Submission to Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee Inquiry into the Recognition of Foreign Marriages Bill 2014

As I committed to in my previous post on the topic of the Recognition of Foreign Marriages Bill 2014 (see here: <https://alastairlawrie.net/2014/06/26/why-i-dont-support-the-recognition-of-foreign-marriages-bill-2014/ ), unless somebody was able to provide a satisfactory explanation as to why, as a strategy, the recognition of foreign marriages should be pursued separately to, and ahead of, equality for domestic marriages, I would lodge a submission to the Senate Inquiry into the Bill expressing my serious concerns about this proposed law.

In the absence of any such explanation, I lodged my submission at the end of July, making clear my personal opinion that the Recognition of Foreign Marriages Bill 2014 should be withdrawn, and replaced by genuine marriage equality legislation.

I understand that this position may be controversial with some people, and that my words may even be used against me by others (indeed my original post has been quoted, selectively, by the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney in their own submission to the inquiry), but I absolutely believe that, as a movement, we should be fighting for real marriage equality, and that we should be pushing for it to be passed by the Parliament as quickly as possible – unfortunately, the Recognition of Foreign Marriages Bill 2014 is not such a law.

One final, more positive, point: it appears that, as a result of a range of submissions, and the evidence given to the Senate Inquiry by Tony Briffa, there is now a strong chance that the Bill will at least be amended to ensure that it is not discriminatory on the basis of gender identity and intersex status.

This is obviously a very welcome development, but it would nevertheless leave intact the Bill’s inherent discrimination on the basis of class and nationality. Which, at least from my perspective, remains sufficient justification to argue for the Recognition of Foreign Marriages Bill 2014 to be withdrawn.

The following is the text of my submission to the Senate Inquiry into this Bill, which has been published on the APH website, and is available at the following link: <http://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Senate/Legal_and_Constitutional_Affairs/Recognition_of_Foreign_Marriages_Bill_2014/Submissions

For more than ten years, and especially since the lead-up to the passage of the ban on marriage equality by the Howard Liberal-National Government, supported by the Labor Opposition, in 2004, I have been a strong and consistent – and occasionally vocal – supporter of marriage equality.

I firmly believe that all couples deserve the right to marry, and have that marriage recognized under Commonwealth law, irrespective of their sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status.

I do not accept that there is any valid reason for the Australian Government to continue to discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people, and to devalue their (our) relationships, by denying a fundamental right which is offered without question to cisgender heterosexual couples.

This is particularly true following the High Court decision in December 2013, which overturned the ACT’s same-sex marriage legislation but also established that there is no constitutional impediment to the Commonwealth Parliament passing a Bill which would finally affirm that our love is indeed truly equal.

I deliberately use the word finally because we have been waiting long enough. My fiancé and I have already been engaged for four and a half years – and it may be several more before we have the opportunity to have a legally recognised wedding, something that my sister and her husband, and my brother and his wife, simply took for granted.

I strongly urge the Commonwealth Parliament, including all Senators and Members of the House of Representatives, to pass a marriage equality Bill as a matter of priority, and thus bring to an end the sorry situation whereby LGBTI Australians are treated as second class citizens in their own country.

Unfortunately, the Recognition of Foreign Marriages Bill 2014 is not such a Bill. It will not end the second class treatment of all of our relationships, and I do not believe it should be brought before the Parliament for debate.

My problem with this proposed law is not necessarily about what is included (although there is an issue in its terminology which I will come to later). It almost goes without saying that I completely support the legal recognition of the marriages of same-sex couples that have been wed in other countries.

Instead, my problem concerns what is not included in the Bill – the recognition of domestic marriages – and the consequence of only recognising marriages conducted ‘outside’ Australia, and not those ‘inside’ at the same time.

If passed, such legislation would create a situation whereby there would be three main, distinct categories of same-sex couples who wish to be treated as married in Australia:

    • Couples who have the financial resources to take advantage of the opportunity to marry under the laws of another country;
    • Couples who have been or are able to marry under the laws of another country because of their current or former nationality (including where one partner has UK citizenship, and can therefore marry in a UK consulate in Australia, or where the couple has emigrated from a country with marriage equality); and
    • Couples who do not have the financial resources or nationality to be able to take advantage of marriage equality elsewhere. 
Under this Bill, only couples in the first two categories would be able to be considered legally married.

In effect, if the Recognition of Foreign Marriages Bill 2014 were to succeed, Australia would have a system which, far from implementing genuine ‘marriage equality’, would actually create new types of marriage inequality, only this time based on distinctions around class and nationality rather than sexual orientation. 
Put simply, I cannot advocate for the progression of a Bill which would provide the opportunity for a couple who can afford it to get married overseas and have that marriage legally recognised here, but which would tell an elderly couple barely surviving on the age pension that they cannot be married under Australian law solely because they do not have the money.

If we are genuinely interested in marriage equality, then both couples must have the same right to wed. To put it another way, I am only interested in advocating for the progression of a Bill which redresses the injustice perpetrated against both couples, not just the couple that can afford to marry.

The only argument which I can see for pursuing this legislation is that some people may view it as an incremental step towards full marriage equality. And I whole-heartedly agree that, in some cases, incremental reform may be necessary to achieve larger, longer-term change.

However, I believe that in this case the people proposing this route towards achieving full marriage equality have not understood the fact that incrementalism is only ever a strategy, and not a goal in and of itself.

