I rise to speak on the Marriage Equality Amendment Bill 2013. This bill has actually been on the books since 29 September 2010, introduced by Sarah Hanson-Young on the first sitting day of the 43rd Parliament, almost six years ago. It builds upon the first bill to legislate for equal marriage in this parliament that was introduced by a former Greens member of the House of Representatives, Michael Organ, in 2004. Then there were Australian Democrats bills in 2006 and Greens bills in 2007, 2008 and 2009. I am proud to say it has been the Greens that have been there since the beginning—every parliament, every vote, every time.
The 2004 bill that was introduced by Michael Organ was introduced in the wake of the changes to the Marriage Act by John Howard, who redefined marriage as being between a man and a woman. And, no, he did not need a plebiscite to do that. He moved to do that because of the changes that were happening around the world. Equal marriage was legislated for in Canada and Massachusetts in 2004—12 years ago. But, of course, in Australia, under former Prime Minister Howard, we could not possibly be as supportive, as accepting and as non-discriminatory of equality as countries like that! So it has been a long haul.
I feel very honoured to have the baton as the Greens spokesperson for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer people for the part of this quest. I am deeply hopeful that I will keep the privilege of being the Greens spokesperson when we finally get to celebrate equal marriage as quickly as we possibly can. This week has represented the highs and lows of humanity: we have had sides unite, we have had people trying to tear us apart and we have even had weird conspiracy rubbish. But what a farce it has all turned out to be for Malcolm Turnbull. We know that he supports marriage equality.
Malcolm Turnbull failed, before he was in this parliament, to lead us into a referendum, and now he wants us to trust him with a marriage equality plebiscite. Marriage equality has perhaps been the most public example of the Prime Minister's failure of leadership in his first year in that office. The Abbott government was the worst government I have seen: ruling for the fringes and forgetting that government needs to be fair. When Mr Turnbull took over one year and one day ago we had such high hopes. But what a disappointment he has been. What is the point if he is just going to do the same things that the Abbott faction was pushing for? We have seen in the parliament today how much Turnbull is completely controlled by the right wing, the reactionaries and the troglodytes of his backbench.
In question time yesterday we had Senator Brandis telling us how wonderful the plebiscite was going to be and how he had met with the LGBTI community. But it is completely clear that he has been listening much more to the right wing of the backbench rather than to the LGBTI community. I have met with those same people that Senator Brandis met with, and they have told me in no uncertain terms that they want to see marriage enacted in Australia through a free vote in our parliament, and they want to see it happen as quickly as possible. They do not want to see us put through a hateful, divisive and unnecessary plebiscite.
Earlier this week Rainbow Families and Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, or PFLAG, came into parliament. They were here to highlight to representatives from all sides of politics that there was overwhelming opposition to the plebiscite from the LGBTIQ community. What they told us, and what was very clear, was that even people who do not feel they are directly impacted by discrimination in marriage and the possible consequences of the plebiscite are guaranteed to know someone who is—their brother, their sister, their son, their daughter, their friend or their workmate. Imagine walking down the street with your child and seeing a flyer or a poster questioning the legitimacy of your family. Despite what the Attorney-General claims, it is already happening. Just one example were the flyers being handed out at the footy at the MCG a few weeks ago saying, 'Two men cannot replace a mother,' and 'Two women cannot replace a father.' What absolute hateful, hurtful nonsense. And a plebiscite, especially one where the no campaign is handed $7.5 million, will be giving these people a megaphone—a licence to hate.
We know that while there is support for marriage equality in the community there is also overwhelming opposition to a plebiscite to decide this issue. Eighty-five per cent of the LGBTI community do not support a plebiscite. PFLAG surveyed 5,500 members of the LGBTI community, and overwhelming they said, 'Don't put us through the hatefulness and the hurtfulness of a plebiscite.' The people who answered the PFLAG survey outlined their worries and concerns. One person said:
It's absolutely clear the plebiscite will unleash a torrent of abuse against our community in general, but, even more importantly, at our children.'
I don't want to have to justify my family in public or beg my Facebook friends to be good allies.
Another said simply:
I don't want my children to suffer.
Recently, nearly 17,000 people had signed our petition against the plebiscite. Again, as part of signing this petition—it has gone completely viral—many LGBTIQ people, as well as their families, friends and supporters, outlined why they oppose the plebiscite. Owen said:
As a bisexual youth, and having had experience with organizing marriage rights events and attending them, there is OVERWHELMING support from young people to have marriage equality and safe, supportive environments for LGBTI+ persons in Australia. This is the next generation we're talking about, how could the Liberals be so ignorant and DANGEROUS as to propose this plebiscite? This puts the lives of every LGBTI+ person at risk by justifying discrimination and hate.
My son is gay and, whilst he is not in a serious relationship at the moment, I cannot understand why he should not be allowed to marry if he does meet Mr. Right.
Another, who did not want to be identified, told us:
As a bisexual man who already deals with a lack of understanding and support, the last thing I want is an invitation for the whole country to call me unnatural, perverted and disgusting. I already deal with depression, like many LGBTQ people. Please don't put us through this.
The Greens have listened to the community—we have a history of listening to this community, from when we introduced our first bill for marriage equality in 2004—and we will always stand with them.
I think of my partner, Penny, and myself, who have had the most amazing 30 years of marriage. We are very privileged to be one of the very few same-sex couples who have been legally married in Australia—but of course we are only so because Penny cannot change her birth certificate to reflect her gender, otherwise, because of our ridiculous marriage laws, we would have to be divorced. We have people across the country against same-sex marriage who say they are in support of marriage. We have marriages like Penny's and mine that are at risk because of our current marriage laws. It is up in the air whether the changes proposed by the Labor Party in Victoria are going to go through the state parliament that would allow her to change her birth certificate without having to show that she was not married. Currently it is being debated in the Victorian parliament, and is being opposed by the Liberal Party. I can tell you from personal experience that a heterosexual marriage and a same-sex marriage are no different. It is ludicrous to discriminate between them. I loved Penny when she was called Peter when we married, and I have continued to love her for the last 13 years as Penny. All other same-sex couples should have the right to be married like we are.
I think of the wonderful speech given by Senator McCarthy last night. She urged Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull:
… please reconsider your plebiscite bill. Please pull back from this brink of public vitriol and make marriage equality a reality in this parliament. We need only be reminded of the hateful and hurtful commentary on race that ended the career of an AFL hero in Swans legend Adam Goodes—do not let that happen here to any of these families in Australia.
It was a truly wonderful speech, full of hope. Yet the government persists, and we know why: the Prime Minister has lost control of his party. He is beholden to his backbench, and while this continues the discrimination continues.
This week we have finally seen the details of their proposal. First of all, we have a rigged question. The LGBTI community and same-sex couples are being asked to seek the approval of the rest of the country for their right to marriage. We have a question where excluded from the question is any mention of whether people who identify as neither male nor female would be permitted to marry. The government could make the Marriage Act gender neutral by replacing 'one man and one woman' with 'two people', but then the far Right backbench, who we know are going to everything they can to stop equal marriage, could argue that that was not explicitly covered in the plebiscite.
We have $15 million of funding—public funding; yours and my taxpayer dollars—for these campaigns, on top of the $160 million that we are already spending. That would mean $7½ million to propagate hate speech, to use a megaphone to say that there is something wrong with people like Penny and me, something wrong with the families we met yesterday. Then there is the issue that we heard about from Senator Brandis yesterday, that the advertising for this plebiscite will not be covered by the advertising standards. It will be considered political advertising, so it will not be covered. So it does not have to be factual. So we can have the most hateful, hurtful, harmful, completely untrue rubbish going out there—into everybody's letter boxes, on their streets, on their televisions—using our money.
And then finally, of course, the big issue with this plebiscite is that we can spend all this money, we can have this outpouring of hatefulness against LGBTI people, and politicians can still ignore it. It is not binding, and we know that many members of our government are saying that they are going to vote against it anyway.
Parliament should protect the rights of minorities, not subject them to a harmful and hurtful debate. This is such a dangerous precedent to set. As Senator Dean Smith very courageously wrote in the Fairfax papers yesterday:
I have never heard a candidate standing for election say they want to represent their community - except on issues where it's all too difficult, in which case they will contract-out their responsibilities as a legislator.
Senator Smith asked:
In an age where public respect for the institution of Parliament is already at a low ebb, we can ill afford to further undermine public confidence by effectively admitting that our Parliament can no longer deal with the big questions. …
What will be the justification used to deny future plebiscites on euthanasia, on abortion, on military deployments, or even on spending cuts? Where will be the newline in the sand?
Senator Brandis yesterday also claimed that he did not expect to see, as part of the plebiscite campaigning, signs like those seen during the Irish referendum, such as those saying that kids are not complete without a mother and a father—such a ridiculous proposition. But, Senator Brandis, that is already happening, and this plebiscite and the public funding for this plebiscite will just give the haters a megaphone.
So I want to outline a way forward that lets the parliament do what it is meant to do and gives the LGBTI community hope for a simpler way to end marriage discrimination. First of all, we have to pull the plug on the hateful, hurtful, unnecessary, expensive plebiscite. I call upon the Labor Party not to leave the LGBTI community waiting for another three weeks before definitively announcing their position. They need to fully commit to rejecting this hateful plebiscite now. Australia is ready for marriage equality. We do not need a plebiscite to tell us what we already know.
Secondly, once we have rejected the plebiscite we need to let parliament do its job. There are currently two bills in the House of Representatives. The bill with the most chance is probably not going to be the bill we are debating today but a cross-party bill. I invite members of the Labor Party, members of the crossbench and—who knows?—maybe even some Liberal Party members to join together in introducing a cross-party bill in this Senate. Then, if the Senate so desires, we can have a respectful committee inquiry which can explore the cases for and against and what has changed since the last time we inquired into equal marriage—how the rest of the world has moved on, from Spain to New Zealand, from the UK to the US. We can be definitive about the level of support for marriage equality across the country. We can put together the case for and the case against and, armed with that information, members of the Senate and then members of the House of Representatives can vote. I am confident that we already have a majority of senators and members who, in a free vote, will vote in favour, and we can have wedding bells ringing by Christmas.
