Equal Means Equal – Submission to Inquiry into Marriage Amendment (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill

Update 15 February 2017:

The Senate Committee Inquiry into the Exposure Draft Marriage Amendment (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill has been completed, with its report tabled in Parliament this afternoon (Wednesday 15 February 2017). A copy of the Report can be found here.

 

The Report itself includes some positives, and some areas of possible concern.

 

On the positive side, the Committee has acknowledged that adding a stand-alone right for ministers of religion to discriminate against same-sex couples is both unnecessary, and explicitly discriminatory (page 15).

 

The Committee also did not support the introduction of broad new rights for civil celebrants to discriminate against LGBTI couples, noting that they “are authorised to perform a function on behalf of the state and should be required to uphold Commonwealth law” (page 24).

 

On the other hand, the Committee has attempted to define a new category of ‘religious marriage celebrants’ – who are not ministers of religion but conduct marriages for faith communities – and then providing them with similar rights to discriminate as ministers of religion (page 23).

 

While that compromise may seem reasonable, some of these same celebrants also officiate at secular ceremonies, and under no circumstances should they be allowed to discriminate when they are effectively operating as a civil celebrant.

 

In the same way, the proposal that existing civil celebrants should be allowed to register as ‘religious marriage celebrants’, and therefore benefit from the same right to discriminate (page 24), must not apply to any situation in which they continue to oversee civil ceremonies.

 

The Committee also questioned the need for new special rights for religious bodies and organisations to discriminate against same-sex couples – although that is because it believes they may already be allowed to do so because of the overly-generous religious exceptions provided under the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (page 31).

 

It also discusses, although doesn’t explicitly support, clarifying their ‘right’ to refuse to provide facilities, goods and services in situations that are “intrinsic to, directly associated with and intimately involved in a wedding ceremony” (page 32). Once again, this would unacceptably undermine a reform that is, at its heart, supposed to be about the equal recognition of equal love.

 

Finally, the Committee observed that “[i]n relation to military chaplains, the committee notes that the proposed amendment would not change the current law”, and then suggests the reintroduction of ‘marriage officers’ to provide an alternative method for LGBTI military couples to marry (page 24).

 

While it may not change existing law, a) there must not be a new stand-alone note to section 81 that singles out same-sex couples for adverse treatment and b) as public servants, paid for with our taxes, and with an obligation to serve all personnel equally, the right of military chaplains to discriminate in this way should be abolished.

 

With the Report finalised, pressure now returns to our 150 House of Representatives MPs, and 74 Senators (with two current vacancies), to find a way forward on marriage equality, and ensure it is passed as quickly as possible.

 

But it must also be done as fairly as possible. I would argue there is absolutely nothing in the Committee Report that would justify the inclusion of new special rights to discriminate against LGBTI couples in any marriage equality bill.

 

In which case, in the coming weeks and months it will be up to us to continue to remind Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull – and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten, as well as the Greens and crossbench MPs and Senators, in fact anyone who will listen to us – that equal means equal, and that means passing marriage equality without new religious exceptions.

 

Original Post:

The Senate is currently conducting an inquiry into the Exposure Draft Marriage Amendment (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill. This is the legislation that the Government would have introduced had the marriage equality plebiscite been held, and had that vote been successful.

Full details of the inquiry can be found here. It is due to report on Monday 13 February 2017, although what happens afterwards remains unclear.

My submission to the inquiry, which focuses on the provisions of the Bill that seek to treat LGBTI couples differently to, and worse than, other couples, has now been published, and is reproduced below:

 

Committee Secretary

Select Committee on the Exposure Draft of the Marriage Amendment (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill

Department of the Senate

PO Box 6100

Canberra ACT 2600

samesex.marriage.sen@aph.gov.au

 

Friday 13 January 2017

 

Dear Committee Secretary

 

Submission on the Exposure Draft of the Marriage Amendment (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill

 

Thank you for the opportunity to provide a submission in relation to this inquiry, which is examining the Government’s Exposure Draft Marriage Amendment (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill (‘the Bill’).

 

In this submission, I will explain my personal reasons for opposing several provisions contained within the Bill, before addressing terms of reference a), b) and c) in detail. This will include my main recommendations for amendment to, and improvement of, the proposed legislation, before concluding with a short summary of this submission and its recommendations.

 

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Introduction: Equal Means Equal

 

I met my fiancé Steven in August 2008, two weeks after my 30th birthday and just one week after the wedding of my brother to his wife.

 

It was clear from the very beginning that this relationship was different from any that had come before. And I know that applies for both of us.

 

Within 12 months we began planning the rest of our lives together. Steven and I have lived together from January 2010 onwards, and now own a home together.

 

More importantly, we have been engaged to be married since 23 January of that same year.

 

That means, in exactly ten days’ time, we will have been waiting for the legal right to get married for a full seven years. Our engagement has already lasted longer than the marriages, from beginning to end, of many Australian couples.

 

All we want is exactly the same right to wed, and to have that wedding recognised under secular law, as my brother when he married his wife, and as my sister when she married her husband in 2006.

 

Significantly, the Bill that is being considered as part of this inquiry would allow Steven and I to finally ‘tie the knot’. That aspect of the Bill, contained in clause 1 (amending subsection 5(1) (definition of marriage) to “omit “a man and a woman”, substitute “2 people””), is obviously welcome.

 

However, if passed as drafted, a number of other provisions in the Bill would ensure that, rather than being treated the same as my brother and his wife, or my sister and her husband, this legislation would ensure Steven and I were subject to adverse, and discriminatory, treatment simply because of who we are.

 

The civil celebrant who officiated at the ceremony between my sister and her husband would have the ‘right’ to reject us because we are not “a man and a woman”.

 

Any ‘religious organisation or body’, broadly defined, that provided wedding-related facilities, goods and services would be able to turn us away because of our sexual orientation. And that ‘right’ would apply even where they operated for profit, and even though the same groups could not discriminate against my siblings.

 

In short, the Bill would establish two different classes of couples – ‘man and woman’ couples, versus everyone else – with the latter category, including Steven and me, enjoying lesser rights than the former.

 

While this legislation will deliver marriage, it will not deliver marriage equality. That outcome is unacceptable both to me, and to my fiancé Steven.

 

There is no legitimate reason why we should be treated worse than my brother and my sister were when they decided to marry their respective partners. Because we are not ‘worse than’ anyone, them included.

 

Equal means equal. Or at least it should – and I sincerely believe that principle must be reflected in the Marriage Act.

 

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Term of reference a) the nature and effect of proposed exemptions for ministers of religion, marriage celebrants and religious bodies and organisations, the extent to which those exemptions prevent encroachment upon religious freedoms, and the Commonwealth Government’s justification for the proposed exemptions.

 

The Bill proposes four new and/or expanded special rights to discriminate against couples that include lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) Australians. All four are unnecessary and unjustified. All four should be removed from the legislation to help achieve genuine marriage equality.

 

  1. A specific right for ministers of religion to discriminate against couples that are not “a man and a woman”

 

I should begin by noting that I agree with the ability of authorised celebrants who are ministers of religion to refuse to perform any religious ceremonies, including weddings, that do not fit within the beliefs of their religion. That obviously includes the right to refuse to marry LGBTI couples, even if I personally believe that such discrimination is abhorrent.

 

However, it is important to remember that ministers of religion already have the right to refuse to perform any ceremony under existing section 47 of the Marriage Act 1961:

 

Ministers of religion not bound to solemnise marriage etc.

Nothing in this Part: (a) imposes an obligation on an authorised celebrant, being a minister of religion, to solemnise any marriage…”

 

If the right for LGBTI couples to marry was finally recognised under Commonwealth law, that section would plainly allow ministers of religion to deny them service. Therefore, no new amendments are required to the Act to allow ministers of religion to refuse to officiate LGBTI weddings.

 

In which case, the proposed repeal of section 47, and replacement with a more detailed right to discriminate, is entirely unnecessary. In particular, proposed new sub-section 47(3) states:

 

Refusing to solemnise a marriage that is not the union of a man and woman

(3) A minister of religion may refuse to solemnise a marriage despite any law (including this Part) if:

(a) the refusal is because the marriage is not the union of a man and a woman; and

(b) any of the following applies:

(i) the refusal conforms to the doctrines, tenets or beliefs of the religion of the minister’s religious body or religious organisation;

(ii) the refusal is necessary to avoid injury to the religious susceptibilities of adherents of that religion;

(iii) the minister’s conscientious or religious beliefs do not allow the minister to solemnise the marriage.”

 

The inclusion of this unnecessary new sub-section, which highlights the ability of ministers of religion to discriminate against one class of couple (LGBTI people) and one class of couple only, is discriminatory and should be rejected.

 

Recommendation 1: Proposed new section 47, and especially sub-section 47(3), is both unnecessary and discriminatory and should be removed from the Bill. Existing section 47 of the Marriage Act would continue to allow ministers of religion to refuse to perform any marriage ceremony.

 

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  1. A new special right for civil celebrants to discriminate against couples that are not “a man and a woman”

 

Currently, only ministers of religion have an explicit ‘opt-out’ clause under the Marriage Act 1961, allowing them to decline to perform any marriages with which they disagree.

 

No equivalent provision or power exists for civil celebrants – which is entirely reasonable, given they are essentially ‘small businesses’, providing a service that the government has authorised them to, and explicitly not acting on behalf of any religion or religious organisation.

 

However, the Bill proposes an entirely new special right for ‘secular’ civil celebrants to reject LGBTI couples just because of who they are. Proposed new section 47A reads:

 

Marriage celebrants may refuse to solemnise marriages

(1) A marriage celebrant (not being a minister of religion) may refuse to solemnise a marriage despite any law (including this Part) if:

(a) the refusal is because the marriage is not the union of a man and a woman; and

(b) the marriage celebrant’s conscientious or religious beliefs do not allow the marriage celebrant to solemnise the marriage.”

 

This is, to put it simply, outrageous.

 

There is absolutely no reason why someone who is engaged in small business should be able to discriminate in such a way, against people who are LGBTI, solely because of their personal beliefs. It is the equivalent of encouraging celebrants to put up a sign saying ‘no gays (or lesbians, or bisexuals, or trans people, or intersex people) allowed’.

 

The fact that, unlike ministers of religion who are able to discriminate against any couples, civil celebrants will only be allowed to discriminate against LGBTI couples, merely highlights the homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and intersexphobia that lies at the heart of this proposed new section.

 

And, with civil ceremonies now accounting for three-in-four of all mixed-sex weddings[i], and likely forming an even higher proportion of LGBTI weddings (at least in part because some religions will continue to turn couples away that are not “a man and a woman”), this prejudiced provision will impact on a large number of LGBTI couples. For all of these reasons, it should be rejected.

 

Recommendation 2: Proposed new section 47A, which establishes an entirely new special right for civil celebrants to discriminate against LGBTI couples, and LGBTI couples only, is discriminatory and should be removed from the Bill.

 

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  1. A new special right for religious bodies and organisations to discriminate against couples that are not “a man and a woman”

 

Unfortunately, under the Bill it is not just civil celebrants who will be allowed to put up unwelcome (on multiple levels) signs saying ‘no gays, or lesbians, or bisexuals, or trans people, or intersex people, allowed.’

