Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017

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Eight years ago, on this very day, I was elected by the people of Higgins to serve them in this place, to represent their interests both big and small. It is a tremendous privilege.

When I gave my first speech some months later, I spoke about how families are the bedrock of our society, that they come in all shapes and sizes, and anything we can do to strengthen families will strengthen our society. After all, families support each other emotionally, physically and financially, in good times and bad.

I strongly believe that a change to the Marriage Act to give same-sex couples equality before the law will only strengthen families. The institution of marriage provides for a public declaration of love and commitment where promises are made and sanctioned by the state. This, and society’s longstanding appreciation of it and its solemnness, gives marriage its special place and power in our society. This bill will strengthen families by building stronger bonds of commitment between two people regardless of their gender and sexual orientation.

The great Sir Robert Menzies said in his ‘Forgotten people’ speech in 1942:

I do not believe that the real life of this nation is to be found either in great luxury hotels and the petty gossip of so-called fashionable suburbs, or in the officialdom of the organised masses. It is to be found in the homes of people who are nameless and unadvertised, and who, whatever their individual religious conviction or dogma, see in their children their greatest contribution to the immortality of their race. The home is the foundation of sanity and sobriety; it is the indispensable condition of continuity; its health determines the health of society as a whole.

As a Liberal, I believe strongly in respecting our individual freedoms and treating everyone equally before the law. As Liberals, we have a proud history in ending all sorts of discrimination. In fact, one of my predecessors in the seat of Higgins, former Prime Minister John Gorton, played a pivotal role in the decriminalisation of homosexuality through his 1973 motion before this parliament.

This change we are debating to the Marriage Act has been a long time coming, for many of us on both sides of this chamber. I know that there are many opposite who have been frustrated with how the Labor Party dealt with this issue during their time in government and since—just as I and others in my party also had frustrations with how the matter has progressed on our side of the chamber. Indeed, it is well known that, in the 2015 coalition party room meeting debate on same-sex marriage, I argued strongly both in favour of same-sex marriage and for a free vote for members of parliament in accordance with Liberal precedent under the Menzies, Gorton, McMahon, Fraser and Howard governments.

Whilst the decision of the party room to conduct a plebiscite was not the one I had argued for, in the end, I think that conducting a national plebiscite has allowed us to move forward with this important social change with greater unity and purpose.

Almost 80 per cent of all eligible Australians participated, with an overwhelming majority of Australians supporting a change to the Marriage Act. In my own electorate, we saw an exceptionally strong result of 78.3 per cent of residents supporting a change to the Marriage Act, the sixth highest electorate result in the country and the highest result for a Liberal held seat in Victoria.

To have such an emphatic response in my community and more broadly across Victoria and across Australia is an affirmation of love, equality under the law, fairness and family.

Over the years, I have sat down with, spoken with and heard from so many of my constituents, who told me why they wanted a change to the Marriage Act and how the exclusion of same-sex couples from this important institution has impacted them and their partners, friends, children, parents and grandparents.

Sue wrote to me, telling me how, in 2016, she attended her son’s marriage to his husband in New York, where they could have such a ceremony. She wrote about how it was the happiest, most loving wedding she had ever been to, but told me about how every time she showed her mother—her son’s grandmother—pictures and videos from the wedding, her mother teared up because she was not physically able to travel to New York to attend.

I’ve heard from Richard and his partner, who are renovating their home in preparation of welcoming their baby next year. They don’t just want to have a commitment ceremony; they want to be married. They understand and want to join in the solemn institution of marriage. Richard wrote: ‘When we signed the contracts to buy our home together, that house contract surprised me by how much I was struck with the symbolism of a commitment to each other—a joint venture. Marriage is legal and legal matters.’

I’ve also heard from another local, Robyn Whitaker, an ordained minister of the Uniting Church. Robyn wrote about her journey in relation to same-sex marriage. On reconciling her view with her religion, Robyn wrote: ‘I am now a supporter of marriage equality, not despite my faith but precisely because my Christian faith demands that I treat others with compassion, justice and love. I believe that love and marriage are God’s gift to us. Why would we not want those gifts to be available to every consenting adult?’ These are just some of the many examples of the discussions, letters, emails and conversations that I have had.

I acknowledge that there are also a significant number of Australians who hold very sincere and genuine concerns about a change to the Marriage Act and its potential impact on religious freedoms.

As a Liberal, I believe that it is important to preserve people’s freedoms. Importantly, this bill will not prevent people from worshipping as they choose, nor will it prevent them from holding their beliefs or undertaking their religious practice.

Churches, synagogues and mosques and their clergy, rabbis and imams will continue to be free to practise their faith in accordance with their doctrine and beliefs, just as they do today. The bill before us takes away none of these rights, nor should it. Just as the current framework of religious freedoms allows a minister of religion to refuse to solemnise a marriage, this bill will allow ministers of religion to refuse to solemnise a same-sex marriage if that refusal conforms to the doctrines, tenets or beliefs of the minister’s religion—for example, where the minister’s religion only allows heterosexual couples to marry.

This bill, however, will create a new category of religious marriage celebrants. This new category will include existing civil marriage celebrants wanting to perform marriages consistent with their religious beliefs. It will also allow bodies established for religious purpose to be able to refuse to make a facility available or provide goods and services for the purpose of or reasonably incidental to the solemnisation of a marriage.

Nothing in this bill takes away a right that presently exists, nor does it diminish existing freedoms.

Having said this, I will, of course, do my colleagues the courtesy of carefully looking at any potential amendments to this bill and consider them on their merits. I will not, however, support new forms of discrimination.

I think it’s important to acknowledge my friends and colleagues who have played such a pivotal role in agitating for change to our party’s policy on this issue.

In particular, I’d like to acknowledge the leadership of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, the first Australian Prime Minister to have advocated for and prosecuted this cause. I believe it will stand as one of the significant achievements of the Turnbull government.

I would also like to acknowledge Senator Dean Smith for his relentless strength and leadership in seeing this bill brought before the parliament, along with others in this place like Trent Zimmerman, who is in the chamber now, who has worked so hard.

I would also like to acknowledge the member for Leichhardt, Warren Entsch, who has probably done more than anyone in this place to advocate for change. His unwavering sense of decency in pursuit of a fair go for all Australians, no matter their gender and no matter who they love, is in stark contrast to his sometimes gruff exterior.

I’d like to acknowledge the hard work and quiet determination of Senator Simon Birmingham, who marched alongside me into the offices of different prime ministers and senior ministers over a long period of time to make the case for change.

But it has not just been Liberals who have argued for this change. We have had colleagues in our Nationals party room who have done the same. I’d like to acknowledge Senator Scullion and the member for Gippsland, Darren Chester, who joined with Senator Birmingham and I as the parliamentary patrons for the Libs and Nats for ‘yes’ campaign. I commend all of those colleagues, staff, party members and volunteers who have worked so hard in pursuit of what I truly believe to be both a Liberal and a conservative cause.

There have been so many more—too many to list in one speech—but I thank them all, just as I thank the millions of Australians who have made their views known and have participated in this important survey and debate.

I am delighted to support the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017. It is a bill that will see individuals choose to marry the individual they wish to marry. This bill reflects the will of the Australian people to amend the Marriage Act. It seeks to remove existing discrimination from the Marriage Act and to protect religious institutions and freedoms. I commend the bill to the House.