We can do this. We just need to work together. We can enrich the lives of many Australians through a simple vote in parliament.
When I first entered this place I said that I am here for all lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people and their families. Marriage equality is such an important step towards the goal of ending discrimination against them. I say to my fellow LGBTIQ Australians: the time is coming. Every day, we take a step towards achieving marriage equality. Every day, LGBTIQ people, our family, our friends and our supporters fill me with hope. We know that love is love, that love will prevail and that it is time to put love into law.
I rise to speak against the Marriage Equality Amendment Bill 2013, for a number of reasons, which I will outline in my speech this morning. But first of all I will say that last night in this place we heard two very passionate first speeches from Senators Hanson and McCarthy, two very different women sharing their lives and their personal beliefs with those of us in this chamber and with the Australian people.
I was deeply angered and greatly saddened by the difference in the responses that both of these colleagues of ours received last night. While one was heard in respectful silence from both sides of the chamber, the other was not. I have to say, despite my affection for some of my colleagues in the Greens and my enjoyment of working with them, I think that what I believe was an unprecedented and staged walk-out conducted by them last night put great shame upon all of us in this chamber. To me, it highlighted more than anything else what is wrong with the state of public debate and with our ability to deal with the big issues of the day in this chamber. So delicate were their ears that they could not even stay and show respect to Senator Hanson, who was elected by the people of Queensland to represent them and their voice in this chamber.
If they were really so offended and did not want to listen to a different point of view they could have just exited out the back entrance here without making a performance of walking past Senator Hanson in the ultimate show of disrespect. I personally did not agree with everything each senator said last night, but I absolutely respected their right to say what they did on their own behalf and on behalf of those who elected them. I was given pause to reflect last night on what hope freedom of expression has in our nation if those on the Left will only ever listen to and tolerate their own truths and those who espouse their own version of the truth, when they cannot even listen to a colleague who challenges their own beliefs in this very parliament and this very chamber, which is charged with preserving and protecting our freedoms. And nothing is more important than freedom of expression.
In my experience here in Australia and also working in many new democracies and many struggling democracies I have been left with one very clear impression and belief: intolerance never, ever defeats intolerance; it only breeds further intolerance and resentment and further social division. I think that is very clear. Again, I was reminded of that last night by some in this chamber not being willing to even respect the right of others in this chamber to express their opinions, to freedom of expression.
In relation to this bill, I reaffirm the commitment made to the Australian people prior to the election on 2 July that they will be able to have their say on same-sex marriage, through a national plebiscite. As a senator for Western Australia and a Liberal senator I firmly believe in equality of opportunity for all Australians, and that means full legal equality. However people see and define themselves, all Australians should have the same basic legal rights in this country. As the published polls show, I think that people in Western Australia, given the opportunity, will vote yes. Of course, I will respect all views, and most if not all of my colleagues here have indicated they will do the same thing.
The Australian people have given us a mandate to have the plebiscite, and it is very clear out in the community that people want to be able to have their say. That is not something to be afraid of but something to embrace—a sensible, passionate debate on an issue of great social concern and relevance. The Turnbull government yesterday honoured its mandate when the Prime Minister introduced the Plebiscite (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill. We are keeping faith with the people of Australia and doing what we said we would do. I believe that this commitment is one that all members of this parliament should support and respect. Unlike those opposite, we are not playing games this issue. We are not taking part in parliamentary stunts and theatre that disrespects others in this place. We are simply doing what we promised to do.
I remind all colleagues in this place that, just over 12 months ago, my party and the National Party—the coalition—had a seven-hour meeting to discuss this very issue. It was a very robust debate because, like in the Australian community, there is a great difference of opinion in our joint party room on this issue. We had seven hours of debate and, at the end of that debate, in what I think was a watershed moment for the coalition parties, we agreed that this was an issue that should go to the Australian people. The great encouragement I took from that debate was the fact that, for the first time, the coalition parties had opened the door, offered an olive branch to those opposite and said, 'This is a way that we can get this policy through.'
If we in our party can have such a robust but respectful debate, I am absolutely gobsmacked that those opposite—and we have just heard it again from Senator Rice—think that the Australian people are incapable of engaging in a debate on this issue. I do not think a debate with the Australian people is something to be scared of. It is something that we should be embracing and that we do with great courage, passion and commitment, because, even if the bill before us were to pass in this place and the other place, we can only benefit from having this discussion with the Australian people now, to remove a lot of the bigotry that Senator Rice says exists out there currently. We can only benefit from this discussion and debate.
Not only did the coalition have those seven hours of debate 12 months ago; on Monday in the party room we again discussed this issue. I was so proud of my colleagues, because there was unanimous support, I think, that this should go to the Australian people, and we agreed that whatever the Australian people said on this issue—and the published opinion polls say that they will support it—whatever our own personal opinions are on it, we would support the will of the Australian people. I was so proud that we had done that. It makes me very sad to think that, now we have the opportunity to get full legal equality on this issue, those opposite might put that in jeopardy.
I believe this private member's bill denies Australians the chance to have their say. Again, it will cause such division that those couples who want to have full legal equality will now not get it. It is so close, but they might not get it.
Senator Rice said that the plebiscite is a licence to hate. But it is only a licence to hate if those opposite and those on this side who agree with the 'yes' case do not get out there and combat it. You never combat intolerance and hate with further intolerance, as I said at the beginning of my speech, or by not engaging in the debate at all, which is exactly what those opposite are going to do—just walk away from a public debate on something that they are so passionate about. Unlike those opposite, I trust the Australian people to make a decision on this in a reasoned, logical and very compassionate way.
Members and senators who are committed to same-sex couples being able to have their relationship regarded as marriage should support the government's plebiscite bill. This private member's bill before us says to Australians that the Greens are indifferent to the deeply held views of ordinary Australians and to the importance Australians attach to expressing those views and having them heard by their elected representatives. Again, on this side we do not fear having that discussion with the Australian community; we are embracing it. Where we hear hate, we will also counter hate, but we will do it openly and fearlessly to actually root it out of our society.
Those opposite say they are serious about the issue, and I have heard many impassioned speeches in this place in my two years here—certainly, no more impassioned than Senator McKim's first speech. And I have to say that we on this side sat and listened to Senator McKim. We were certainly insulted and offended by some of what he had to say and we did not agree with everything he said, but we sat here, we accorded him respect for his point of view and we congratulated him. We did not turn our backs on him just because we did not agree with him. In Senator McKim's first speech, 12 months ago, he said:
Every Greens MP has voted for marriage equality every single time, and we will continue to work to support people in our community to champion this reform until every Australian, regardless of their sexuality, will know that they are equal before the law in all respects.
Well, with great respect to Senator McKim, a colleague in this place, I could not disagree with him more. Those on this side have provided an unprecedented opportunity and a way that we can move forward on this issue, and those opposite are playing politics with it. If you do not support the plebiscite, the sad fact is that any two individuals, however they identify, will not have the opportunity for legal equality, and that makes me very sad.
I think the Prime Minister was right yesterday when he made reference to his belief that many people oppose the plebiscite because they believe that, if there were a free vote in the parliament, same-sex marriage would be supported. So they do not want to run the risk of the Australian people giving the answer they do not want to hear. My own impression is that there is no doubt that there has been a significant shift in public opinion and in society as a whole on this issue. The most recent Essential poll on 30 August this year showed that 59 per cent of people support a plebiscite and that if there were one it would get up and the majority of Australians would say yes to full equality. I would say to those opposite: do not be afraid of the Australian people. Engage with them. Discuss with them. Where you find people who may hold hate in their hearts, who may be bigoted or prejudiced, speak to them; address them. Do not run away from them and be afraid of even engaging in the debate because you do not want to hear what they have to say and you have no ability to counter them face to face.
As the Attorney-General said yesterday, same-sex marriage is now so close we can almost touch it. This side of the chamber has come a long way on this issue. We may not have come the full way in the way that those opposite wanted, but we have moved so much on this issue that it would be a tragedy if the plebiscite did not occur. There is no doubt that the fastest and surest way to guarantee a vote on same-sex marriage in this parliament is to support the plebiscite. I think that anybody listening to those opposite would often think that those opposite have a mortgage on compassion, that they have a mortgage on an ability to deal with social issues and that they are the single moral compass for this nation. That is highly insulting not only to me but also to all of my colleagues on this side of the chamber.
Of course we all want the best outcomes for Australia, but we come from very philosophical points of view on policy and on what is compassion and on what is the right way forward. But just because we have a different way of achieving the same outcome, it does not make it any lesser. It is profoundly undemocratic and a very poor reason to oppose consulting and relying on the good judgement and the sense of the Australian people simply because you do not want to put the argument out there in the public and you might not get the answer you want. It would be a sad irony indeed if this opportunity were not grasped because advocates for same-sex marriage have discarded the fastest and surest way of recognising same-sex marriage in this country simply because it was not their own bill.
For me, and I think for all of us in this chamber, one of the most important responsibilities in this place is to preserve the institutions and principles that underpin our democracy. As I observed the other day in this chamber, our own unique liberal democratic culture recognises that societies improve by individuals thinking for themselves and by those of us in this place listening to what our constituents and Australian voters are saying. We might not always like what they say and it might make us very uncomfortable, but we do have a responsibility to listen to all arguments and all ideas, to allow all Australians to impart their own views, and then to have those views contested in open and robust debate, so that the really great ideas gain traction and stick and the bad ideas and, as Senator Rice said, the hateful ideas wither away and die.
