Second Reading Speech: Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017

04 Dec 2017
House of Representatives, Parliament House, Canberra
Prime Minister


Thank you Mr Speaker.

It’s time for us to get on with it.

The Australian people have said ‘yes’ to marriage equality, ‘yes’ to fairness, ‘yes’ to commitment, ‘yes’ to love. The time has now come to make that equality a reality.

Now this is momentous social reform and the road to this day has been long and arduous. It’s littered with injustice, dealt out to men and women who dared to confess their love.

Not so long ago homosexuality was a crime in this country. Slowly - too slowly - Parliament and people have changed their attitudes towards gay men and women, extended basic rights. Homosexuality was decriminalized. Gay Australians were allowed to serve in the military. It was 47 years ago that Lucy's father, Attorney-General Tom Hughes created a scandal which saw his preselection challenged in Berowra, when he argued that homosexual acts should no longer be crimes. How times have changed.

Throughout my time in public life, whether in Government or in Opposition, I sought to ensure that same-sex couples are not discriminated against and that their entitlements – be it in respect of medical benefits, taxation, superannuation and employment - are no different to those accorded to heterosexual couples.

I remember in 2007 persuading John Howard's Cabinet on the eve of the election that we should give partners in same-sex relationships rights to Commonwealth and Defence superannuation, the same rights as those in heterosexual relationships. Mr Speaker, I remember the Department of Finance had a few reservations but they were purely financial. Then In 2008, of course the HREOC reforms eliminated effectively all legal discrimination at least at the federal level.

But the issue of marriage remained.

Now the message it today, to every gay person in this nation, is clear; we love you. We respect you. Your relationship is recognised by the Commonwealth as legitimate and honorable as anybody else's. You belong.

I am the first Prime Minister of Australia to be unequivocally and consistently in support of legalising same-sex marriage. It will be forever to the credit of the Coalition that this momentous social change occurred with the overwhelming mandate of the Australian people, under a Coalition government.

I am very firmly of the view Mr Speaker, that families are the foundation of our society. We would be a stronger society if more people were married and by that I mean formally, legally married and fewer were divorced.

If consulted by friends at about marital dramas, I always encouraged the singles to marriage, the married to stick together, the neglectful and wayward to renew their loving commitment and the wronged to forgive.

I have to say that I am utterly unpersuaded by the proposition that my marriage to Lucy or indeed any marriage, is undermined by two gay men or women setting up house down the road whether it is called a marriage or not. Let's be honest to each other; the threat to traditional marriage is not from gay people. It is a lack of loving commitment, whether it is found in the form of neglect, indifference, cruelty or adultery to name just a few manifestations of that loveless desert in which too many marriages come to grief. If the threat to marriage today is lack of commitment, then surely other couples making and maintaining that commitment sets a good example, rather than a bad one.

Are not gay people who seek the right to marry, to formalise their commitment to each other, holding up a mirror to heterosexuals who regrettably, in my view at least, are marrying less frequently and divorce more often.

Commitment, loyalty and responsibility.

John Howard was most definitely not thinking of gay couples when he said in 1995:

“A stable, functioning family provide the best welfare support system yet devised.”

But the point is well made. Co-dependency is a good thing.

If we believe two gay people are better off together than living alone, comforted only by their respective cats, then why should we deprive that relationship of equal recognition?

And for those to see this as an ideological issue, recall British Prime Minister David Cameron as he spoke for marriage equality six years ago:

 “To anyone who has reservations, I say yes, it’s about equality. But it’s also about something else: commitment. Conservatives believe in the ties that bind us. Society is stronger when we make vows to each other and support each other. So I don’t support gay marriage despite being a Conservative. I support gay marriage because I’m a Conservative.”

Mr Speaker, as I said at the start of this marriage survey, this is an issue of fundamental fairness.

A society which promotes freedom and equality under the law should accord gay men and women the right to marry.

We now recognise same-sex couples in every other aspect of the law – financial, medical, adoption – but we have not yet given them the right to call their relationship a marriage.

Now, this distinction will end with the passage of this Bill and of course, it ends with the emphatic endorsement of an enormous majority of Australians.

The postal survey was one of the most remarkable political events in my lifetime – and I believe in the lifetime of many Australians.

