Senator Larissa Waters on gay marriage

Senator Larissa Waters on gay marriage

Senator Larissa Waters (Greens, Qld) supports gay marriage:

I rise to speak in support of the Marriage Amendment Bill (No. 2) 2012—now one of four bills on this issue. I am really proud that the chamber is giving this issue some time and of course that the Greens have been driving this debate. I want to pay tribute to my colleague Senator Sarah Hanson-Young for her leadership in this regard. But I think it is incredibly disappointing and, in fact, a very cynical move by the government that they are bringing on this legislation in the full knowledge that it will go down, and it will not get the support that the community wants. I think that is a great shame.

I am pleased that the government has changed its party platform and are allowing its members to have a conscience vote. But we urgently need better leadership on this issue from the Prime Minister. I would think that after last week’s ridiculous comments from the Australian Christian Lobby there can no longer be any reason for the Prime Minister to seek to placate them and to remain silent, and to oppose same-sex marriage. By the same token, it seems to run completely counter to the notions of liberalism that we have Tony Abbott not allowing his members a conscience vote. How completely ridiculous is that? We have seen recent polls that show 52 per cent of coalition voters support equal marriage rights—and I would have thought that Tony Abbott would listen to polls, if nothing else; likewise, we have 64 per cent of Australians who support marriage equality. Frankly, it is about time we saw some leadership from both the Prime Minister and Mr Abbott in allowing a conscience vote, and in allowing this really important bill that the community wants to see passed go through.
I want to take this opportunity to mention that despite the differing views in this place, which we are all entitled to have, most of the contributors to this debate have conducted themselves with dignity. The one rather gross exception is Senator Bernardi who last night frankly disgraced himself and the dignity of this chamber in saying that marriage equality was a slippery slope to bestiality. That is incredibly insulting and patently ridiculous and it is insulting not just to all of the gay and lesbian, transgender, intersex and queer folk out there in the Australian community but to anyone who supports their equal rights to love. I apologise to all Australians on behalf of Senator Bernardi for his insulting and disgraceful remarks.
I now move to the fact that there is clearly a momentum towards and an international trend for equal rights. Twelve countries have legislated for same-sex marriage, including Canada, the Netherlands, Sweden, Belgium, Norway, Spain, South Africa and parts of the US. Their skies have not fallen in. This simply goes to illustrate the changing nature of marriage. As a feminist I think it is a great relief that we have moved on from the notion that a wife is a chattel, the property, of her husband. That is just one illustration of how the nature of marriage has changed over the years. Of course, interracial marriage used to be frowned on and interreligious marriage was a no-no. This illustrates that the institution is not static, and when community values change then so should its institutions.
I also want to address some of the contentions that came from the coalition last night. One contention was the only purpose of marriage is procreation. I do not think so. Look at all of the married and childless couples out there, either childless by choice or childless through biology. Does that mean that their marriages are somehow less equal than others? I am afraid that simply does not hold.
Moving on to the continued momentum, we have more and more countries debating this issue and moving towards marriage equality. New Zealand has a marriage equality bill that is supported by its conservative Prime Minister. Britain’s Conservative PM supports marriage equality. The momentum for marriage equality has not abated in Britain despite the introduction of civil unions. Scotland, France and Brazil are about to follow suit. Will Australia’s politicians acknowledge that global momentum and embrace the celebration of diversity, or are we in this place to turn our backs on that inevitable progress?
This momentum for LGBTIQ law reform is not just happening overseas but it is also happening here in Australian states as well. Same-sex couples in Tasmania, Victoria, New South Wales and recently WA can have their relationships recognised with a civil union. A few weeks ago the ACT Legislative Assembly passed a bill for civil unions with the support of ACT Labor and of course the ACT Greens. That bill allows for legally binding ceremonies and recognises similar relationships from other jurisdictions. I am really pleased that after having their original civil unions bill vetoed at the Prime Minister’s behest in 2006, Territorians now have that greater self-determination, thanks to the territory rights bill that former Senator Brown drove through this parliament. I am particularly excited by recent developments in Tasmania. As a lawyer, it is an exciting interpretation of section 109 of our Constitution. Tasmania is building on its civil union laws and now legislating for full marriage equality. I wish Tasmania all the best. As we know, Tasmania was the last Australian state to decriminalise homosexuality—only in 1997. So I congratulate the campaigners in Tassie, both past and present, including my colleague Senator Milne, who have been working on LGBTIQ equality for so many years and who have been able to turn around this situation so quickly.