That is what this exact debate is about. Let's have this debate once and for all in this nation. Let's engage the public. Let's make sure that the good ideas—the ideas of legal equality and legal opportunity—flourish in this country and that those in the community who might be hateful or have different points of view are absolutely shot down. In Australia, freedom of speech is never, ever completely free, but I do not believe that freedoms are successfully preserved through legislative or practical censorship of deeply held opinions and beliefs. The walkout we saw last night was a classic example of not respecting other people's points of view, even if you do not agree with them. Freedom of speech is essential to preserving and protecting the rights of minorities. As I said before, intolerance never, ever defeats intolerance; it only breeds more intolerance and social disharmony.
The very reason we are debating this issue today in this place is to make sure that our laws reflect societal norms of today. That is exactly why we do not have a bill of rights. Our founding fathers did not create a bill of rights very deliberately. That was because, even back then at the turn of the century, they realised that to codify rights would actually codify rights of societal norms back in 1901. Thank heavens they did not, because otherwise we would have a bill of rights that reflected the social values and social norms from back in the 1900s. They did that also to make sure that, in this place in particular, we had the ability to robustly debate what the societal values and societal norms were and to make sure that laws reflect current societal values. From opinion poll after opinion poll it is very clear that most Australians now support equality under the law in relation to marriage. The only issue for us is: how do we get to that point?
Those on this side have offered the olive branch. We have said, 'We will walk with you on this, but let's make sure that we have this debate out in the Australian community and that the Australian community is ready if and when this legislation comes in.' All of us who exercise freedom of speech and freedom of opinion in this place, be it in public life or in the media, have to accept that others are likely to be in vehement disagreement with what we have to say and, conversely, others will be in vehement opposition and disagreement with what the other person says. Again, this is a healthy thing in any democracy. It is critically important to make sure that our standards are acceptable to the Australian community.
I really believe that our founding fathers, if they were looking at us today and assessing this place's ability to keep engaging with the community and reflecting community norms, would be very proud that not only can we simultaneously debate issues that are fundamental to the health of our democracy and make sure that changes to legislation reflect societal values and norms of the day, but also the government of the day can get on with governing to do the things that it was elected to do. This is something that we should value and celebrate. It should not be the cause of derision and hatespeak.
Unlike those opposite, I believe that the Australian people are mature enough to have a sensible debate on this issue. I respect their intelligence, their civility and their ability to make a decision. Above all, I respect the fact that each and every one of them has a right to have say on this issue. The Irish vote in 2015 demonstrated clearly that the public and individuals are more than capable of having this very mature debate. I think it is grossly insulting to suggest that the Australian public are not equally capable of having this debate and coming to a decision that they do want equality under the law. Thank you.
I rise to speak on the Marriage Equality Amendment Bill 2013. In 2004 we had a debate in this chamber about the change to the Marriage Act. The process that led to that debate was extraordinarily painful. Senator Reynolds has just discussed the process that happened in her party room that led up to the decision that we now have about the plebiscite. The process in my party room that led up to that debate in 2004 was equally painful. People had a wide range of opinions. It was discussed. There had not been a long period of time in the community leading up to that debate. The decision by Prime Minister Howard to propose that change was very rapid. There had not been the opportunity for the community in its widest sense to feed in to the parliamentarians as much as has happened previously. I was agonising about whether I would take part in that debate, because I was personally very distressed by what was going on and my own views were not the ones that were then taken by my party. I listened and I was concerned, but I finally felt that it was my job as a parliamentarian to express what I felt about what was happening. Whilst we were bound at that stage to vote for the government—there had been a binding decision in our caucus—what I talked about at that time was the pain I felt as a result of the community comments that had been flooding in during the very short time of this discussion. I said in this place that I was saddened by the anger and hatred that people in the community were prepared to express around the issue of marriage and any concept of what I termed marriage equality.
That was 2004. As Senator Rice has explained in her contribution, since then we have had a range of opportunities in this place, a range of bills that have come forward, where we have had a debate like the debate we are having today. Sadly, most of those debates have been in private members' time. It is a wonderful opportunity to express our views and to share our opinions, but we knew that there would be no result of that process. It was a chance to discuss how people felt about marriage equality. It has been valuable to listen to those contributions over the years. You learn much about the people with whom you work when you hear people expressing their own views and hear what drives them and the comments they have.
But I continue to say that the thing that upsets me and concerns me most is the amount of hatred that comes through my emails and my office from people who are opposed to marriage equality. I hear Senator Bushby mumbling under his breath over there. There are also concerns and hatred expressed by people who support marriage equality, Senator Bushby. But what I have done a couple of times recently is I have shared with people I know, without naming names, some of the things that people have sent me on my email.
This is not a reasoned debate. There seems to be a depth of feeling and concern around this issue that causes people to attack others, to make comments which do not actually always relate to marriage, but which relate to their worries, concerns and fear about homosexuality. That is where the emails focus. Not only do they focus on their hatred of people whose views they do not share, they then turn that hatred on the parliamentarians, saying, 'If you vote for this you will be anti God, you will be turning your back on your community, you will be burned in hell.' That is my personal favourite; I actually keep that in my office as a hope for my future.
I do not wish to minimise the concern, but I want to put on record something that is very important to me about how we are engaging with our community. I take absolutely many of the points that Senator Reynolds has just made about the fact that we need to listen and share, have the tough debates and engage with people whose opinions we do not share. It is clear that that is part of our job. It is part of our job as elected representatives of our communities to listen, to respond and to try and understand, so that when we are in this place taking votes on a range of important issues we come here well informed, we have done our job and researched our issues, and we continue the debate with the community to explain what has led to the decisions we have made. On that point, I truly believe that the debate we are having now is about the decision the government of the day has made that the parliament will not be the place where a decision is made about marriage equality but rather that this decision will be outsourced to a plebiscite.
We have only just heard the details of the plebiscite, but still we have no clear indication on whether this plebiscite will be binding. I listened with interest to Senator Reynolds's comments. Her contribution tended to say that the members of the government had agreed, at one of their meaningful party room meetings, that now they would vote as the plebiscite determines. That is what I heard, but I have not heard any clear decision from the government that says that they will be bound by the results of the plebiscite. That is a side point, but it is still quite important.
We are being told as a community and as a parliament that this plebiscite will have a certain purpose. Certainly it was my understanding that it was a large and expensive opinion poll—that people in the community would have the opportunity to give their opinion on a question placed before them. I have not heard from the government that that would actually determine what would happen in the parliament, and I am very keen to hear that. If that were their position, whilst I still strongly reject the need to have a plebiscite, that would change one of the arguments I have been using against it—that, in fact, it is just throwing a question out to the community and saying, 'We want to hear what you say, thanks a lot, and then we will just go ahead and vote.' However, the argument that we have been hearing is that the plebiscite will take place and then, after that, at some time, there will be a vote in the parliament.
This relates marriage equality to the choice of the national flag, because, up till now, that is the only other issue that we have had a plebiscite on in our country. If taking a plebiscite to the people is the way that the government will make decisions on difficult matters, we are then setting up for future operations of parliament that—when there is a difficult decision that has an impact on people in the community—we will then go to a plebiscite before we come back to a parliamentary vote. That could lead to a very long period of parliament in the future, and we would be able to sit here and just about make a case for any difficult question. For any question about which there was any concern, any question about which there are wideranging issues in the community, we would say, 'Whacko, well, we will not do that. We will let the people have their say on this issue and, at some time in the future, we'll have a plebiscite and then we'll listen to that and then have a vote and not care what they say anyway,' which is seemingly the argument that we have had around the issue of marriage equality.
I am reluctant to say that I am offended and upset by this, because people on the other side seem to say that a lot on this issue, but I am offended and upset as a person in the parliament that we are not able to have the respect of the Australian community—or in fact the respect of people in this place—to do our job, to make decisions, to effectively listen to the community, to effectively tell the community why we made the decision and to bring them with us. If we are going to say that a difficult question needs to go to the community, how, then, are we able to operate in the parliament? How are we able to say that we have any respect or integrity as elected representatives if we do not have the understanding in the community that the way the parliamentary system operates is that we take information, work through those issues and make a decision in law for the Australian community, as we have done on extraordinarily difficult issues ever since Federation? Some of those have been very tough decisions—decisions that impact on people's lives and on people's future. Nonetheless, the element of democracy determines that that process comes through this place—though, of course, there was that really important issue with the Australian flag. I should not forget that. We should remember that that was subject to a plebiscite in the past!
I am worried about this process, because of what I saw in the series of debates that happened in 2004. There have been very many debates around the issue of marriage equality, and many people stand up and talk about their personal views, how deeply they feel and how upset they are about the issues around marriage equality—which is important. No-one minimises the importance of, the sensitivity around or the deeply held views about this issue, but we are not moving forward on this.
In the last parliament, in the lower house, parliamentarians were asked to go out and ask their communities about how they felt about marriage equality and then to come back and talk to the parliament about it. It was a passing strange process to actually tell parliamentarians that, on this particular issue, they need to go out and talk to their communities and then come back and discuss it in parliament—and they did that, though I was deeply hopeful that would be parliamentarians' standard process on most issues. But they did that, and many parliamentarians stood up in the House of Representatives and talked to the parliament about what they had found when they had spoken with the people in their community. There were a wide range of views and, as always, not everyone agreed. But we had this process put in place by the House of Representatives, where they went out and talked with their communities and then came back into parliament and shared those views in the House of Representatives. There was no vote after that. They went out and did the process, came back and talked in parliament, but it did not lead to a vote on the floor of the House of Representatives! That was unusual. Why does this particular issue continue to have unusual processes which are not part of standard political practice? But that happened and nothing final happened at that time.
Then, towards the end of the Abbott period of government, this issue of the plebiscite arose. It actually caused a great deal of concern, because people had to find out what a plebiscite was. We had to find out how it operated in our system and found it did not, actually, because we only had one example, and that was the flag, to look at. But then marriage equality was not taken on the value of the issues, was not taken on the information that people who came to see all of us gave us. They were not the determining factors of how we would move forward on marriage equality; rather, suddenly, the plebiscite became the important element and that indeed was taken forward by the then government into the election. Now we are hearing that that election result, as narrow as it was, has enshrined the concept of the plebiscite process for handling marriage equality into this parliament.
