Senator Lee Rhiannon on gay marriage

Senator Lee Rhiannon on gay marriage

Senator Lee Rhiannon (Greens, NSW) has forcefully spoken in favour of gay marriage:

I am very pleased to rise to join my colleagues and many people in this parliament in support of this important legislation. It is legislation which will bring much happiness to many people. Most importantly, as people who have responsibility for bringing forward laws that work for this country, it addresses one of the last areas of discrimination for same-sex couples. I understand that the House of Representatives is voting on this important piece of legislation at the moment.

There are many reasons why we are debating this legislation today, but I think that right at the top of the list is that so many people have worked so hard across the community, particularly within the sexually diverse communities but also within the wider public. As the years have rolled by there has been an increasing understanding of the importance of supporting this legislation.
I particularly want to congratulate my colleague Senator Sarah Hanson-Young. She first introduced a private senator’s bill on this issue into the Senate in 2008. I understand it was voted on in 2009. It was her first private senator’s bill, so understandably she is very proud of that work.
Around the country there has been an enormous amount of work undertaken. I think that Tasmania deserves a very special mention. Greens MP Nick McKim has done a lot of work on this issue, and it is most impressive that earlier this year he and the Premier, Lara Giddings, co-sponsored the same-sex marriage bill.
Mr McKim said at the time, ‘I truly believe in cooperative politics and that the Tasmanian people want to see more of it and not less.’ It was a most interesting debate. Behind that piece of legislation, again, was so much community activity—activity involving some really hard-working people who have done some fantastic work. I am referring to Rodney Croome, who would be well known to many people for his consistent work in advocating for the removal of all areas of discrimination within the gay and lesbian community. He took one example of discrimination to the United Nations, and I congratulate him for that.
I want to pay tribute to the Australian Greens leader, Senator Christine Milne. In 1997—again, following years of campaigning—Senator Milne, who was then the leader of the Greens in the Tasmanian parliament, introduced legislation that resulted in Tasmania decriminalising homosexuality. Again, that was in 1997—a good 12 years back—and shows just how long this work has taken.
It is always very enjoyable to look back at this history and at the contributions that have been made. There are the legal interpretations and discussions about people’s rights, which is obviously so important, and you will always read about the hopes and desire of people to be able to live a normal life like others in terms of the rights that they can expect and they should not have to even think about. They should be there, as Senator Wong so beautifully described when she talked about her own daughter: they are rights that should be afforded to everybody, and levels of discrimination should be completely removed.
Mr McKim in 2005 moved legislation for marriage equality in the Tasmanian parliament, so it is an issue that he has been working on for a very long time. When he introduced that legislation, I remember him phoning me—I was in the New South Wales state parliament at the time. That action was taken because there were many in the community who were becoming very frustrated with Labor and the coalition at a federal level, realising that they were not advancing the cause to remove this very discriminatory aspect of the law. He had received legal advice that there could be state laws as well. I remember taking that phone call and then discussing it with my colleagues in the New South Wales parliament: ‘Let’s do it in New South Wales.’ With Mr McKim’s assistance, that is precisely what we did. Mr McKim came to Sydney when we launched the Greens same-sex marriage bill—it was in May 2005. We needed two bills: one to cover dissolution and annulment; and the other carried celebrant and registration issues. They were called the same-sex bills and they covered those two issues.
Unfortunately, because of the way the New South Wales parliament was at the time in getting things up for debate, we never got to debate them but I was very proud that we were able to get that onto the Notice Paperfor a period of time. My colleague in the state parliament—who I am very hopeful will be able to join us as a senator after the next election—Cate Faehrmann has continued this work in many ways, within both the community and the parliament. In November she gave notice of a motion about supporting marriage equality. What was very heartening was that that was passed by the New South Wales upper house. This morning there was excellent news coming from New South Wales that members of the New South Wales parliament in both the upper and lower houses—Liberals, Greens, Labor, Nationals and Clover Moore—have come together to work on state legislation to ensure marriage equality becomes legal.
In mentioning Clover Moore, I want to pay special tribute to her. Tomorrow I understand that Ms Moore will be resigning from the New South Wales parliament, not because her constituents want her to, not because she wants to but because the coalition government in New South Wales has passed legislation to force her out. This piece of legislation has become widely known as the ‘get Clover bill’. The Liberal Party, in particular, wanted to force her out. They have great hope that they can grab that seat. The way in which they have gone about it is undemocratic.
The aspect that is relevant to this debate today is that Clover Moore, as a member of the New South Wales parliament and as a councillor on Sydney City Council, has been a long-time advocate and hard-working community member for same-sex marriage and marriage equality. I very much congratulate her for her work and want to acknowledge the work that she did in the New South Wales parliament as that work is about to come to an end.
