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Same-Sex Marriage

Speeches in Parliament
Sarah Hanson-Young 6 Jul 2011

Senator HANSON-YOUNG (South Australia) (13:10): I rise today to speak to a matter that is important to many people, particularly those both within and outside this chamber, who believe in fairness and equality: the issue of marriage equality. Since I first introduced my bill back in 2009, the momentum for this important reform has continued to grow. Successive polls put the support for marriage equality at more than 60 per cent, and a recent poll commissioned by Australian Marriage Equality, who I would like to point out have some members watching from the public gallery today, shows that the community now believes this reform will happen. It is not a matter of if but when. Seventy-five per cent of Australians believe that it is simply inevitable. 

The momentum for change continues to build. Across the nation we see state Labor Party organisations gradually joining the Greens in declaring their support for marriage equality. South Australian Labor members endorsed the campaign. We have seen members from Queensland, Western Australia and the ACT. We are all hoping that those within New South Wales, who will be debating this at their state conference this month, will also join with the rest of us who believe that the time has come for ensuring marriage equality for all. It is clear which way the tide is moving, and it is time for the national leadership of both the Labor Party and the Liberal-National coalition to ensure that they too represent their rank and file, that they too allow for marriage equality to be discussed, debated and voted on openly in this place.

We have also seen support for marriage equality continue to build at an international level. Just a few weeks ago the New York congress legislated in favour of same-sex marriage, joining Washington, DC and the US states of Massachusetts, California, Connecticut, Iowa, Vermont and New Hampshire. Of course, that simply adds to the long, forever-growing list of other countries around the world who have already moved to ensure that same-sex couples get the same right as everybody else to marry the people that they love.

The New York decision is a significant breakthrough. It is something many throughout the world thought would never happen and it demonstrates just how quickly things can change. It is interesting to note that, rather than the sky falling in, people took to the streets in celebration. Those of us who saw the TV news and the newspapers saw here in Australia images of colour, excitement, celebration and joy. They were the exact same pictures that were shown right around the world to other countries. I think it would be wonderful if Australia could be the next country to follow suit.

I must say, though, that I was a bit puzzled by the reaction of our Prime Minister. She proclaimed on her recent visit to the United States that America could do anything. She gave a wonderful speech to the United States Congress about how strong America is in taking lead in the world, how as a child she believed that America could do anything and how it had inspired her as a woman in politics to be able to take on the big issues. We saw pretty quickly after the New York congress decision that she distanced herself from the United States on this issue, saying that we did not need on this issue to be following America. Well, I agree with the Prime Minister that America can do anything; I also believe that so too can Australia. We do not need to follow America on everything but, on this issue, states like New York are leading the way. It would be wonderful for Australia not to continue to be left behind on this issue. It would be wonderful if in this country in 2011 we honestly believed people should be given the same rights as each other-that same-sex couples should have the same right as anybody else to marry the person they love. It really should not be a massive political debate. This is simply about saying that, if we believe in equality, if we believe that everybody is equal, then we must accept that all people are equal, not some people more than others.

We could lead by example when it comes to the United States; we do not have to be left behind. We need only look at the number of other countries that have so bravely and courageously taken this step and given such joy and celebration to their communities in doing so-the Netherlands, Belgium, Canada, Spain, South Africa, Norway, Sweden, Mexico, Portugal, Ireland and Argentina, amongst others. There is a wonderful opportunity for Australia to join those countries on the 'I do' list.

What exactly is the reason for Australia's inaction on this issue? Why is it that we continue to hark back to a dark past of saying that some people, simply because of their sexuality, remain second-class citizens? According to the Prime Minister it is because of cultural and social tradition: 'Marriage is between a man and a woman; that is the way things have always been and that is the way things should remain.' The Leader of the Opposition appears to share the same shallow view.

However, most of us here would recognise that, when we look at cultural and social practice as something static, we are denying the fact that things actually change. It is unchanging to deny reality. The fact is that we do progress as a society; we always have and we always will. It is about education, acceptance and ensuring that we learn more and more about how to look after each other and keep the communities healthy. We all know that things can and do change over time.

One hundred years ago the idea of a woman being elected to parliament would have been seen as radical and out of step with the natural order of things. We know that there were issues in relation to people from different cultural backgrounds being able to join in marriage. We know that, here in this country, we had to overcome the sad indictment that we did not see our own Indigenous people as citizens in their own country. Not only have we now seen women elected to parliament, but in just 50 years we have seen women's role in parliament change so significantly that we now have a female Prime Minister. One hundred years ago, or even 50 years ago, that would have been seen as fanciful. But things change.

As a mature and accepting society we accept that, when people deserve a little bit of extra support to give them a fair go, particularly in Australia, in our history, we have always worked through ways to overcome those issues of difficulty and inequality and give people true access to a fair go. Fortunately things do change. I agree with the 75 per cent of Australians who believe a move towards marriage equality is inevitable. I do believe it will happen, but I do not believe it will happen simply based on political leadership-because that is not what we are seeing from this place or from the other place. The leadership for change on this issue is coming from the community. This is a core example of where the Australian community is streets ahead of our elected representatives. When you talk to people about what they would like to see from their elected representatives on this issue, they ask why we are so caught up on this when it simply makes sense to give people equal access to the same rights.

One of the key pieces of legislation that this parliament presides over is the Marriage Act. It is one of the only acts in this place that works towards celebrating something good, works towards saying marriage is a positive institution for our state, a positive thing that our citizens can celebrate, a positive aspect of any healthy community. This positive, celebratory piece of legislation should be available to everyone. The Marriage Act should not be a piece of legislation that discriminates. If we believe that all couples are equal then we must believe they have equal access to marriage under law.

The Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition are, of course, entitled to their personal views, but I do not believe they should be imposing their views on the rest of the community on this issue. I do not believe they should be restricting their own members on both sides of this chamber and in the other place. All members in this place should be able to have a conscience vote on this matter. Why not? If this is such an issue of personal responsibility, of cultural and social change, then why not let members in this place vote in a way that reflects the will of their communities and the idea of progressing and making our community fairer and more equitable?

We need a conscience vote on my private members' bill and I believe that it can happen. I look at the example of New York state and think, 'Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could rid ourselves in Australia of laws that actively discriminate against people simply because of the person they love?' I believe sincerely that marriage is an important institution. I believe that it is something that should be celebrated. I believe it should be strengthened by allowing same-sex couples to share in that practice. It is time for Australians to rid ourselves of the old shackles of discrimination. It is time to stand up for a fair go. It is time to say: 'If two people love each other let's give them a fair go. Good on them. If they want to get married why shouldn't they?' The majority of Australians believe that. It is time that in this place we are able to ensure that their views are truly represented. A conscience vote would ensure that all members of parliament, whatever their political leanings, could have their say. It would ensure that their communities would be represented.

One of the best things about ensuring that we rid ourselves of this type of discrimination is that when we stand here as parliamentarians and talk about justice, fairness and human rights on something that is so fundamental to people's own personal lives we are be able to say, 'We do believe in those things in this place and we do give all Australians equal access to marriage under the law.' I think the change will happen but, as I said, it is coming as a result of the community's leadership not from people within this place. I think it is time we caught up.

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