But while it is fantastic and encouraging to see states progressing LGBTIQ law reform, it is time to get the ball rolling federally. The Queensland experience demonstrates that without decisive federal action those rights can be short lived and they can be rolled back. In my home state, with six months left on the clock of a state Labor government after many years in power, the government finally acted on same-sex recognition and introduced the Civil Partnerships Bill. One could make a comment that in the context of an election and a seat with a high Greens vote this was a political move, but I will not pass that judgement. I will make the point that had this bill been introduced earlier it may have become more entrenched and harder to roll back. That said, rolled back it was within the first few days of the newly elected LNP government. After a campaign supposedly about getting Queensland back on track, Campbell Newman, who of course did not mention this during the campaign, rolled back rights for same-sex couples by downgrading those civil partnerships to registered relationships, making the already less-than-equal treatment of same-sex relationships in Queensland a little bit less equal. The change to that legislation included the removal of the ability for couples to have a state sanctioned ceremony—that is, while same-sex couples were still able to register their relationships with the government, the LNP has made it illegal to share that moment with their loved ones.
Today as a representative of Queensland, and the only representative of Queensland from a political party which has always supported marriage equality in the Senate, I want to take this chance to share some stories from my constituents and their experience of marriage inequality and having rights taken away from them. Queenslanders wrote to me in droves about getting married in a different jurisdiction. One chap, David, told me how much it meant to him to get married—a marriage that is not recognised in his own home country. He said:
I must tell you that I was indifferent about the ceremony in the lead-up to it, after all, what difference could a piece of paper make after 19 years together?! I dissolved into tears during our vows, and it hit home to me how special it was to be able to finally be recognised as legally married. What a wonderful affirmation of love in front of friends! We got married in front of a small group of friends, by a magistrate who travelled 400km to marry us, in a game park in South Africa—in full view of elephant, hippo, and even a visit by a family of meerkats and a warthog on the day right into our lodge. It almost resembled a scene out of the Lion King!
I really share their delight, but as a parent of a three-year-old I can say that I have seen the Lion King far more times than I care to acknowledge—each to their own. But that is the very problem. Each to their own does not apply to the right to marry the person you love and want to spend your life with. This debate constantly reminds me of that famous line from Orwell’s Animal Farm—we are all equal, but some are more equal than others.
That, for me, is what it really comes down to—freedom of choice.
I am actually proudly unmarried. For me, with a non-religious background and with divorced parents, the institution has never held any appeal. But I have the ability to choose to marry if I want to. I have that choice. Why do gays and lesbians not have that choice? How dare we, as parliamentarians, make that most personal choice on other people’s behalf? What possible harm would it do to extend that choice to everyone?
I salute all couples who have said that they will not marry until their gay friends have that option too. The Marriage Act as it stands actively prevents same-sex couples from experiencing this joy and from sharing it with their family and friends. Queenslanders have written to me of their excitement about the passage of the Civil Partnerships Bill by the former state government and their disappointment about Campbell Newman’s heartless rollback to demote those to registered relationships. Steve from Bundamba told me:
In February, when the act became law, my beautiful, loving and supportive partner of almost 12 years, Paul, and I rushed to make our relationship official. The only thing that would have made the process of doing so more joyous would have been if my lovely mum had lived long enough to share in our joy, because the homophobia that I experienced throughout my life had a profound impact on her, too. But she passed away suddenly and unexpectedly just weeks before the Civil Partnerships Act became law. My colleagues at work put together a morning tea to help me celebrate my official union with Paul. Now I must face them daily knowing that they know my relationship has been erased by Campbell Newman.
Suzey and Sarah from Far North Queensland, who are expecting their first grandchild this year—and a huge congratulations to them on that joyful event—said of the passing of the Civil Partnerships Bill in Queensland:
For a small moment in time, we truly believed that headway was being made, and respect for our relationship by our Govt was actually happening. What a momentous breakthrough this could have been, in the fight against discrimination—and the encouragement of respect for diverse families. As it turns out, so long as we continue to pay our taxes and be quiet, the Government doesn’t care in the least about us, our relationship, our very lives.
Of the rolling back of civil partnerships, they said:
This very much encourages division, derision, inequality, and an ‘acceptance’ … of unequal treatment of the non-heterosexual community.
