No Plebiscite

I support marriage equality, but I don't support a wasteful, divisive, unnecessary plebiscite.

Read my speech to the parliament here.

Ms BUTLER (Griffith) (11:57): It is a pleasure to rise to follow the member for Moore. I say to my friend the member for Moore that I think we may have found an explanation for his bachelor status, given his description of marriage as being not romantic but a social construct important for progeny. If I were to counsel the member for Moore in his quest for love, I would say, 'Maybe don't roll that one out on the first date'—that is, if I were to counsel him, which, of course, I would not presume to do.

We are here to debate the Plebiscite (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill 2016—a bill to establish a plebiscite, a national opinion poll, in which people, if the bill were to be passed, would be compelled to vote. It would be an expensive national opinion poll. It would cost the taxpayer $170 million as an appropriation and a further $32½ million as a regulatory impact cost. So it would be an incredibly expensive exercise to conduct this national opinion poll that the government proposes to have.

Deputy Speaker Goodenough, I now welcome you to the chair. Before I speak on the terms of the bill, I want to acknowledge some people who have done a lot of work in relation to this bill and the response to it. I would like to acknowledge the Leader of the Opposition; the Deputy Leader of the Opposition; the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate; the shadow minister for mental health; the shadow Attorney-General; Senator Louise Pratt, a senator for Western Australia; and the member for Bruce, all of whom have been engaged in responding to this bill. In particular, I would like to thank and acknowledge the members of the LGBTI community, with whom I have spoken or consulted through either formal consultation arrangements or other means: Australians for Marriage Equality; A4E; just.equal; AFAO; the Victorian AIDS Council; the Queensland AIDS Council; Western Australian AIDS Council; JOY FM—and thanks to them for having me on a few times to discuss this issue; the New South Wales Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby and their Victorian counterpart lobby; the Brisbane Pride fair and the Queensland LGBTI community; The Gender Centre; Transgender Victoria; La Trobe University; the Bernard Institute; the Drummond Street centre; Rainbow Labor; PFLAG; Rainbow Families; ACT LGBTI Council; Human Rights Law Centre; Geelong for Marriage Equality; AEP; RRWA; Sally Rugg from GetUp!; EMRA; Gilmore for Marriage Equality; ACON; Out for Australia; QUT Law Society; the LGBTI Legal Service in Queensland; Michael Kirby, who spoke at a recent anniversary function at the Queensland Supreme Court in the beautiful Banco Court—I had the very great pleasure of speaking briefly with him; the author Joe Hurst; and a range of other people who have taken the time to speak with me. I also want to thank the many, many people who have written to me, emailed me or telephoned me from the LGBTI community to encourage me and to encourage Labor not to support this proposed national opinion poll.

I also want to acknowledge the Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, for making his ministers available to discuss the plebiscite; the Attorney-General for his invitations to meet to discuss the plebiscite; the Special Minister of State—also for meeting to discuss the plebiscite; other members of the coalition in this parliament who have taken the time to discuss the plebiscite; and crossbench members and senators. From the last parliament, I would like to particularly thank the member for Leichhardt, the then member for Brisbane, the member for Denison, the then member for Werriwa, the member for Melbourne and the member for Indi for allowing me to be included in the cross-party work to bring a marriage equality bill before this parliament. It was a great privilege to be able to second a marriage equality cross-party bill in the 44th Parliament. We actually introduced it twice because the 44th Parliament was prorogued—we introduced the cross-party bill again after that had occurred. We did that in a way that was respectful and collaborative, and we were very, very hopeful that, by working together and reaching out across the aisle, we would be able to find a way to make marriage equality a reality. That is a project that still continues.

Though I certainly do not support this proposal for a national opinion poll, for reasons that I will mention shortly, I very much remain a very strong supporter of marriage equality. I spoke of marriage equality in my first speech in this place, and it is something that I will continue to work towards, because I believe that this country, in its heart, knows that removing this form discrimination is the right thing to do. I also believe that if we will talk and work together we can find a way to do it. I also say to my friends from the Liberal Party and the National Party: 'Even if you don't support marriage equality there is a question you have to consider, and that is: do you want marriage equality to be passed at a later date when you have no input into the form that it takes, or do you want to have some input and some opportunity to discuss it and to try to find a consensus by which we can actually move forward and have marriage equality?' It might mean we have marriage equality sooner, and, certainly, that would be my preference, but it might also be the only way in which people who have concerns about it can actually express those concerns and seek to negotiate them. This does not have to be an adversarial argument; it can be an argument in which we take down the temperature, meet and discuss the possibilities for change.

I also want to thank and acknowledge each person who has ever moved, in this place or in the Senate, a bill for marriage equality, and I want to thank those who are considering how they might be instrumental in bringing about marriage equality in the future. This bill is not a bill for marriage equality. There are no provisions in this bill that seek to amend the Marriage Act to make marriage equality a reality. At 11 pm on Monday night this week the government published a proposed bill for marriage equality, but that bill has not been tabled in this parliament. That bill remains an exposure draft not a bill before this parliament. This bill—the Plebiscite (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill 2016—as I said, is merely a bill for a national opinion poll.

