5 December 2017, Canberra, Australia
I want to begin my remarks tonight by saying to all LGBTI Australians that I'm sorry. I'm sorry that the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017 took so long. Every day that a person is forced to live in our society with lesser rights than their neighbour is an injustice. We perpetuated and perpetrated an injustice on LGBTIQ Australians for far, far too long.
It is right that the parliament will this week vote to extend equality before the law to LGBTIQ couples and their families. It is right that elected members of this place will vote to afford the most basic of dignities to LGBTIQ Australians: the recognition that their relationships are just as loving, that their relationships are just as meaningful and that their relationships are just as committed as anyone else's.
I'm sorry, too, for what this parliament put LGBTIQ Australians through to get to this vote. I take responsibility for the inaction of previous Labor governments on this issue during our time in office, recognising the efforts of the member for Whitlam in introducing the 2012 marriage equality private member's bill and the 42 members of parliament, including the Leader of the Opposition, who voted for it. I recognise also the extraordinary work of people like Senator Penny Wong, who worked assiduously within party forums for many years to change Labor Party policy on this issue so that when marriage equality passes in this parliament this week it will do so with more votes from the Labor Party than any other party—but recognising our responsibility for failing to get it done in the past.
I'm sorry that LGBTIQ Australians were forced by this parliament to submit themselves, to submit their rights as equal members of our society, to a national public debate and opinion poll before we could get them to this point in this place. For these reasons, while I'm glad to be able to vote for this bill, I cannot take joy from it. Historians will note the public celebrations following the announcement of the results of this survey, celebrations that the Prime Minister had the good sense to realise that he would not be welcome at. But, in doing so, they will miss a deeper truth of this period in our history. Australians who support justice, equality and human dignity celebrated this result because the alternative would have been unimaginably painful. We celebrate it because a process that inflicted totally unnecessary pain and suffering on LGBTIQ Australians and their families would have re-traumatised these Australians had the result been in the negative. We celebrate it because the next generation of LGBTIQ kids will not have to go through a similar national debate on the worth of themselves and their families.
But these celebrations obscured the hurt, confusion and anxiety that I saw my LGBTIQ friends and family had been put through in this ghoulish process. History should record the repulsion that many of us felt at seeing the Prime Minister take credit for these celebrations while denying the suffering that he chose to inflict on LGBTIQ Australians and their families. I want to give these deeply mixed feelings a voice in this debate today. To this end I want the Hansard to record for posterity the reflections of a comedian who I admire, Rebecca Shaw, and her experience of this process. Bec wrote:
I thought that hearing that the Yes side had won would make me feel happy; that perhaps the months of tension and anger that had built up in my body would dissipate. But the instant I heard those words, I felt my stomach knot further. I turned to my group, more subdued than most of the people around me. I hugged my friends, holding on quietly and for a long time. One looked at me from under her glasses; her face was solemn, but I saw tears streaming down her face. Another was shaking their head angrily. Around me, people were smiling and hugging; … I saw an old couple embrace tearfully. I cried a bit, then – how could I not? But the knot didn't budge.
I can't speak on the perspective of an LGBTIQ person myself, but I can feel this knot in my stomach in this debate today, and I could feel it coming in the lead-up to the results.
I knew I wouldn't be in the mood to celebrate on the day of the results, so I had accepted an invitation to speak at the graduation ceremony of my old high school on the day before. I was optimistic for my old school in regional Queensland, in Toowoomba, which, it was clear to me, was far more enlightened today than it was when I was there 20 years ago. The school now had LGBTIQ kids and transitioning kids, things that were simply denied when I was at the school. But my optimism turned to bitterness when, watching the results, a 'no' result was returned for the seat of Groom in the survey. I felt for those kids as the 'no' result was returned. How did this unnecessary public process of judgement make them feel, this public confirmation of their worst fears about the community that they lived in? What message does this send to an LGBTIQ kid in that community?
It is clear we still have a long path to walk to ensuring that all LGBTIQ Australians throughout our country are afforded recognition as fully equal members of our society. For those who inflicted this process on Australia, I can only express my hope that future governments have the good sense and the political courage not to let it loose on the human rights of other groups. Regardless, the Prime Minister and the Liberal Party will have to live with the question of why they forced LGBTIQ Australians to submit their rights, their equality as citizens, to a national debate when no other race or religious group has been forced to do the same without constitutional requirement. This is the Prime Minister's legacy in this debate.
All of us in this place should make amends for the way that we have failed LGBTIQ Australians leading up to this bill by ensuring that we do not perpetrate similar injustices in future, that we do not commit similar failures of empathy. The relationships of future generations of LGBTIQ Australians won't be subject to legal discrimination, but we will need to continue to ensure that they do not confront social and other forms of discrimination. The reactionaries in our society who seek to exploit and accentuate anxieties about people who are perceived to be different will move on to a new target.
The parliament and the public have so clearly rejected homophobia. The tiny minority of people who think that religion is like a toy plastic sheriff's badge to wave at other people rather than a source of personal moral reflection will be tutting their fingers at someone else soon enough. Indeed, it is clear from the way that the 'no' campaign desperately tried to make the marriage equality survey about anything other than marriage between LGBTIQ Australians that the reactionaries have already chosen their new target—trans kids. The disgracefully dishonest and fact-free campaign against the Safe Schools program comprehensively detailed by Ben Law in his tour de force quarterly essay is a sign of things to come on this front. So, to the MPs who are professing to a Damoclean conversion on marriage equality and recognising the equal human dignity of gay and lesbian Australians in the chamber this week: I implore you not to make the same mistake over again with trans Australians. To the trans Australians and their families watching this debate with trepidation, I want to say that I see you and I will not abandon you.
I have a few happier words to end on. I want to thank and pay tribute to all of the campaigners who ensured that Australia said yes in this survey. Thank you to The Equality Campaign, Australians for Marriage Equality, GetUp! and the Australian trade union movement, particularly the Victorian Trades Hall Council. I want to particularly acknowledge the work of a constituent of mine, Wil Stracke, who led the trades hall campaign and acquired the most famous fence in Australia in the process. Your mum would have been proud, mate. Also I want to thank Raymond Pham for coordinating my office's 'yes' campaign in Gellibrand. In a perfect world, we could have done without their good deeds, but we are thankful for them regardless.
Finally, I want to thank all of those LGBTIQ Australians who lost people that they loved during the long, long wait for this day. When the Western Bulldogs won the flag after a 62-year drought, one of the most common things that I heard at the family day at Whitten Oval the day after the premiership was people wishing that they could have shared this long-anticipated moment of happiness with a loved one who never got to see the day. Lovers, family and friends will be feeling the same way about the vote in this parliament: lovers who never got to propose to the person they love; parents who never got to walk their child down the aisle; children who didn't have a parent there to walk them down the aisle; and friends who never believed that this day of equality would come. The happiness of the breakthrough moment after so long makes the feeling of these losses freshly painful. Many people in the LGBTIQ community and their family members will be feeling this way at the moment. I know I'm feeling this way. I'm thinking of those members of my family who are in the same boat.