The next element of the debate which is being ramped up now and which we will hear in debate now for weeks, I believe, is the direct allegation that people on this side of the parliament—I actually like that term 'people on this side of the parliament'; I do not how far that goes, maybe just down to the middle of the chamber—are making the issue of marriage equality politicised, that we are making political comment about marriage equality. That we are politicising a political process in the parliament—and I use the term rarely—is truly offensive. I would normally just brush that off as part of the rhetorical process, the normal process practice of causing hurt across the chamber and making comment. Why I find accusing people of making something political offensive is that it is talking about people who are vulnerable and who have rights. As a recent document by the Australian Marriage Equality Organisation said, 'Issues of marriage equality are about people.' Making an allegation that we are politicising the issue to the extent that we are putting politics above people's concerns is offensive.
I truly believe that we have an opportunity to move forward with marriage equality now. I truly believe that we, as political representatives that have been voted in by the community, have the opportunity to put a question before parliament, a question I hope would be actually led by the government. I think that the message to the community about where our parliament stands on marriage equality should be led by the government and then be taken up in a full cross-party, cross-parliamentary way so that we could say we have listened to our community, which is our job. And any parliamentarian who believes that they have not had the voices of their constituents shared with them on this issue since 2004, any parliamentarian that could say they have not listened to their community on these issues should not be in this parliament, because that is indeed how our system operates. As elected representatives, as I said at the beginning of my contribution, it is our job to ensure that we listen to our community on all issues but most particularly, I believe, this issue, which impacts on people's lives so deeply. It should be one that we treat with respect through our parliamentary process and do our job.
A couple of weeks ago I had the immense honour to listen to Justice Kirby when he was making comments in Queensland at a happy occasion. It was an occasion about the LGBTI Legal Service in Queensland celebrating an important anniversary. Of course there was a wide range of people there joining in this celebration of a hardworking team—who also need a lot of government money but we will handle that issue separately—that look at legal issues around LGBTI people in our community. Justice Kirby, whose experience is renowned, actually put it very clearly. Why should issues around marriage equality, issues around the legal rights of people who are gay or who wish to marry be treated so differently? Why should that be treated as a process for a plebiscite rather than a standard responsible parliamentary debate in this place, as all other issues are treated? He did not make the comparison to the flag; I did because I think that is the only time in our previous history that we have had such a discussion in our community. We can do better than what is happening now. Reverend Peter Catt, a mate of mine in Queensland from the Anglican faith, said in a contribution quite recently:
The marriage service in the Anglican Church commences with a quote from the Bible—
And it is a good time to quote the Bible because lots of people quote it to me.
God is love and those who live in love live in God and God lives in them.
Marriage equality will allow our communities celebrate a wide range of loving relationships and will therefore strengthen our common life.
We want that opportunity to come forward and we can make the decision in our parliament.
Senator DI NATALE
I rise to speak in support of the Marriage Equality Amendment Bill 2013 to change the Marriage Act to allow for marriage equality regardless of gender. This week in this place we have heard from a number of senators offering their favourite quotes in support of their arguments and claims for a better future. We have heard from people quoting Banjo Paterson, Aristotle and Judith Wright. So let me keep with this trend and begin with a quote from JFK who said:
If we cannot end our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity.
JFK was speaking to an idea that we can hold different views on issues without subjugating one group to another, without whipping up fear and hate in the community. That is what I take from his words about keeping the world safe. I might not understand the faith of my neighbour, I might not share it but I hold that he or she is entitled to it.
Some people—and I get it; I understand this—may not think that the love between two men or between two women is equal to the love between a man and a woman. I understand that they might hold those views, but we do live in a secular society and we do live by the rule of law, which should be able to be enjoyed equally by all citizens.
It is that diversity that JFK was seeking to protect and was working towards through a profound process of dialogue and social change with the likes of leaders like Martin Luther King and other civil rights activists. They were working at a time when there was so much to be done across the world to ensure that freedoms experienced by some people within the community could be experienced by all. They were working for equality. It was a different time back then. It was a time when lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people were demonised, criminalised and medicalised. They were excluded from their faiths, they were thrown in prison, they were harassed out of their jobs, they were bashed for fun, they were subjected to horrendous medical procedures in an effort to change them, or, in some cases, just to punish them.
I was listening to former leader of the Greens, Bob Brown, talk about his own personal experiences in this regard. It was a different time. He described in detail—and he has only done this in recent years—some of those medical procedures that he was involved in. He shared about the torment that he felt at the time. His experience is similar to many other experiences like his at a time when people regarded the way they felt as something that was abhorrent—that was what society was telling them—and that needed to change. Thankfully, a lot has changed since that era. It has changed for women, it has changed for First Nations people, it has changed for people with disabilities and it has changed, in many regards, for the LGBTI community. But, sadly, many things remain the same. We have a lot of work to do if we are to make the world safe for diversity.
You cannot half do human rights. Human rights are absolutes. You cannot go some way. It is something that is an absolute. On one hand, you cannot say that same-sex relationships should no longer be punished by law and that they should, in fact, have the same material rights and responsibilities as opposite-sex relationships—that is, they should be treated equally with regards to taxes and welfare—and then, on the other hand, exclude them from an institution that we consider to be the bedrock, or cornerstone, of our society—that is, marriage. Human rights are an absolute. While we continue to exclude people from this fundamental institution, offering them some concessions but denying them what others take for granted, we send a profound message that perpetuates the history of oppression. What it does do is it emboldens the haters.
In this place, the debate has now moved from one simply about the principle of inclusion to one about how we best resolve this issue on behalf of all Australians. We know that there are still those warriors out there who want to continue to perpetuate the cause of division and exclusion. We have heard from some in this place who try to equate the love that people feel towards each other to something that is abhorrent. We have heard claims about this being the thin end of the wedge and where it might lead. I will not dignify those comments with a response. But at least here in this chamber we are now having a debate about not whether marriage equality should happen but, indeed, how it should happen. I do think the Prime Minister is genuine about this. I think he genuinely believes in the principle of marriage equality. He does not support the prejudice that exists enshrined in law that says to people who love each other that they have no right to enjoy an institution that most Australians have access to. But what I do know—and what, I think, most Australians know—is he does not support the pathway to get to marriage equality that he is putting before the Australian people. This was one of those decisions that he made in an attempt to secure the leadership of the Liberal Party. Let's not kid ourselves that he thinks this is the safest or most appropriate way of achieving a goal that many Australians believe in.
We all face choices in this place. Sometimes when power is within reach we can compromise on those core values. The test of all of us is to know when not to compromise—when a line needs to be drawn, when we need to be true to our own values and principles. Because the Prime Minister did compromise, he himself stands compromised by those warriors on the hard right—we know many of them—who continue to win time and time again when it comes to issues of diversity. In this place we are now dominated by a view among government senators that we should be winding back protections against hate speech, despite the fact that the Prime Minister espouses a different view.
So when the Prime Minister was handed the marriage equality plebiscite, which was the gimmick that the equality sceptic Tony Abbott presented as a way to try to diminish chances of reform, he should have taken a stand, and he did not. Now, he is defending the huge cost—the $160 million-and-growing price tag for the plebiscite—when, at the same time, we are told that we need to tighten our belts. The irony, of course, is that, later on today, we will be presented with legislation that tells us about the urgent need for budget repair. It will cut investment in schools, it will take money out of renewable energy, it will cut funding for some of the most vulnerable people within the community. Yet, here he is prepared to not only offer that an $160 million price tag for the plebiscite but also scoop out another $15 million to fund both the yes and no campaigns.
Just think about what that means. You only need to look at where the debate is right now; you only need to access some social media pages to see what some of the opponents of marriage equality will do—the lengths to which they will stoop. Of course, by providing them with an additional $7½ million we are going to turbocharge that hate. We are going to fuel it. We are going to say to those voices within the community: 'Not only do you have a right to express those hateful and harmful positions but we are going to fund you to do so.'
There of course is a much more sensible, fairer, faster, cheaper and less harmful way to resolve this question, and we all know that that is to allow a free vote in this parliament. We have got plenty of time—at least in this term—for the Prime Minister to take some leadership on this question, follow what his espoused convictions were before he became Prime Minister and allow a free vote in the parliament. Far be it from me to offer him some free advice but I will do it nonetheless: his prime ministership is in big trouble and, if he continues to pander to those hateful voices on the far right of his party, he will not see out the next few years. If he does, he will be trounced in the next election. Here is an opportunity, a golden opportunity, for the Prime Minister to stand up once this plebiscite is defeated and say, 'Enough is enough. I'm going to be true to the person that I am and I'm going to allow a free vote in the parliament.' It may just be the tonic that he needs to help turn his fortunes around but it requires leadership and courage to be able to take such a stand.
We saw some of that courage from one of his counterparts in the Senate only a few days ago. I want to pay tribute to Senator Dean Smith who showed courage and conviction this week by making it very clear to his colleagues, as an openly gay senator, that he believes the plebiscite to be an abhorrent idea. He believes, as do we, that we are put in this place, the seat of Australian democracy, to consider and resolve the easy and difficult issues that face our nation.
Senator Smith's voice is not a voice in the wilderness; it is shared by many others within the LGBTI community. He is joined in this view by former High Court judge Michael Kirby, who, again, made his comments publicly only a few weeks—again, he is somebody who is an openly gay judge who has long been an advocate for marriage equality and understands that our job as elected representatives is to ensure that we do not put issues of fundamental human rights to opinion polls.