 

Religious bodies or organisations will also be able to do so under proposed new section 47B, which reads:

 

Religious bodies and organisations may refuse to make facilities available or provide goods or services

(1) A religious body or a religious organisation may, despite any law (including this Part), refuse to make a facility available, or to provide goods or services, for the purposes of the solemnisation of a marriage, or for purposes reasonably incidental to the solemnisation of a marriage, if:

(a) the refusal is because the marriage is not the union of a man and a woman; and

(b) the refusal:

(i) conforms to the doctrines, tenets or beliefs of the religion of the religious body or religious organisation; or

(ii) is necessary to avoid injury to the religious susceptibilities of adherents of that religion.”

 

There are a number of significant problems with this provision.

 

First and foremost, by not defining what a ‘religious body’ or ‘religious organisation’ is, it is difficult to know exactly who will be able to exercise this new specific right to discriminate (with the possibility that the number of groups permitted to turn away LGBTI couples will be quite high).

 

Secondly, by not defining the phrases ‘for the purposes of the solemnisation of a marriage, or for purposes reasonably incidental to the solemnisation of a marriage’, (and especially the term ‘reasonably incidental’) it is also difficult to know the scope of this new special right to discriminate.

 

However, even if both the number of groups allowed to discriminate, and the exact circumstances in which they were allowed to do so, were known, this proposed new section would still be fundamentally flawed.

 

That is because it authorises discrimination against LGBTI couples far beyond any right to refuse to conduct weddings in places of worship, like churches, which would likely be justified on the basis of religious freedom.

 

Instead, it permits adverse treatment of couples who are not “a man and a woman” in a wide range of circumstances, including in hiring venues where it is not a place of worship, and in the provision of goods and services even where this is engaged in on a commercial basis, for profit.

 

One consequence of this is that it would establish a negative precedent for the future expansion of this right to discriminate to other individuals and businesses, such as florists, bakers, photographers or wedding reception venues, who are not religious bodies or organisations, to refuse service to LGBTI couples.

 

If other commercial enterprises are allowed to do so (because they are run by religious groups), and even civil celebrants are permitted to discriminate on the basis of their personal beliefs, it is entirely predictable that additional groups will demand their own ability to reject couples who are not “a man and a woman.”

 

Despite all of the above faults, however, the major flaw with the provision is that it is a direct attack on LGBTI couples and LGBTI couples only. It singles out any relationship that doesn’t fit within the definition of “a man and a woman” for special, and detrimental treatment – and literally nobody else.

 

That makes this proposed provision homophobic, biphobic, transphobic and intersexphobic, and it too should be rejected.

 

Recommendation 3: Proposed new section 47B, which establishes an entirely new right for religious bodies or organisations to discriminate in the provision of wedding-related facilities, goods and services against LGBTI couples, and LGBTI couples only, is discriminatory and should be removed from the Bill.

 

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  1. A specific right for Defence Force chaplains to discriminate against couples that are not “a man and a woman”

 

The Bill’s fourth and final new and/or expanded special right to discriminate against LGBTI couples is provided to Defence Force chaplains.

 

This is established through the addition of a note to existing section 81 of the Marriage Act 1961, which deals with the rights of Defence Force chaplains to refuse to solemnise weddings. That note would read:

 

“Example: a chaplain may refuse to solemnise a marriage that is not the union of a man and a woman where the refusal conforms to the doctrines, tenets or beliefs of the chaplain’s church or faith group.”

 

While these chaplains are ministers of religion, and therefore would potentially have the ability to discriminate against any couple, they are also a special class of celebrant, because:

 

  • They are public servants, paid for out of everyone’s taxes – LGBTI and non-LGBTI, and religious and non-religious, alike[ii], and
  • In their duties, Defence Force chaplains are expected to “administer spiritual support to all members, regardless of their religion”[iii] (emphasis added).

 

Therefore, permitting discrimination by Defence Force chaplains fails in principle on two counts:

 

  • As public servants, they should not be able to discriminate against members of the public simply because of their personal beliefs – otherwise we are allowing the Australian equivalent of Kim Davis, and
  • In providing spiritual support for Defence Force personal, they are expected to do so for all people, not just those who are cisgender and heterosexual.

 

Which means that, if Defence Force chaplains are to continue to be authorised to officiate any weddings, it must include the weddings of LGBTI people. To do otherwise is, once again, homophobic, biphobic, transphobic and intersexphobic, and it should be rejected.

 

Recommendation 4: The proposed new note to section 81, which establishes a specific right for Defence Force chaplains to discriminate against LGBTI couples, and LGBTI couples only, is discriminatory and should be removed from the Bill. As public servants who are obligated to support all Defence Force personnel, these chaplains should be required to marry all couples, regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status, otherwise their ability to officiate wedding ceremonies should be removed.

 

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As suggested by term of reference a), the above four new and/or expanded special rights to discriminate against LGBTI couples have ostensibly been included in the Bill by the Government on the basis of the need to protect ‘religious freedom’.

 

However, I would argue that, upon closer inspection, they do no such thing. Rather than protecting religious freedom, these provisions instead protect homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and intersexphobia and merely use religion as an excuse.

 

This can be seen when one remembers that there are a wide variety of different religious beliefs about marriage.

 

Some people believe only cisgender heterosexual couples should be able to marry.

 

Others do not believe in divorce, and therefore oppose the right of people to participate in second, or subsequent, weddings.

 

Some even continue to hold the (once widespread) belief that people of different faiths should not marry – and, in extreme cases, that people of different types of christianity should not marry.

 

I should note that I do not share any of the above beliefs. But others do, and I have no doubt that their views are sincerely held.

 

Given this, there is no possible justification for the Marriage Amendment (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill to allow civil celebrants, religious bodies and organisations and Defence Force chaplains to discriminate against LGBTI couples but not discriminate against divorced people, or against interfaith couples (or on the basis of other religious beliefs about marriage).

 

The fact that it does so, establishing new special rights to discriminate against LGBTI couples, and only LGBTI couples, reveals the fundamental truth of this Bill: it has very little to do with protecting religious freedom, and is more concerned with ensuring people who hold anti-LGBTI views are free to discriminate against couples who are not “a man and a woman” in a wide variety of circumstances.

 

In effect, the Bill privileges homophobic, biphobic, transphobic and intersexphobic beliefs, rather than protecting religious beliefs.

 

That is unacceptable, and merely confirms the earlier recommendations in this submission that these new and/or expanded special rights to discriminate are discriminatory and should be removed from the Bill.

 

I should note here that the Government, having revealed its discriminatory intentions, cannot now turn around and extend these new special rights to discriminate to cover divorced people and interfaith couples because they will only be doing so to cover up the anti-LGBTI nature of its original legislation.

 

Instead, the Government, and Parliament, should focus on amending the Bill to ensure that all couples are (finally) treated in exactly the same way – that equal means equal.

 

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Term of reference b) the nature and effect of the proposed amendment to the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 and the Commonwealth Government’s justification for it.

 

Currently, sub-section 40(2A) of the Sex Discrimination Act 1984, the legislation that establishes Commonwealth anti-discrimination protections on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status, ensures that “anything done by a person in direct compliance with the Marriage Act 1961” cannot be the subject of an anti-discrimination claim under that legislation.

 

This is justified because it would be entirely unreasonable to hold civil celebrants and others accountable for discriminating against LGBTI couples (because they legally cannot marry them) that has been made compulsory since the Howard Government prohibited marriage equality in August 2004.

 

The amendment of the Marriage Act, to permit all couples to marry irrespective of sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status, and the removal of this requirement, should therefore be an opportunity to remove or at least significantly curtail this exception to the protections contained in the Sex Discrimination Act.

 

Indeed, the only provision of the Marriage Act that should require an exception would be the ongoing ability of ministers of religion to discriminate against any couples, as established by existing section 47.

 

Consequently, sub-section 40(2A) of the Sex Discrimination Act could, and I would argue should, be restricted to the following:

 

“Nothing in Division 1 or 2, as applying by reference to section 5A, 5B, 5C or 6, affects anything done by a person as authorised by section 47 of the Marriage Act 1961” (emphasis added).

 

Instead, the Bill as drafted actually proposes to expand the exception to the Sex Discrimination Act, because it would permit any discrimination that is ‘as authorised by’ the entirety of the Marriage Act, as redrafted.

 

This is obviously intended to capture all four of the new and/or expanded special rights to discriminate against LGBTI couples outlined earlier. Given the inclusive way this amendment is framed, it may even permit additional forms of anti-LGBTI discrimination.

 

In my view, this is a perverse outcome. Legislation that is intended to remove a long-standing inequality, and injustice, affecting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians, by finally allowing them to marry, actually expands relevant exceptions to the Sex Discrimination Act, thereby increasing the circumstances in which they can lawfully be discriminated against.

 

Once again, this confirms the inappropriateness of the four new and/or expanded special rights to discriminate against LGBTI couples. The proposed amendment to section 40(2A) of the Sex Discrimination Act is also inappropriate, and should be replaced with a narrower exception to that legislation.

 

Recommendation 5: The proposed expansion to the exception contained in sub-section 40(2A) of the Sex Discrimination 1984, allowing discrimination ‘as authorised by’ the Marriage Act 1961, expands the circumstances in which LGBTI people can be discriminated against. This is inappropriate, and this provision should be removed from the Bill. It should be replaced by an amendment that limits this exception to discrimination that is authorised by existing section 47 of the Marriage Act, which allows ministers of religion (and only ministers of religion) to discriminate.

 

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Term of reference c) potential amendments to improve the effect of the bill and the likelihood of achieving the support of the Senate.

 

In terms of amendments to improve the effect of the Bill, I have already made five recommendations to significantly improve its impact on the recognition of the human rights of LGBTI Australians. In this section, I will nominate two further areas of necessary reform.

 

  1. The Bill should refer to marriage equality rather than same-sex marriage

 

The Bill, as drafted, would allow all couples, including those that involve lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex individuals, to marry under the law. This is an important reform, and it will substantively improve the lives of many LGBTI Australians.

 

However, the title of the Bill – the Marriage Amendment (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill – only refers to ‘same-sex marriage’, rather than marriage equality.

 

This is problematic because the term same-sex marriage does not include all LGBTI couples. It specifically excludes some transgender people (especially those who identify as non-binary or gender-fluid) and some intersex people.

 

The term same-sex marriage should be replaced with marriage equality in the title of the Bill, to ensure that, alongside recognising the substantive human rights of LGBTI Australians, it symbolically recognises the diversity of these communities.

 

Of all major contemporary public policy issues, marriage is a subject in which both the substantive, and the symbolic, are equally important.

 

Recommendation 6: The Bill should be retitled the Marriage Amendment (Marriage Equality) Bill.

 

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  1. The Bill should allow couples to apply to have specified pre-existing unions recognised as marriages

 

The wait for marriage equality to be recognised under Australian law has been long, often painfully so.

 

It is entirely understandable that, in the interim, many LGBTI couples have chosen alternative ways to have their relationships recognised. This includes many who have travelled overseas (or to consulates within Australia), where marriage equality is lawful, to wed.

 

It also includes couples who have decided to have their relationships recognised under state and territory relationship recognition schemes, including civil partnerships and registered relationships, with or without an associated formally-recognised ceremony.

