A Tale of Two Speeches Part 2

A Tale of Two Speeches Part 2

I have chosen to reproduce another two speeches from the Senate’s debate on marriage equality over the past week. These two Senators from South Australia encapsulate everything that is right – and sadly, everything that is wrong – in Australian politics. Senator Penny Wong’s speech is yet another example of her amazing capacity for both passion and eloquence on an issue which is obviously personal and yet clearly much bigger than the interests of her and her immediate family.

Senator Bernardi’s speech is already infamous, both within Australia and internationally. He deservedly lost his position as a Parliamentary Secretary to the Opposition Leader for introducing the repugnant comparison of allowing equal marriage with future calls for bestiality to be recognised. It is to his, Tony Abbott and the Liberal Party’s shame that he still retains his position as a Senator – and this is something which the voters of South Australia should remember next year when they are casting their ballot for the upper house.

Of course, there were many other notable speeches both for and against which I could have included. One of my previous bosses – Senator John Faulkner – gave a dignified and appropriately serious call to arms for people who support progressive change (does he ever do anything else?). And Senator Helen Polley disgraced herself yet again, not to mention sullying the reputation of every member of the Australian Labor Party, by reading out a constituent’s letter raising the spectre of a future ‘stolen generation’ should equal marriage be legislated. Shame on you Senator Polley – what a warped view of love and sexuality you must have.

Senator Wong

(South Australia—Minister for Finance and Deregulation) (12:00): This is an important debate for Australia. It is an important debate for this parliament, because the issue at the heart of this debate is fundamental to who we are and what we believe. This is a debate about the principle of equality. The aspiration of and struggle for equality has been a constant in our history. Australia has not always been an equal society, but ultimately we always move in the direction of greater equality, and we should not forget that it is a progression that is greater than any one vote.

The Marriage Amendment Bill (No. 2) 2012 is a step along the path of progress, and that fact is demonstrated by what we have seen while this vote has been on the horizon. Our numbers have grown, as the numbers of those who oppose marriage equality have got smaller. The momentum has been one way. Many of my colleagues who have previously opposed marriage equality now support it. I acknowledge them and I thank them because, like me, they know that the principle of equality is inherent in who we are and it is central to the world we want for our children.

Equality is more enduring than any single generation. It is a principle that will continue to inspire, and it is a fundamental right. If you look at the span of history, of social change, the calls for equality have been persistent and they have been successful. We have seen changes to ensure individuals are not discriminated against because of their gender, their race or their religion—reforms that see all Australians treated equally in the community and in their workplaces: the quintessential idea of a fair go for all.

Much has been said in this debate about relationships, about families, about parenting and even about the so-called threats to the nature of Australian society. But let us be clear what we are debating here: we are being asked to consider whether the state, through law, should continue to discriminate against some Australians solely on the basis of their sexuality. We are being asked to consider whether in today’s Australia we should continue to ban two consenting adults from marrying because and only because they are of the same sex.

If you subscribe to the principle of equality, as I am sure most in this chamber would, then substitute same-sex for race in this debate and see if it changes your view. Just imagine if we told Australians today they could not get married because the person they love is of a different coloured skin. Imagine if we told Australians today they could not get married because the person they love is of a different religion. Such notions are rightly seen as anachronistic. And, in 2012, it is truly sad that some still feel the need to constrain the freedom of others to make a commitment to the person they love through marriage.

I do believe marriage is unique. I believe that marriage is special and that it is a bedrock institution of society. I believe that marriage should be valued. But marriage does not need to be walled off from some Australians in order to preserve its worth. The heart of marriage is the love of and commitment to another. This promise, the vow of marriage, does not discriminate and nor should our laws. But the Marriage Act as it is currently worded is discriminatory. It involves different treatment and lesser rights to certain individuals on the basis of their sexuality. The discrimination could not be more real.

There are many arguments that have been put in this place and in the debate more broadly by those seeking to continue marriage inequality. People have argued that same-sex marriage would undermine the institution of marriage—that marriage as a concept is immutable and therefore unable to accommodate gay and lesbian Australians. Then there is perhaps the most hurtful of arguments: the view that marriage is an institution of procreation and therefore same-sex couples are not welcome. I believe it is worth discussing these arguments each in turn because, when held up to scrutiny, they are clearly without foundation.