Michael Kirby is joined by almost 200 LGBTI community leaders who this week put out an advertisement also declaring the plebiscite to be an abhorrent idea. He is joined by the parents and friends of gay and lesbian children who say they do not want their children and the children of others to be exposed to the hate that will come with a plebiscite. He is joined by rainbow families. He is joined by the health professionals, such as the Australian Psychological Society who have said very clearly that they believe this plebiscite would lead to harm. They also believe that young people will take their lives, if this hate is unleashed on our community.
The Greens have been listening to these voices. We understand that good people will differ on what the pathway to marriage equality is but we also understand that the overwhelming majority of the community—both those affected and those health professional engaging in this debate—believes that the plebiscite is the wrong way to go.
Fundamentally, these people all believe that human rights should not be subjected to an opinion poll and they are concerned about the precedent that resolving this question in this way sets for other issues. Let me say: I am in awe of those people, who have spent a great part of their life campaigning for marriage equality, who have said, 'Not now in this way, because of the harm that it will cause.'
We should never set the precedent that human rights are simply a matter of getting 51 per cent of the popular vote. We should never set a precedent that says: 'Minority rights should be subject to a vote of the majority.' That is not how issues of fundamental human rights are resolved in this country. Of course the irony here is that John Howard felt no need to go to a plebiscite when he joined with the Labor Party to amend the Marriage Act to ensure it only applied to a marriage between and man and a woman.
Like many people, I have wrestled with this issue and what the most appropriate pathway is to get there. However, when you do work as a medical practitioner and see the harm that is experienced by young people, who are struggling with gender and sexuality, and that that harm results in physical and emotional pain, and is associated with increased rates of mental ill-health, substance abuse, you understand that even in the current environment that people are suffering. The last thing that we want to see is that suffering increase.
Yesterday we heard the profound words of Senator McCarthy in both the language of her Aboriginal ancestry and in English about tradition, culture, hardship and love. She shared with us the deeply touching story of her sister who lost her life simply because of the prejudice that she experienced. The idea of placing $7.5 million into a campaign that will stir up hate speech against people like Senator McCarthy's sister is utterly unacceptable. To use the words of Senator Smith: 'It may not be the intention of the 'no' campaign to do this but it will absolutely be the effect.'
We are now only beginning to learn of the hurtful effects of the Irish marriage referendum that is being promoted as the model for resolving the issue here. Like Senator Brandis, we have also met with people involved in that campaign. In fact, we were presented with a letter from the convenor, or one of the convenors, of the 'yes' campaign in Ireland, who said to us, 'If you have a choice, do not proceed with a plebiscite'. She shared with us, as have others, that the LGBTIQ community in Ireland felt threatened and, indeed, were threatened. The children with two mums or two dads were made to feel like second-class citizens. The very idea of putting their relationships up for judgement diminished their sense of belonging to that society.
Let us be clear: people in Ireland had no choice. Their constitution required change and the only way to change it was to go to a referendum. We do not have to follow that path here. As I said, it was done with the stroke of a pen when John Howard and the Labor Party joined to amend the Marriage Act and we can do the same to ensure that we achieve marriage equality here in Australia.
Returning to the start of my speech, we can make a choice here in this parliament to ensure that our world is safer for diversity. Let's show some courage, let's show some leadership, let's have a free vote in this parliament and let's ensure that we stamp out prejudice once and for all.
I rise today to speak on the Marriage Equality Amendment Bill 2013, put forward by Senator Hanson-Young. I oppose this bill. However, I do firmly believe that same-sex couples should be able to marry. I am a proud member of the Liberal Party, the party that has gone to great lengths over many years to ensure that same-sex couples are not discriminated against and that their entitlements—be they in respect of medical benefits, taxation, superannuation or employment—are no different to those accorded to heterosexual couples. This is not a moral issue. This is simply fairness.
I am extremely proud to be part of the Victorian Liberal Party, which in 2014 righted a historic wrong by expunging the convictions of those who—although it was already decriminalised in 1981—had been convicted of homosexual acts. That was a proud moment for us. I am also proud to be a regular guest of the Victorian party's Montalto branch. The Montalto branch is a Liberal LGTBI branch whose views on all matters, not just LGTBIQ issues, are given voice and respectfully heard and considered in policy development. Marriage equality is certainly not the only issue important to the LGTBIQ community.
I know there are others who do not share my views. Same-sex marriage is an issue that invites very different opinions within political parties, communities, friendship groups and families. Though my sister and I stridently and firmly believe that same-sex couples should be able to marry, my parents do not. Every couple of weeks my sister, my parents and I get together with our partners and children for a very noisy and messy family dinner where, inevitably, we argue out the issues of the day. The sharing of opinions is extremely boisterous—none of us are shy and retiring—and the issue of same-sex marriage is one that arises regularly.
My parents were brought up Catholic and, although they are no longer practising, they still respect and practise Christian values. My parents are firmly of the position, as am I, that families are the foundation of society and that we would be a stronger society if marriages were encouraged. I firmly agree with this. I am unpersuaded by the proposition that any one marriage is undermined by two gay men or two lesbians setting up house down the road. But I know that others are of the same view as my parents. They have difficulty moving beyond their traditional view of marriage. They have pointed out that according to the Book of Leviticus, God speaking to Moses described homosexual acts as 'an abomination', and it calls for those who practice them to be put to death. My sister and I, over dinner, have pointed out that the Bible also believes that cursing your parents is also a heinous crime and that it too deserves a death sentence. That would certainly put an end to these very garrulous family dinners! But no matter how hard my sister and I try to persuade my parents otherwise, no matter the evidence of other countries' experiences, no matter how many people our family know or are related to whose lives this would affect, my sister and I cannot budge my parents' opinion. Does this make them bigots? No. Does it render my parents outdated, outmoded or uncool? Maybe it does—certainly, I think it does in the eyes of the Greens. Does it make them less considered, less educated, less intellectual, less involved or less evolved? Does it make them extremists, conservatives or del-cons? No, I do not think it does. Does it give them less of a right to have a say on this issue than my sister, Annie, or me? I do not think it does. All Australians—whether they be young or old; whether they be politically engaged, disengaged or ambivalent; whether they be in regional Australia or in the suburbs; whether they be inner-city urban hipsters; whether they be gay or straight, lesbian, bisexual, queer, transgender or intersex—everyone—should have a say on this issue.
Yesterday, the Turnbull government honoured its mandate when the Prime Minister introduced the Plebiscite (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill 2016. This bill provides for the plebiscite to be held on Saturday, 11 February 2017. The question that will be put to the people on that day is, 'Should the law be changed to allow for same-sex couples to marry?' Voting will be compulsory, and the result will be determined by a simple majority of votes—50 per cent plus one vote. It cannot get any simpler. 'Should the law be changed to allow same-sex couples to marry?' There is nothing tricky. It is very simple. There is nothing unclear. The terms that are used are not pejorative and they are not persuasive. The mechanisms that are used are entirely transparent. The architecture of the process is familiar from the 1999 referendum. There are no surprises. Most importantly, it is thoroughly democratic.
The coalition made a commitment to the Australian people at the July election that a decision on same-sex marriage would be made through a vote by all Australians in a national plebiscite, and that is exactly what we are doing. We have a mandate to do it, and it is disingenuous for any party or any independent senator in this place to try and circumvent that process. The coalition won a majority. The coalition have a mandate. By introducing any amendments to the Marriage Act yourselves, you are denying the will of the majority of the people.
Such an act is pure showmanship. It is grandstanding, because you know the bill will be defeated. You know it will be defeated, because it has been defeated before. How many bills do we need to introduce into this parliament that will be defeated? However, if there is a plebiscite and that plebiscite demonstrates with a simple majority—50 per cent plus one—that the Australian people want to change the laws to allow for same-sex couples to marry, the coalition will act on their wishes.
Please do not doubt my party colleagues' intentions here. The discussions I have had with my colleagues have been more than encouraging, and this is an issue about which I feel particularly passionate. I have canvassed their views and I am comfortable. Indeed, I am extremely encouraged. Literally dozens of them have said to me on separate occasions in public and in private that they will vote no in a plebiscite but, if the plebiscite returns a yes vote—not an overwhelming yes; just a yes vote—they will listen and they will respect the views of the nation. Then and only then will they vote to change the laws to allow for same-sex couples to marry. The plebiscite will allow the nation to make a decision on same-sex marriage, and then the coalition will respect the outcome.
The Turnbull government will listen to the will of the Australian people and it will act. Unlike Labor, we stick to our commitments. We are committed to the democratic rights of Australians. The plebiscite gives every voting Australian a say. It is thoroughly democratic. Those who fear a plebiscite—those who oppose consulting the Australian people—do so because they are concerned that they might not give them the answer that they want. That is not a good enough reason for obstructing democracy. If you are genuinely worried about the answer you might get, do not criticise the process; concentrate your efforts on mounting a better argument. That is what I will be doing.
I genuinely believe that there has been an evolution of attitudes. When the Victorian CWA can vote in favour of same-sex marriage, I believe that our society has come a long way, so please trust the Australian people. To those who criticise the plebiscite on the basis of cost, the answer is simple: what price democracy? $7.5 million for both the yes and the no camps is fair, it is reasonable, it is measured and it is considered. It is based on past experience. The entire architecture of this plebiscite is fair and transparent. The date set is the earliest possible according to the advice from the AEC. It is also timely. The coalition is living up to its commitments to the Australian people. It is obeying the mandate it has been given.
I urge those opposite to respect the decision of the Australian people, to respect the people that they represent, to respect their intelligence and their civility and their capacity to debate and discuss and decide and resolve this issue. I urge those opposite to extend the hand of friendship, to extend the hand of love and to extend the hand of progress. I urge those opposite to use common sense and pragmatism rather than sloganeering and rhetoric, because that is what we have been elected to do, so let's get this done.