 

While the Bill will, thankfully, recognise the former (overseas marriages) as marriages, it will not provide any avenue for the latter (civil partnerships or registered relationships) to be recognised in a similar manner.

 

Allowing couples in this situation to apply to have their existing relationship recognised as married would be an acknowledgement of the fact that their mutual commitment to a shared life, and wish to be married, has existed since the date of their commitment being made.

 

It would also acknowledge the discrimination that these couples have endured as a result of the exclusionary nature of the Commonwealth Marriage Act 1961.

 

Recommendation 7: The Bill should allow couples to apply to have specified pre-existing unions, including civil partnerships and registered relationships under state and territory law, to be recognised as marriages where they so desire.

 

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  1. Marriage equality should be passed as a matter of priority

 

Term of reference c) asks for ‘potential amendments to improve the… likelihood of achieving the support of the Senate.’ With all due respect, I believe that to be an inappropriate request.

 

The real question is why the Senate – and the House of Representatives – have not yet passed legislation to recognise the equality of our relationships, irrespective of sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status.

 

It has been more than a dozen years since the Howard Government’s homophobic ban on marriage equality was first passed by the Commonwealth Parliament.

 

That means LGBTI couples have now experienced more than a dozen years of discrimination, treated as distinctly ‘2nd class’ in comparison to the relationships of cisgender heterosexual Australians.

 

Tragically, in those dozen years, there have also been countless LGBTI relationships where one or both members have passed away without being able to have their relationship recognised under Commonwealth law. The longer the ban continues, the more relationships will be denied justice.

 

That same dozen years has witnessed much ‘sound and fury’ within the Commonwealth Parliament on this issue, including countless inquiries in the House of Representatives and the Senate (with this one now added to the list), ultimately achieving nothing – because we still cannot marry.

 

So, rather than asking how the Bill can be amended to improve the chances of Senators voting for it, as if just one more ‘compromise’ will be enough to secure sufficient support to get it over the line, we should be asking why won’t Senators, and their colleagues in the lower house, do their jobs and pass marriage equality as a matter of priority.

 

Recommendation 8: The Australian Parliament should pass marriage equality as a matter of priority, because LGBTI Australians have waited long enough – too long, in fact – to have their relationships recognised as equal under secular law.

 

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Conclusion

 

In this submission, I hope I have successfully conveyed my passion, not just for the subject of marriage equality generally, but also about the issue of marriage equality and religious exceptions specifically – and why any amendments to the Marriage Act should ensure that all couples are treated exactly the same.

 

I am glad that these issues are being examined by the Senate, through this inquiry, and I look forward to the Committee making recommendations to improve both the substance, and the symbolism, of the Marriage Amendment (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill.

 

Thank you for your consideration of this submission. I would welcome the opportunity to speak to the matters raised above at a Committee hearing, should one (or more) be held.

 

I have also included a Summary of this submission on the following two pages.

 

Please do not hesitate to contact me, at the contact details provided with this submission, should you require clarification, or further information.

 

Sincerely

Alastair Lawrie

 

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Summary

 

Marriage equality is an important issue that affects tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, Australians, including couples like my fiancé Steven and me.

 

We have been together for more than eight and a half years, and engaged for almost seven years. All we want is the right to be married under secular law, in exactly the same way that my brother married his wife, and my sister married her husband.

 

Unfortunately, while the Marriage Amendment (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill would allow us to marry, it would not do so equally, because it would expose us to potential discrimination that my siblings did not experience.

 

It is marriage, but not marriage equality. And that is not good enough, because equal means equal – and that principle should be reflected in the Marriage Act.

 

I make seven recommendations to improve the Marriage Amendment (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill, as well as an eighth, that marriage equality should be passed as a matter of priority.

 

Recommendation 1: Proposed new section 47, and especially sub-section 47(3), is both unnecessary and discriminatory and should be removed from the Bill. Existing section 47 of the Marriage Act would continue to allow ministers of religion to refuse to perform any marriage ceremony.

 

Recommendation 2: Proposed new section 47A, which establishes an entirely new special right for civil celebrants to discriminate against LGBTI couples, and LGBTI couples only, is discriminatory and should be removed from the Bill.

 

Recommendation 3: Proposed new section 47B, which establishes an entirely new right for religious bodies or organisations to discriminate in the provision of wedding-related facilities, goods and services against LGBTI couples, and LGBTI couples only, is discriminatory and should be removed from the Bill.

 

Recommendation 4: The proposed new note to section 81, which establishes a specific right for Defence Force chaplains to discriminate against LGBTI couples, and LGBTI couples only, is discriminatory and should be removed from the Bill. As public servants who are supposed to support all Defence Force personnel, these chaplains should be required to marry all couples, regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status, otherwise their ability to officiate wedding ceremonies should be removed.

 

Recommendation 5: The proposed expansion to the exception contained in sub-section 40(2A) of the Sex Discrimination 1984, allowing discrimination ‘as authorised by’ the Marriage Act 1961, expands the circumstances in which LGBTI people can be discriminated against. This is inappropriate, and this provision should be removed from the Bill. It should be replaced by an amendment that limits this exception to discrimination that is authorised by existing section 47 of the Marriage Act, which allows ministers of religion (and only ministers of religion) to discriminate.

 

Recommendation 6: The Bill should be retitled the Marriage Amendment (Marriage Equality) Bill.

 

Recommendation 7: The Bill should allow couples to apply to have specified pre-existing unions, including civil partnerships and registered relationships under state and territory law, to be recognised as marriages where they so desire.

 

Recommendation 8: The Australian Parliament should pass marriage equality as a matter of priority, because LGBTI Australians have waited long enough – too long, in fact – to have their relationships recognised as equal under secular law.

 

Whenever marriage equality is finally passed by the Commonwealth Parliament, and I genuinely hope it does so soon, it must ensure that all couples are treated equally, because we cannot end up with a situation where ‘some couples are more equal than others’.

 

equalmeansequal-4

 

Footnotes:

 

[i] “[T]he proportion of marriage ceremonies overseen by a civil celebrant increased again to 74.9 per cent of all marriages in 2015”: Marriage and Divorces, Australia, 2015, Australian Bureau of Statistics, November 2016.

[ii] The Defence Jobs Australia website indicates that chaplains are paid over $94,200 following completion of basic training.

[iii] Also from the Defence Jobs Australia website.

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Our 7-Year Engagement (and Counting)

7 years isn’t just the name of a nauseatingly awful song by Lukas Graham. It also happens to be the length of time that, as of today, Steve and I have been engaged.

 

On 23 January 2010, after about 18 months together and on a trip to Melbourne, I asked him to marry me. He made me an incredibly happy man when he said, “Of course I will.”

 

What should have followed were several months of wedding planning – including the inevitable fights over guest-lists, and the small ‘p’ politics of who sits at which table (or, more likely in our case, arguments over the music play-list).

 

What has followed has been seven years of advocacy – of fighting for the right just to be treated the same as other Australians, and the capital ‘P’ politics of trying to change the ALP national platform, then attempting to make that platform binding, of resisting an unnecessary, wasteful and divisive plebiscite, and finally of arguing for Commonwealth Parliament to actually hold a vote on marriage equality, instead of countless inquiries and endless delays.

 

It’s fair to say that, after seven years of campaigning for change, Steve and I are becoming increasingly frustrated by the inability of our so-called leaders to pass this reform. After all, it should take seven seconds, rather than seven years, for most people to recognise that all couples deserve to be treated equally under the law, irrespective of their sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status.

 

It’s also true to say that many lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) Australians are feeling worn out, and worn down, by the ongoing battle, of having exactly the same conversations, with the same nonsensical responses by those against marriage equality, ending in the same result: yet more inaction.

 

There is a real risk that many in the LGBTI community, not to mention our family members, friends and allies, will find this debate increasingly tiresome (I know that, even as someone who is clearly passionate about this topic, I am starting to find writing about it somewhat tedious).

 

To a large extent, that is what our opponents want. They would love nothing more than for people who support marriage equality to become depressed about the lack of tangible results to date, and to consequently give up the fight.

 

Groups like the Australian Christian Lobby lost the policy argument a long time ago – they are now engaged in a war of attrition, hoping that, if this issue sits in the too hard basket for long enough, it will disappear from the political agenda altogether.

 

We can’t afford to let that happen. As annoying as it is – as boring as it is – we must start the year in exactly the same way we started last year, and the year before that, and the year before that (plus several more besides).

 

By writing letters to, and calling, our MPs and Senators, by using traditional media, and social media, to keep marriage equality in the spotlight, by marching, and protesting, by making a noise, and generally making a nuisance of ourselves.

 

Our 226 elected federal representatives must be constantly reminded that we will not go away until this, the simplest of reforms, is finally passed.

 

It could even happen this year. All it would take is for Malcolm Turnbull to demonstrate the leadership that many once hoped he possessed. Or for the Liberal party-room to decide the issue has dragged on long enough, and by holding a conscience vote. Or even for a small handful of Liberal MPs and Senators to decide this is something worth crossing the floor over.

 

Of course, marriage equality may not happen this year either. It could be delayed until 2018, 2019 or even longer. But no matter how much time it takes, we will continue pushing until our parliamentarians catch up to where the Australian population has been for some time.

 

In the meantime, there are literally tens of thousands of couples just like Steve and I who are essentially stuck in limbo, unable to do the basic things other engaged couples do: pick a wedding date, book a venue, and send out invitations (to those who make the agreed-upon final cut anyway).

 

We are reminded of this discrimination every time a day like today rolls around – the anniversary of an engagement that was happily entered into, but that has been unhappily, and involuntarily, extended by our government.

 

On a personal level I must admit I am finding this particular anniversary – our 7-year ‘engagement-versary’ – to be a particularly frustrating one, and just a little bit odd too.

 

It is weird to consider that we have now been engaged so long there is even a popular myth – at least partially backed up by research[i], as it turns out – that this is the time at which many married couples actually start to divorce.

 

And it’s a strange event to ‘celebrate’ – or at least commemorate – when you would prefer to be able to reflect on your wedding instead (as an aside, if we were married, the traditional 7-year gifts are wool, or copper – does that mean I should be buying Steve a nice new jumper?)

 

It is probably fitting that I will spend our anniversary at work, listening in the background to yet another Senate Committee hearing discussing whether couples like us should have the ability to marry – and, if we do, what new special ‘rights’ civil celebrants, religious bodies and others should have to discriminate against us[ii].

 

If I had the opportunity to address that Committee, I’d let them know how large a difference they could make if they just made a small change to the Marriage Act, thereby allowing Steve and I – and thousands of couples just like us – to exchange wedding vows.

 

I’d finish my testimony by making my own vow, on behalf of Steve and I – that I will not stop fighting until our relationship is finally treated equally under the law. Because one day, hopefully not too far in the future, we deserve the right to celebrate our first wedding anniversary, and not our 8th, 9th or even 10th engagement anniversary.

 

melbourne-trip

Steve (left) and I on the January 2010 trip to Melbourne during which we got engaged. 7 years later and I only love him more.

 

Footnotes:

[i] New York Times, Study Finds a 7-Year Itch, and a 4-Year One, 5 October 1999.

