Senator Penny Wong Speech: Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017

Penny Wong is leader of the Opposition in the Senate

I rise to speak on the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017. Today is a proud day for Australia: a day of joy and a day of grace; a day for all Australians to be proud of themselves and of our nation, a nation that has shown itself to be as generous and as big-hearted as we had hoped; a day when the nation's parliament has an opportunity to reaffirm the Australian values of fairness and equality; a day when the nation's parliament can do what we have been asked to do, because this is exactly what Australians want. Australians have voted overwhelmingly in favour of changing the law to remove discrimination in our Marriage Act. Every state and every territory voted yes. The yes vote was higher than any national two-party-preferred vote in the nation's history. And it is the most conclusive national vote in the nation's history. Australians have made their views clear, and they want everyone to be treated equally before the law. The Australian people have done their part, and now it is our turn, as parliamentarians, to do ours.

For too long, some Australians have been deprived of the fair go. We've been deprived of equality before the law for no reason other than who we are and who we love. For LGBTIQ Australians, the message conveyed by the discrimination in our nation's marriage laws has been clear. It is a message that we are lesser. It is a message that we are less valued as citizens. It is a message that our relationships and our children matter less. And it is a message that, because of who we love, our love is worth less.

For others, those who fear difference, the message conveyed by the exclusion in our nation's marriage laws has also been clear. It is a message that it is acceptable to discriminate on the basis of sexuality; a message for some that they are right to fear us and to hate us; that it is acceptable to target and abuse us; that it is acceptable to marginalise us.

The impact of this abuse and discrimination on LGBTIQ Australians is not abstract. It is real and it is part of our daily lives. And its impact can be very harmful. The rate of suicide for our community is higher than for the general population. LGBTIQ Australians are at higher risk for a range of mental diagnoses and are significantly more likely to have depression or anxiety. When the LGBTIQ community is diminished in this way, the entire Australian community is diminished. Indeed, when any in our community are diminished in this way, be they our First Australians, people of different ethnicities, people of different religions or people of different sexualities, the whole Australian community is diminished—because we are one people, because we stand together to uphold the principle of a fair go, because the rule of law applies to all of us equally.

Our laws reflect the values of our nation and shape the behaviour of our people. My formative experience of prejudice and discrimination was not on the basis of sexuality but because of my race. Moving to Australia from Malaysia as an eight-year-old, I felt out of place. At primary school, I was the only Asian face and I was often made to feel different and excluded. Neighbours rejected me for my difference for no reason other than the colour of my skin, the colour of my hair, the shape of my eyes. It was this experience growing up in a predominantly white Australia that taught me the impact of fear and of prejudice, and it is from this experience that I am driven to remove discrimination and embed equality.

In 2004, the Howard government moved to amend the Marriage Act explicitly to exclude same-sex couples from the institution of marriage. It was a deliberate political tactic, and, in speaking to my Labor colleagues then, I argued that, were the restriction of rights proposed on the basis of race or age or class or religious belief or gender or any other attribute, there would not be a person in the caucus who would countenance it. But the sad fact is we have long been familiar with discrimination against some loving couples. Laws once prevented loving couples from being able to marry on the basis of race. In June this year, we saw the 50th anniversary of the US Supreme Court decision in Loving v Virginia. In his judgement, Justice Warren said that the law deprived the Lovings of liberty of the freedom to marry, which 'has long been recognised as one of the vital personal rights essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness'. The decision saw the end to anti-miscegenation laws which had for centuries sought to prevent people of different races from mixing. And it wasn't just in America that such laws applied. They applied in South Africa and they applied in Australia, where the rights of Indigenous people to marry were restricted. My mother, the third daughter of a farmer from the Adelaide Hills, married a Chinese man at a time when the White Australia policy was still in place. My parents, just like the Lovings, point to a history of those who have not accepted prejudice and have not accepted discrimination.