As I have said, some have tried to claim that allowing same-sex couples to marry will somehow destabilise the very foundation of marriage, that it will undermine what marriage is. But this not a zero-sum game. My getting married does not preclude a heterosexual couple from getting married. Indeed, the argument that allowing me to marry the person I love will somehow make their love less says more about their relationship than mine. So I say to those who oppose this bill: ‘You do not need to legitimise your relationship by undermining mine. You do not need to tell me and the thousands of other same-sex couples that our relationships are less worthy, less valid or less important. We know the worth of our relationships. We will not allow them to be diminished in this debate and we do not accept them being diminished by this law.’

As I said, I agree marriage is both unique and important. Same-sex couples believe marriage is an important institution. That is why we want the choice to enter it. For those opposite who may think this view is only held by some on the progressive side of politics, look at the statements of British Prime Minister David Cameron, who last year said:

I don’t support gay marriage despite being a Conservative; I support gay marriage because I’m a Conservative.

He is a Conservative Prime Minister who makes a very important point: that institutions are not weakened by inclusion.

Inclusion and tolerance have always been the guiding lights of social progress. They have always shone brightly on discrimination and, time and time again, have shown us that our similarities will always be greater than our differences. Our society is strongest when we are accepting, when we enable equality to overcome exclusion and when, with open eyes, open minds and open hearts, we cherish diversity and value inclusion. Exclusion so often unearths the worst in us, because it reflects the least worthy aspects of society. So often it is driven by ignorance or, worse, by prejudice. That is why the argument that the institution of marriage is strengthened by exclusion is as spurious as it is hurtful. It is discrimination, plain and simple.

There are those who argue that the institution of marriage is immutable; that it has not changed since time immemorial. Such statements ignore how much the understanding of marriage has varied. Marriage has changed from being a concept of ownership to being one of genuine partnership.

Marriage was previously banned for interracial couples and it took a Supreme Court decision in the United States to overturn this. Australian history provides further examples. In 1901, JC Watson, later to become the first Labor Prime Minister, asked during a debate on the Immigration Restriction Bill:

The question is whether we would desire that our sisters or our brothers should be married into any of these races to which we object.

These views were once normal. These views of marriage were once predominant—but no longer. In my own family, I have seen this change. My parents married during the last years of the White Australia policy; what was seen as an interracial marriage, remarked on in its time, would in today’s Australia be unremarkable. Indeed, marriage as an institution has proven to be flexible in reflecting the social norms of the day—far from being set in stone, it has responded to social change. If passed, the bill before the chamber would see marriage again reflect the values of our society.

I want to turn now to the place of religious belief in this debate. I believe in freedom of religion and in the right of Australians of faith to express and practise their faiths and traditions. I support the provisions in the bill which protect the church from having to marry same-sex couples if their faith does not permit it. The real question here is the line between religious teaching and secular laws—whether those who hold a particular belief should impose that view on all. The majority of Australians now marry in civil, not religious, ceremonies. Should the views of some who hold particular beliefs determine the legitimacy and eligibility of those who choose to marry outside of religious services and beyond their church? I think not.

Some also argue that marriage is about children, and that same-sex couples cannot or should not have children. This is an argument that brings with it a fair amount of logical confusion. To suggest that you can or should only have children if you are married is inconsistent with the reality of today’s Australia. To suggest that marriage should only be defined by reference to children would mean that marriages in which someone is infertile would not be allowed, that marriages where the couple did not want to have a family would not be allowed and that marriages where the couple were too old to have children would not be allowed. Clearly, this is not the case.

But underlying this position—and perhaps the most hurtful argument of all—is the view that some Australians are not worthy of being parents simply because of their personal attributes. That is, because of our sexuality, our worth as a mother or father is lessened. The fact is same-sex couples already have children. Denying marriage equality will not change this. Bringing an argument about the worth of our families and about the value of our parenting into this debate is dishonest and it is objectionable. The quality of parenting, whether by a straight person or a gay person, will never be determined by a political argument. The love that a parent—straight or gay—has for their child is seen in the days and nights and years of love and nurture and hope and so much more.

The arguments of those that oppose this bill do not stack up. But perhaps what is worse is the vein of prejudice that runs through some of the contributions in the debate over marriage equality. As this debate has occurred over the past weeks, homophobia has increasingly come to the fore. It is an undeniably ugly vein that runs deep in some of the arguments against marriage equality, and it is regrettable, hateful and hurtful.

