that argument because I do not think you can apply it, unless you are going to apply it consistently and most tellingly to those areas or laws that you do not support.
Senator Nettle spoke about the power of love and the importance of equal recognition of love. It was quite touching really; it was almost poetic. Obviously love has a lot of do with marriage and the recognition of relationships. I should say that not all marriages are about love; some marriages are not really about love at all. I think there is often more to it than love but, ideally, particularly in our society and with the values we hold in Australia, we believe that any exclusive relationship is far preferable if it is based around love. We could all now have a debate about what love actually is, if you particularly want this debate to go for another 10 weeks and to have all our different definitions of love.
Clearly, love is an important aspect of relationships, and it is an important part of why actions such as this federal government is taking are so harmful. Categorically and indisputably this action does say that people whose love is towards someone else of the same gender is of less value or less worth than people whose love is with somebody of the opposite gender. That is not only discriminatory; it is immensely harmful for some people. I ask people to consider that, if you have a message coming from the leaders of your country, as well as, of course, leaders of churches—and I will get on to some of them in a moment—that is believed to be so important that it is reflected in decisions of the national parliament and the law of the land, you are going to think that your love does not merit the same recognition as somebody else’s.
I ask people to think about how that can affect individual people, particularly if they are people who, because of the social discrimination and social antagonism towards gay and lesbian people, are struggling—and some are, as we all know—with their sexuality. If people who are vulnerable because they are struggling with their sexuality are having a message reinforced in law that their intrinsic emotional beliefs and their intrinsic emotional bond with another person is less valuable, that is immensely harmful. I am not overstating the case when I say that that is one of the key reasons why there is a higher incidence of suicide, self-harm, depression and related issues among people who are gay, lesbian or bisexual. They are continually bombarded with messages saying that their emotions, their intrinsic way of relating to people, is less valuable or somehow disordered. It is immensely harmful. That is why I oppose so strongly actions like this. It is also why I am doubly offended and angry because I know, as I said at the start, that the Prime Minister is not genuine in his statements in this area.
It also gives extra coverage, extra legs, to people such as Piers Ackerman, who many of us would have seen on the Insiders program on the weekend. In relating to and commenting on this issue that we are debating now, he said that you cannot call a relationship between a man and a man, a woman and a woman, or a man and his dog, his cat or his goat a marriage. That is the sort of contemptible depth that some senior political commentators in this country have been willing to sink. A major media commentator willing to use the opportunity of debates like this to run such disgusting and destructive messages to millions of people throughout the nation. Thankfully, there are not that many people who, like Piers Ackerman, are willing to be so offensive and so deliberately abusive towards their fellow Australians. But there are others.
Also mentioned on that program was the spokesperson for the Australian Family Association, who reportedly stated that removing barriers to recognition of gay and lesbian relationships will mean that people will be more likely to start having sex with animals. That is the sort of contemptible statement that gets made and is given reinforcement. I am not suggesting that government members support that statement, but I am saying that by cynically putting forward debates like these they are giving succour to those sorts of statements. Most of us can dismiss them as the rantings of people who are being deliberately antagonistic, but for people who are vulnerable and who are already feeling under attack, they have extra bite.
I would also like to emphasise that, despite all the talk about love—and that is important—marriage is not just an expression of love. Marriage, particularly in the legislative context in which we are debating it here, is actually a legal contract. You can take all the love out of it entirely and just say it is a legal contract, and so is the civil recognition of same-sex relationships. It is purely a legal process. It is a legal process that, among other things and in some ways most significantly, much more effectively enables the legal recognition of property and other entitlements—the very thing that the Prime Minister has said he is in favour of removing discrimination against. The ACT has taken a move that makes it more likely that people in same-sex relationships will have the same access to property entitlements and all those other obligations that apply to people in de facto, opposite-sex relationships. This is an action that goes in the direction the Prime Minister has said he is in favour of, but he leaps in straight away and seeks to overturn it.
I also want to say, because I believe it needs to be placed in the context of this debate, that there are statements, not just by fringe nutters from the Australian Family Association—what a misnomer that is—but also by leaders of mainstream churches. I am not in the business of attacking the churches in general or the Pope in particular, because I believe in general they perform a positive role in society. If people who are Catholics do not like what the Pope says then it is their choice whether they stay in the church. I am not into arguing about what the church does and does not do; people who are in the church can fight that battle. I am not in that church, so I do not debate that. However, one of the earliest statements by the new Pope was that ‘deep-seated homosexual tendencies’, to use his terminology, gravely obstructs a right way of relating with men and women. People who are Catholic can choose whether or not to believe that, but statements like these are not just made for Catholics to believe; they are made and specifically stated as being made for society as a whole to follow.
I say that because those things are used to reinforce debates like this, and if statements are made saying people in same-sex relationships cannot relate fully or properly to other men and women purely because of their sexual orientation, in the context of saying that marriage is a special thing that must apply only to men and women, then it sends very destructive, harmful and divisive messages to our society. So I and the Democrats very strongly support this motion and we very strongly support the ACT government’s legislation. I hope there is still some way through to get a resolution on this issue, not just because I support the legislation but—much more importantly, I believe—because we cannot continue to keep passing things in this place that reinforce messages that are so destructive to people. (Time expired)