The fastest and surest way to ensure that same-sex couples can marry is not to introduce yet another bill amending the Marriage Act. It will be defeated. This bill will be defeated. The fastest and surest way to ensure that same-sex couples can marry is to support the bill introduced by the Prime Minister yesterday. The fastest and surest way to ensure that same-sex couples can marry is to support a plebiscite. The fastest and surest way to ensure that Australia joins the ranks of 20 other nations around the world that allow same-sex marriage is to support a plebiscite. The fastest and surest way to ensure that same-sex couples can marry is to trust our citizens to have a mature and civil and responsible debate like my family does—to have a robust and respectful and reasonable and rational debate about something that so many of us care about very deeply.
I implore you to reject this bill like the parliament has rejected so many others that have attempted to do the same. I implore you to support the Prime Minister's bill to hold a plebiscite and to give all Australians a say. And then, I implore you all to do what I will be doing: I will be voting yes in the plebiscite. Colleagues, please, let us get this done.
I rise to speak to the Marriage Equality Amendment Bill 2013 today. We should be given the chance to speak and to vote on a bipartisan bill not unlike this one. The approach of the parliament at this time could not be more wrong. It is well past the time for marriage equality in this country. Instead, we have this bill being debated in private members' time while the government pursues a divisive plebiscite agenda.
I would like to take issue with a few of Senator Hume's statements. It was lovely of her to share some of her family's experiences about robust and civilised debates on the issue of marriage. Indeed, they probably are quite satisfying, engaging family debates. But I put to you that it is an entirely different thing to be in a family having those debates if you are a GLBTI person yourself. For many LGBTI Australians, that is and has been a hurtful and difficult thing for them to be subjected to. This is precisely the key as to the reason why a plebiscite is not an ideal way forward and should be opposed. Indeed, I look at it from the point of view of an Australian family having that debate and whether we truly want to subject LGBTI Australians to such a debate.
We have waited too long already for marriage equality, myself included, and this is but one of many speeches I have given in this place, making a plea for myself and my community. My view—that all couples, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity, should have access to the institution of marriage—is well known. I have spoken about those views on many occasions. I have repeatedly stated my strong support for full marriage equality both inside and outside this place and in the community. This bill, like many others before it, including ones I have put forward myself, is about equality. It is about removing the last remaining piece of discrimination against LGBTI Australians in the laws of our country. So, clearly, it goes without saying that it is an issue of great importance to me, my family and our community.
Four years ago, almost to this day, I gave a speech in this place on this very same issue. I said to the parliament:
… we exist, we already exist, our relationships exist, our children exist, our families exist, our marriages exist and our love exists. All we ask is that you stop pretending that we don't. Stop pretending that our relationships are not as real as yours, our love not as true, our children not as cherished, our families not as precious—because they are.
And still those on the other side are pretending—pretending that it is somehow okay to subject our relationships to some kind of abstract public debate, as Senator Hume has highlighted should be the way forward. This is simply not on and not the way forward. It is psychologically humiliating and distressing for this to take place. The simple fact is that removing the last vestige of discrimination against gay, lesbian, transgender, bisexual and intersex Australians from federal law has the support of the majority of the Australian community. Bills like this, before us today, simply call on us to do that job.
This week, I was greatly honoured to meet with Rainbow Families. I heard from children of rainbow families who are deeply concerned about the impact that the plebiscite will have on them and their families. There were beautiful children wishing that their parents were able to be married. They spoke very compellingly about their fear of a nasty, divisive campaign and about the impact that that would have on them. They spoke of their hope that our nation's Prime Minister would one day soon change his mind and show them that he already thinks their families are equal—families like mine; ordinary families who live very ordinary lives, except that they do not have equality under the law. They made a very simple plea: for the kids' sake, please, no plebiscite. It was a moving and heartwarming but also heartbreaking experience. They are wonderful families, wonderful kids, wonderful parents, who have a simple plea to us—that is, that this place does its job.
So, today, again, I join the call made by LGBTI organisations, who released a very strong declaration yesterday, who have called on the Australian parliament to ensure that every Australian is able to marry the person they love, the person they cherish, in a country that they cherish. I have worked with many of these organisations over many years and I support their calls. Their declaration says:
Making a solemn commitment to build a secure future with your partner, in front of your family and friends, is something that should be publicly celebrated. Declaring your commitment to look after your partner in sickness and health both cements your relationship through the rough times and shares your joys in the good times. We make this call not only on behalf of LGBTI communities and their families who have been waiting for over a decade, but importantly to ensure future generations of LGBTI Australians can grow up on equal footing with their peers.
That means families like the ones I had the privilege of getting to know yesterday. The declaration continues:
Two thirds of the Australian people—
and this is based on qualitative and quantitative research—
a majority of both houses of parliament and leaders of all major parties support marriage equality.
And, if you do the numbers one by one in this place, researching people's views, that is how it stacks up: they all support marriage equality. The declaration continues:
We have never had so much support for achieving this small step towards every Australian having the same opportunities as their neighbour.
Our shared goal is simple—we want marriage equality as soon as possible at the lowest cost. The most efficient and effective way of achieving marriage equality is a vote in Parliament, a power confirmed by the High Court in 2013.
I would like at this point to pay tribute to my family, Stephen Dawson and Denis Liddelow, who were married here in the ACT—before the High Court overruled their marriage here. It just goes to show how real and true marriage and these relationships already are, bar the fact that this parliament continues not to do its job. The declaration continues:
Marriage equality is about people, not politics. It is about the grandma who wants to see her granddaughter married in her lifetime, the parents who want to walk their children down the aisle, the children who wish to see their parents marry, and the many ageing couples who have endured inequality throughout their lives.
Our relationships, future happiness and security should not be used for political point-scoring.
We call on our political leaders to put aside partisanship and come together to find an achievable pathway for marriage equality, this term.
The Government proposes a plebiscite which we believe is unnecessary, costly and divisive, when the law can be changed through a straightforward vote in parliament.
The bill that the Greens have put forward today, for example, is about as simple as you can get. It is about the shortest piece of legislation that this parliament would ever really have the opportunity to consider. The substantive part of the bill is but a few paragraphs long. And still we seem determined, by virtue of the government's view on the other side, to subject our nation to a $160 million opinion poll. No Australian, in my view, should have to witness a national debate on the worth or the value of their relationship. Like many other community members, I am very concerned about the psychological impact on our communities caused by repeated exposure to divisive national discourse—concerns that are based on research and evidence.
It is, I think, much the same as Senator Hume's family debate. You can have such a family debate but, if you are an LGBTI person yourself and you are in the middle of that family, it can be damaging and hurtful—damaging and hurtful to be seen by your parents as not equal to your siblings, damaging and hurtful to have fundamentalist religious views defining your identity and your place within the family. As Senator McCarthy highlighted yesterday, in her family's tragic story, it is precisely that identity conflict that causes that psychological harm and can result in depression, death and suicide. So, when I say no Australian should have to witness a national debate on the worth or the value of their relationship, I truly do mean it. This can and will be, as the Irish experience shows, a damaging debate.
Those in the LGBTI community who have been both campaigning against a plebiscite and getting ready for one should this place make the unfortunate decision to go ahead with one, always said that, at the very least, the parliament would need to ensure a fair and reasonable plebiscite process that recognises the impact of having this national conversation. But the simple fact is that the machinery in the legislation before the other place, presented by the government, is neither. What has been presented is unfair, unjust and unworkable. It is not a reasonable path to marriage equality. Instead we need a bill not unlike the one that is before us, a bill that has bipartisan support across the parliament, a bill that everyone in this place is free to vote for according to their conscience, a bill whereby people in this place do their job rather than outsourcing it to an expensive process.
I would like to echo the sentiments of the Leader of the Opposition and Tanya Plibersek when they put forward their bill in the House of Representatives. The Leader of the Opposition said:
Achieving marriage equality should be an occasion for joy, a unifying moment of celebration. That is why the Deputy Leader of the Opposition and I have brought this proposed legislation forward today. I say to the Prime Minister: this is an issue you said you cared about. You have been Prime Minister for a year now. You can get this done and, instead of a private member's bill introduced by the opposition—
or, as I say today, introduced by the Greens—
let marriage equality be a truly cooperative achievement.
It really does go to show why the path set forward by the coalition is so absurd.
No amendments to the Marriage Act have yet been provided, nor are they guaranteed to come into effect following a successful yes vote. It is unreasonable to expect the community, LGBTI or not, to vote on a plebiscite, and for this parliament to vote on whether to have a plebiscite, without first seeing the detail of what would be enacted in a successful vote.
We have, for example, heard rumours that the version of marriage equality that the government wants to put forward is quite different from what I would support or what the Greens have put forward in their bill today because it supports conscientious exclusions—conscientious objections—for people baking cakes for a wedding, for example, or enables people to refuse to provide services for same-sex couples. These are substantive matters when we look to what kind of vote we have and what kind of question the Australian people and this parliament would be expected to vote on. So there is no detail of what would be enacted upon a successful yes vote.
It is unacceptable to use $15 million worth of taxpayers' dollars to fund 'yes' and 'no' committees, adding to the already extraordinary cost of a plebiscite. The proposal requires no truth-in-advertising test yet will be seen as being endorsed by the Australia government.
There is also a significantly uneven playing field. For example, religious organisations already enjoy a wide range of tax benefits and concessions that are denied to other entities. Very few LGBTI organisations have comparable tax deductibility status. Limiting tax deductible donations to $1,500 for individuals within the plebiscite process, which is what the government is putting forward, completely exacerbates this unfairness. Religious organisations will be able to funnel money to it, but other parts of the community in favour of marriage equality, because advocacy is not something that is tax deductible in this country, will not.
The question is also unnecessarily complex, and the wording, 'same-sex', fails to be inclusive of all LGBTI relationships. For example, it is extremely misleading to use the term 'same-sex' when some of the people who are excluded from marriage equality are intersex—that is, they are biologically of indeterminate sex, biologically of both sexes or biologically of neither sex, and that is their physical sex characteristic. So it is simply a nonsense to talk about 'same-sex' because you are excluding people who are not—so female-female, male-male or male and female—from that definition because their biological sex is none of those things. So you are indeed putting forward a technical nonsense in that regard. Many of these people have had their gender legally recognised by the states as 'of indeterminate gender' or as 'of both genders', for example.