There are those who say homosexuality is a greater hazard than smoking. There are those who suggest that gay and lesbian Australians are promiscuous yet in the same breath criticise us for wanting to have our relationships recognised through marriage. There are those who lump homosexuality into the same category as bigamy and those who talk about the normalisation of homosexuality. Well, we are normal and we are here.

Gay and lesbian Australians are no different to all other Australians. We come from all walks of Australian life, from all regions and from all income brackets. We are your daughters and your sons, your brothers and your sisters, your mums and your dads, your coworkers and your friends, and we have the same aspirations, the same ambitions and the same hopes. We are not so different. It is time to recognise this.

I stand here today as a proud member of the Australian Labor Party: a party that in government has done more to progress the interests of gay and lesbian Australians than any other; a party that changed its platform last year to support same-sex marriage and to allow a conscience vote on this issue; a party big enough and brave enough to accept differences of views, and to support three of our senators, and the member for Throsby in the other place, introducing this bill—a braveness not matched in the leadership of those opposite. When the Liberal Party denied its parliamentarians the right to vote with their conscience on marriage equality, they ensured its defeat in the 43rd Parliament. The maths is as simple as it is devastating.

We often talk about the negativity of politics today, but this is different. It is not some tired, three-word slogan; it is worse. The party which preaches individual freedom refuses to allow a free vote on this most personal of issues. I welcome the comments of Senators Birmingham and Boyce, Mr Turnbull and Dr Washer, who have put on the record their desire for a conscience vote on this matter. On another day, at another time, I hope that they, along with members of the Labor Party, the Australian Greens and others, will have the opportunity to sit side by side in support of marriage equality.

There will be some who will see this week’s result as a vindication of their opposition to same-sex marriage—and they will be wrong. There will be many who will look at the members of this chamber and think that the parliament has failed them—and they will be right. We have failed to uphold the principle of equality in the law. The parliament as an institution should reflect the best of Australia. It should inspire tolerance and acceptance. It should encourage respect. On this issue, our parliament is lagging behind our community.

The result of this vote will be disappointing to many thousands of Australians. To all the friends, to the mums and dads, to the sisters and brothers, to the mates and to the colleagues of gay and lesbian Australians: I encourage you to keep the fight for equality going. We are on the right side of this debate and on the right side of history. We are on the side of equality.

This parliament may miss its opportunity to right a wrong, but it will only be through your perseverance that we can guarantee that the next time this comes to a vote there will be no choice but to support equality. Remember, many steps towards equality in this country were not won the first time nor even the second. Many were achieved only after years of action and of activism. But the aspiration for equality is persistent, and it cannot be denied forever.

To the Australian LGPTI community who feel disappointed, I encourage resolve and, particularly, to young gay and lesbian Australians, to those who may not have come out yet or are finding their way, I want you to know that the prejudice you have heard in this debate does not reflect the direction in which this country is going. Those who oppose this bill speak to the past. I and my colleagues are talking to a better future because, whatever happens in the parliament this week, our relationships are not inferior, our relationships are not less equal and our love is no less real. We will get there—perhaps not in this parliament, but one day. One day we will be recognised as equal.

For us, this is the most personal of debates. It is about the people we love most in the world, the people who give meaning and hope to our lives. It is about our families. And, ultimately, it is not only about what we want for ourselves; it is about what we want for our children. We all hope for our children an easier path, that the challenges life presents will be surmountable. I do not regret that our daughter has Sophie and I as her parents. I do regret that she lives in a world where some will tell her that her family is not normal. I regret that, even in this chamber, elected representatives denigrate the worth of her family. These are not challenges she deserves. None of our children deserves such challenges. So I will not rest in the face of such prejudice. I want for her, for all of us, an Australia which is inclusive and respectful. This is why this campaign will not end here: because we who argue for equality are not only standing for principle, we are also standing for the people we love—and there is nothing more powerful than this.

I say to those opposing this bill: you have nothing to fear from equality. Let us judge relationships by the markers which matter—love, respect, commitment. Let our laws reflect these most cherished values and give voice to the equality that is due.

Senator Bernardi

(South Australia) (21:22): I have spoken many times in this place about the importance of traditional marriage. In fact, I spoke about marriage in my maiden speech in this place over six years ago. In that speech I said:

Marriage has been reserved as a sacred bond between a man and a woman across times, across cultures and across very different religious beliefs. Marriage is the very foundation of the family, and the family is the basic unit of society. Thus marriage is a personal relationship with public significance and we are right to recognise this in our laws.