Almost four decades after the anti-miscegenation laws were declared invalid by the US Supreme Court, the Australian parliament was legislating to discriminate against loving couples, not on the basis of race but on the basis of sexuality. It was a dark moment in the history of this parliament. For me, Labor's support for the Howard government's amendment meant I voted for discrimination against myself and the people whom I loved. I had a choice at that time. I could go out in a blaze of publicity, take a public stand against my party and become an outsider in a pretty dramatic way. I decided to fight this discrimination from within the political system and I chose to stay and accept the solidarity to which I had signed up as a member of a collective political party. I was convinced that Labor, as the party of equality, would one day be a driving force for reversing the discrimination that the parliament had legislated.

The Labor Party is the party of equality. We once understood inequality through the lens of economic inequality and we fought to achieve equality by securing decent wages and conditions. Over time, we came to realise the importance of driving wider equality in the workplace and in the community, and that Australians should be protected from discrimination, regardless of gender, race, physical abilities, religion, gender and sexual identity. Labor has a proud history of removing discrimination and extending equality. It was Labor governments that finally abolished the White Australia policy and that legislated against discrimination on the grounds of race, sex, age and disability. It was Labor that removed discrimination against same-sex couples in more than 80 areas of law. Just as the Australian community has been on a journey, so, too, has my party; and, like the Australian community, Labor's journey has been driven by activists, by people who know discrimination, by members of the LGBTIQ community, by our friends in the Indigenous community, by immigrant communities, by people with disabilities and by others who know what discrimination feels like—and we have all worked together to change hearts and minds.

In 2011, we achieved a change in the Labor Party platform to support legislating for marriage equality. But the change didn't just appear out of nowhere. Change happened because of champions like Penny Sharpe, who has worked to build momentum for change in our party. Change happened because of representatives like Anthony Albanese, one of our most committed and fearless allies, who was willing to fight for the rights of our community before it was an accepted principle; Tanya Plibersek, who has fought tirelessly for equality; and so many others. Change happened because of Rainbow Labor activists who campaigned within the party, moving motions at subbranches, lobbying members and representatives, and working at state and national conferences to advance the rights of LGBTIQ Australians.

Equality never comes easy. It must be fought for, and it must be won. It was true of women fighting for suffrage; it was true of workers fighting for decent wages; it was and remains true of women fighting for wage equality, as it was for married women fighting for the right to remain in paid employment; it is true of Australia's first peoples, who have fought to be truly recognised as citizens of our nation; and it has been true for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians fighting for equality before the law. I take this moment to acknowledge all the brave champions who have gone before, some who are with us and some no longer. We thank you for your courage and for your persistence.

For decades, we have been fighting for equality in our workplaces and in our communities, and we have come a long way. We have worked to remove discrimination and to extend protections against discrimination, and our fight has been a long one. It was over 40 years ago that my state of South Australia became the first state to decriminalise homosexuality, and it took another two decades for Tasmania to become the last. But, above all, we have worked to change hearts and minds. In 2004, when the Howard government moved to explicitly exclude LGBTIQ Australians from the institution of marriage, just 38 per cent of Australians supported marriage equality, with 44 per cent against. By 2007, 57 per cent were in favour of marriage equality, and support increased to 60 per cent in 2009. The Australian community has shifted. In 2004, many considered it untenable to support marriage equality. Now it is untenable to oppose it. For a decade the majority of Australians have supported marriage equality, and for a decade the parliament has lagged the Australian community, and the community is, frankly, over the negativity and the delay.

Labor opposed the Turnbull government's proposed plebiscite on marriage equality because we believed it was unnecessary, costly and divisive. Recall that it was a proposal first discussed in the marathon meeting of the coalition party room, dreamt up by the very people who oppose equality and designed to further delay progress towards equality, and in November last year the Senate rejected the plebiscite. It was after another government party room meeting in August that the idea of a postal survey emerged, and we opposed that too. We opposed it for the same reasons we opposed the proposed plebiscite, in addition to the fact that the survey risked disenfranchising whole sections of the Australian community.

But we knew—we realised—that, if the postal survey was to proceed, we had to fight it and we had to win it. So Labor, under the leadership of Bill Shorten, committed wholeheartedly to campaign for yes. We knew that ignoring this process or boycotting it would only play into the hands of those who oppose equality. So I thank Bill, Tanya, Mark Dreyfus, Terri Butler, Tony Burke, the LGBTIQ caucus members—Senator Pratt and Julian Hill—and the whole Labor team for their commitment to a yes vote.

