Plebiscite (Same-sex marriage) Bill 2016 debate

Labor rejects the false choice presented by the government that it is either a plebiscite or nothing when it comes to marriage equality in Australia.

THE HON MARK DREYFUS QC MP

SHADOW ATTORNEY-GENERAL

SHADOW MINISTER FOR NATIONAL SECURITY

MEMBER FOR ISAACS

 

PLEBISCITE (SAME-SEX MARRIAGE) BILL 2016 DEBATE

HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES, CANBERRA

THURSDAY, 13 OCTOBER 2016


*** CHECK AGAINST DELIVERY ***

 

Labor rejects the false choice presented by the government that it is either a plebiscite or nothing when it comes to marriage equality in Australia. There are bills in the Parliament right now that would make marriage equality a reality if Mr Turnbull would behave like a leader and allow a free vote.

This plebiscite and the Marriage Act amendments released by the Attorney-General at five minutes to midnight before this bill, the Plebiscite (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill 2016, was debated are the clearest indications yet that the Turnbull government, dominated by Senators Bernardi and Abetz, and the member for Dawson and others in the right, will never accept marriage equality. This massively wasteful and divisive plebiscite was devised by the member for Warringah and others in the right wing of the Liberal Party who are opposed to marriage equality. These opponents of marriage equality demanded a plebiscite not because they wanted to progress marriage equality but because they wanted to delay it and, if it all possible, to derail it.

Prime Minister Turnbull had the chance to ditch the plebiscite and make a fresh start on marriage equality when he took over the leadership from the member for Warringah. He chose not to. That was incredibly disappointing to all Australians who had hoped that the member for Wentworth was a man of his convictions and who had pictured the member for Wentworth as a leader who might take our nation in a different direction.

The new Prime Minister's abject failure to do more than follow the destructive tactics concocted by his predecessor, has, of course, been particularly disappointing for Australians from the LGBTI community. The Prime Minister's utter lack of backbone in this matter is plain for all to see. He has had no problem reversing election policies on all manner of economic matters, including his 'ironclad' policy guarantees on superannuation. He claims these changes were necessary to improve policies that he has since discovered were flawed. Backflips on election policies are no problem at all for this Prime Minister when his right-wing colleagues demand them. 'What mandate?' our Prime Minister says. But when virtually all LGBTI Australians tell him that the plebiscite is a fundamentally flawed policy that will cause great harm—a position the Prime Minister himself held when the plebiscite was first proposed—the Prime Minister claims that he is incapable of changing course. 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. It is now up to the Prime Minister to show that, if one mechanism is blocked, he has the wit and courage to find an alternative mechanism.

Labor has made it easy for him to do that. There are bills sitting in the House just waiting for the Prime Minister to act. This plebiscite is no more than a delaying tactic that became coalition party policy after a six-hour party room meeting when a desperate Prime Minister, Mr Abbott, was trying to shore up his leadership. Many of those on the front bench who are now trying to sell the plebiscite as a good idea, including the current Prime Minister and the Attorney-General, were vehemently opposed to the plebiscite when it was first raised.

The Prime Minister does not honestly believe that the plebiscite is a better way to decide this issue than a free vote in Parliament; he just has to pretend as much in order to stay in power and to keep sweet with a handful of his right-wing colleagues. Let me be clear: this is not an argument of principle. A plebiscite is a complete fabrication, at odds with the principles of representative government and counter to over a century of our Parliamentary democratic process. It is a totally dishonest claim to pretend that it is 'good for democracy'.

Like so many other features of Malcolm Turnbull's Prime Ministership so far, his dithering on this issue speaks of an utter weakness and an unwillingness to stand up to the right wing of his own party. Not all Liberals share the Prime Minister's weakness. Liberal Senator from Western Australia Dean Smith, who is proposing to cross the floor to vote against the plebiscite bill when comes to the Senate, wrote in The Sydney Morning Herald last month:

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.

I do not share Senator Smith's views on many matters, but I entirely agree with the principles he expressed and the reasoning he set out in his piece.

The Hon. Michael Kirby, a former High Court judge, made a related point:

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.


Holding plebiscites is just not the way we govern ourselves in Australia. It sets a terrible precedent for making difficult decisions. We, as elected representatives, do not farm out tough questions. We debate them, we talk to stakeholders, we think hard on them, we consult, and we vote. It works. We should not change it now just because it is politically convenient for a weak Prime Minister. The Prime Minister is well aware of what he is doing. But he continues to maintain that he is doing it out of some higher moral duty to give people their say. He knows, and we know, that that is just not true.

The only exception to that principle of representative democracy, the only involvement of a direct public vote on a specific legal change, is when we are compelled by the Australian Constitution to do so because it is the Constitution itself that is to be changed. In those circumstances, Section 128 of the Constitution requires that there be a popular vote and for a majority of people in a majority of the states to be reached. And that is it. There is absolutely no legal reason for this plebiscite. This plebiscite was invented only by those opposed to marriage equality to solve a political problem in the Liberal party room.

