BILLS - Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017 - Second Reading

December 06, 2017

Mr BUTLER (Port Adelaide) (19:34): It's an absolute pleasure to rise in support of this bill, the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017, as a longtime supporter of marriage equality and as someone who voted in favour of what I will call the Jones bill in 2012. It is wonderful to be really at the point of this reform finally becoming a reality in Australia. This is an important reform in terms of civil rights, and it's important to bear in mind that, as the member for Corangamite has beautifully outlined, any advance in civil rights is not an abstract piece of paper; it's a panoply of very human stories, as we've just heard.

Before the 2012 vote, members who were here were encouraged to go and have a conversation with their community about the attitude that should be taken to the private member's bill that was before the parliament then, which, as I said, I supported at the time. When I spoke in favour of that bill in 2012, I read out an email that is still moving to me from a grandmother in the Port Adelaide electorate. She wrote to me before the debate in the parliament and said: 'When my grandchildren ask me why I can love my partner and not be married, it's painful to explain that I live in a country that does not let people like me get married. After 33 years, three children and two grandchildren, I think I can attest to love, commitment and the hard slog of long-term relationship that goes side by side with the beautiful family moments.'

On the day before the vote back in 2012, more than five years ago, Molly in my electorate emailed me and said: 'As with so many families, we cannot wait to celebrate at our beautiful daughter's wedding ceremony. With votes such as yours, it's getting closer and closer.' Unfortunately, Molly, her family and so many families around Australia have had to wait more than five years since that last vote that we had in 2012, but we are, it would appear, finally here at a point where within 24 hours this parliament will have passed this reform, I very much hope.

This is, as a number of speakers have pointed out, really just the latest chapter in a series of legal and social reforms around homosexuality that have occurred over the last five decades, and in each of those chapters I'm so proud that the Labor Party has played a leading role. That goes back to the decision 45 years ago of the South Australian Premier, Don Dunstan, from my state, to enact the first piece of legislation to decriminalise homosexuality, and to the legislation that the first Rudd government put in place to remove discrimination from dozens and dozens of pieces of Commonwealth legislation against same-sex couples. Labor has played a leading role. And this chapter has been, as almost all of them have been—certainly the significant chapters have been—a long and hard road, most obviously, it goes without saying, for LGBTIQ Australians and for their families.

Like so many of those very important social reforms that we've seen over the decades in Australia, the Labor Party's journey in this question has both reflected and also helped to lead the change in opinion that we've seen over recent years in the broader Australian community. In saying that—as a Labor Party person, obviously I focus on the role of the Labor Party—I think it's important that we also recognise that it was a very long, hard road within the Labor Party. I know, as a longtime activist in the Labor Party involved in these debates, that for many in the community—for some in the chamber today, I imagine—that was too slow. We were too slow. I know that there were points along the way in that journey where we broke the hearts of many people who wanted and expected the Labor Party to be braver and to be quicker than we were. I remember having to report back on negotiations at, for example, the 2009 national conference—negotiations that the member for Grayndler and I had been involved in around these questions—to a room of very, very angry national conference delegates and Rainbow Labor members. There was a lot of anger and there were a lot of tears, and I think we need to be honest about that as the Labor Party.

The negotiations that I was a part of in the 2011 national conference were hard too, but in those intervening two years there had been a substantial shift, both in the broader community and in the Labor Party. The adoption of marriage equality as a Labor Party policy at the 2011 national conference was a huge achievement. It was not only an achievement for leaders like Penny Wong but also, importantly, an achievement for hundreds and hundreds of party members, particularly members of Rainbow Labor, who had been working so hard within the party to make that change. It profoundly shifted the national debate; that decision at the conference in 2011 profoundly shifted the national debate.

For me, I've always been clear on what the legal position should be for same-sex couples on this question. It should be civil marriage as of legal, inalienable right, and it should be religious marriage with choice for religious institutions. In the lead-in to the national conference in 2011, I wrote as much in an op-ed published in The Sydney Morning HeraldI said that Australia should adopt the model that had recently been adopted by the New York state and the United Kingdom, where there was a legal, inalienable right to civil marriage for same-sex couples but also the right of churches and other religious institutions to choose not to conduct same-sex marriage ceremonies if that was their preference. I see that position broadly adopted in this bill, which is a very significant reason why I support it.