In addition, there have been media reports that the question has been crafted, indeed, to improve the chances of a 'no' vote. And that I find extremely troubling.
The package also provides no strategies or funding to address the considerable concern about the impact of the plebiscite, as I have already highlighted, on LGBTI communities, our families and our friends. Indeed, we have already seen reports—as I have already seen on my Facebook feed and heard in personal communication—of a high level of distress being experienced from even the very nature of this debate.
A plebiscite is an opinion poll and nothing more. The substantive issue still has to come back to parliament for debate and a vote, regardless of the outcome, through a bill like the one we have before us today. And, even then, MPs and senators will have a conscience vote.
So a plebiscite, in my view, will foster acrimonious debate, split communities, divide church congregations and embattle families. If members of parliament—members and senators—were entitled to a free vote on the issue of marriage equality, a bill would pass this place and LGBTI Australians would be equal under the law.
This is not my first speech. At the outset, I would like to say that I am proud to speak on the Marriage Equality Amendment Bill 2013 and to be able to, in my relatively short time in this place so far, make a contribution to a debate the outcome of which would fundamentally change the lives of LGBTI couples in this country for the better.
The position of the Nick Xenophon Team on this issue has been made clear for some time. We support legislating marriage equality, and we do not support a plebiscite on this issue. It is our belief that, as members of parliament, we are paid very well to vote on laws for our country, and that is exactly what we should do in this case.
When former Prime Minister John Howard changed the Marriage Act in 2004 to exclude same-sex couples, he did so with legislation through the parliament. There was no plebiscite. As could and should be done now, but in reverse, legislation was passed by the parliament.
Before speaking on our support for marriage equality, I wish to note the reasons why we do not support a plebiscite. As already stated, we believe that parliament can and should decide on the issues in a free vote of all members and senators. In our representative democracy, we are paid to make decisions on behalf of Australians who have voted us into office. This bill is our opportunity to do that today.
Secondly, the plebiscite—which, in any event, could be disregarded by the parliament—could cost in the order of $160 million, although this figure is probably conservative. Plus, as we have heard this week, an additional $15 million of public funding will be spent on campaigns for both sides of the debate. It would be the world's most expensive opinion poll. We believe this money could be much better spent.
Another point, which has not been touched on much by us as a group because we believe the first two points are enough of a case against a plebiscite, is that of the concerns around the divisiveness of the debate—the impact on the health and wellbeing of LGBTI people during the lead-up to the vote. Once we, as a team, confirmed again that we opposed the plebiscite a couple of weeks ago, our electorate offices were bombarded with calls, many from people wanting to express their disgust at the suggestion that same-sex couples should be able to marry. One of my staff members recounted one of the phone calls, and it went something like this: 'Gay people are a minority; why are we bowing down to what they want?' Other calls have been so distressing that I could not repeat them in this place. If the debate over whether or not to have a plebiscite is inciting this much hate, imagine what will be said when the question becomes should the law be changed to allow marriage between same-sex couples. I shudder to think. To sum it up in the words of High Court justice Michael Kirby:
We didn't do this for the Aboriginal people when we moved to give equality in law to them, we didn't do it when we dismantled the White Australia policy … we didn't do it in advances on women's equality, we didn't do it most recently on disability equality. Why are we now picking out the LGBT, the gay, community?
It is important that the views of all are considered and respectful; I believe that is important in a great democracy such as ours. It is my job, indeed my duty, to do my best to understand the people who both support and oppose a change to the Marriage Act. I believe that I have done that in forming my position on this bill. Although this is a conscience vote for me—and for those within our party—my colleagues have also carefully considered both sides of the debate and, luckily for us, we have arrived at the same position.
We have all been married. We have had that right to marry the person who we love. I married my husband Simon in 2007. We were married in Adelaide in front of our closest friends and family. We declared our love for each other and pledged to spend the rest of our lives together. Our marriage has highs and lows but we have them together—as a married couple. That is a different and very special connection and bond. According to Australian Marriage Equality, 72 per cent of married same-sex partners feel a greater commitment to their spouse, 60 to 70 per cent feel more accepted by family and the community and 93 per cent of same-sex people who marry do so because of the love and commitment they share. This is no different to the reason Simon and I married. It is not okay with me that I have had this opportunity but someone who happens to love a person of the same sex does not. Why shouldn't they have rights which are equal to those afforded to heterosexual couples?
Those who oppose changing the law say that to do so—to legalise same-sex marriage—would undermine the traditional definition of marriage, and that it would also affect children. Let us deal fairly with those two arguments. Interestingly, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull can help me to deal with these arguments through a speech he gave in 2012 at the Southern Cross University on the Gold Coast, in honour of former High Court Justice Michael Kirby. Mr Turnbull, could not see how allowing a same-sex couple to marry would somehow affect the sanctity and strength of a marriage between a heterosexual couple. And, as for children, Mr Turnbull pointed out that unfortunately some biological parents are neither loving nor wise. What is important is that a child is brought up in a safe and loving environment. The reality is that this bill does not in fact change the right of same-sex couples to raise children. That was dealt with at a federal level several years ago, with bipartisan support, and this bill does not change state laws about adoption or IVF. But this bill would give recognition to the inherent commitment that marriage brings with it.
Many other countries have legalised marriage equality, including Argentina, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Iceland, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, South Africa, Spain, Sweden and New Zealand. And when it happened, the sky did not fall in. This is proof that our traditions are continuing to evolve. A thousand, a hundred, even 30 years ago, marriage did not mean what it does today. This evolution is important. Our traditions are valued because they are still relevant, because they still mean something to us today. But this bill will not in fact change the tradition of marriage within our churches. Ministers of religion will be free to continue to abide by their beliefs and their definition of marriage. This debate has seen an intense degree of lobbying by various churches—which they are entitled to do in our democracy. Our team believes that churches and religious bodies should retain the right to decide for themselves whether to perform or recognise a marriage. We regard the right of a person to hold their religious beliefs as fundamental in a free society.
But, beyond religion and religious beliefs, we also believe in the law—and I believe our laws should apply equally to all. Aristotle said, 'The law is reason, free from passion.' This is a debate that raises passions more than almost any other issue. But if we remove the passion from this debate, we are looking at a simple fact: this bill rectifies discrimination in our law. As elected representatives and law makers, we have a duty to make the best laws we possibly can. A law that excludes people from such a significant cultural institution just because of who they are? Well, it is time that changed.
Much of this debate has focussed on apparent so-called conservative values, such as marriage and the family unit, although I think it is unfair to suggest that those values only belong to conservatives, in some political partisan sense. I am a strong supporter of these principles. But I believe they are reasons for, not against, marriage equality. Former British Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron said, on this very issue:
Yes, it's about equality, but it's also about something else: commitment. Conservatives believe in the ties that bind us; that society is stronger when we make vows to each other and support each other. So I don't support gay marriage despite being a Conservative. I support gay marriage because I am a Conservative."
There are so many problems facing our society today. Anything that encourages people to commit to each other ultimately can only be a good thing. That is why the Nick Xenophon Team supports this bill.
This is a very interesting debate on a very interesting topic, and I will focus on the plebiscite. For those who have any interest in my particular view, it has not changed on this question since a speech I gave on 18 September 2012, but I will make a couple of points prior to moving to the plebiscite. They relate to issues that I have heard raised here today about equality in this situation. As the now Attorney-General, Senator George Brandis, said in a contribution in August 2012:
Equality for same-sex people was won in this parliament, in this Senate, with the support of all parties, including mine, by the amendments that were made to a suite of Commonwealth statutes in 2008.
At that time, Senator Brandis said it 'had been too long in coming' and that he had been agitating for it for some years. It had support right across the spectrum within the parliament and within the Senate. I refer to my comments from 2012:
It was in 2009 in this parliament that discrimination was removed in relation to same sex couples. There were four bills: the Same-sex Relationships (Equal Treatment in Commonwealth Laws—Superannuation) Bill 2008, the Family Law Amendment (De Facto Financial Matters and Other Measures) Bill 2008, the Evidence Amendment Bill 2008 and Same-sex Relationships (Equal Treatment in Commonwealth Laws—General Law Reform) Act 2008. They went through the parliament with bipartisan support.
Their whole intent was to:
… remove discrimination against same-sex couples from a raft of Commonwealth legislation, including veterans' affairs, social security and income tax.
If time permits and if there is some interest, I can go through in greater detail what some of those bills actually allowed.
This is a serious matter, so I will not go into a number of the questions and answers that I was going to put before my colleagues in the chamber, but they related, ultimately, to who won the election on 2 July. We are all here as a result of the decisions of the people of Australia. In our democratic process we went to an election—it was long, arduous and in the middle of winter. The only bright thing I can think about it was that it saved we Western Australians from eight weeks of Canberra winter—if there was one bright side, that must have been it.
But let me put this view to you, Deputy President, and to those in the public gallery and to anyone who might be listening: there can be no doubt that Malcolm Turnbull—as our Leader of the Liberal Party and, ultimately, of the coalition—made it very clear to the people of Australia that, should we win the election, we would have a plebiscite on this question. It is equally clear that Mr Shorten—representing our opponents, the Labor Party—said that he would not at that time support a plebiscite but that he wanted the matter resolved by a vote in the parliament. I do not think I am incorrect in my recollection that Senator Di Natale, representing the Greens party, had much the same view. If I am wrong, no doubt I will be corrected.
