Speech in Parliament on the Proposed Marriage Plebiscite

1.45pm | September 12, 2016

You have to wonder why we are here still having this conversation about a plebiscite on marriage equality when a majority of Australians support marriage equality, as has been demonstrated many times in much polling, but, more importantly, when a majority of parliamentarians here and in the other place also support marriage equality. So knowing that that is the case, why is it that the Prime Minister is set on taking the nation back to the ballot box for a $160 million dollar opinion poll that will have no legal effect whatsoever? There is certainly nothing about marriage equality as an issue that demands that. Not constitutionally, not legally and not as a question of public policy do we need to have this plebiscite.

As the Leader of the Opposition put it so nicely this morning: in 115 years of our democracy, 44 parliaments before us have managed to declare war, negotiate peace, sign trade deals, break down the White Australia policy, open the economy, float the dollar, build universal superannuation, pass world-leading gun control and legislate several changes to the Marriage Act, all without recourse to a plebiscite. So why is this different? What is it about this issue that means that we have to go to this very special public vote? Everyone here knows the answer. We know the answer and the people on the other side of the chamber know the answer. The difference is not the issue. It is not that the marriage equality is so unique and so special. The thing that is different is the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister wants a plebiscite because he fears the social conservatives in his party more than he wants change. The plebiscite is a ploy. It was dreamed up by the former, and perhaps future, Prime Minister Abbott and his clique in the 'Monkey Pod'. It was designed to push marriage equality off into the never-never. It was a way to look like you were doing something whilst very deliberately doing absolutely nothing at all.

If the Prime Minister wanted marriage equality we could legislate for it tomorrow. So why is it that the Prime Minister, who dons a leather jacket from time to time and who was once the darling of Q&A, has stuck with this position? It cannot make him very popular in the electorate. I cannot imagine that he wanders down to the shops in Double Bay and people say, 'Good on you, Malcolm; I'm really so pleased by the position you've taken on marriage equality.' It cannot do much for his standing amongst the Australian public as a person who is prepared to stick to his convictions and prosecute them in the place he has been elected to. The answer to why he is sticking with this, I would submit, is that the plebiscite was part of the price he paid for the job. It is part of his Faustian pact, and that is a term that is particularly relevant here, because Dr Faustus was someone who was not as smart as he thought he was and who made a deal with forces that he could not understand that he could not control. The Prime Minister is too scared of the social conservatives to do the things that he once said he believed in. Senator Bernardi may be thousands of kilometres away in in New York, but one suspects that the Prime Minister sees his shadow everywhere he goes.

The plebiscite was a way to keep marriage equality from breaking what passes for peace in the coalition party room. This government is, in fact, so inept that it cannot even manage to drag its feet on marriage equality without falling into pieces!

The government was supposed to have the supporting legislation before parliament by now. Instead, we find out that the proposal has not even gone to cabinet. There has been an embarrassing public split in the party today on the question of whether there should be guaranteed public funding for the 'yes' and the 'no' campaigns. In today's newspapers, senior Liberals have all but accused the Prime Minister of lying. Senator Bernardi is reported in The Sydney Morning Herald as follows:

… "people will make up their own minds" about whether they believe Mr Turnbull or the church leaders.

It is unbelievable, and it is emblematic of the deep divisions in the Prime Minister's party room and his inability to control them and to pursue the agenda that he took to the election—as Senator Macdonald has so correctly pointed out.

If the plebiscite were simply a device to delay marriage equality it would be bad enough. The problem is that it is not just about delay; it is a wasteful, hurtful way to delay marriage equality. It is obviously unnecessary. As I pointed out before, the majority of people support marriage equality and the latest polling suggests that three-quarters of them do not think that a plebiscite is necessary. We also know that the Prime Minister and the opposition leader in this place support marriage equality. A plebiscite is a wasteful way of going about things—costing $160 million. That is $160 million that could be spent on so many other public services but instead will be spent on a vote which has no binding influence on any member of this chamber or any member in the other place.

It is likely that the plebiscite will be harmful. There is a real risk of hurtful, hateful speech—we know this because some truly awful things have already been said. Senator Rice gave us some examples. I have some examples. Most of us in this chamber who have in any way advocated for marriage equality have examples of incredibly nasty things that have been said about us on social media and that have been written to us—nasty things which, under the proposition of public funding for the 'no' case, could be advertised through television to LGBTI Australians in their own lounge rooms.

I question the impact that this will have on more vulnerable members of the LGBTI community and I question the impact it will have on their children. Senator Pratt pointed this out: two out of five young Australians who are gay have thought about self-harm or suicide. Think about that in the context of your own family. Think about your own children. Think about what it would mean for you to have a child who was exposed to so much community hatred that that was where they were at in their teenage years. A young Australian who identifies as gay is six times more likely to consider taking their own life when compared to their siblings, classmates, colleagues or teammates. The veteran gay rights campaigner Rodney Croome is reported today as having come to the conclusion:

… that it will be easier to achieve a cross-party free vote, or encourage Liberals to cross the floor, than it will be to conduct a plebiscite fairly and have a 'yes' vote implemented quickly.

What an indictment that is of the Prime Minister of this country—a Prime Minister who went to an election saying that he would conduct a plebiscite.The Prime Minister was elected on the grounds of conducting a plebiscite, and yet the very people that he sought to speak to in making that commitment do not believe him. They have concluded that this process is a joke, that it will not lead anywhere and that it will not produce the results that people have been looking for.

This stands in very real contrast to the alternative pathway, the pathway that has served our democracy pretty well for more than 100 years, which is that the parliament takes its responsibilities seriously and takes seriously its responsibility to decide issues. That is why we are here. That is what we are elected to do. Labor takes that responsibility seriously. It is why we have introduced a bill into the House of Representatives today to legislate for marriage equality, as we have done so many times before. What does it say to LGBTI Australians that their issue is the only one that is so special that we need to have a special process to ask every Australian citizen about it specifically? What we want is a conscience vote in the parliament to let the majority of parliamentarians who support marriage equality have their say and get this done. But there is one thing you need to vote with your conscience, there is one thing you need to have a conscience vote, and that is the one thing that Prime Minister Turnbull seems to be lacking.