Address to the Freedom for Faith Conference, Melbourne

I have long been a supporter of marriage equality. That does not mean that I do not appreciate that it is an issue that is difficult for many people. It is an issue that has been difficult for many within my own party.

THE HON MARK DREYFUS QC MP

SHADOW ATTORNEY-GENERAL

SHADOW MINISTER FOR NATIONAL SECURITY

MEMBER FOR ISAACS

 

ADDRESS TO THE FREEDOM FOR FAITH CONFERENCE, MELBOURNE

FRIDAY, 23 SEPTEMBER 2016

*** CHECK AGAINST DELIVERY ***

 

Let me begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, and their elders past and present.

It is interesting – and not uncoincidental, I’m sure – that today’s conference is taking place in the middle of the current debate on marriage equality in Australia.

It is a debate which has already taken several unedifying turns, and that is before the idea of a plebiscite is even put to a vote in Parliament – a topic that I will return to later.

I do understand that many of you attending this conference are here today because of a concern that marriage equality, which I think is an inevitability in Australia, is linked with threats to religious freedom.

I think it is that concern which is driving a significant part of the “no” campaign in Australia. My aim in this speech today is to convince you that fear is unfounded.

 

1.

I have long been a supporter of marriage equality. That does not mean that I do not appreciate that it is an issue that is difficult for many people. It is an issue that has been difficult for many within my own party.

And as someone who has participated in a number of Australian Labor Party national conferences, as someone who was involved in a complete rewrite of the national platform of the Australian Labor Party in 2009, I probably am in a position to stay I appreciate more than most the level of difficulty that this has created within my own party.

Indeed, I think we can say it is an issue which has gained mainstream acceptance in a relatively short time – in the space of just three years, four major English-speaking western democracies – the United Kingdom, United States, Ireland and New Zealand – made marriage equality legal. They all got there by slightly different routes, for constitutional reasons and legal reasons but nevertheless they have arrived, and it’s all happened in the space of the last three years.

Australia is now looked at in terms of English-speaking democracies, or Western democracies, developed countries around the world, as something of an outlier. And we are – in my view – unquestionably swimming against the tide.

Marriage equality will happen in Australia. It is not a question of if, but when and how. The argument I think has long been settled for a majority of Australians, as repeated opinion polls show. That is because it comes down to a simple truth – love is love. Love is love whether or not you understand it, whether it makes sense to you, or whether it accords with a particular belief you have of right and wrong. It just is.

It is not right for us to judge another person’s love. It is not right for us to deny equal rights to another person because they do not match with what our idea of love should be. “Love thy neighbour” does not come with conditions.

Last week in Parliament we had a group of children from Rainbow Families come to visit Australian Parliament House. I challenge anyone to look into the eyes of those kids, to see the love shown by their parents, and tell them it’s right that their mums or their dads can’t get married if they want to. It just doesn’t make sense to me.

The reason we do not yet have marriage equality in Australia is not because our society is not ready for it. It is because of politicians – and I do not absolve my own party in this, I should note.

 

2.

If we take as given that marriage equality will happen in Australia, which I believe it will, then it is worth thinking about how it can be achieved harmoniously. And it is absolutely worth thinking through how it would interact with ideas of religious freedom.

Let us set out some facts here.

When marriage equality is legalised in Australia, no ministers, imams or rabbis will be forced to marry same-sex couples if they do not wish to. No religions will be forced to change their teachings. Religious people who do not believe in marriage equality will be able to continue to express their views without prejudice should they wish to. We do, after all, live in a free society.

When marriage equality is posited as a threat to religious freedom, I would like to understand exactly, practically, what we’re talking about.

For what is actually meant when we talk about the concept of “religious freedom” in Australia?

Religious freedom has always given Australians the right to practise religion as they please, to preach as they please (provided they are not inciting violence) and to express religious opinions as they please.

Marriage equality will not interfere with any of these things. How can it? There is nothing innate in same-sex marriage which prevents you or anyone else from maintaining a religious belief system.

I understand part of the argument is that enacting same-sex marriage in law is an encroachment of the state on religious belief systems. If so, it is at least curious that Senator David Leyonhjelm, the arch Libertarian in the Australian Senate, supports marriage equality.