I have been and always will be a strong supporter of traditional marriage and its current definition, being a union between a man and a woman. Marriage is accorded a special place in our society because it is a union that is orientated towards having children, thereby ensuring the continuation of our population and civilisation. Society benefits from marriage, so marriage is accorded benefits by society. At the base level marriage is concerned about what is best for society, rather than being concerned about the so-called rights of the individual. Changing the definition of marriage would indeed change the focus of the institution itself. It would put the focus on the desire of adults, as opposed to having the focus on the production and nurturing of an environment for the raising of children for the benefit of society.

I know that not every marriage has children but marriage is a foundation for the family unit upon which our society is built. It has proven itself as the most sustainable and effective social support and training environment for our future generations. I recall columnist Miranda Devine quoted a UK Family Court judge in 2010 in which he noted that family breakdown is the cause of most social ills and that, despite its faults, marriage should be restored as the gold standard and social stigma should be reapplied to those who destroy family life.

The Australian Institute of Family Studies has found that children of married couples benefit from marriage because they have higher levels of social, emotional and educational development in comparison with children who do not live in that traditional environment. Married mothers are more likely to be employed or hold a university degree and married-couple families are less likely to come up against financial problems. While the authors of the research were keen to stress that this is because of a family’s financial situation and the educational qualifications of the mother, it does give me cause to wonder: doesn’t marriage itself help to provide financial stability and better outcomes? That seems to be a case for opening marriage up to any environment and to any union of two people, as Senator Cameron said, who happen to love each other, but in a family environment it is children who should be the primary concern and children benefit from having both a male and a female role model living in a house—two people that love each other in a permanent union.

We have all seen the sad effects of marriage breakdown and the adverse impacts it can have on children. We have to also acknowledge that today families do not always come as the gold standard where mum and dad do live together under the one roof of a house and love each other and provide that nurturing environment. I have always said that a child is better in any environment where it is loved and that is irrespective of the circumstances, but it will not stop me from advocating that traditional marriage is the absolutely best environment for the rearing of the next generation. So whatever the forms that families take in this modern day and age—and they do come in so many different forms with some people being individual parents and indeed same-sex couples also raising children and they all do an amazing job in the circumstances—as I said, I will not stop focusing on the importance of promoting and encouraging the traditional family. But simply because marriage is important that does not mean that we should redefine it. We should not open it up to all comers, because I think it would actually devalue the institution.

The move for same-sex marriage is just another step in what I consider an attack on our enduring and important institutions, particularly the social ones. It is another tear in the fabric of our social mores. The proponents of same-sex marriage, and I do not mean to generalise but this is about many of the proponents of same-sex marriage, ask for one step and they think that is all they want or they say that is all they want and they will be satisfied when this has been achieved—’Just this one thing; give us that and that will be okay and all inequality will be diminished and everyone will be equal and it will be fair’. But the harsh reality is that there will never be equality in society and there are always going to be people who feel that they have got a raw deal or have been discriminated against or do not have the same access to opportunities or advantages as others do, and to pretend any differently is really to deny reality. But history demonstrates that once those who advocate for radical social change, which I consider this to be, achieve it in any way, shape or form, there is then another demand and another demand and another demand and they slowly chip away at the very foundation of what provides our social support, stability and cultural mores and we are left with a replacement that is somehow vastly inferior to the wisdom of successive generations.

I recall that in this place only a few years ago people pushed for the same entitlements and benefits for all relationships that were then held by married couples. This was achieved. I opposed it at the time because my point was that just because people are in a sexual relationship that does not mean that they should be afforded the same rights and privileges as society affords those in traditional marriage, and I have outlined some of the reasons for that. Indeed, I advocated at the time that if it is about genuine equality and interdependency then we should advance this to interdependent relationships in which there is no sexual engagement. There are any number of those relationships, including people who live together and share bank accounts and expenses and who, for all intents and purposes, share their lives without having a sexual or physical relationship. But that was rejected, I suspect because it was not really about equality. It was not about interdependency and it was not about sharing your life with someone; it was about chipping away at the institution of marriage.

The legislation got through and I lost that debate—you win some and lose some in this business. At that stage I was one of many saying this was another step that would undermine marriage. Today we see the next step. This is another push—it is not the first time and it will not be the last time—for same-sex marriage. Time and time again the techniques of the radicals who seek to overturn the social institutions and social fabric of our society are out of step with the priorities of mainstream Australia. No-one out there that I have come across says this is the most important issue facing Australia. There are enormous social and economic problems in this country, and this debate will not solve any of them. Time and time again the same characters seek to tear down our institutions that have been built and have sustained our civilisation for thousands of years. The time has come to ask: when will it end?