If senators are truly committed to reducing the level of discrimination that our LGBTIQ constituents endure, we have to show political leadership. When we condone legislative inequality for LGBTIQ people we implicitly condone their unequal treatment in the community. As advocacy organisation Rainbow Families Queensland said in their Senate submission:
Exclusion of LGBTIQ people from marriage also sends the message that discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation or gender identity is acceptable.
A chap called Simon wrote to me about his civil partnership with Timo:
Timo and I were elated to be able to celebrate the love we have for each other when we applied for our civil union shortly after it was introduced to Queensland in February 2012. It was a major milestone for us and a moment that we’ll always treasure. It’s hard to put into words how hurt, how victimised and how vulnerable we feel as gay men living in Queensland under Campbell Newman. Our civil union has been spat upon, our relationship has been thrown to the dogs as a registration and day by day we watch as social justice for gay people is trampled underfoot. Has there ever been a time in Australian history where the clock was deliberately and callously set backwards like this?
Clearly, without action and leadership at the federal level, state based civil partnerships will always be at risk from rollback. These stories also point to the fear and vulnerability felt by LGBTIQ Queenslanders after having their rights taken away so abruptly by the Newman government. By passing Senator Hanson-Young’s legislation or, indeed, this bill before us we could provide a framework of equal legal recognition for LGBTIQ people and send a message loud and clear that their right to love who they love is protected.
Marriage discrimination sends young LGBTIQ people the message that their relationships are less valuable and that they are less valuable. Research has shown, as my colleagues Senator Di Natale and Senator Wright went through in their contributions yesterday, that this message contributes to a higher-than-average rate of suicide among LGBTIQ youth. By legislating for marriage equality we can send a positive message to young LGBTIQ Australians: your community accepts you; your relationships are equally valued; you are equally valuable as a citizen.
Arthur, who wrote to the Senate inquiry on the marriage equality bill, wrote of his gay son:
I love both my children equally and I want them to be treated equally. This is a matter of basic human dignity. A person’s fundamental rights, including their right to marry, should not be affected by their sexual orientation. How can I tell my son that he has less rights than my daughter has? Could you tell your own child this? I cannot justify this. Society is stronger when couples make vows to each other and support each other. I want this for my gay son.
I also share a contribution from Briannon and Julie from Brisbane, who said in their Senate submission:
We have both struggled immensely as young people coming to terms with our sexuality. As teenagers, we had very few role models. Our school friends could aspire to going to university, having a career, meeting a handsome man, marrying him and having beautiful children. Our future in comparison seemed bleak and something to fear—negative labels and stereotypes, being bullied or ostracised by friends, being disowned by parents … We believe that if we had lesbian and gay role models, committing to a life together in marriage, it would have made a difference to the challenges we experienced as young people.
Briannon and Julie also said of their civil partnership:
In March 2012, we entered in to a Civil Partnership in Queensland. We did this because we wanted our son to know when he is old enough to understand, that we did everything we could to gain legal protection and recognition for him and our relationship. When we informed friends, family and colleagues that we had entered into a Civil Partnership, we had some people congratulate us, others asked us what it meant, and some said ‘why can’t you get married?’ Not a single person gave us a card, a hug, a gift, or a congratulatory phone call.
It has been our lived experience that Civil Unions do not have the status, symbolism or recognition of a marriage. We still feel like second-rate citizens with a token second-rate legal recognition of our partnership.
I remind senators that the civil partnerships like Briannon and Julie’s are now no longer even available in Queensland. They are now just a watered-down version of a registered relationship.
As the stories that I have been really pleased to share today demonstrate, marriage discrimination does not just affect the LGBTIQ community. It affects parents who cannot see their children say ‘I do’. It affects friends who cannot give a toast at their best mate’s wedding because their best mate’s perfect match is the same gender. I am so pleased that I have been able to share just a sample of the stories of Queenslanders who have contacted my office. I thank them for taking the time to share their stories with me. These are stories about love, joy, sadness, family and frustration.
This debate about marriage is not about theory; it is about LGBTIQ people—Queenslanders that I am incredibly proud to represent, and I am proud to share their stories in this place and to stand alongside them in their fight for equality. Because we here in this place can make a meaningful difference in people’s lives, because we can erase discrimination from a piece of law, and because equality is a value shared by Australians, I urge the Senate to search their conscience and vote to pass this bill or the bill of my colleague.
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