Second Reading Speech: Marriage amendment (definition and religious freedoms) Bill 2017

Last week this House did not sit but I came to Canberra to support our senators in the historic work they were doing to pass the bill that is now before us. And pass it they did, with a thumping majority of 43 in favour to 12 against.














I start with congratulations to the member for Goldstein.


Last week this House did not sit but I came to Canberra to support our senators in the historic work they were doing to pass the bill that is now before us. And pass it they did, with a thumping majority of 43 in favour to 12 against.


I've now been a member of this Parliament for 10 years. Last Wednesday, when the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017 passed the other place, it was one of the most momentous days I can remember in a decade of parliamentary work.


In the third reading debate on this bill last Wednesday, Labor's leader in the Senate—a courageous and tireless advocate for marriage equality—declared:


Every day it is a great privilege to stand in this place, but there are some days which are of great moment, which change our country for the better. This is such a day.


This week, in this place, it is my sincere hope and intention that we will reaffirm the momentous decision taken by our Senate colleagues last week and pass this bill, unamended, to make marriage equality a reality.


It is easy to understand why so many Australians find federal politics so difficult to engage with over recent years. The hyper-partisanship that has infected our national debate in so many areas is dispiriting for many Australians who do not want to see partisan scrapping but want to see the national Parliament as a venue for a genuine contest of ideas, a place in which the elected members look at what needs to be done and then work out how to best bring that change about, a place in which we engage in debate with sincerity, authenticity and passion to determine how best to—as Senator Wong said—change our country for the better.


There's no doubt in my mind, or in my heart, that this bill will make our country better. It does this by ending a significant form of discrimination against a great many Australians and transforming what has been a source of ongoing pain into a source of joy for all those LGBTIQ Australians who want to express their love through the institution of marriage. Fundamentally, this bill is about expanding freedom in our nation by granting to all Australians the freedom to marry the person they love.


I have no doubt that this government's marriage law survey was conceived as a delaying tactic by those opposed to marriage equality. But, as wasteful, divisive and destructive as that survey was, it has shown, indisputably, that the large majority of Australians, in every state and in every territory, support marriage equality. Our job now as members of this Parliament is to deliver on the clearly expressed wish of the people.


So many bills introduced into this place are cooked up in secret and then dumped without warning into the parliament. In some egregious cases the government uses its numbers to rush through those bills without meaningful debate, without the people directly impacted by those laws or the wider Australian public having a chance to even read them. An example that leaps to mind for me are the changes to native title law, which were rammed through this House by the government against Labor opposition in February this year. Fortunately, the government does not control the Senate, so the opposition and the crossbench senators are often able to demand public consultation on laws that this government would rather pass without scrutiny.


This bill which was introduced in the Senate on Wednesday, 15 November—but which was made public months earlier—is not such a bill; in fact it is the opposite. What this bill does is embody in law the unanimous recommendations of a Senate multiparty committee report on the appropriate form of legislation for marriage equality.


That committee comprised members from the government, from Labor, from the Greens and from the crossbench. It consulted extensively with the Australian community over a number of months. And, then, the members of that committee worked hard to hammer out a unanimous, consensus position.


Cross-party agreement on a contentious manner is a rare event in our politics but that committee achieved it, and this bill honours that unanimous position. We should not fracture that rare consensus now.


This bill is not perfect, but consensus is built through compromise. The point is that the compromises made in this bill are acceptable compromises. There are some who argued passionately against any kind of exemptions from our antidiscrimination laws. Those advocates argued, among other things, that to allow religious bodies and individuals to continue to discriminate against LGBTIQ Australians wanting to marry, despite the passage of laws for marriage equality, undermines the very principles of nondiscrimination that this bill is founded on. But they compromised. It was painful for many, but the majority of those advocates came to accept that a competing value, that of freedom of religion, would also have to be accommodated in giving effect to marriage equality.


On the other side, too, compromises were made. Many religious groups and individuals who subscribe to religious doctrines which hold that LGBTIQ people cannot marry came to accept that their religious faith was not affected by the fact that other people might have a different view of marriage. They did, however, insist that, given the deep spiritual significance of marriage ceremony, ministers and religious celebrants should not be obliged to solemnise marriages for LGBTIQ Australians if to do so was contrary to their religious beliefs.


Protection for ministers of religion is provided for in explicit and extensive terms by this bill and will become law if this bill is passed. I will read the relevant part, section 47(3), because, from some of the commentary we have heard about this bill, you might think that it contained no protection for freedom of religion at all.


A minister of religion may refuse to solemnise a marriage despite anything in this Part, if any of the following applies:

    (a)  the refusal conforms to the doctrines, tenets or beliefs of the religion of the minister's religious body or religious organisation;

    (b) the refusal is necessary to avoid injury to the religious susceptibilities of adherents to that religion;

    (c)  the minister's religious beliefs do not allow the minister to solemnise the marriage.


