The best time to remove discrimination in marriage was already. The second best time is as soon as possible. People across this nation are asking parliamentarians to get our act together. It is well past time to get this done.
This is not about which political party you support. People from across the political landscape support marriage equality. They may do so because of a belief in liberty, or a belief in fairness. They may do so because they have friends or family who wish to marry, but can’t. This is an issue that crosses party lines.
Yet there have been suggestions of reprisals. One Coalition frontbencher has called upon his colleagues who support marriage equality to resign. There’s been a suggestion that Coalition members supporting marriage equality could lose their preselection. The implications extend further than marriage equality. There must not be recriminations against those who contribute, properly and respectfully, to discussion of issues of national significance, like this one. The risks for the quality of parliamentary debate, and for our democracy, are obvious.
Along with the recriminations, the excuses must stop. Labor has been working towards a cross-party bill throughout this term. More than a year before Bill Shorten and Tanya Plibersek tabled their bill in May, Labor had written to the Coalition asking for someone to second a marriage equality bill. And after our bill was tabled in May, Bill Shorten made it clear that what mattered to him was the outcome, not whose names were on the legislation.
At the time, Tony Abbott said “if our parliament were to make a big decision on a matter such as this, it ought to be owned by the parliament and not by any particular party.” Leader of the House Christopher Pyne added that the bill should be moved by a member of one party and seconded by another.
Today, there’s a bill to which members of the governing party, the opposition party, and the cross-benches have contributed. There’s a mover and seconder from different parties. It’s a bill that the whole parliament can own, and that can be the platform for a debate in which the whole parliament can participate.
Yet even though the preconditions that Mr Abbott and Mr Pyne set have been met, more excuses are being made, and more obstacles are being put in marriage equality’s path.
It looks like parliamentary tactics may be deployed against the bill. Mr Abbott has claimed that he can remember only two or three private members’ bills being voted upon in his time in Parliament. Yet private members’ bills were passed into law just in the last term on issues as diverse as the Auditor-General, journalists’ privilege, low aromatic fuel, protection for firefighters and Territories’ self-government.
There have been divisions - recorded votes - on a number of private members’ bills during Tony Abbott’s own parliamentary career. When John Howard was prime minister, there were free votes on euthanasia, embryo research, RU486 and human cloning bills. From opposition, Mr Abbott moved private member’s bills (on the carbon tax, and unions) that went to a vote.
And Mr Abbott surely remembers MPs getting the opportunity to speak about his own private member’s bills, about terrorism and wild rivers, that didn’t go to a vote. Claiming that private members’ bills aren’t usually debated is just another excuse.
As is the silly idea that this is a distraction, or that the government’s too busy with other priorities. Calling marriage equality a “distraction” is nothing short of insulting to all those who wish to marry, or see their family or friends marry.
And as for the question of priorities: what a red herring! The bill is fit to be debated and to be put to a vote. The implication that a focus on jobs, economic growth and national security prevents the parliament from dealing with this bill is an insult to Australians’ intelligence. We set aside time to debate private members’ business every sitting week. We can find time for this.
It’s time Mr Abbott made good on the promise he made to his MPs, that they would be given a ‘very full, frank and candid and decent’ debate about the issue in the party room.
I hope that Coalition members and senators insist on debating this bill, and on a free vote. I know they’ve heard the personal stories of those who want change, as I have. In speaking on marriage equality in the House, I’ve spoken about close friends and about complete strangers. There are a lot of unfinished love stories are out there. Our parliament has the chance to open up the right for everyone to include marriage in their attempt at ‘happily ever after’. Let’s keep working until we make it happen.
This opinion piece was first published in The Sunday Age on Sunday, 5 July 2015.