In this instance, there is absolutely no need for an incrementalist approach. There is no difference in how the Recognition of Foreign Marriages Bill 2014 would be treated by Commonwealth Parliament and how a genuine Marriage Amendment Bill – one that provides for the recognition of both overseas and domestic marriages – would be received.

Both Bills would involve asking the same people, sitting in the same place, exercising the same powers, and almost inevitably using the same arguments, to vote yes (or no).

The only potential justification for proceeding with the Recognition of Foreign Marriages Bill and not a genuine Marriage Amendment Bill would be if there existed Senators and Members of the House of Representatives who would tell LGBTI-inclusive couples in Australia that they can only have their marriages recognised if they travel overseas, away from their family and friends, for the wedding.

I refuse to believe that, when it came time for the second reading debate on such a Bill in the Chamber, there is a single MP who would stand up and deliver that message. I do not accept that there would be MPs willing to tell LGBTI members of their community that yes, they can be married, but only on the proviso they go somewhere else for the ceremony. Instead, I sincerely believe the same people who would be willing to vote for the Recognition of Foreign Marriages Bill 2014 would also vote yes to full marriage equality.

In which case, there is no reason why the Commonwealth Parliament should not proceed directly to a genuine Marriage Amendment Bill, rather than consider something which falls far short of what could be considered fair, and is substantively less than what LGBTI Australians deserve.

I urge Senators who wish to pursue the Recognition of Foreign Marriages Bill 2014 to reconsider their approach. I submit that they should abandon this Bill in favour of legislation that would deliver the right to marry to all couples, not just those who can afford to take advantage of the opportunity to marry under the laws of another country first.

The next Bill to be debated in the Commonwealth Parliament should be, must be, legislation which provides for genuine marriage equality, irrespective of sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status, and not one which would allow some same-sex couples to marry, but only those from certain classes or nationalities.

As I alluded to earlier, there is another problem with the Recognition of Foreign Marriages Bill 2014. And it is not a minor problem, either – although, as it concerns terminology, (hopefully) it is something which can be more readily resolved.

The Bill would leave intact the current definition of marriage in section 5 of the Marriage Act 1961 (“marriage means the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life”). Instead, it replaces section 88EA with the following:

(1) Despite the definition of marriage in subsection 5(1), a union between:

(a) a man and another man; or

(b) a woman and another woman;

solemnised in a foreign country under local law as a marriage is recognised as a marriage in Australia.

(2) The parties to a union mentioned in subsection (1) have the same rights and obligations under this Act, or under any law of the Commonwealth, as the parties to a marriage between a man and a woman.

This is explicitly, and only, a same-sex marriage Bill. It is not genuinely inclusive of any marriages of people who may not be, or who may not identify as, a man or a woman. Some couples which include trans* or intersex individuals may not be able to utilise such laws or may not want to, because the language does not reflect who they are, and therefore denies the nature of their relationships.

The Recognition of Foreign Marriages Bill 2014 does not challenge the unnecessary inclusion of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ in section 5 of the Marriage Act, something which we should be moving away from – instead, it further entrenches these concepts, by replicating this language in additional subsections.

This is an issue which, I hope, is more about drafting than any deliberate intention to exclude people on the basis of gender identity or intersex status. As such, if, after this Senate Inquiry is concluded, the Recognition of Foreign Marriages Bill 2014 does proceed to Parliamentary debate, it should be amended to ensure all couples are included, not just ‘same-sex couples’.

Nevertheless, even if the Bill were amended to ensure that it did not discriminate against some trans* and intersex inclusive couples, my fundamental problem with it would remain – this legislation would not achieve genuine marriage equality, and therefore I believe it should be replaced by something that would.

The primary positive outcome to arise from this legislation, and the Senate Inquiry which it has precipitated, is that it has placed a spotlight on the injustice perpetrated on same-sex couples that have been married overseas (either Australian couples who have travelled elsewhere, or other couples who have emigrated here) and yet are told by the Australian Government that they are not considered legally married here.

Undoubtedly, this is a horrible, and heart-breaking, situation for any couple to be placed in. And it is yet another argument for the recognition of genuine marriage equality within Australia, and additional motivation for such a law to be passed as quickly as possible.

But it is not sufficient justification to proceed with legislation that addresses only this injustice. The discrimination against these couples, and the discrimination against other Australian couples who are waiting for the opportunity to be married here, is, in practice, the same discrimination. After all, we are all told that our relationships are not worthy of the same recognition as those of other Australians, simply because we are LGBTI.

These injustices can and should be remedied through the same Bill, rather than prioritising the needs of some couples over others without any clear or rational explanation why that should be the case.

One final point. I have tried to be clear in this submission that I do not support progress of the Recognition of Foreign Marriages Bill 2014 to second reading debate, and ultimately for vote on the floor of Parliament. Instead, I have consistently argued that this Bill should be replaced with genuine marriage equality legislation before it reaches that stage.

However, if the Recognition of Foreign Marriages Bill 2014 does proceed to a vote, there is no reason for Senators and Members of the House of Representatives to vote against it, and thereby vote against the potential expansion of marriage to include more couples than are currently allowed.

Nevertheless, it is still my preferred outcome that the next Parliamentary vote on marriage be on a genuine, and genuinely inclusive, marriage equality Bill – and therefore not on the Recognition of Foreign Marriages Bill 2014.

In conclusion, while the intentions of those who have drafted this legislation are most likely sound, the outcome that its passage would deliver is not. It is time to go back to the drawing board, and return with a Bill that delivers marriage equality, not just for some couples, but for all.

Alastair Lawrie

Thursday 31 July 2014

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