Same Sex Marriage Bill

House of Representatives 
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Transcript

The core work of government and our society—our priority—should be assisting the poor, the marginalised and the oppressed. We need to be helping people find work to look after their families, providing good education and health care, growing our economy in a sustainable way, helping those with mental illness or drug addiction and ridding our society of the scourge of domestic violence. Removing discrimination from our law is part of this. I believe this is what the majority of Australians are about as well.

Over the past months we have heard a great deal from the religious Right, the extreme Right and the conservative Right. We have also heard a lot from the extreme Left, the secular Left and the ideological Left—too much of it negative and too often abusive. As a Catholic MP who tries to get to church each Sunday I find myself in an interesting place during this same-sex marriage debate. Indeed, many have found it difficult to come to grips with my profession of faith and my support of marriage equality. Clearly, my Catholic faith and upbringing have a strong influence on the way I see the world—what I see as important and how our society should operate. I have no doubt that this has informed my support for and my membership of the Labor Party. However, it does not dictate to me everything that I do as an MP. And nor should it, because I have a responsibility as a parliamentarian to everyone in Burt, the electorate I represent, which voted 57 per cent in favour of same-sex marriage, as well as the nation as a whole, which voted 61 per cent in favour of same-sex marriage. I also have a responsibility to those who voted no or who didn't respond at all. As the great Catholic philosopher and theologian Thomas Aquinas posited, our law is framed for the multitude. Our laws do not forbid things because of one group's values or beliefs, but, chiefly, they should forbid things that are injurious to others. This law will not cause injury to anyone or to our society.

During the present debate, other MPs have been keen to point out what they call the historical nature of the concept of marriage, observing that they oppose same-sex marriage because it cuts across their view of the Christian form of marriage as the only true form of marriage, having existed in this way through the ages and across cultures. Firstly, this is factually inaccurate. Secondly, as six of the seven High Court judges said when deciding on the validity of the ACT's attempt to allow for same-sex marriage in territory law:

The status of marriage, the social institution which that status reflects, and the rights and obligations which attach to that status never have been, and are not now, immutable.

The idea that marriage exists as a construct of our legal system is now a very old one, as can be seen from the change made to the law in the UK and in Australia in the 1850s, where instead of marriage being for life it became something entered into for life but from which one could become divorced. As you would imagine, many people opposed this change then, but it has always been seen as a legal, not a sacramental, one. Nor has it in any way changed what is preached in churches or in religious schools. Indeed, divorces are not even recognised in the Catholic Church, where the sacrament of marriage can be ended only by annulment through the church.

In earlier times there were debates about whether African Americans should be allowed to marry white Americans, whether Aboriginals should be allowed to marry white Australians and whether—that mother of all social faux pas—a Protestant should be allowed to marry a Catholic. Opposition to such marriages is now seen as bigoted, racist and discriminatory, yet at the time these were strongly held views with force of law, defended in many cases on the basis of what was then seen as God's order of nature. The core element of religious freedom is that the state does not prescribe any one religious view as the law, thereby imposing it upon the adherents of another religion. This is reflected in our separation of church and state. That is not to say that the parliament should not make laws that are consistent—or inconsistent—with any particular religious view but, rather, that laws should not be made on religious grounds. I should not as an MP, even as a Catholic one, seek to impose the view of my religion on the whole nation, nor should the view of any other religion or religions be imposed on others. Alas, this is what I think some MPs and some in the 'no' campaign have sought to do.

To be clear, I take no issue with churches advocating their view on marriage or with anyone raising their concerns about what they see as the possible effects on society if we change the nature of marriage in our law. That is all part of our democratic right and freedom of political expression. Indeed, it should be encouraged. I do, however, take issue with those that have muddied the water by denying or misconstruing our existing religious freedom protections or raising other unrelated matters and conflating them with the matter at hand. The definition of marriage in our civil law is for the purposes of civil marriage, not curriculum content in schools and not what may be said in religious education or churches. Australian law is different to and operates differently to that of other nations.

This bill, as introduced by Senator Dean Smith—and I congratulate him on his hard work in this regard—strikes an acceptable compromise in achieving marriage equality and protecting religious freedoms. This balance is based on the unanimous recommendations of a Senate committee which reviewed the government's previously proposed legislation. That committee was made up of representatives across political parties and consulted with the community. The thing is that, while not many human rights are expressly protected in Australia, these ones are. Our Constitution prohibits laws that prohibit the free exercise of religion or that establish a religion, and there are specific exemptions from antidiscrimination laws to ensure that churches can preach their views and run their schools in accordance with their teachings. These protections are very important to me too, and they should remain. Critically, nothing in this legislation removes such protections. Indeed, for some, such protections are enhanced by this legislation.