I mention that because it’s been a long time, perhaps we’ve never had someone who is so fiercely committed to Libertarian ideas. We’ve had a range of right-wing conservative politicians occupy seats in the Senate, but that kind of pure Libertarian view which is against just about all forms of government regulation, we’ve rarely seen. It’s one that is espoused by Senator Leyonhjelm. I’d say again that it is curious that – if it’s true that enacting same-sex marriage would be an encroachment of the state on religious belief systems – Senator Leyonhjelm is a supporter of marriage equality.

If the argument is that a person’s idea of what a traditional society should look like is under threat then certainly, that can be argued as much as that person likes. But let us not confuse personal notions of “traditional society” with ideas about religious freedom, confusing the principles that underpin it altogether.

I would in fact make this appeal – by embracing marriage equality, and the freedom of others to marry who they love – religious freedom is itself strengthened. Let us not lose perspective here – religious freedom is not fragile in Australia. Organised religions in Australia are robust and able to embrace change, not treat it as an existential threat. For the world will not end when marriage equality becomes a reality, just as it has not in the United States, New Zealand, Ireland, Canada or the United Kingdom where organised religion has continued just fine.

 

3.

The debate we are having now is not about whether we should have marriage equality or not, in truth. It is about the best mechanism for achieving it.

Having said that, this government-proposed plebiscite – which will cost taxpayers more than $200 million to hold – was indeed dreamed up by people who wish to delay and defeat the cause of marriage equality.

It’s an idea that became coalition party policy after a six-hour party meeting when a desperate Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, was trying to shore up his leadership. Many of those on the frontbench who are now trying to sell the plebiscite as a good idea – Malcolm Turnbull and George Brandis are the two names I am thinking of – were vehemently opposed to a plebiscite when it was first raised.

Malcolm Turnbull and Senator Brandis don’t honestly believe that a plebiscite is a better way to decide this issue than a free vote in Parliament, they just have to pretend as much in order to stay in power. So their arguments in favour of the plebiscite should be taken, it seems to me, with a very large grain of salt.

Let me be clear – this is not an argument of principle. The idea that a plebiscite is being pursued because it is “good for democracy” is a chimera and totally dishonest.

Like so many other features of Malcolm Turnbull’s Prime Ministership so far, it speaks of an utter weakness and an unwillingness to stand up to the right wing of his own party.

Mr Turnbull doesn’t believe in a plebiscite any more than I do. I’m sure it pains him every time he has to defend it. And yet defend it he does, because he must, because that is how weak his hold on the leadership is.

My reasons for deep concern about a plebiscite fall into three categories – the precedent it sets, the ridiculous cost to taxpayers, and the damage it could do to the LGBTI community.

First, on the question of precedent, I would like to quote Liberal Senator from Western Australia Dean Smith in a piece he wrote for Fairfax last week.

“As a lifelong parliamentary and constitutional conservative, I cannot countenance a proposition that threatens to undermine the democratic compact that has seen Australia emerge as one of the most stable parliamentary democracies in the world,” Senator Smith wrote. And in that piece he confirmed that he is proposing to cross the floor to vote against the plebiscite bill if and when it arises in the Senate.

I may not sit on the same side of the aisle as Senator Smith, but I entirely agree with the principles he’s expressing and the reasoning he explained in his piece. I wonder if the same people who are now supporting a plebiscite - something that has formed no part of Australian democracy in around 100 years - on the basis that it is good for democracy would also approve of putting the legalizing of euthanasia to a public vote? Or perhaps whether they would support a public vote on government funding for religious schools? Or whether they would support a public vote on the military deployment of Australian forces?

The Honourable Michael Kirby, former High Court Judge, made a related point which I will quote:

“It is exceptional and wrong in principle to commit decisions on the basic human rights of minorities to a majority popular vote, especially in a country such as Australia which, exceptionally, has no entrenched constitutional guarantees for equality or fundamental human rights to protect minorities. For protection, minorities look to parliament to protect them. It should not shirk from that duty.”

A plebiscite is just not the way we govern ourselves. It has not been the way we govern ourselves as Australians, and we should not start down this path of a different form of government. And if you think I’m putting it too highly I would invite you all to reflect on the way in which our representative Parliamentary democracy works. It works, as we have all become very accustomed to, because we are one of the longest continuous parliamentary democracies in the world, it works by regular elections at which we elect members of Parliament to sit in two houses, to represent us, to bring their consciences to bear on the questions that come before Parliament, and to vote. And by that process, to make the laws which govern us.