[ii] The Senate is holding an inquiry into the Marriage Amendment (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill, with the first hearing, in Melbourne, held on Monday 23 January. Full details of the inquiry can be found here.

What does Malcolm Turnbull want his legacy to be?

It’s time for Malcolm Turnbull to seriously consider what he wants his legacy to be.

 

That might sound premature to some, especially given that tomorrow (Monday 14 March 2016) it will be only six months since he replaced Tony Abbott as Leader of the Liberal Party. Tuesday, the clichéd ‘Ides of March’, is the six-month anniversary of his official swearing in.

 

However, in the life of an Australian Prime Minister, six months is not an insignificant period of time. Indeed, for many, six months is a considerable slice of their term.

 

In the just over 70 years since World War II, Malcolm Turnbull is the 15th person to ascend to our top job. The average term in office – even including the 16-year rule of Robert Menzies[i] – is less than five years. In fact, only four Prime Ministers[ii] in those seven decades have even made it to the five-year mark, while six ended up serving less than three years.

 

The pace of turnover of Prime Ministers also appears to be accelerating – in the 11 years since Turnbull entered Parliament, he is now the fifth Prime Minister (with one of those, Kevin Rudd, even having two non-consecutive turns).

 

Based on the above, six months is likely to represent at least 10% of Turnbull’s entire term in office, and probably more.

 

In fact, there are reasons to believe Turnbull’s stay in the Lodge might be shorter than the average. For example, he is third oldest person to ever be first sworn in as Prime Minister (and the two who were older[iii] served for a combined period of less than two years).

 

It is also reasonable to describe Turnbull’s support inside the Parliamentary Liberal Party as somewhat tenuous. His first stint as Leader, while in Opposition, lasted less than 15 months. And, even after two years of the worst Prime Minister in living memory, he only defeated Tony Abbott by 54 votes to 44 last September (and which was only moderately better than the 39 votes cast for an ‘empty chair’[iv] in the February 2015 spill motion against Abbott).

 

With a switch of just six votes needed to reverse that result (whether to Abbott, who clearly remains interested in returning, or another candidate from the conservative wing of the Liberals) it should be noted that a sizeable majority of Liberal MPs in marginal seats voted for Turnbull[v], meaning that any loss of seats at the upcoming 2016 election would leave him more vulnerable to a challenge from inside the Government.

 

Of course, if the current level of in-fighting and disorganisation within the Coalition continues, there is also the small but real chance of the Government being voted out, cutting Turnbull’s term short at 12 months or less.

 

This thought – that, after just six months, it is time to start seriously considering his legacy – might be confronting for Turnbull, but he should console himself with the knowledge that, for most of his contemporaries, substantial elements of their legacies were built during their first year in office.

 

Kevin Rudd gave the apology to the Stolen Generations after less than three months in the role. He is also most commonly remembered for his response to the Global Financial Crisis, which reached its peak in September and October 2008 – again, less than 12 months from his election win on November 24 2007.

 

In Julia Gillard’s case, the announcement of the ‘carbon pricing mechanism’ (forever dubbed the carbon tax) was made on February 24 2011, exactly eight months after she ousted Kevin Rudd as Prime Minister.

 

The National Disability Insurance Scheme is also seen as a key part of her legacy – and, while the legislation that gave it effect was not introduced until late 2012, the Productivity Commission report which preceded it was already two months into its work before Gillard even became PM[vi].

 

Tony Abbott continues to assert that his first Budget – the ‘horror’ 2014-15 Budget, more widely known for its unfairness– is a key part of his legacy[vii], and that was handed down just eight months into his term. His more trivial – but just as infamous – ‘captain’s call’ to reintroduce knights and dames happened two months earlier.

 

Even in the case of John Howard, who, given he served as Prime Minister for more than 11 years and therefore has a long and highly-contested ‘legacy’, there is probably only one key positive achievement about which almost all parts of the political spectrum agree[viii] – his gun law reforms following the Port Arthur Massacre[ix], which itself occurred less than two months after he swept to power.

 

Six months into his own term as Prime Minister, it is hard to pin down exactly what Malcolm Turnbull’s key achievement or achievements have been (other than the initial, widespread feeling of ‘relief’ which many Australians experienced after he deposed Abbott). Different language has been used, including much talk of ‘agility’ and ‘innovation’ and ‘excitement’, but new ideas or policies? Not so much.

 

That situation will change, to some extent, over the coming months, as Turnbull and Treasurer Scott Morrison put together their first Budget – to be delivered in early May (either May 10th, or 3rd if, as is now widely expected, they head to a double dissolution poll on July 2). There is obviously intense pressure on them both to set out their platform for the campaign ahead in that document.

 

But there is an even earlier opportunity for Malcolm Turnbull to establish his legacy as Prime Minister. Two closely-linked opportunities, in fact: the decision on what to do with the Safe Schools program, and the choice whether or not to proceed with a plebiscite on marriage equality.

 

Both of these issues will come to a head in the coming week. The independent review of the Safe Schools program, instigated following the internal revolt by the likes of Cory Bernardi in the Coalition Party room meeting on 23 February, was expected to be handed to the Commonwealth Department of Education on Friday 11 March[x].

 

While it may be another week or two before the Government announces its response to that review, you can guarantee they will be discussing it internally during the week ahead (it’s also highly likely to be debated again in the Coalition Party room meeting on Tuesday, the second-last such meeting before a potential ‘double D’-election).

 

Lenore Taylor has also reported that the proposal for a plebiscite on marriage equality will be considered in detail by the Turnbull Cabinet this week[xi].

 

While the plebiscite was first adopted as Coalition policy under then Prime Minister Abbott on 11 August last year, this will be the main, Cabinet-level discussion of the process required to hold one – the question to be asked, expected timing (which, depending on who you listen to, may or may not be before the end of 2016), the estimated cost (likely upwards of $160 million[xii]), public funding of the yes and no cases, compulsory or voluntary voting and the supporting legislation.

 

Again, it is possible that the marriage equality plebiscite proposal will also be discussed at the Coalition Party room meeting on Tuesday morning (it will be interesting to see whether this one also takes six hours, especially given how much Liberal and National Party MPs appear to enjoy discussing LGBTI issues).

 

Obviously, the approaches that Turnbull, and his Liberal-National Government, adopts on these two issues this week will be a key part of his personal legacy for LGBTI Australians. Both decisions will have direct, and long-lasting, impacts on literally hundreds of thousands of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people, their children, and their families and friends.

 

On Safe Schools, Turnbull will choose between defending a program developed to combat homophobic, biphobic, transphobic and intersexphobic bullying of LGBTI students, thereby reducing the all-too-frequent tragedy of LGBTI youth suicide – or giving in to bullies, like the Australian Christian Lobby, and The Australian newspaper, who it seems would much prefer enforced silence about LGBTI issues in the classroom, and the schoolyard, to the detriment of children with diverse sexual orientations, gender identities or intersex characteristics.

 

The consequences of this choice – whether a school is genuinely inclusive, or a vacuum allowing intolerance and discrimination to fester – can and will have lifelong impacts on the students who receive, or miss out on, programs like Safe Schools as a result.

 

On marriage equality, too, the impacts of Turnbull’s imminent decision will be profoundly felt, not only by LGBTI Australians, but also by the children of rainbow families.

 

As has been made clear by Australian Marriage Equality[xiii], if Malcolm Turnbull implemented the policy position that he held before becoming Prime Minister – of supporting a ‘free’ or conscience vote – then we could have marriage equality legislation passed by the end of this week.

 

But, if he persists with what was originally Tony Abbott’s plebiscite – but which is now most definitely his – not only will he be wasting at least $160 million on something which is completely unnecessary and inappropriate, he will also be causing real harm to LGBTI Australians, and our kids, by ensuring that there will be a protracted, bitter, and downright nasty campaign leading up to the vote.

 

The Australian Christian Lobby, both with its past actions (including repeated suggestions that gay and lesbian parenting creates another Stolen Generation[xiv]), and its recent call for state and territory anti-discrimination laws to be suspended for the duration of the campaign[xv], have effectively guaranteed it.

 

And, even if the marriage equality plebiscite is successful, it will still be at least another 12 – and possibly up to 18 or even 24 – months before Australian couples will finally be able to wed in their own country, with some elderly couples sadly, but inevitably, passing away before they can tie the knot.

 

However, while the impact of these decisions will be most keenly felt by LGBTI people, young and old, and their children, I would argue they will define Malcolm Turnbull’s legacy much more broadly. This is because his approach to Safe Schools, and the plebiscite, will tell us a lot about who he is as a Prime Minister, what type of Government he leads, and ultimately about his vision for Australia.

 

In terms of who Malcolm Turnbull is as Prime Minister, he would like most people, and especially the ‘persuadables’ in the electorate, to believe he is still the leather jacket-clad QandA panellist, with views that are more moderate than most of the members of his party – believing in climate change, supporting a republic, and wanting to be the leader who finally introduces marriage equality.

 

Deep down, I’m sure Turnbull would love to be the ‘cool’ Prime Minister who attends the 2017 Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras parade, claiming credit for removing discrimination from the Marriage Act 1961, receiving the passionate support, even adulation, from sections of the crowd in return.

 

But, if he caves in to the deeply homophobic and transphobic campaign against Safe Schools, led by the vitriolic and hateful scare-mongering of the Australian Christian Lobby and others, and if he continues to support an unnecessary, inappropriate, wasteful and divisive marriage equality plebiscite, then not only will Malcolm Turnbull fail to be the Leader that he thinks he is (or at least wants to be) – he will become exactly the same type of Leader as the one he replaced.

 

By endorsing the attack on Safe Schools, and persisting with the plebiscite, Turnbull would show that there is no core belief that he will not jettison, no principle he is not prepared to compromise, in his quest to remain Prime Minister of Australia for as long as possible. The Opposition critique of him – that he is just Tony Abbott in a more expensive suit – will be more than justified.

 

And, by ensuring that it will be the public’s vote that finally achieves equality in relationship recognition in Commonwealth law, and not his own vote in Parliament, he will simply become another politician whom we had to win marriage equality in spite of, and not because of[xvi].

 

How Turnbull handles the decisions on Safe Schools, and the plebiscite, will also reveal a great deal about the type of Government he leads.

 

Is it a Government that represents, and serves the interests of, all Australians? Does it believe that the real and urgent needs of young lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people are worthy of attention, and above all action? Does it think that people should not be legally discriminated against on the basis of their sexual orientation, gender identity of intersex status?

 

Or is it a Government that represents, and serves the interests of, cisgender heterosexual Australians only? Does it believe that the pressing needs of young LGBTI people can simply be ignored? Does it think that the relationships of LGBTI Australians are genuinely lesser than those of other people, and therefore should be treated as such?

 

Turnbull has so far studiously avoided having to address this deep divide inside the Liberal-National Coalition. On Safe Schools, rather than reject the campaign against the program outright, he simply passed the buck to an independent review – thereby encouraging the attack to continue.

 

And, instead of directly reprimanding MPs like George Christensen and Andrew Hastie, who have compared Safe Schools to ‘grooming’[xvii] and George Orwell’s Big Brother[xviii] respectively, Turnbull offered a meek, generic statement saying “I encourage everybody who is discussing these issues to do so in very measured language… and to consider very carefully the impact of the words they use on young people and on their families.”[xix]

 

On marriage equality, he has again chosen not to upset the applecart, instead leaving in place Tony Abbott’s preferred option – a plebiscite – despite the insistence of multiple members of his own Government that they will not be bound by any ‘yes’ vote[xx], thus rendering the entire exercise pointless.