Labor has made why we oppose this bill very clear. Firstly, we are concerned about the waste. As I said, $170 million and $32½ million extra for regulatory cost is a cost to our budget and then to our economy that we do not need to bear. Offhand, if you asked me, I could think of 10 better things—100 better things!—to spend that money on than this plebiscite process. The next issue, in terms of why we oppose it, is that the plebiscite process is really completely unnecessary. The High Court says that parliament has the power to amend the Marriage Act. This plebiscite is so ridiculous. Any Australian could be fined for not voting in this plebiscite, but no member of this House would be obliged to abide by its result—that is how ridiculous this plebiscite is. So our second reason for not supporting it is that it is completely unnecessary.

Probably our most important reason for not supporting it is the potential for harm—the potential for exclusion and marginalisation. Some of the Liberals and Nationals—not all of them, of course—have sought to characterise this as an accusation that Labor does not believe that Australians can be trusted to have a civil debate. That is certainly not the case. We do not claim that Australians cannot be trusted to have a civil debate. That is a ridiculous proposition, and we are being verballed whenever that is said of us. LGBTI people have a higher propensity for anxiety and depression than others. That is particularly exacerbated amongst young people. The source of this is not that people were born with that heightened propensity; it is because of exclusion and marginalisation during the course of their lives. The idea that you have a national vote on whether lesbians, on whether gays, on whether bisexual people, on whether transgendered people and on whether intersex people can, as a minority, have the same human rights as the majority of Australians is inherently exclusive. It is inherently marginalising. It does not matter how polite that debate is, it does not matter if I am polite when I say, 'You should not have the same rights as me; you are not as capable of parenting as I am.' It does not matter how politely you say those things—they are inherently exclusive and they inherently marginalise people. It is the very nature of the debate that causes difficulty. It is the very nature of the idea that people should have to submit themselves to a straw poll of their fellow Australians in order to have the same human rights as they do that is problematic.

People ask why can't we just get over it and just cop it—if it is the quickest path, as is the claim from the Liberals, why don't we just cop it? Firstly, it is certainly not the quickest path—the quickest path is a free vote in this parliament on a marriage equality bill. Secondly, why should people be asked to pay this price? Why should the price of equality for them be the subject of this national straw poll of their fellow Australians? Who among us would divorce our husband or wife and agree not to remarry them until there had been a straw poll of our fellow Australians where a majority had voted to agree to our doing so? I certainly would not agree to that and I doubt that anyone here would agree to it.

There are other issues. There is the concern about what else might we have a plebiscite on if we have a plebiscite on this. What other minority will be expected to submit to a vote of their fellow Australians to have the same human rights? What human rights might be taken away using a mechanism like this? We are a parliament. We should act. We should legislate. We should do our duty and not outsource the hard questions. We are all paid a lot of money to be sent to Canberra to make decisions, to vote. That is our job. That is what we are here for. We should be doing it.

So, there are many reasons why we oppose the plebiscite but there is another that I particularly want to mention. Despite the fact that the Prime Minister and the Attorney-General are trying to convince people that the plebiscite is a direct route to marriage equality, that is just not the case. The bill that was published, but not tabled—the proposed marriage equality bill that the Attorney-General produced on Monday night—has provisions in it that will very likely cause the bill to have difficulty passing. Those provisions include exemptions for celebrants in a situation where celebrants are businesses and exemptions for other commercial businesses where they happen to be owned or run by religious organisations. The concern I have with that is this: if you are blind and you take an assistance animal into a shop and they throw you out, if they refuse you service, that is against the law in this country—and it should be. If you are Aboriginal and you are refused service on that basis, that is against the law. I am a woman—I can go into a public bar and buy a pot of beer, and they cannot chuck me out because I am a woman, because that is against the law. We have had these laws that prohibit businesses from discriminating on the grounds of personal attributes for decades in this country. We have laws that prohibit that sort of discrimination on the basis of sexuality and gender identity. The proposed bill that the Attorney-General proposed erodes those protections. So not only are LGBTI people being asked to pay the price of enduring this process—a process that no-one else has to go through in order to have equality and to have discrimination lifted, that no-one else has to go through in order to have the right to marry—but also they will then be asked to sell part of their existing rights in order to get these rights. They will also be asked to pay a further price, and that is to give up the legal protection that they have had for decades, to accept some of the erosion of those protections, in return for the right to marry.

These prices are too high. People should not be asked to pay these prices in order to have the right to marry—it is wrong. I know it is wrong, the Prime Minister knows it is wrong, the Attorney-General knows it is wrong and Australians know it is wrong and I hope, therefore, that we will be able to continue to talk about what might be other ways to achieve marriage equality, what might be a marriage equality bill that will pass this parliament. If we do not work that out together, it is just going to be the case that when we are in government we will be passing a marriage equality bill that people will not necessarily have had the opportunity to discuss in this parliament. It will be left to us, and we will do it. It will be left to us to pass marriage equality during the course of the first Shorten Labor government. But my preference is not for it to be the Shorten Labor government that passes marriage equality; my preference is for it to be the 45th Parliament that does it together. We can do that—we can work together. I know that some of my friends in this place, not on this side but on the other side, have been making comments that they will not support a marriage equality free vote. I hope that the Prime Minister will not acquiesce, because of course that would serve only to undermine his own authority further. I look forward to working with friends and colleagues to progress marriage equality.

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