I rise to speak on the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017. This is a historic week in this parliament, and it is with considerable pride that I will be supporting this bill and voting yes. For thousands of Australians who are members of the LGBTI community and who support same-sex marriage, this is an incredible time in our nation’s history. This week we expect to bring into law fundamental social change to the institution of marriage, which is valued by millions of Australians. I would argue this is one of the most important institutions in our society. Australians, by a significant majority, embraced and supported our government’s marriage law postal survey. Nearly 62 per cent of Australians voted yes, and in the Corangamite electorate, which I proudly represent, the ‘yes’ vote was even higher, at 72 per cent.
There were also nearly five million Australians who voted against the introduction of same-sex marriage and who hold a traditional view of marriage, including on religious grounds, and it is imperative that these people and their views are also respected. Freedom of speech and freedom of religion are fundamental freedoms in a representative democracy such as ours. At every step of the way in this debate, year after year, I have worked hard to ensure that the views of every person I represent in the Corangamite electorate are acknowledged and respected.
In June 2015, before the issue of marriage equality came before our party room and it was decided to take this question to the Australian people by way of a plebiscite, I confirmed that I supported both marriage equality and a free vote for coalition MPs. I made it clear that support for marriage equality is consistent with fundamental liberal values, which embrace freedom of the individual and stable long-term relationships. If two people love each other and wish to commit to a life together, they should have the option to be recognised equally under the law.
The bedrock of our society is family. To that end, I would like to reflect on the Prime Minister’s speech in the second reading debate. His words resonated very much for me. He said:
I have to say that I’m utterly unpersuaded by the proposition that my marriage to Lucy or indeed any marriage is undermined by two gay men or women setting up house down the road, whether it is called a marriage or not.
Let’s be honest with each other: the threat to traditional marriage is not from gay people; it is from a lack of loving commitment, whether it is found in the form of neglect, indifference, cruelty or adultery—to name just a few manifestations of that loveless desert in which too many marriages come to grief.
It is not always easy in life to find one’s soulmate, the one person to whom one wishes to commit for the rest of his or her life. Many people who oppose same-sex marriage argued to me that I should support a same-sex civil union rather than marriage. But for me it was very important to point out that in our society and our country, as in most societies and countries around the world, there is no greater commitment between two people than marriage, and that is a commitment which gay and lesbian Australians should be entitled to make as much as Australians in a heterosexual relationship.
While I spoke in favour of a free vote 2½ years ago, I accepted and supported a plebiscite to give every Australian of voting age a chance to have his or her say. We made that commitment in 2015. We took it to the election last year. When the Labor Party, in an act of hypocrisy, blocked our plebiscite legislation, we found another way to take this question to the Australian people. I appreciate that some gay and lesbian Australians were hurt and anxious about this process. I also condemn all of the regrettable statements which were made, from both the ‘yes’ and the ‘no’ cases. But, on the whole, our government’s postal survey was overwhelmingly embraced by Australians, with positivity and optimism and with an incredible participation rate of 80 per cent.
There is a long and complex history to the issue of same-sex marriage in the Australian parliament. Over six years when Labor was in power, led by two prime ministers who did not support a change in the law, this vexed question remained unresolved. Today, however, I don’t propose to infuse my contribution with political slings and arrows, other than to say that I congratulate the Prime Minister of Australia, the first Australian Prime Minister to consistently support the legalisation of same-sex marriage.
There were many other champions in this parliament but perhaps none more so than the member for Leichhardt, the crocodile-hunting slightly wild man from Far North Queensland, an unlikely, on the face of it, champion of change, who for a decade or more, in the face of enormous opposition, has fought to introduce marriage equality. I congratulate the ‘yes’ campaign and the many hundreds of people who championed the right of gay and lesbian Australians to marry. In particular, I wish to acknowledge Rodney Croome, who has fought discrimination against the LGBTI community for many, many years, from the very early days when homosexuality was considered a heinous crime. And, locally, in my community, there was one person who stood out. Her name is Sharyn Falkner, the mother of two sons, one gay and one straight. She has fought tirelessly to ensure that both her sons have the same right to marry, and, as a mother and as a campaigner, she is a pretty incredible woman.
The passing of this act should not give rise to any discrimination against gay and lesbian Australians. The LGBTI community has endured too much discrimination in the past, too many injustices and too much hurt and isolation. These terrible days in our great nation, which so values and upholds freedom and equality, must come to an end. I also believe that charities must be protected, marriage celebrants must be free to marry whom they choose, and freedom of speech and freedom of religion must be protected. I am concerned that the bill before the House does not adequately provide for these protections. That is why I may support one or more amendments to this bill, provided these amendments do not overreach, and I reserve my right accordingly, depending on how these amendments are drafted. I am comforted by the decision to establish the Ruddock committee into religious freedom, a decision made by our government, which will have broad scope to address many of these fundamental issues and concerns.
For reasons that I’m not at liberty to or I don’t wish to discuss or raise at the moment, this is something that means very much to my own family, this change in the law, and I also want to mention someone, a very dear friend of mine who died very tragically a number of months ago. His name was John Parker. I don’t want to say too much about John. He was gay and—it was something—he had a lot of struggles—he was a very dear friend. When I can say more about it I will, but I want to talk to his family first. He really wanted to see this change in the law—and his loss—I haven’t been able to write anything about it or speak about it because it’s been such a—it’s been so horrific. I’m sorry I’m crying. But his loss has been terrible. He was a dear friend from the age of 12, one of my closest friends. In one of the last conversations I had with him, he just said to me, ‘Hendo, just bloody well get on with it, okay.’ And I say to JP, my dear beloved friend who I miss so dearly: ‘JP, that is what we are doing’. I commend the bill to the House.