If we are prepared to redefine marriage so that it suits the latest criterion that two people who love each other should be able to get married irrespective of their gender and/or if they are in a sexual relationship, then what is the next step? The next step, quite frankly, is having three people or four people that love each other being able to enter into a permanent union endorsed by society—or any other type of relationship. For those who say that I am being alarmist in this, there is the polyamory community who were very disappointed when the Greens had to distance themselves from their support for numerous people getting together and saying they want to enter into a permanent union. They were disappointed because they were misled that this was about marriage equality and opening up marriage to all people who love each other.

There are even some creepy people out there—and I say ‘creepy’ deliberately—who are unfortunately afforded a great deal more respect than I believe they deserve. These creepy people say it is okay to have consensual sexual relations between humans and animals. Will that be a future step? In the future will we say, ‘These two creatures love each other and maybe they should be able to be joined in a union.’ It is extraordinary that these sorts of suggestions are put forward in the public sphere and are not howled down right at the very start. We can talk about people like Professor Peter Singer who was, I think, a founder of the Greens or who wrote a book about the Greens. Professor Singer has appeared on Q&A on the ABC, the national broadcaster. He has endorsed such ideas as these. I reject them. I think that these things are the next step. As we accede to one request we will then have the next one which will be for unions of more than two people. We will have suggestions for unions of three or four people. I notice the Greens are heckling, but the point is that they misled their constituent base and there was an outcry about this. Where do we go then? Do we go down the Peter Singer path? Those that say this is the end of the social revolution have no history of being honourable about that. They continue to push and challenge our social and cultural mores. We simply cannot allow such an important social institution to be redefined, especially when Australians do not see this as a priority issue.

Senator Cameron was critical of his party denying some of the people in support of same-sex marriage a conscience vote, the ability to speak up in favour of what they thought was important. He neglected to mention that the Left of the Labor Party had never really supported a conscience vote. In fact, they sought to change the party’s position to support same-sex marriage. That meant that those that had a conscientious objection to it would have been bound by the Labor Party’s platform to support same-sex marriage. On the one hand Senator Cameron decried the fact that some people could not vote according to how they felt and yet he was one of the architects of this, along with people like Mark Butler. In a story in the Sydney Morning Herald Mark Butler is said to be one of those who believes that those who support traditional marriage should not be allowed to put their position forward.

I understand that this is a very sensitive debate. I also understand that senators on both sides of this chamber have very strong views. I understand some of these views are borne by personal experiences or those of loved ones and some are borne by their idea that this is a fairer and more equitable way to proceed. We have seen demands and requests for surveys of what is going on in the electorates. That was put forward by Mr Bandt in the other place. He asked for members of parliament to report back on what their constituencies thought about this argument. I have to say that a significant majority—some have suggested as many as two-thirds—reported that their constituents broadly supported marriage being retained as between a man and a woman, as was endorsed by this parliament some eight or 10 years ago.

In standing up for traditional marriage, advocates are not saying that one group is better than another or that one group is superior to another. This is, in my view, about defending what is right and what is important for society. Last year I read an article by a 19-year-old university student Blaise Joseph, who wrote:

Marriage laws are fundamentally a question of what’s best for society rather than a question of individual rights.

That view, in one way, shape or form, was shared by over 32,000 people who wrote in favour of traditional marriage to the recent Senate inquiry.

Add these views to MPs’ electorate surveys and the calls and emails I get from my own constituents and it is very clear to me that many Australians want to protect the notion of traditional marriage, for many valid reasons. These people have, in some instances, put aside their fears of being branded as intolerant, uncaring, heartless or in support of inequality by those people who profess to be tolerant of other points of view and who, in my view, look to degrade the notion of marriage. These people who have stood up against same-sex marriage in the face of a very vocal campaign are to be commended in this current culture of political correctness, where those who apparently disagree with the wisdom of the elites are somehow howled down and demonised publicly.

I am sure there are millions more Australians who share these sentiments irrespective of whether they have spoken publicly about it. I will continue to stand with these Australians and to fight for traditional marriage because I believe it is what the people of Australia want. More importantly, I think it is the right thing to do both for our children and for our society.

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