For those of us fighting for our own equality, this has been a deeply personal debate, as I demonstrated quite publicly yesterday. Our very identity has been the subject of public scrutiny and public debate. Through this campaign, we have seen the best of our country and also the worst. Our fears of the kind of hate and misinformation a public vote on equality would lead to have been shown to be well placed. Our community has been forced to endure public pronouncements about why our relationships and our families are lesser, and assaults on and self-harm by LGBTIQ Australians have increased.

But we've also seen an outpouring of support for our community. Neil took a home-made yes sign around the shearing sheds of the Liverpool Plains because he said gay people had suffered for too long. There was that wonderful video of 104-year-old Alex telling us he voted yes because, after being happily married for 45 years, he thought his grandson Paul should have the same rights and privileges. Ben voted yes for his mums, reminding us that children in LGBTIQ families are here and they love as they are loved.

The outcome of the postal survey is a reflection of the decency of the Australian people and the commitment of all who value fairness and equality, but the victory hasn't come easily. It is because so many of us campaigned and were supported by our friends, our families, our colleagues and our neighbours—allies all, and we thank you. We have all been lifted by the support from unions, from business leaders, from farmers, miners and professionals, from working men and women, from the national sporting clubs and their leading stars to the local clubs in towns and cities across Australia. We've been lifted by support from the local cafes with 'vote yes' signs in the windows—my daughter always tried to count them: 'How many yes signs do we see today?'—the yes signs in airlines and airports decorated with rainbows.

The Equality Campaign led our collective effort. I want to acknowledge the wonderful Tim Gartrell, also the executive director, Tiernan Brady, and co-chairs Anna Brown, Tom Snow, Janine Middleton and Alex Greenwich. The commitment to fighting a positive campaign in the face of all we saw from the other side is a demonstration of the kind of Australia our nation is and that we want it to be.

This bill is the best path to legislate marriage equality. I acknowledge Senator Smith for his work in bringing this bill to the parliament. He has shown tremendous integrity and personal courage, and the broad support from across the chamber for this bill demonstrates this. This bill is the 23rd marriage equality bill to be introduced into the Australian parliament, but it is the first that I have co-sponsored. I chose to put my name in support of this bill because I believe this is the bill that can pass the parliament. It is a bill based on the consensus report of a crossparty Senate select committee, a committee which undertook extensive consultations with groups supportive of and opposed to marriage equality, and its recommendations sought to balance these interests. I again reiterate: Australians voted to remove discrimination, not to extend it. This bill strikes a balance between achieving marriage equality and protecting the rights of religious institutions whose doctrines and teachings do not enable them to support marriage equality, all of this consistent with Australia's hard-won and well-established antidiscrimination laws.

This is a proud day for Australia. It's a day when this parliament has an opportunity to reaffirm those Australian values of fairness and equality, a day when this parliament can recommit to the ideal of Australia as the land of the fair go. Australians voted yes for equality, and this is a profoundly important statement to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer Australians that we are accepted for who we are, that we too belong, that our love is equal and our families are equal. Australians have recognised that our lives are no different to others. We have the same hopes and aspirations, and our desire to make a public and lasting commitment to the person we love is as important and meaningful as everyone else's.

This bill isn't just important for LGBTIQ Australians; it's important for all Australians. Imagine if the message of discrimination, fear and intolerance that we saw during this campaign had won. Imagine what that would have said about the kind of nation we had become. But our nation chose a different path—a path of hope, a path of acceptance, a path of respect—and for that I thank you all. The Australian community has repudiated the naysayers, just as it has reaffirmed the principle of equality that underpins the rule of law in our nation. The yes vote is a statement about the kind of nation we are: a nation in which fairness and equality—those values—grow ever stronger, a nation in which acceptance and respect mean that all members of our community feel safe and welcome.

This is the most personal of debates, because it is about the people who matter most to us. It is about the people we love. So I say to Sophie: thank you for you love and commitment and for all you do. And I say to our beautiful daughters, Alexandra and Hannah: I work for and fight for the world I want for you.

Australians have voted for equality. They have done their part; now it's time for us to do ours. It's time for us to get on with it. It's time for us to remove discrimination from our Marriage Act. It's time to legislate for marriage equality.

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