The following is my open letter to Opposition Leader Bill Shorten, ahead of the announcement of the postal survey result this Wednesday (15 November) and likely subsequent parliamentary consideration of marriage equality legislation:
On 31 March 2016, you attended a panel event called ‘Why Knot?’ in Redfern, co-hosted by the Guardian Australia and Australian Marriage Equality.
At the end of that forum, during the Q&A session, I asked you the following question:
“There is a real risk that, when Malcolm Turnbull finally gets around to drafting it, his Marriage Amendment Bill will seek to include new special rights for civil celebrants and other wedding business-providers to discriminate against LGBTI couples. Just to get it on the record: Mr Shorten, will you commit the Labor Party to voting against any attempts to expand religious exceptions beyond existing provisions and, if they do somehow end up being passed and polluting the Marriage Act, will you seek to repeal them at the earliest available opportunity?”[i]
Your answer: “Yes, and yes.”
As reported by the Guardian, you went on to state: “It’s not allowed under the current law – why would we water down existing laws? We don’t need to water down anti-discrimination law to keep some people [who oppose same-sex marriage] happy.”
You were right then.
You were right because this reform, marriage equality, is about removing discrimination against people on the basis of their sexual orientation, gender identity or sex characteristics. One form of discrimination should not simply be replaced by another.
You were right because protections for ‘religious freedom’ that are only introduced when LGBTI couples might finally have the opportunity to wed should be seen for what they are: attempts to legitimise homophobia, biphobia and transphobia.
You were right because the vast majority of LGBTIQ Australians do not want our long desired, long fought for and long overdue equal right to marry undermined by new special privileges to discriminate against us – with research at the start of 2017 confirming that:
“81% of the 6,352 LGBTIQ adult Australians taking part in this survey were strongly opposed to potential new laws making it legal for individuals and organisations to refuse their services to same-sex couples, based on personal conscience or religious belief.”
And you were right because four-in-five Australians agree, with a poll earlier this month reporting that:
“In response to the question, ‘If the majority vote ‘yes’ in the postal survey, should same-sex couples be treated the same under the law compared with other couples?’, 78% of respondents said yes. This figure consisted of 98% of respondents who said they had voted ‘yes’, and also 43% of those who said they had voted ‘no’.”
You were right then. Are you still right now? Specifically, will you, and the Labor Party, do the right thing when marriage equality legislation is likely considered by Commonwealth Parliament in the coming weeks and months?
I ask this question because I am extremely disappointed by reports that the Labor Caucus has already decided to support Liberal Senator Dean Smith’s Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017, describing it as an ‘acceptable compromise’.
This is despite the fact his draft legislation:
- Permits existing civil celebrants to discriminate against LGBTI couples by nominating to become ‘religious marriage celebrants’ based on nothing more than their personal beliefs [section 39DD(2)], and
- Unnecessarily duplicates exceptions from the Sex Discrimination Act within the Marriage Act itself, allowing religious bodies that offer wedding-related facilities, goods and services to the public to turn away LGBTI couples [section 47B].
Both of these provisions appear to be matters you either explicitly or implicitly rejected in your answer at that forum in Redfern just over 19 months ago.
I urge you to reconsider your, and your Party’s, position on the Smith Bill, not just because of your previous commitment to me and to that audience, but also because of the principle that marriage equality should be exactly that: equal. The weddings of LGBTI Australians, when they are finally made legal, must not be subject to any extra terms and conditions than those that already exist.
At the very least, I believe you should develop amendments to remove both of the above provisions from the Smith Bill prior to its potential passage.
I am sure you are also aware of reports that conservatives within the Liberal and National Parties are busy preparing their own amendments to the Smith Bill that would extend discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people across a wide range of areas of public life.
It is incumbent upon you, and every member of the parliamentary Labor Party, to vote against every amendment that seeks to perpetuate the second-class treatment of LGBTI Australians, our relationships and our families.
In this context, the debate around marriage equality legislation will be an opportunity for you to show, once again, the leadership on this issue that Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull will not.
You stood with the LGBTI community against the unnecessary, wasteful and divisive plebiscite in October 2016.
You stood with the LGBTI community again, earlier this year, against the equally unnecessary, wasteful and divisive (and arguably illegitimate) postal survey.
When the survey went ahead, you stood with the LGBTI community a third time by campaigning to help win the public vote.
Please stand with us now by voting to ensure any Bill that is passed represents genuine marriage equality, not just same-sex marriage subject to additional discrimination.
It’s time to honour your commitment, to me, to LGBTI Australians, and to every person who has voted Yes to the equal treatment of equal love.
[i] I recorded the question shortly thereafter – and published it in April 2016 in the following article: In the battle for marriage equality, we must not forget to fight against religious exceptions.