 

Well, on both of these issues, he can no longer kick those proverbial cans any further down the road. This week, in Cabinet and most likely in the Party room too, Malcolm Turnbull will need to decide what type of Government he wants to lead – and then he will need to argue for it, in the face of likely fierce criticism from Liberal and National MPs who do not now, and likely will not ever, support LGBTI equality, possibly at the cost of their ongoing support for his leadership.

 

Ultimately, how Malcolm Turnbull approaches the Safe Schools debate, and the marriage equality plebiscite, in the next few weeks will tell us whether he has what Keating would describe as ‘the vision thing’.

 

Does Malcolm Turnbull have a vision of a better Australia, where young lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people can grow up happy and healthy, attending schools where they are free to be who they are, respected and accepted?

 

Does he see a future where all relationships are treated equally irrespective of the sexual orientations, gender identities or intersex statuses of the people involved, and is he prepared to actually do something to make that future a reality?

 

Does Malcolm Turnbull show, in who he is and how he governs, that he has the interests of all of us, including LGBTI Australians, at heart?

 

Or does his vision only extend as far as what is required to keep him in the Prime Ministership, the role that he has clearly coveted for so long?

 

That might sound harsh, and to some even potentially unfair, but that is what I believe is at stake in the next few weeks as Turnbull decides what to do on the Safe Schools program, and on the marriage equality plebiscite.

 

One final comment – some might argue that, given it is not Malcolm Turnbull who is leading the attacks on Safe Schools, and it was not his proposal to hold a plebiscite on marriage equality, assessing his ‘legacy’ on how he approaches these issues is unjustified.

 

To which I would respond with two observations. First, he is the Prime Minister, and the campaign against Safe Schools is happening on his watch, including by members of his own Government, which makes his response to this issue extremely relevant to how we assess his performance.

 

And, while the marriage equality plebiscite might not have originally been his idea, if he chooses to proceed with it, at enormous cost, both financially, and psychologically in the harm it will cause to LGBTI Australians and their children, it will very much be his responsibility.

 

Second, John Howard did not ‘choose’ gun control to be his legacy, nor did Kevin Rudd ‘choose’ for the GFC to dominate his first term agenda, and Julia Gillard certainly did not ‘choose’ for her stint as Prime Minister to include such a large focus on climate change.

 

They were responding to events that were not of their own making – Port Arthur, global markets, and even the hung parliament. But how they responded to these things is what made them Leaders – and that is why we remember these achievements as part of their legacies.

 

Malcolm Turnbull did not choose for the attack on Safe Schools, nor did he choose Tony Abbott’s plebiscite. But, how the Government approaches these issues is now within his control as Prime Minister – and it is up to him how he chooses to exercise that power.

 

Does Malcolm Turnbull choose to support Safe Schools or does he side with those who have campaigned against it? Does he proceed with a plebiscite on marriage equality, even when he knows it is unnecessary, inappropriate, wasteful and divisive? In short, what does Malcolm Turnbull want his legacy to be?

 

151222 Turnbull

For Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, it’s time to turn his mind to how he will want to be remembered.

 

[i] Although this also includes the three-week term of John McEwen.

[ii] Robert Menzies, Malcolm Fraser, Bob Hawke and John Howard.

[iii] John McEwen and William McMahon.

[iv] The Australian, Last Post, February 10 2015.

[v] The New Daily, “Why Turnbull could win the election – and still lose”, March 8 2016.

[vi] The Productivity Commission started its work in April 2010, and released the Disability Care & Support Final Report in August 2011.

[vii] The Australian, “Tony Abbott: My legacy the key to victory at next election”, September 26, 2015. Quote from Mr Abbott: “You can always dispute the marketing… but the 2014 Budget was a very serious structural attempt to tackle our long-term spending problems.”

[viii] Outside of ‘gun nuts’, and the accidental Liberal Democrat Senator, David Leyonhjelm.

[ix] Howard’s gun law reforms, and gun ‘buyback’, even has international admirers, as demonstrated by the 2013 segment by John Oliver on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart (as reported here: Sydney Morning Herald, “US Show Uses Howard to Embarrass Gun Lobby”, April 22, 2013).

[x] Gay News Network, “Government Comment on Safe Schools Report Not Expected for 1-2 Weeks”, 11 March 2016.

[xi] Guardian Australia, “Coalition to finalise marriage equality plebiscite details as July election looms”, March 8 2016.

[xii] See “7 Better Ways to Spend $158.4 million”.

[xiii] Sydney Morning Herald, “Majority of MPs would back marriage equality”, January 30, 2016.

[xiv] Guardian Australia, “Q&A Recap: Lyle Shelton locks horns with panel on marriage equality”, 1 March 2016.

[xv] ABC News, “Same-sex marriage plebiscite: Christian lobby group wants ‘override’ of anti-discrimination laws during campaign”, 16 February 2016.

[xvi] For more, see: “Letter to Malcolm Turnbull about the Marriage Equality Plebiscite”.

[xvii] Buzzfeed Australia, This MP Just Compared the Safe Schools Coalition to ‘Grooming’”, 25 February 2016.

[xviii] From Mr Hastie, the Member for Canning’s, Facebook page: “George Orwell foresaw where the abandonment of reason can lead society: to a world devoid of compassion and empathy for those who disagree with us. All that is left is raw power. As Orwell wrote, without reason and charity in our public debate there will be nothing left but “the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever.”

[xix] ABC News, “Safe schools: Turnbull warns MPs over language used in debate”, February 26 2016.

[xx] Guardian Australia, “Eric Abetz: Coalition MPs will not be bound by plebiscite on marriage equality”, January 27 2016.

7 Better Ways to Spend $158.4 million

Despite the change of Prime Minister in September, from the homophobe Tony Abbott to the supposedly ‘gay-friendly’ incumbent Malcolm Turnbull, it appears we are stuck with the decidedly unfriendly option of holding a plebiscite to determine whether the relationships of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) Australians should be treated equally under the law, or if they will continue to be treated as second class compared to the relationships of their cisgender heterosexual counterparts.

 

This blog has previously looked at the issue of a marriage equality plebiscite, with my submission to the recent Senate inquiry arguing that such a vote would be unnecessary, inappropriate, wasteful and divisive.

 

Just how wasteful a plebiscite would be became apparent during the course of that inquiry, with the Australian Electoral Commission estimating that the cost of holding a stand-alone vote to determine this issue would be at least $158.4 million.[i]

 

$158.4 million, to conduct what is essentially a glorified public opinion poll, which would not be binding on our elected officials, nor compelling them to implement the outcome in a timely manner (with the 1977 plebiscite, which selected ‘Advance Australia Fair’ as our new national anthem, not legislated until 1984).

 

$158.4 million, to determine what we already know – that the majority of Australians support the human rights of LGBTI Australians, and wish to see a Marriage Act that does not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status.

 

$158.4 million, to do something that the 226 members of the Commonwealth Parliament could do for no extra cost, something that they are elected to do, and something that overturns what they have done before (with John Howard’s homophobic, biphobic, transphobic and intersexphobic ban on equal marriage passed by Parliament alone and not subjected to a public vote).

 

Surely there are a million better things that the Turnbull Liberal-National Government could spend this money on? This post looks at seven preferable alternatives – although I am confident that readers of this blog could nominate many, many more. Anyway, here goes – in no particular order, here’s 7 better ways to spend $158.4 million:

 

  1. Resettle an extra 2,297 refugees from Syria and Iraq

 

The biggest humanitarian crisis of 2015 – indeed, the biggest humanitarian crisis of the past decade and probably of the century so far – has been the civil war in Syria (which started almost five years ago), the subsequent rise of ISIS there and in Iraq and the horrific violence they have inflicted on the people in both places, and the enormous number of refugees that the Assad regime, the Syrian civil war and ISIS have collectively created.

 

While the vast majority of refugees remain located in neighbouring countries, the increasing numbers of people seeking asylum reaching Europe during 2015 – and, tragically, the deaths of many who were attempting to flee – finally prompted the Australian Government to announce it would accept 12,000 refugees from Syria and Iraq in addition to its annual intake of 13,750 refugees (then Prime Minister Tony Abbott announced this policy on 9 September[ii], making it one of his last acts in office).

 

The cost of this additional intake of refugees was not revealed until the Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook (MYEFO), released by new Treasurer Scott Morrison on 15 December 2015. The MYEFO papers showed that the net cost to the Budget of permanently resettling an extra 12,000 refugees fleeing the conflict in Syria and Iraq is $827.4 million over 4 years[iii].

 

Which means that, were the Turnbull Government to re-allocate the $158.4 million it is currently planning to spend on a marriage equality plebiscite, we could resettle at least an additional 2,297 refugees from Syria and Iraq[iv]. Surely most Australians, indeed most humans, would consider that a much better way to spend this money.

 

  1. Restore 2015-16 Foreign Aid Funding to Afghanistan… and Sub-Saharan Africa… and Palestine… and Middle East & North Africa… and UNICEF

 

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop is a ‘Julie-come-lately’ when it comes to supporting marriage equality – she only announced her personal support for it in early November 2015.[v]

 

However, in the same breath she also reiterated her commitment to a plebiscite: “I have absolutely no concerns about it myself, but I know there [are] a lot of people who are deeply concerned about the issue… I think the Australian people should have their say.”

 

So, rather than casting her vote as an elected representative, one out of 226 Federal Parliamentarians who have the power to change the law in a matter of weeks, Minister Bishop would instead prefer to waste years, and $158.4 million, on a completely unnecessary public vote, leaving her own vote as just one out of the 15.26 million Australians currently on the electoral roll[vi].

 

As well as abrogating her personal responsibility as an MP (which includes the ability, nay responsibility, to consider and pass legislation), according to the Australia Institute, “current foreign minister Julie Bishop [also holds] the dubious honour of being the minister to oversee the largest drop in aid spending [compared] to Gross National Income”[vii].

 

The Liberal-National Government of which she is a key member plans to cut aid funding by $1.4 billion per year, or 33 per cent, by 2017-18. These cuts include savage reductions in the 2015-16 Budget year across a large number of countries and international aid programs[viii].

 

Obviously, the $158.4 million intended to fund the marriage equality plebiscite is small change compared to these overall totals, but, applying that figure to the 2015-16 Budget year, it could restore current financial year funding to:

 

  • Afghanistan (2015-16 Budget cut by $52.4 million)
  • Sub-Saharan Africa ($74.2 million cut)
  • Palestine ($13.7 million cut)
  • Middle East and North Africa ($2.3 million cut) and
  • UNICEF ($14 million cut).[ix]

 

And there would almost be enough money left over to undo the $3 million cut to the United Nations Program on HIV and AIDS (UNAIDS) too. Perhaps Minister Bishop should spend more time advocating for Australian Government funding to assist the world’s disadvantaged, and less time calling for a pointless plebiscite.