And then there's an additional subsection (4):


This section does not limit the grounds on which a minister of religion may refuse to solemnise a marriage.


The bill also provides comparable protections for the religious freedoms of an entirely new category of marriage celebrant—a religious marriage celebrant. This new category is created by the bill to cover marriage celebrants who are not ministers of a recognised religion but who nevertheless claim a religious objection to solemnising same-sex weddings. Again, to allow celebrants, who are empowered to solemnise marriages by the civil law of Australia, to be able to discriminate against LGBTIQ Australians, despite the passage of civil laws allowing for marriage equality, involved a major compromise on the part of many advocates of marriage equality.


This is what section 47A of the bill states:


(1)   A religious marriage celebrant may refuse to solemnise a marriage despite anything in this Part, if the celebrant's religious beliefs do not allow the celebrant to solemnise the marriage.


And I'll go on to mention section 47B, which provides further protection for religious bodies in these terms:


(1)   A body established for religious purposes may refuse to make a facility available, or to provide goods or services, for the purposes of the solemnisation of a marriage, or for purposes reasonably incidental to the solemnisation of a marriage, if the refusal:

   (a)  conforms to the doctrines, tenets of beliefs of the religion of the body; or

   (b) is necessary to avoid injury to the religious susceptibilities of adherents of that religion.


I've read out all these provisions because I want to make clear the extent to which this bill protects the freedom of those with religious views opposed to same-sex marriage. It protects them to enable them to continue to live their lives in accordance with those views. Labor supports religious freedom and Labor respects the fact that there are a range of views on the question of marriage equality and on how religious freedoms should be protected.


This bill provides appropriate protections for freedom of religion in relation to marriage while also implementing the clearly expressed will of the Australian people to make marriage equality law. There is no need for further amendments.


The issue of how best to balance competing human rights is a perennial one and I, and my Labor colleagues, welcome debate on how best to protect religious freedoms in our nation while, at the same time, protecting other human rights such as the right to freedom from discrimination. But the debate on this bill is not the right time or place to engage in such a wide and far-ranging debate. Debates about how better to protect human rights, including freedom of religion, are vitally important for healthy democratic nations such as ours. It's precisely because of the importance of these debates that they should not be rushed but be open, considered debates that involve the entire Australian community.


In recognition of the complex nature of new legislative measures to protect religious freedoms, the Prime Minister has established an expert panel tasked with conducting a broader view of protections for religious freedom. The panel will be chaired by Philip Ruddock, a former Attorney-General, and includes Australian Human Rights Commission president Rosalind Croucher, former Federal Court judge Annabelle Bennett and Jesuit priest and human rights lawyer Frank Brennan. If people and organisations want to engage in a wider discussion about the protection of freedom of religion in our nation, that discussion should occur under the auspices of the Philip Ruddock panel.


In closing, I want to return to the historic significance of the bill now before us and to thank some of the many people who have been instrumental in fighting to make marriage equality a reality in our nation, a reality we are now on the cusp of delivering. The changes to our nation that will be made by this bill have been hard fought for over many years.


A number of members of this parliament from all parties have worked tirelessly to bring us to this historic moment. Senator Penny Wong, Senator Louise Pratt, Senator Dean Smith and Senator Janet Rice have all played a vital role. In this House there are too many to name, but the leadership of the member for Maribyrnong, the Leader of the Opposition, and of the member for Sydney, the deputy leader, in the fight for marriage equality has been outstanding. And they have been enthusiastically supported by many members of our caucus, including, in particular, the member for Whitlam and the member for Griffith.


Across the aisle I want to acknowledge the courageous stance of the member for Leichardt, the member for North Sydney, the member for Brisbane and the member for Goldstein, who have had to swim very hard indeed against the current in their own party.


But, of course, the greatest thanks must go to the many members of the Australian LGBTIQ community who, for years, have campaigned for this momentous change to our laws. I want to thank everyone in Rainbow Labor. There are so many people I could name and thank for their involvement in this campaign, but a few of those I've worked closely with and whose contribution has been extraordinary, are Anna Brown and Lee Carnie from the Human Rights Law Centre, Rodney Croome, Corey Irlam, Tom Snow, Tim Gartrell recently, and Alex Greenwich throughout.


This is a great moment for our country. At long last, after too long a delay, we have a bill to achieve marriage equality before the House of Representatives—a bill which has already passed the Senate. It will be a greater moment when, as I sincerely hope, this bill passes this House and marriage equality is finally a reality. It will be a moment which makes Australia a better place.