At a time when the polls were showing fifty-fifty, there were three polls to which I which to direct your attention. The first was held the day before the election, on 1 July. It was a Fairfax Ipsos poll, and it asked people in the Australian community: do you favour a plebiscite on the question of same-sex marriage? In that poll, 69 per cent—more than two-thirds of Australians—said they wanted a plebiscite on this matter. How or in which way they wanted to determine it was not the subject of the question, but this was when we were fifty-fifty, on the day before the election, and 69 per cent were in favour. During the election campaign, conducted a survey on the same question: who within the Australian community wanted this matter resolved by a plebiscite of the people? That figure was 76 per cent. Only 24 per cent said they did not want a plebiscite. The third of those surveys was an Essential poll held at the end of August this year, after the election. Again, 59 per cent—almost two-thirds of the population—said they wanted a plebiscite.
So, the coalition, which subsequently won government, said they would conduct a plebiscite. Two-thirds of the community or more supported a plebiscite in polls—so there must be Labor voters and Greens voters as well as Liberal and Nationals voters and those supporting Independents. They must have, in this case, been across the political void. The people of Australia knew that if the coalition were re-elected we would have a plebiscite. And we are going to the Australian people with a plebiscite. It is interesting that there is a call for this matter to be determined by the parliament, even after the people of Australia have had their say.
Let me put another point to you, which has been expounded on this morning by the previous speaker, representing the Nick Xenophon Team. We now know that the Labor Party will vote one way. We know that the Greens political party will vote one way. We know now that the Nick Xenophon Team will vote one way. We know the last late—not late as in having met his demise, but recent—senator from Western Australia, Joe Bullock left this parliament because, he said, 'I cannot support the position of the Labor leadership with regard to this issue of same-sex marriage.' So Senator Bullock, knowing that he could not support the position of that party, left the parliament—and it is good to see you back here again, Senator Pratt, but it is the fact that Senator Bullock was no longer available for election.
This matter cannot be resolved by the parliament. We already know before the vote takes place what is going to be the position of the Greens party, the Labor Party and, we now know, the Xenophon party. So I put this point: there is a mandate for the plebiscite to take place. There are not many issues that have been the subject of a plebiscite. I think something about our national flag was going to be the subject of a plebiscite. We know that in the First World War the question of whether we should or should not have conscription was of such importance—and, indeed, the government of the day cannot have liked the result of the first plebiscite, which was anti-conscription, so they went back for a second go. And I guess, in a sense, there is a situation—isn't there?—where the people of Australia might have their say and then the leadership, the parliament, might say, 'Oh, we don't like that one. Let's have another crack at it.' So they had another plebiscite into—
Are you sure it wasn't a referendum?
I will take the interjection from the senator. I am positive it was not a referendum. As I understand it, unless the law has been changed, a referendum is a matter associated with changing the Constitution. A plebiscite is about the will of the people. This is not a constitutional matter at the moment. It is not the subject of a referendum; it is the subject of a plebiscite. It is very interesting that when others from the Greens political party speak we are not allowed to interrupt them, because of their omnipotence.
Senator McKim interjecting—
But, of course, when anyone is speaking with a view alternative to that of the senator from Tasmania, you cannot have an alternative view. I wonder when this omnipotence comes upon Greens senators. Is it, for example, when they are elected to the Tasmanian parliament? Or is it only when they come into this place? I am entitled to put my view, and put it I will. This is a plebiscite engaging the population of Australians of 18 years of age or older, and the question that will be put on 11 February next year is simply this: should the law be changed to allow same-sex couples to marry? It is interesting, I think—
Of course not.
Oh, we have a view already. Thank you very much! And, just in case I have a view alternative to Senator McKim's, he is able to tell me what my view needs to be. I am so appreciative that, sir, you are able to assist me in the way you do! It would be much better if you were to keep your views to yourself until such time as you are invited to speak on this particular topic. I do not need the support of your views.
The machinery has been very carefully worked out. A comment was made that perhaps it has been structured in such a way as to support a no vote. And yet, as other speakers have said—in fact, from my own side—the Prime Minister supports a certain position, the Attorney-General supports a certain position. Do you think the leadership is going to agree to words that declare, move, favour or weigh a position different from the one that they have publicly declared? Of course it is not.
For those of you in the gallery, through you Deputy President: what is being followed is exactly the same process we have in this country for elections and, indeed, for referenda and, in particular, what we had following the discussion that was held when the country decided whether or not it wanted to proceed to a republic. In other words, voting will be compulsory. It will be according to polling booths. The only difference will be that, where normally in an election or a referendum we have it on an electorate-by-electorate and state-by-state basis, in this case it is a vote across the country of all Australians—50 per cent plus one. That is probably disadvantageous to us in Western Australia, as you and I know, Deputy President, for two reasons. Firstly, the concentration of population in this country is in Melbourne and Sydney, so we would expect to see a weighting in favour of Melbourne and Sydney. Secondly, 11 February is quite important to me: it happens to be my birthday. We know very well that there is a three-hour time difference between WA and New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania on that day. At three o'clock in the afternoon, while we are still voting, not only will the voting have concluded on the east coast but the counting will have started, so there is every chance that by the time we conclude our activities at six o'clock the result will probably be known.
Now, we move to the question of financial support, and it will be of interest to those who do not know that it will be exactly the same situation as occurred in 1999 with the republic debate. It is being conducted in this way: $7½ million for the yes side, $7½ million for the no side. Let me tell you how the audit process for how those funds will be allocated will be undertaken. Five parliamentarians will be invited for the yes side and five for the no, and another five citizens will be invited for each of the yes and no sides. Those five parliamentarians—two from the government side, two from the Labor opposition and the fifth from the Independents or crossbenchers on each side—will have accountability and responsibility for how those funds are expended. I have no doubt it will subsequently be the subject of review by the Australian National Audit Office, so that any advertisements, any use of the funds for research et cetera must have the agreement of that panel of 10 people respectively from each side. A point has been put by a previous speaker about some apparent level of unfairness in terms of the situation the churches may have—
Senator Pratt interjecting—
I thank Senator Pratt for her interjection, because it gives me the opportunity to make an obvious comment. The last time I looked, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and SBS were publicly funded. I do not think I have heard one comment from the ABC in the last 12 months with any view other than favouring same-sex marriage, so when people talk to me about the fairness associated with putting the two sides I just ask them to reflect on that. The ABC is publicly funded. The ABC has run one line on this question for as long as I can remember. But those who are opposed to same-sex marriage would all be pleased to learn that, in accordance with the policies surrounding an election campaign, the media will be required to give even-handedness to both sides of the debate. As we know, in an election campaign people very carefully calculate the number of words and the amount of time given to the Leader of the Opposition and the Prime Minister of the day, and so it goes. That will also be applied in the run-up to this particular event.
Yes, $160 million is a lot of money. Again, let me remind—through you, Deputy President—you and those in the gallery that, as a result of the profligate debt visited upon this place by the last Labor government between 2007 and 2013, we now have a debt that is so high that we borrow $1.2 billion from overseas a month. We do not borrow that money to repay the debt; we borrow that money to pay the interest on the debt! We borrow $40 million a day to pay back the interest on Labor's debt. Yes, $160 million is a lot of money. It is the equivalent of four days in interest, to satisfy an issue that around 65 to 70 per cent of Australians have said they do not want their parliamentarians to decide—65 to 70 per cent of people in this country want to decide themselves.
My last point is this. For those who have not gleaned the view yet, I will be voting no. I happen to believe that marriage is an institution between a man and a woman, but I only have one vote amongst the Australian community. But I give this undertaking, and I hope that Senator Pratt might do the same—as might Senator McKim and Senator Rice. This is my commitment: if the people of Western Australia decide, by 50 per cent plus one, that they support the law being changed to allow same-sex couples to marry, then in the parliament I will vote in favour, because I am here representing the people of Western Australia. I challenge every senator in this place to do the same thing. If the people from their state or territory, the people who put them here, vote a certain way, I challenge them to accept the will of the people from their state. And indeed, in terms of electorates, I challenge every member in the other place to do the same thing. If their electorate favours same-sex marriage, I challenge them to do the same thing. That is the point I am making. It is a plebiscite. It is the will of the Australian people. It should be respected, and Labor should agree with it.
I only have a few minutes left in which to speak, so I will be very quick. I think we need to allow a conscience vote across the parliament, because that is the best way to achieve marriage equality. People know that I used to not support marriage equality and that, over the years, I have changed my views and my mind on that issue. I now support marriage equality, but I do not think that the way to achieve it is by having a plebiscite. If the Prime Minister would only allow his members and senators a free vote on marriage equality, we could pass a bill by the end of this year. The numbers are already there in both houses; all we have to do is bring on the vote.
It would be a much better approach than having an expensive and wasteful plebiscite—one that is going to cost taxpayers $160 million minimum, plus the additional $7.5 million each, given to the yes and no cases for their campaigns. I say $160 million minimum, because that is a very conservative estimate. There have been estimates of up to $250 million for the cost of a plebiscite, before adding another $15 million in public funding for the associated campaigns. For many years now, we have been lectured by those opposite—in fact, we were about 40 seconds ago—about financial responsibility, about the debt and about the need for the government to tighten its belt. Well, those opposite, who have added more than $100 billion to the national debt and more than tripled the deficit, ought to look at the numbers around this.
After all the lectures about responsible spending, now the Turnbull government wants to waste hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayers' money on the most expensive national opinion poll in history. It is a poll that does not even bind any members of parliament to its outcome, so what is the actual point of it? The fact that many members and senators have said they will not be bound by the results of a plebiscite makes this exercise a joke and a complete waste of taxpayers' money. Not only is it a waste of money, but it will serve as a platform—which is of concern to me—for the hateful and divisive comments that call into question the value and legitimacy of same-sex relationships.
How can those opposite convince the Australian people of the need for this taxpayer-funded opinion poll when they are divided on the detail? We have heard about Senator Brandis, the Attorney-General, being rolled by the conservatives in the cabinet on the issue of public funding, and Senator Paterson, who recently spoke, said quite openly in a doorstop—