 

  1. Support an additional 1,975 postgraduate students

 

Malcolm Turnbull likes to claim he is the ‘Innovation Prime Minister’, and that it is his mission to lead an ‘agile’ Government and an even more ‘agile’ economy. Well, instead of wasting $158.4 million on an unnecessary, inappropriate and divisive marriage equality plebiscite, he could fund Australian Postgraduate Awards for 1,975 extra students for three years instead.[x]

 

Imagine that – almost 2,000 extra PhDs in Australia contributing to science, and technology, and engineering, and mathematics, and countless other fields. Imagine what they could add to the sum of human knowledge. Alas, we will not find out if Turnbull insists on spending the money on something which he himself considered unnecessary just one month before becoming PM.[xi]

 

  1. Hire 477 more registered nurses

 

In his 2014-15 Federal Budget, then Treasurer Joe Hockey cut $80 billion from the states and territories, monies that were supposed to fund increases in spending on health and education over the subsequent decade. This included $50 billion in cuts to hospitals, and another $30 billion in cuts to schools.

 

The new Treasurer, Scott Morrison, has indicated that, not only will he not be reversing these cuts, even if the Turnbull Government increased the GST to 15% and expanded it to cover fresh food he still would not use the revenue collected to restore this funding.[xii]

 

Obviously, $158.4 million wouldn’t go very far in undoing the massive reductions in future health spending by both Hockey and now Morrison, but it would nevertheless be enough to pay the base salary of at least 477 registered nurses for four years[xiii] – and that’s nothing to be sneezed at.

 

  1. Employ an extra 578 teachers in public schools

 

Based on a similar approach, re-allocating $158.4 million from an unnecessary, inappropriate and divisive marriage equality plebiscite to instead give to the states and territories to allow them to employ an additional 578 teachers[xiv] in public schools across the country sounds like a much smarter, and productive, investment to me.

 

  1. Reduce Government debt

 

The Abbott Liberal-National Government was elected in September 2013 on the back of three relentlessly negative fear campaigns – against a carbon tax, against people seeking asylum, and against ‘Labor’s debt and deficit’. In fact, the ‘debt and deficit’ focus dates all the way back to the 2008-09 Global Financial Crisis, making it perhaps Abbott’s longest-serving attack on the Rudd, Gillard and Rudd Governments (including when Abbott was part of the Shadow Ministry).

 

Of course, in the years since they were elected the Abbott, and now Turnbull, Governments have overseen ongoing Budget deficits, and continued increases in net Government debt. Based on MYEFO, net debt will now not peak until 2017-18, at 18.5% of GDP (or $336.4 billion)[xv], with Treasury forecasting there will not be a Budget surplus until 2020-21 at the earliest.

 

Which makes any decision to hold a marriage equality plebiscite costing $158.4 million, in either 2016-17 (when there is expected to be a Budget deficit of $33.7 billion) or 2017-18 (with its anticipated deficit of $23 billion)[xvi], seem entirely profligate.

 

If Malcolm Turnbull, Scott Morrison, and their Coalition colleagues, are genuinely concerned about reducing Government ‘debt and deficit’, then deciding not to hold a $158.4 million opinion poll would have to be one of the easiest Budget ‘saves’ of all time.

 

  1. Fund the National Safe Schools Coalition… almost 20 times over

 

With the glaring, and profoundly disappointing, exception of marriage equality, the former Labor Government passed a large number of LGBTI reforms, including long overdue de facto relationship recognition, and the introduction of LGBTI anti-discrimination protections in federal law for the first time.

 

One initiative that received less coverage at the time was the 2013 decision to fund the national rollout of the Safe Schools Coalition, which had previously only operated in Victoria, with an $8 million grant. To their credit, the Liberal-National Government has not overturned this funding, and the expansion of Safe Schools has occurred under their watch.

 

The estimated cost of the marriage equality plebiscite would be enough to fund this rollout almost 20 times over – and, in practice, it would take much less than $158.4 million to help ensure that all schools across the country could participate in a program aimed at combatting homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and intersexphobia (and sadly one that will be even more needed given the hatred and prejudice likely to be whipped up by the plebiscite debate).

 

Indeed, there would be plenty of money left over to help fund the implementation of the reforms recommended by the 2013 Senate Inquiry into the Involuntary or Coerced Sterilisation of Intersex People in Australia, and to remove out-of-pocket medical expenses for transgender Australians, and even to fund housing services for LGBTI young people, who are disproportionately affected by homelessness.

 

If the Turnbull Government really wants to spend $158.4 million on issues that affect LGBTI Australians, it should redirect it to the above programs (and others aimed at improving LGBTI health and welfare). It could do so comfortable in the knowledge that it would still be able to pass marriage equality at, essentially, no cost.

 

**********

 

In conclusion, there is absolutely no reason for the Turnbull Government to hold a plebiscite on marriage equality, especially not when, as well as being publicly divisive, it would cost the taxpayer an estimated $158.4 million.

 

This reform, which is solely concerned with recognising the fundamental equality of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians, and their relationships, under secular law, should be passed in the same way that John Howard’s ban on same-sex marriage was – by our 226 elected representatives, sitting in the Federal Parliament.

 

Which would leave the money that would have been spent on the plebiscite available for any of the seven options listed above, or for a myriad of other choices. There’s no denying that Malcolm Turnbull is an intelligent man – here’s hoping he’s smart enough to choose something other than to persist with Tony Abbott’s stupid, and damaging, plebiscite proposal.

 

151222 Turnbull

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who could spend $158.4 million on resettling an extra 2,297 refugees from Syria and Iraq, or who could waste it on an unnecessary, inappropriate and divisive plebiscite.

 

[i] As quoted on page 22 of the Senate Committee Report: Matter of a popular vote, in the form of a plebiscite or referendum, on the matter of marriage in Australia, 15 September 2015 http://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Senate/Legal_and_Constitutional_Affairs/Marriage_Plebiscite/Report

[ii] Sydney Morning Herald, “Abbott Government agrees to resettle 12,000 Syrian refugees in Australia”, 9 September 2015: http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/abbott-government-agrees-to-resettle-12000-syrian-refugees-in-australia-20150909-gjibqz.html

[iii] MYEFO Expenditures can be found here: http://budget.gov.au/2015-16/content/myefo/html/11_appendix_a_expense.htm

[iv] Based on the current estimate of a cost of $68,950 spent per refugee over four years. The number of additional refugees would likely be higher than 2,297 given economies of scale.

[v] ABC, “Julie Bishop announces support for same-sex marriage”, 2 November 2015: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-11-02/julie-bishop-announces-support-for-same-sex-marriage/6906740

[vi] Source Australian Electoral Commission: http://www.aec.gov.au/Enrolling_to_vote/Enrolment_stats/

[vii] Matt Grudnoff & Dan Gilchrist, “Charity Ends at Home: The decline of foreign aid in Australia”, The Australia Institute, September 2015, p iii (full report available here: http://www.tai.org.au/content/charity-ends-home-decline-foreign-aid-australia

[viii] Ibid, and in Guardian Australia, “Budget cuts to foreign aid put Australia on track for least generous spend ever,” 14 May 2015: http://www.theguardian.com/news/datablog/2015/may/14/budget-cuts-to-foreign-aid-put-australia-on-track-for-least-generous-spend-ever

[ix] Figures from Guardian Australia article and Charity Ends at Home report, above.

[x] The 2016 Australian Postgraduate Award full time payment is $26,288 (https://www.education.gov.au/australian-postgraduate-awards ) and applying the current 1.7% inflation figure would make three years of support (2016-2018) cost $80,210.

[xi] “There is a huge number of big issues, so one of the attractions of a free vote is that it would have meant the matter would have been resolved in this parliament one way or another in a couple of weeks.” Guardian Australia, “Malcolm Turnbull says plebiscite on marriage equality will keep issue alive”, 12 August 2015: http://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2015/aug/12/malcolm-turnbull-says-plebiscite-on-marriage-equality-will-keep-issue-alive

[xii] Guardian Australia, “Scott Morrison will not raise GST to fund states’ funding black holes”, 10 December 2015: http://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2015/dec/10/scott-morrison-will-not-raise-gst-to-fund-states-funding-black-holes

[xiii] Based on the highest base wage of a registered nurse in NSW – $79,383, source: Health Times, “What do nurses earn?”, 17 September 2015 http://healthtimes.com.au/hub/nursing-careers/6/guidance/nc1/what-do-nurses-earn/605/ – and applying 3% salary increases for the subsequent 3 years.

[xiv] Based on the base salary of a five-year trained teacher (BA/MTeach, BSc/MTeach, BEd/BA, BEd/BSc) in NSW government schools – $65,486, source: University of Sydney Faculty of Education and Social Work: http://sydney.edu.au/education_social_work/future_students/careers/teacher_salaries.shtml – and applying 3% salary increases for the following 3 years.

[xv] MYEFO Debt Statement: http://www.budget.gov.au/2015-16/content/myefo/html/09_attachment_e.htm

[xvi] ABC, “Budget deficit increased as MYEFO released,” 15 December 2015: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-12-15/budget-deficit-increased-as-myefo-released/7029472

No Referendum. No Plebiscite. Just Pass the Bill.

The following is my submission to the current Senate Inquiry into whether there should be a referendum or plebiscite into marriage equality. As you can tell from the title of this post, I am strongly against both.

For more information, or to make your own submission, go here: http://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Senate/Legal_and_Constitutional_Affairs/Marriage_Plebiscite

Committee Secretary

Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee

PO Box 6100

Parliament House

CANBERRA ACT 2600

legcon.sen@aph.gov.au

Saturday 29 August 2015

Dear Committee Members

SUBMISSION TO INQUIRY INTO “THE MATTER OF A POPULAR VOTE, IN THE FORM OF A PLEBISCITE OR REFERENDUM, ON THE MATTER OF MARRIAGE IN AUSTRALIA”

Thank you for the opportunity to provide this submission on the question of whether Australia should hold a ‘public vote’ on the issue of marriage equality, and if so what form and timing such a vote should take.

My overall response to this question is that a marriage equality plebiscite or referendum would be unnecessary, inappropriate, wasteful and divisive, and therefore should not be held.

My detailed responses to the terms of reference to the inquiry are set out below.

a. An assessment of the content and implications of a question to be put to electors

I believe that a plebiscite or referendum on marriage equality would be unnecessary, inappropriate, wasteful and divisive, and therefore will not address this term of reference.

b. An examination of the resources required to enact such an activity, including the question of the contribution of Commonwealth funding to the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ campaigns

I believe that a plebiscite or referendum on marriage equality would be unnecessary, inappropriate, wasteful and divisive, and therefore will not address this term of reference.

c. An assessment of the impact of the timing of such an activity, including the opportunity for it to coincide with a general election

I believe that a plebiscite or referendum on marriage equality would be unnecessary, inappropriate, wasteful and divisive, and therefore will not address this term of reference.

d. Whether such an activity is an appropriate method to address matters of equality and human rights

It is absolutely inappropriate to use a ‘public vote’ to determine whether all people should be treated equally under the law, irrespective of sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status.

The recognition of the human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) Australians should not be subject to a popularity contest, and only granted if enough people express the view, through such a vote, that we are ‘worthy’.

In circumstances where it is not already formally recognised, the right for all couples to be married under secular law should be recognised in the usual place and in the usual way – in our nation’s parliament.