And the only exception to that, the only involvement of a public vote on an actual issue is one when we are compelled by the Australian constitution in Section 128, where we are told by that provision that if the constitution is to be changed, then and only then is there to be a popular vote for the people of Australia with the somewhat awkward requirement that we are required to not only achieve a majority of the people in Australia but we are required to achieve a majority of the states. And that’s it. Those are the circumstances where our system requires a public vote. Not this invented notion, one entirely invented to solve a political problem in the Liberal Party room.

Politicians are elected to make decisions, not to avoid the difficult questions when it becomes politically convenient to do so. It is our job to listen to our constituents, to talk to stakeholders, to make judgements in concert with our colleagues. That is what we are elected to do and paid to do.

Then there is the question of cost. That this government can in the same breath be talking about the need to tighten our belts while it plans to spend $200 million on a task that the Parliament can do at no extra cost is ludicrous. There are many valuable things taxpayer money can be spent on – Community Legal Centres in my portfolio comes to mind as one example, Community Legal Centres which are struggling to keep their doors open – but the plebiscite is not one of those valuable things that taxpayer money can be spent on.

On top of the base cost to run the plebiscite which comes from the Australian Electoral Commission, the coalition party room decided last week to add a total $15 million in public funding to the “yes” and “no” sides. This is totally unnecessary. Neither side need the money in order to conduct a campaign. Only the “no” side has asked for it.

This is not a referendum, where a national vote has to be held for a change to be made to our Constitution, and there are valid arguments for public funding in that case.

This is a glorified opinion poll, which will tell us what polling companies told us just this week at no cost to the taxpayer, that the majority of Australians support marriage equality.

That same poll also told us that Australians do not approve of taxpayer funding being delivered to both sides. Unsurprisingly, they would prefer to see their taxpayer dollars being spent elsewhere, in far more productive ways. Perhaps to boost jobs. That $200 million could fund hospitals, schools, infrastructure – I could go on and on. It’s just outrageous that it is being spent on a plebiscite instead that could do more harm than good to our society.

And that leads me to me last point. I am deeply concerned at the detrimental impact a plebiscite will have on the LGBTI community and their children. This community is already overrepresented in terms of mental health issues and suicide rates. I went to a roundtable of LGBTI mental health experts earlier this week with Bill Shorten and a number of my other colleagues at an organisation not far from here called Drummond Street Services in Carlton. They have an LGBTI mental health hotline and they say their calls have increased two-fold – doubled – since the debate about the plebiscite started.

I am concerned that the plebiscite will give licence to some parts of the Australian community to air hateful and harmful views – on both sides, potentially. To vulnerable people, words can be daggers, no matter how well-meant. I am not saying that the majority of Australians on both sides are not capable of conducting the debate respectfully.

But at base, we are talking about a “no” campaign which will be running television ads, funded with taxpayer dollars, that will be arguing that homosexuals do not deserve equal rights. I think that is absolutely wrong. And if I think of a young and vulnerable LGBTI Australian in country Australia, far from any support network, watching those ads over Christmas and New Year I fear for them, deeply.

 

4.

The Labor Party will go through its usual caucus process and take a formal position on the plebiscite legislation when we next meet in mid-October.

As a party we have had serious misgivings about this plebiscite since it was announced. As further details have emerged, those concerns have only deepened. The coalition did not consult with Labor on the design of the plebiscite, and the decisions to include public funding for “yes” and “no” campaigns as well as the failure to make the bill self-executing have taken it further away from something Labor could easily support.

I’ll say again, marriage equality will happen in Australia. When it does, I would prefer that it be an uplifting experience as it has been in other countries.

People say that this will be a big social change in Australia – indeed it may be. That is why it is important that we approach it together. As a united country, not a divided one, that turns itself towards love.

That does not mean it has to be accompanied by a damaging $200 million plebiscite. Marriage equality can happen in a day, in Parliament. We’ve seen the speed with which Parliament can act when the government permits it or wishes it. We had as it happens an example in 2004 when then-Prime Minister John Howard announced at a conference that there would be an amendment to the Marriage Act and within a day, that amendment to the Marriage Act had actually happened, passing through both Houses of Parliament.

There need not be fear about marriage equality in Australia. There is no need to oppose marriage equality on the basis of religious freedom. The two are not related. I challenge anyone to stand up and tell me today that their personal belief system will be weakened by a stranger getting married to the person they love.

Acceptance and kindness will benefit everyone, no matter their personal beliefs.

Thank you very much for inviting me here to speak today.

ENDS