Then there is the question of cost. That this government wants to spend $200 million on a needless plebiscite when there are organisations and people around Australia who have borne the brunt of severe cuts under this government and are crying out for relief is just shocking. This Prime Minister is willing to spend $200 million of hard-earned taxpayer money just to save his own neck. The Prime Minister and his frontbench colleagues were bullied by the member for Dawson and his mates into providing a total of $15 million in public funding to the yes and no sides, compounding this waste. Let me be clear: only the no case asked for this money. There was only one side of the case they were seeking to satisfy in this situation, and that is the one that is driving conservative, reactionary ideology. This entire process has been captive to that cause, and it is plain for all to see.

Since the idea of this plebiscite was first introduced by the member for Warringah, as a former Prime Minister fighting for his life, the government has ignored the very real and very cruel impact the plebiscite would have on the vulnerable LGBTI community. This is a population which is already vastly overrepresented when it comes to mental health issues and suicide rates. And this government wants to inflict further harm.

This week we saw research from Ireland on the impact on the LGBTI community there of their referendum on marriage equality. This was a public vote which, I note, Ireland had to have as the existing definition of 'marriage' was enshrined in their constitution. That survey found that 75.5 per cent of participants often or always felt angry when they were exposed to campaign messages from the no campaign before the referendum, 80 per cent felt upset by the no campaign materials, and two-thirds felt anxious or distressed. Younger LGBTI people scored lower on psychological wellbeing compared with older people, including feeling anxious and afraid.

This is a message that I have heard over and over again from the LGBTI community throughout Australia. At one round table of LGBTI mental health experts, which I attended with the Leader of the Opposition and a number of my other colleagues, at an organisation called Drummond street services in Carlton, I was told that calls to their LGBTI mental health hotline had doubled since the debate about the plebiscite started. Labor has taken the time to consult extensively with the LGBTI community all around Australia—unlike the Prime Minister, who I believe has not had one public meeting, and unlike Senator Brandis, who only took the time briefly last week to call those he was meeting with 'fools'. The LGBTI community are the ones most affected by the issue we are now debating. LGBTI Australians deserve to be listened to, and LGBTI Australians have been telling us loud and clear that they do not want this plebiscite.

I have received a stream of correspondence from the LGBTI community over the last few weeks, including a letter from John Challis, in Sydney, who is 88. I know the Member for Sydney is also familiar with John and has mentioned him already in this place. John's partner, Arthur, is 84. They have been together 49 years. They wrote to urge me not to support the plebiscite. They said they would be happy to wait a bit longer to marry in order to avoid the plebiscite. I find that incredible. It shows a patience and kindness that says a lot about the LGBTI community in Australia and the attitude they have taken on this plebiscite.

Labor does not regret opposing this plebiscite. We do not regret rejecting something that will inflict hurt, that will waste $200 million of taxpayer money and that will not even be binding on coalition MPs once it is done. We do not regret opposing this political trick the Prime Minister wants to pull off. The Prime Minister and Attorney-General will try and convince the Australian people that the cause of marriage equality is now dead. Do not listen to them. The cause of marriage equality is more alive than ever. This plebiscite proposal, no matter how pointless it was, mobilised the movement for marriage equality more than anything else has in some years. And if anybody thinks that the movement for marriage equality in Australia is going to go away now, to use the language of the Attorney-General, you are a fool. Labor will keep up the fight. We will keep pushing for a free vote on marriage equality in this Parliament. We will not let this slip and we will not give this up. I call on Australians who support marriage equality not to lose hope and to keep up the fight. Join with us.

To the Prime Minister I would say: you tried to force Australians to accept a plebiscite and you have failed. The LGBTI community do not want it and the people across Australia who support the LGBTI community in their quest for equality also do not support it. It is absolutely clear that this has been a mounting majority of Australians who oppose this plebiscite. That has happened over the course of this year, as the Australian community has realised what waste, what harm, what division would be caused by this plebiscite and, I would suggest, as the Australian people have come to realise how unnecessary this plebiscite is.

Australians want their Parliament to do the job that their Parliament was elected to do—that is, to consider the hard issues that arise in Australia and to debate those hard issues and to vote on those hard issues. There are a legion of hard issues that this Parliament has looked at in more than a century of federation, and on all of the occasions when the rights of Australians have been altered, the rights of Australians in Australian law, they have been altered by a vote in this Parliament. We did not need a plebiscite to decide that we should ban racial discrimination in this country. We did not need a plebiscite when we changed the laws to permit Aboriginal Australians to marry non-Aboriginal Australians, to allow what was once decried as 'mixed race marriages'—just to put this in context. We did not have a plebiscite when we decided to remove discrimination against LGBTI people in 88 pieces of Commonwealth legislation in the 43rd Parliament. I could go on, but the point is that we do not invite the whole of the Australian population to vote and we have never invited the whole of the Australian population to vote on the rights of other Australians, except where there was some constitutional change involved.

I call on the Prime Minister to stand up for something, to admit that you, the Prime Minister, never wanted this plebiscite to happen either. The Prime Minister and the frontbench of the government have it within their power to bring about a free vote in this Parliament, and I call on the government to do just that: to drop this ridiculous idea of a plebiscite and to allow a free vote on marriage equality today.

ENDS