Turning specifically to the question of a referendum, the High Court has already found that the Commonwealth Parliament has the constitutional power to introduce marriage equality.

In the 2013 case overturning the Australian Capital Territory’s same-sex marriage laws, the High Court stated, unequivocally, that: “[w]hen used in s51(xxi), “marriage” is a term which includes a marriage between persons of the same sex.”[i]

This makes those who argue for a ‘constitutional referendum’ on this subject, or who even suggest that one could be held, seem to be one of two things, either:

  1. Completely lacking in understanding of the Constitution, and the Australian system of government generally (and arguably dangerously ill-informed where such people are current parliamentarians)

Or

  1. Motivated by a desire to block the equality of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex Australians by whatever means necessary, even by holding an unnecessary referendum, solely because it imposes a higher threshold for success (the requirement to be passed by both a majority of voters, and a majority of voters in a majority of states).

While there are fewer legal arguments against holding a plebiscite on marriage equality, there remain strong reasons why it would be inappropriate.

First, as described above, whether human rights are recognised or not should not be determined through a popularity contest.

Second, the result of any such plebiscite would not be binding on the Parliament, and there would obviously be no requirement for a successful result to be recognised immediately (as demonstrated by the 1977 plebiscite on the national anthem, which was not legislated until 1984).

Third, and related to the above, the suggestion to hold a plebiscite on marriage equality appears to be nothing more than a delaying tactic, designed to hold off the prospect of full equality for LGBTI Australians for at least another term, or more (especially given Prime Minister Abbott has expressed his desire for it to be held after the next federal election, and even then after the referendum on constitutional recognition for Indigenous Australians).

Fourth, and finally, it should be noted that the same people who are arguing for a plebiscite now (including Prime Minister Tony Abbott, Deputy Liberal Leader and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and Treasurer Joe Hockey) voted against marriage equality in the Parliament in August 2004 and, joined by Social Services Minister Scott Morrison, did so again in September 2012.

At no point did they express the view that parliamentarians voting on marriage equality was somehow inappropriate – at least while the Parliament was voting ‘No’.

Indeed, in May, responding to the Irish marriage equality referendum and rejecting a similar proposal here, Prime Minister Abbott said that: “questions of marriage are the preserve of the Commonwealth Parliament”.[ii]

The only thing that appears to have changed is that, unlike 2004 and 2012, and were a Liberal Party conscience vote to be granted, marriage equality legislation would have a reasonable chance of success in 2015.

Which only makes the decision to reject the concept of a parliamentary vote, in favour of a plebiscite, appear even worse.

It is not just moving the goalposts, it is changing the fundamental rules of the game, to thwart opponents who simply want the right to be treated equally under the law.

It is beyond unreasonable, it is hypocritical and grossly unfair, and should be rejected.

A referendum or plebiscite on marriage equality would also be extraordinarily wasteful.

Public estimates of the cost of holding such a vote (particularly when it is a standalone ballot, which is the preference of Prime Minister Abbott) have put the figure at in excess of $100 million.[iii]

This is extraordinarily expensive, particularly given introducing marriage equality is something that could be done by our nation’s Parliament in the ordinary course of events, at no additional cost to the taxpayer.

Of course, if the Abbott Liberal-National Government genuinely wants to spend $100-150 million on issues of concern to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians, then might I suggest the following:

  • Implementing the reforms recommended by the 2013 Senate Inquiry into the Involuntary or Coerced Sterilisation of Intersex People in Australia, to end this gross violation of human rights
  • Removing out-of-pocket medical expenses for transgender Australians
  • Increasing funding for the Safe Schools Coalition to ensure it reaches students in every school across the country and
  • Funding housing services for LGBTI young people, who are disproportionately affected by homelessness.

All of these suggestions, and indeed a great many others, would be better uses of public monies than throwing millions of dollars away on an unnecessary, inappropriate and wasteful plebiscite or referendum.

In addition to the above reasons, it should also be acknowledged that a public vote on marriage equality has the potential to be incredibly divisive, and therefore dangerous.

This is because any referendum or plebiscite would necessarily stir up homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and intersexphobia in the community, and especially in the media.

We experienced a small taste of what such a debate would look like this week when the Daily Telegraph newspaper devoted its front page, and several pages thereafter, to attacking the idea that students should be exposed to the reality that rainbow families exist, and are normal (with one columnist even ‘bravely’ telling a 12 year old girl that her family was not normal).

The only positive aspect of this outrageous and horrific ‘beat-up’ is that it has gradually receded in prominence, replaced by other stories as part of the regular news cycle.

Unfortunately, the holding of a plebiscite or referendum on marriage equality would all but ensure that such stories were featured prominently for days, weeks or even months on end.

We should not underestimate the damage that such a vote would cause.

Research consistently finds that young lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people are disproportionately affected by mental health issues, and have substantially higher rates of suicide than their cisgender heterosexual counterparts, with one of the main causes being the discrimination and prejudice to which they are exposed every day.

A bitter and protracted public debate, about whether who they are should be treated equally under the law or not, would inevitably have a significant, negative impact on their mental health.

But they would not be the only ones adversely affected. A nasty campaign against the equality of LGBTI families, which would be an inevitable part of any public vote, would also negatively impact on the wellbeing of the children of these families.

Indeed, nearly all LGBTI Australians would probably be affected in some way by the holding of a public vote to determine whether we should continue to be treated as second class citizens by our own country or not. Such a vote should not be held.

A plebiscite or referendum on marriage equality would be unnecessary, inappropriate, wasteful and divisive. It should be comprehensively rejected by this Inquiry, and by the Commonwealth Parliament.

e. The terms of the Marriage Equality Plebiscite Bill 2015 currently before the Senate

I believe that a plebiscite or referendum on marriage equality would be unnecessary, inappropriate, wasteful and divisive.

I therefore call on all Senators to reject the Marriage Equality Plebiscite Bill 2015 currently before the Senate, and to resist any and all attempts to hold a plebiscite or referendum on this subject in the future.

f. Any other related matters

There is absolutely no justification whatsoever to hold a referendum on something which the High Court has already found is within the power of the Commonwealth Parliament.

Nor is there any justification to hold a plebiscite on marriage equality. I am 37 years old, and there has not been a federal plebiscite in my lifetime.

It is bizarre, and offensive, that the first plebiscite since 1977 should be held to determine whether my relationship should be treated equally under the law.

My fiancé Steven and I recently celebrated our 7th anniversary. We have been engaged for more than five and a half years. We, like thousands of other LGBTI couples in Australia, are done waiting.

We have gone to protests, we have written submissions, we have commented in the media, we have patiently (and sometimes less than patiently) campaigned for change.

Finally, when the numbers for reform appear to exist within the Parliament, if not this year then certainly after the 2016 election (irrespective of who wins), Prime Minister Abbott and the Liberal-National Government he leads seek to change the rules.

Despite voting against my equality for more than a decade, without reservation, he and his colleagues now believe that this is not something which can be determined by the Commonwealth Parliament.

Plainly, they are wrong. Marriage equality can and should be passed, in the House of Representatives and the Senate, the same places where it was banned in August 2004.

And, if our current House of Representatives MPs and Senators will not do their job, if they refuse to legislate for the equal right to marry for all Australians irrespective of sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status, then the Australian people must do their job next year and vote them out. Because LGBTI Australians have waited long enough.

Thank you for taking this submission into consideration.

Sincerely

Alastair Lawrie

If Prime Minister Tony Abbott, and the Government he leads, will not change the law, then the Australian people must change the Government.

If Prime Minister Tony Abbott, and the Government he leads, will not change the law, then the Australian people must change the Government.

[i] The Commonwealth v Australian Capital Territory [2013] HCA 55, para 38.

[ii] “Gay Marriage Referendum in Australia Dismissed by Tony Abbott”, ABC News Online, 25 May 2015: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-05-24/leaders-dismiss-same-sex-marriage-referendum-in-australia/6493180

[iii] “Williams said the average cost of a referendum was between $100m and $150m outside an election and half that if it was held in conjunction with an election”: “Tony Abbott says no to referendum on same-sex marriage, despite Irish vote”, Guardian Australia, 24 May 2015: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/may/24/tony-abbott-says-no-to-referendum-on-same-sex-marriage-despite-irish-vote

Will Christine Forster Apologise for her Pre-Election Column?

Ms Christine Forster

cforster@cityofsydney.nsw.gov.au

Monday 24 August 2015

Dear Ms Forster,

I am writing to you concerning an opinion piece you wrote before the 2013 Federal Election for the Star Observer called “Vote Liberal for Real Change”.[i]

Specifically, you began by writing:

“You only have one vote on September 7 and this election is the most important in a generation.

“For many of us in the GLBTI community marriage equality is a key political issue at a federal level and the positions of the two major parties on this important question are virtually the same. Both are leaving it up to their new members of parliament to decide, after the election” [emphasis added].

It was abundantly clear at the time that this description was inaccurate – that in no way, shape or form could the positions of Labor and the Coalition be described as “virtually the same”.

Indeed, as I commented on your opinion piece at the time:

“The second paragraph in this op-ed is rubbish. No, Ms Forster, the positions of the two major parties on this important question are NOT virtually the same.

“One major party has a party platform in favour of marriage equality, rules which guarantee its MPs a conscience vote, a majority of sitting MPs who voted in favour of marriage equality just last year, a Prime Minister who supports it, and a commitment to reintroduce a Bill within 100 days.

“The other – your brother’s Coalition – has left it up to whoever is elected at this election to decide whether to even have a conscience vote (with the possibility that there is not a conscience vote/all its MPs are forced to vote against), a Leader who continues to oppose marriage equality, and who does not expect a Bill to even arise in the next parliament, and not a single sitting MP who voted for marriage equality in 2012 (despite Liberals always saying that backbenchers can vote freely on every Bill).

“I don’t know what your definition of ‘virtually the same’ is, but it is in no dictionary that I can find.”

Unfortunately, the description that you used then has turned out to be even more inaccurate now, almost two years later.

The Labor Opposition today is led by a supporter of marriage equality, who has made a similar commitment to his predecessor (to introduce a Bill within 100 days, if elected), with the vast majority of ALP MPs and Senators indicating they will vote in favour of marriage equality when it next comes to a vote.

Meanwhile, the Liberal-National Government remains led by a Prime Minister who is strongly opposed to the full legal equality of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians, and a Coalition party room that spoke two to one against even allowing a conscience vote on the subject, meaning only a small handful of Coalition MPs will be able to vote in favour of reform.

To make matters worse, the Abbott Liberal-National Government is apparently intent on denying a House of Representatives vote on this matter during the current term of parliament (by using its numbers on the Selection of Bills Committee), instead concentrating on finding ways to defer the issue for yet another term, even considering the option of an inappropriate and unnecessary constitutional referendum to help ‘stack the decks’ against marriage equality.

Given all of the above, I have two simple questions for you:

  1. Do you now concede that your pre-election opinion piece was inaccurate?
  2. Will you apologise to anyone who was silly enough to actually believe what you wrote?

I look forward to receiving your correspondence addressing the above questions.

Sincerely,

Alastair Lawrie

[i] 4 September 2013: http://www.starobserver.com.au/opinion/election-opinion-vote-liberal-for-real-change/108960

Christine Forster (source: ABC).