I also want to acknowledge South Australian Greens MLC Tammy Franks who co-sponsored a bill with Ian Hunter. They introduced a marriage equality bill last year into the South Australian Legislative Council. This work within our parliaments has been rolling around the country, particularly responding to the strong community support for a change to the law. What I find really touches people very deeply is when they think about young people and their futures with all the hope and joy of the opportunities that one has when one is young.
What is so troubling is that so many young people, particularly young people of diverse sexuality, suffer high rates of depression and high rates of suicide. This is very relevant for what we are discussing here today. When young people are denied rights—in the case of the gay and lesbian community, they are denied the right to marriage—it sends a message that there is some problem, there is something different. We cannot always be fully sure of how they might interpret it, but they clearly can interpret it in a way which they think reflects on them and so can add to any self-doubt that they might have.
While society is moving closer to removing all forms of discrimination against the gay and lesbian community, we are still seeing in our society a lot of discriminatory practices by individuals. There is intolerance. There can be disrespect. So young people already have to handle that, particularly in regional and rural areas where it can be really tough. But when the law also discriminates against them, as the marriage law does, it can add to a burden that is deeply wrong. This is very relevant to the issue of bullying, which is just so serious.
Research commissioned by beyondblue suggests that approximately 30 per cent of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex people suffer anxiety or depression. This is twice the rate of the rest of the community. I think it really underlines the point that I was making about how worrying this issue is. We have a real responsibility to ask: are there discriminatory laws that further add to the burden that these young people suffer? Even more worrying is that the suicide rate for young lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex people is three or four times higher than it is for their heterosexual peers.
People are losing their lives, people are taking their lives, because of their stress, their depression, their extreme worry. For a lot of people this is hard to imagine, but we do know it is real. The research has been done and, again, it is very relevant to what we are dealing with here. Discrimination faced by young people plays a very significant role in their ongoing mental health. So, while I have given emphasis to young people and their issues of depression and how they handle their stresses and worries and the associated suicide rates, I certainly acknowledge that it is not just limited to them but a further reminder of why we need to address this issue.
I spoke earlier about the long history of community activity to bring about changes to the law—and this is not just about changes to the Marriage Act. Generally, it has been community action that has delivered changes to the law to remove the discrimination that the gay and lesbian community have suffered. From my own experience as a senator for New South Wales, I did want to reflect on some of that history because, again, I think it is informative. Also, at these times, it is important to put this history on the record because debates like the one that we are having today do not just come about because a member of parliament or a political party decided to introduce legislation. There is a history of community activism that has alerted the members of this parliament that we must catch up with the changes in political attitudes.
A lot of the pressure, a lot of the community activism, really started to roll on in the 1970s. At that time, a movement was starting to grab the headlines—the gay liberation movement. Many of those people put on the public agenda that the discrimination could not continue, that the silence about how the law in many cases was wrong needed to change and that people’s attitudes needed to be fair, tolerant and respectful. This movement did have a big impact. I pay tribute here to the Labor government under former Premier Neville Wran. We got our New South Wales Anti-Discrimination Act in 1977. It was a huge achievement and something that the activists at the time can be very proud of. While the New South Wales Labor government played a key role in bringing in this legislation and finalising its detail, it was really off the back of the women’s movement, the disability rights movement and gay liberation—the time was very strong. From the work that was undertaken, we saw the anti-discrimination law pass. It meant that, for the first time, legal protection would be provided for those communities who suffered discrimination. It really did reflect a heightened awareness within our community that how we had been working up until then was not good enough. This was a huge breakthrough at the time.
Over the three-plus decades since then, there have been enormous changes in our legislation. From the advice that I have been given, the Marriage Act is the last piece of legislation that needs to change in terms of discrimination against the gay and lesbian community. There are certainly a lot of other things that need to change in the wider community in terms of attitudes, but for this piece of legislation—its time has come.
So I very strongly support the legislation. I am delighted that I am a senator at a time when we are debating it. I understand that we may not have the numbers at the moment but the ball is rolling. Clearly, the time is not too far away when we will have marriage equality and everybody, no matter who they are, will be able to look forward to going to a wedding where they can celebrate with their same-sex friends or their heterosexual friends the joy of being able to celebrate their love and reflect on how they can be happy. Whoever they are, they can have the joy of getting married and do it in a way that is respected in the law, as well as in the wider community.
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