The bill does not propose any additional carve-outs to our discrimination legislation, and I could not support such measures. Changing our laws to allow bakers, florists and others to refuse service to LGBTIQ people for same-sex weddings would be an apartheid-like policy. It would be legalised segregation and a return to the day of shop windows hanging signs stating, 'No Jews,' or, 'No Irish.' Such an approach is, in my view, completely morally reprehensible. I would have thought that what we should have learnt from Australia's sectarian past would have taught those advocating such an approach better.

I do, though, welcome the government's decision to encourage a broader consultative process regarding religious freedom protections into the next year. The outcome of this should be given full consideration by this parliament. It also means that it is not appropriate to countenance amendments to this bill to attempt to retrofit and augment such rights in a rushed and improper fashion. In a similar vein, I say to my colleagues in the Western Australian state parliament that any consideration of changes to state law to remove religious freedom protections from religious schools should not proceed and, in any event, should await the outcomes of the federal government's review.

As I said when I started, the move for marriage equality is about removing discrimination and injustice from our law. While many see marriage equality as a fringe issue that doesn't affect them, what is often overlooked is that taking this approach is not how we as a society make ourselves better or successfully look after each other. The words of Pastor Niemoller are apt in this regard:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

The meaning of these words sums up the solemn responsibility that we who sit here hold. As parliamentarians in a representative democracy, it is not our role to blindly reflect only the majority of views of our electorate or to speak only to issues that affect or are in the interests of the majority in our electorates. It is our role to always act in the best interests of our whole nation and to protect minorities against the tyranny of the majority.

As such, the abrogation of the role of parliament facilitated by the Turnbull government through the recent survey must not be repeated. It was unnecessary and a huge waste of money. It led to vitriol, abuse and division—division across our community but also, most worryingly, division within families. To LGBTIQ Australians and your families, that it came to having to go through this process, I say sorry.

In equal part, I was happy to see that the response from the survey was a strong majority view to extend equal rights to a minority in our community—a minority that should no longer have to feel that way. While the missing mainstream were often silent in the debate, they were not missing in the result. Whether they are atheist or agnostic centrists, mainstream Christians or adherents of other faiths, there are many Australians going about their daily lives believing in a god but being more focused on a daily basis on having to make ends meet and supporting their families. When their minds do turn to same-sex marriage, their primary concern has been that Australia remains the country of a fair go. I think that is something that we can all believe in.

When you distil it down, to love your god and to love your neighbour, so far as your neighbour is concerned, is about a fair go—not just a fair go for those needing work, those wanting a proper education, those wanting proper health care, victims of domestic violence, those with disabilities or anyone needing a leg up but a fair go for my great mates Drew and Liam, who had to hold their wedding in the British consulate in March last year. While we celebrated the occasion in suitable and expected style—one would expect no less from this couple—the truth still hurt us, let alone the imaginable pain it caused to them, that, once they stepped out of that consulate in Sydney, Australian law did not recognise their marriage. Our law delegitimised their relationship, but anyone who knows them knows the depth and nature of their relationship and their love for one another. There is nothing illegitimate about that. It's a fair go for Stephen and Dennis, who, despite being the first gay couple in Australia to marry—

The DEPUTY SPEAKER: The debate is adjourned. The member for Burt will be given an opportunity at a later time to conclude. The House stands adjourned until 9.30 am, in accordance with the resolution agreed to previously.

House adjourned at 00:01 (Wednesday)

(09:34): It is also about a fair go for Stephen and Dennis, who, despite being the first gay couple in Australia to marry here, under the ACT's short-lived laws, by my friend and colleague Terry Healy MLA, ultimately had to marry in Ireland. It is about a fair go for my cousin, my aunt, CT, and my cousin-in-law, Jack. It's about a fair go for my friends Craig and David and so many others in the LGBTIQ around Australia so that, should they wish, they too can marry the person they love. It is about our country legally recognising their relationships and removing discrimination against them so that they can all enjoy the same legal rights, privileges and status in our community that my wife, Annabel, and I have—because the love we share is the same as the love all these couples share too; because all Australians are equal and should be entitled to full participation in our society. That's why I voted yes in the survey and will vote yes in this parliament for marriage equality. I commend the bill to the House.