Christine Forster (source: ABC).

Responding to Bill Shorten’s Arguments Against a Binding Vote on Marriage Equality

Last night, just 36 hours from the start of ALP National Conference, the Sydney Morning Herald published an opinion piece by Federal Opposition Leader Bill Shorten explaining why he supports a conscience vote on marriage equality[i].

The article itself is short and, based on any objective reading, the arguments he makes for a conscience vote (or rather, against a binding vote), are weak.

So weak, in fact, that it is tempting to assume Mr Shorten is aware there remains a strong chance that National Conference will decide on Sunday afternoon that the ALP should nevertheless bind (whether immediately, or taking effect from the start of the next federal election campaign), and he does not want to appear to be too out of step with the membership on this issue.

Whatever the motivation, in this post I will respond to the three main arguments against a binding vote put forward by Mr Shorten.

1. A binding vote would be difficult for ALP MPs and Senators who oppose marriage equality

Bill says: “I support marriage equality… But I understand that not every Labor MP or party member feels the same way. Some, particularly people of faith, take a different view. I respect this. It’s why I support a free vote on marriage equality.

Solidarity still has a powerful meaning in our party and a binding vote would put a handful of Labor MPs in a very difficult position. Either they vote against their conscience, or they vote against the party they’ve dedicated their working life to serving.”

Response: This may well be true – for a handful of ALP parliamentarians in both chambers the prospect of being compelled to vote for the full equality of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians, including in the Marriage Act, does raise personal ethical issues for them.

But the problem is, and the key fact that Mr Shorten ignores, is that this dilemma – being compelled to vote for a position with which you do not agree – is not unique to the issue of marriage equality.

Indeed, to paraphrase a slogan from another political party, this is the exact same question faced by every ALP MP, on every single issue, and every single vote, whenever they disagree with the Party’s position – as a member of a political party based on collective action, and bound by the principle of solidarity, does my personal opposition outweigh my overall loyalty to the party?

It is the same question that is asked by ALP members from across the factional divide who find our current policies on refugees (which involve the offshore detention, processing and resettlement of refugees, including LGBTI refugees in countries that criminalise them) to be abhorrent.

It is the same question that was asked by ALP members who earlier this year personally opposed the Abbott Government’s metadata legislation – but which was supported by the Federal Opposition. Or who did not support the cuts to single parent payments made by the Labor Government in 2012, or who wanted to shut down the live animal export trade permanently in 2011[ii].

Each of these policy questions raises significant ethical issues for the MPs and Senators who have a different personal view to the overall position of the Party. But, in respect of no other policy was the response of the Party, and Party Leader, to say that this disagreement therefore meant that normal processes, which require parliamentarians to be bound, should not apply.

And Mr Shorten does not make any substantive argument for why the issue of marriage equality should be treated differently to any other issue.

He does make an indirect reference to ‘people of faith’ but, as has been explained previously[iii], that would only be relevant if ALP parliamentarians were being required to vote to change the definition of marriage within their religion – and no marriage equality Bill proposed to date would do any such thing.

Under every proposal, all ministers of religion would be free to continue to reject – or support (remembering that some religious organisations want to be able to marry LGBTI couples) – marriage equality.

All that Labor MPs and Senators are being asked to do is to vote for the equality of all Australians under secular law, irrespective of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status – and their personal faith is not a compelling argument to reject that vote being made binding as is standard operating procedure.

And it is even less compelling when we remember that a binding vote on marriage equality was adopted by the ALP from August 2004 to December 2011 – and that, during this time, all Labor parliamentarians who supported LGBTI equality, including those like Senators Penny Wong and Louise Pratt who were from the LGBTI community themselves, were required to vote against it.

Overall, then, Mr Shorten’s first argument does highlight the fact that supporting marriage equality might be difficult for some individual MPs and Senators – but that is not the same thing as saying that the normal rules of the Australian Labor Party, which ordinarily require binding, should not apply.

2. Labor should not adopt a binding vote because of what Tony Abbott might, or might not, do

Bill says: “I believe the best way to ensure our Parliament passes a definition of marriage which includes, values and respects every Australian relationship is for all representatives, from all parties, to have a free vote… I’m hopeful Tony Abbott will allow his MPs a free vote when Parliament returns, to achieve this outcome.

If Labor gets hung up on procedural argy-bargy, we jeopardise this possibility. Not only is it far more difficult for us to call on Tony Abbott to give his party room a free vote if we bind ourselves, there is also the risk that the Coalition re-commits to binding against marriage equality.”

Response: Mr Shorten is right to highlight the very real risk that Tony Abbott, and Warren Truss, and the political parties that they lead, could continue to bind their parliamentarians to vote against marriage equality. But what he omits to mention is that this risk exists irrespective of whatever delegates to this weekend’s ALP National Conference decide to do.

Even if the Labor Party chooses to retain a conscience vote on marriage equality, in the hope that it will somehow entice the Liberals and Nationals to do the same, there is no guarantee this move will have any influence over them whatsoever.

After all, if the ALP’s position was so influential, then it is reasonable to ask why the Coalition hasn’t adopted a conscience vote during the three and a half years in which Labor has already had one[iv].

Mr Shorten’s argument also seems to suggest that a conscience vote on both sides is numerically the most likely to succeed, when in fact the best chance for passage would be for the Labor Party to adopt a binding vote, and for the Liberal and National Parties to adopt a conscience vote.

As Australian Marriage Equality has repeatedly made clear, even with a conscience vote on both sides, if and when a cross-party marriage equality Bill is considered later this term, it could still fall short.

And that phrase, ‘this term’, is actually the key here. Because the decision whether to adopt a binding vote, or retain a conscience vote, is about far more than the remaining 13 months of this parliamentary cycle.

This debate is also about what policies the Australian Labor Party takes to the next Federal Election, and whether it is able to implement them.

If Mr Shorten wants to be able to stand before the Australian people, with hand on heart, and declare that, if elected, a Labor Government he leads would introduce marriage equality, then the only way in which he would be able to ensure it could be delivered is by adopting a binding vote, right here at this Conference.

The decision for National Conference delegates now is about whether the Australian Labor Party fully supports marriage equality, and ensures that all of its MPs and Senators vote accordingly when it next comes before Parliament.

The decision is also about whether, if that vote fails and we are elected to Government next year, a new Labor Government is able to finally deliver marriage equality to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians who have already waited for far too long.

And it is a decision which is far too important to ‘outsource’ to Tony Abbott, and Warren Truss, and the Liberal and National Party rooms, based on hypotheticals about what they may or may not do.

3. A conscience vote is an inherently better way to achieve reform than a binding vote

Bill says: “Frequently now people speak of marriage equality as an “inevitable” social change. In my experience, there is no such thing as inevitable progress, and worthwhile change is always hard-won. The best way to deliver reform is to bring people together. To build support by finding common ground; through consensus not coercion – not through the force of procedure but through the power of an idea whose time has come.”

Response: To many, the sentiments in this paragraph might seem noble. To me – and, I suspect, to most ordinary members of the Australian Labor Party – this paragraph seems almost bizarre.

After all, Mr Shorten is a former trade union official who became state, and later national, secretary of the Australian Workers Union. And he has been a Labor Party MP for almost eight years, including serving as a Cabinet Minister and now, for almost two years, as Party Leader during Opposition.

In all of those positions and roles he has been part of organisations and bodies that are based on solidarity, whether that involves taking collective action in industrial disputes, or voting collectively to change the nation’s laws.

For him to turn around now and say that the best way to deliver major reform is “through consensus not coercion – not through the force of procedure but through the power of an idea whose time has come” is, in effect, arguing that the entire way in which both the union movement and Australian Labor Party operate is inherently wrong.

Is Mr Shorten genuinely saying that all the legacy reforms passed by Labor Governments, from the introduction of Medicare to the expansion of higher education, from the passage of the Racial Discrimination Act and Sex Discrimination Act to the legislative recognition of native title, and more recently from the repeal of WorkChoices to the introduction of the National Disability Insurance Scheme, should have been achieved through conscience votes? Because that is the clear implication of his argument.

To fully realise just how strange, nonsensical even, Mr Shorten’s argument here is, we should consider the major policy which he announced just yesterday morning – a commitment for a 50% renewable energy target by 2030[v].

That would be a major reform – and it is definitely “an idea whose time has come”. By the same logic which he has used to argue against a binding vote on marriage equality, the best way to achieve a 50% RET must be through “consensus not coercion”, meaning Labor parliamentarians should be free to vote against it.

Mr Shorten would probably recoil in horror at that prospect. Well, the rest of us recoil at the double-standard which suggests that the Labor Party can and should bind in order to achieve political, economic, environmental and social change – but that it cannot bind to help achieve change for LGBTI Australians.

So, unless he is going to propose an amendment at this weekend’s Conference to make all policies optional for all Labor Party MPs, he should stop arguing to make just the issue of marriage equality non-binding.

********************

From this discussion, it is clear that none of the three main arguments put forward by Mr Shorten withstand close scrutiny.

After reading, and re-reading, his opinion piece, it is also clear that he fails to grapple with the core of the issue, which is this:

  • Should Labor Party MPs and Senators be free to vote for continued discrimination against LGBTI Australians under secular law?
  • Should our parliamentarians have the so-called ‘right’ to deny human rights to one group in society solely on the basis of who they are?
  • Should ALP caucus members have the option to reject the fundamental equality of their fellow citizens simply because of their sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status?

The answer to these questions should be, indeed must be, no. And I sincerely hope that the majority of National Conference delegates agree come Sunday afternoon.

Of course, it is incredibly disappointing that the Leader of my political party, Bill Shorten, does not. But he should remember that at the last National Conference the delegates rejected the view of the then Leader, Prime Minister Julia Gillard, that the Party should not change the platform to support marriage equality.

We can, and must, reject his view this time around, and make that platform position binding on ALP MPs and Senators. It’s time to support LGBTI equality 100%. It’s time to bind.

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten's arguments against a binding vote on marriage equality do not withstand close scrutiny.

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten’s arguments against a binding vote on marriage equality do not withstand close scrutiny.

[i] “Bill Shorten: Why I Support a Free Vote on Gay Marriage”, Sydney Morning Herald, 22 July 2015: http://www.smh.com.au/comment/bill-shorten-why-i-support-a-free-vote-on-gay-marriage-20150722-gii96f.html

[ii] For more on this issue, see “One of these things is not (treated) like the others” : https://alastairlawrie.net/2015/04/22/one-of-these-things-is-not-treated-like-the-others/

[iii] See “Why the Australian Labor Party should still adopt a binding vote on marriage equality”: https://alastairlawrie.net/2015/07/14/why-the-australian-labor-party-should-still-adopt-a-binding-vote-on-marriage-equality/

[iv] For more on this issue, see “Why the Australian Labor Party should still adopt a binding vote on marriage equality”: https://alastairlawrie.net/2015/07/14/why-the-australian-labor-party-should-still-adopt-a-binding-vote-on-marriage-equality/

[v] “Bill Shorten to unveil 50% renewable energy target at Labor conference”, Sydney Morning Herald, 22 July 2015: http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/bill-shorten-to-unveil-50-renewable-energy-target-at-labor-conference-20150721-gih4bp.html