Other than that carve out, the key work of this bill is to provide that legal, inalienable right to civil marriage. In doing that, we should be honest that marriage in Australia today is overwhelmingly a civil institution, and that is a relatively recent phenomenon. When I became an adult in the late 1980s, 60 per cent of marriage ceremonies were conducted by religious celebrants. In 1999, the majority shifted to civil ceremonies, and since then there has been a precipitous drop in market share, if you like, by religious celebrants or of religious ceremonies. When I wrote that op-ed in 2011, only six years ago, religious ceremonies still accounted for about one-third of all marriage ceremonies in Australia—about 33 per cent. In Queensland and WA, by then, it had already dropped to less than 30 per cent. I looked at the ABS data on marriages and divorces that was only released last week for 2016. The market share of religious ceremonies is down to 23.6 per cent of all marriages in Australia. In WA and Queensland, religious ceremonies now account for less than 20 per cent of marriages conducted in those two states. In what is now a predominantly civil institution, the institution of marriage, it is only proper that civil standards of equality before the law are applied by this parliament.

I've always supported, as I've said, the right for religious institutions, for churches, effectively, to opt out of conducting same-sex ceremonies, but I do not support any of the other amendments that have been proposed by the member for Warringah or foreshadowed by other members of the conservatives. I have to say that I'm somewhat struck by the irony of the 'big C' conservatives on the other side of this House now arguing to enshrine such rights in law. My first campaign in politics was the 1988 referendum, where the Labor government proposed to extend freedom of religion in this country. I remember, at the time, John Howard engaged in a vigorous and, I think, cynical campaign—because his political fortunes where not going particularly well—led by the new member for Flinders Peter Reith to knock that campaign off. As a result, we did not extend the right or freedom of religion, because of a decision in a campaign led by John Howard, reflecting the decision that the equivalent parties took in 1944 in the post-war reconstruction and democratic rights referendum of that year as well.

It is somewhat ironic that you've got the 'big C' conservatives on that side of the parliament now deciding that they do support enshrining rights such as the freedom of religion into legislation or the Constitution because, as I think the newly engaged member for Goldstein has pointed out, that has not been the traditional position of those opposite, as I found in the first campaign that I was involved in as a relatively young Labor activist in the late 1908s. But, as the Leader of the Opposition has said on behalf of Labor, we support the Ruddock panel process. Importantly, it includes Frank Brennan, a great Australian, who pointed to the 1988 referendum, and the failure to give a bipartisan level of support to the extension of the freedom of religion, as being 'a lost opportunity'. I think there is some irony in this.

It is also important to say that I didn't support the plebiscite and the postal survey for a range of reasons, only one of which was the extraordinary cost involved. As a matter of principle, I just do not support the idea of submitting questions of civil rights for groups in our community to a plebiscite of the entire community. As a matter of principle, it is the wrong way for this parliament to work. But also, as a practical question, what we warned would happen obviously did happen. There was enormous division and enormous hurt caused by this plebiscite and postal survey. Although I think what we're about to do in the next 24 hours is a wonderful thing, that should not be taken as any sort of endorsement of the process that has been followed over the last couple of months. But, having said that, the passage of this bill will be a great moment for our nation. It is a moment that should be the cause of substantial pride for a lot of people who have worked so hard for many years, or, in the case of some young activists, for a relatively short period of time. All of that work has just been utterly wonderful.

I want to thank LGBTIQ Australians for their patience and for their forbearance, not just through the recent process but for the years and years that we have been arguing for this important reform. I want to thank rainbow families across Australia for their forbearance over that entire period of time. I particularly want to thank the rainbow family I'm closest to—my dear friend Penny, Sophie, Alexandra and Hannah—who have had the spotlight put on their family like no other. I think they've shown enormous dignity through this process, as a symbol for so many thousands and thousands of rainbow families across the country.

I've talked about the role of Rainbow Labor within our political party. I think they've been fantastic. The work they did to change our party's position and lead the change in the broader community has been utterly wonderful. A range of other organisations have been equally wonderful—AME, PFLAG, the 'yes' campaign and many, many others.

It is very risky to shout out individuals in this sort of long-term reform, but I'm going to do it anyway. Rodney Croome has already been mentioned. He has been in the gallery during parts of this debate. Rodney's courage, his resolve, has been an inspiration to me and to many others in this chamber and around Australia for many, many years—along with his relatively recent sidekick, Shelley Argent, who I do still see in the chamber, who stomps the halls of this parliament, relentlessly making the case to parliamentarians. Their work has been an utter inspiration. To all of the volunteers who worked so hard on this campaign, you have done a great thing for our country. Thank you.