A voluntary postal vote for an allegedly apathetic nation, where anyone under 40 apparently did not what a letterbox was, let alone where it could be found?

And of course it had “no prospects in the High Court” either.

Well we won seven-nil there Mr Speaker.

My prediction rate for High Court cases is down to 50-50, so I don’t want to lower the average anymore but we did very well there.

All of those assumptions were shot to ribbons. The survey was brilliantly designed and managed and executed and great credit is due to the ABS, the AEC and of course Senator Cormann, who was the Acting Special Minister of State.

But above all the credit is due to the Australian people, 80 per cent of whom cast a vote. Now that was remarkable. Nobody predicted that or expected that. In a general election, where we actually fine you if you don’t vote, the participation rate is only a little bit above 90 per cent. This was a remarkable turnout and it proved what we always said; that Australians wanted to have their say.

Now, that outcome, that survey Mr Speaker, had many opponents, most notably on the other side of this chamber.

In fact, this moment would’ve come far sooner if the Opposition had supported our original plebiscite proposal in this Parliament.

It was an exercise both in good planning and execution and also legal ingenuity, to find a way to deliver on our election promise to give everyone their say and do so without legislation which of course the Senate had denied us.

So we delivered on our promise.

We promised the Australian people their say. We said: “If you say ‘yes’ then we will have a free vote in the Parliament.”

That is precisely what we are delivering and it is, I must say Mr Speaker, a matter of great regret that the Labor Party is denying its’ members a free vote on the amendments both in the Senate and this House.

Now, Mr Speaker, the best thing about the result has been the tremendous affirmation of same sex couples and indeed all gay Australians, in the result.

In voting ‘yes’, Australians have thrown their arms around their fellow Australians who are gay and said clearly:  “We accept you and we accept your relationship.”

I hope that in that positive affirmation, the most positive you could have in a democracy, same sex couples take comfort in the acceptance and love of their fellow Australians.

Now Mr Speaker, there were many who voted against the change, but I know that they will accept and respect the democratic outcome of this process. They voted ‘no’ for many different reasons.  Some believe homosexuality itself is sinful, others simply wanted to keep the legal definition of marriage as it has been for thousands of years.

Now, I respect the vote of every Australian - both ‘yes’ and ‘no’ - and we made sure they could be heard and I recognise the fundamental importance of ensuring freedom of religion and speech are protected. The Bill has been designed, as Senator Smith said in the Senate when he moved it, to ensure religious freedom is protected and I do not believe that the Bill threatens our cherished religious freedoms. There is nothing in the Bill for example, which prevents anyone from maintaining or adhering to the teaching of their church on marriage or morality.

But we must not fail to recognise that there is sincere, heartfelt anxiety about the Bill's impact on religious freedom. That is why I will support several amendments to the Bill which will provide that additional reassurance in respect of these fundamental rights and freedoms.

Mr Speaker, this is a historic moment of inclusion, of recognition of respect.

It has been talked about for many years.

Previous governments have failed to take it on. The Labor Party did nothing about it for six years in power.

But now, with a strong message from the Australian people which my Government enabled, the way is cleared.

We are united in our diversity, our values of mutual respect have made Australia the most harmonious, the most successful multicultural society on the planet.

Australians have shown by the enormous turnout, they’re deeply engaged with this issue and they have voted overwhelmingly for a country built on equality, where the law does not discriminate against you on the basis of your sexual orientation, any more than on the basis of your race or religion or gender.

So today is a day of which every Australian should be proud.

Proud that we can conduct and did conduct, despite all the naysayers, a very civil debate.

Proud that given the opportunity to vote, far from being apathetic as the naysayers predicted, we participated in such enormous numbers.

This is a day to be especially proud that all of our friends, our colleagues, our neighbours, our brothers, our sisters, can marry the people they love.

And for those who voted ‘no’ and remain disappointed with the result, a day to be proud that your voices were heard and that you have a Government that ensured your voices were heard, as you wanted. They were counted and that ultimately, as you acknowledged, the majority was decisive.

The postal survey gave the ultimate democratic seal to this historic change.

Now Mr Speaker, I commend all the men and women who fought for decades to bring this reform about, so many of them indeed in my electorate of Wentworth. This is a cause I understand and have been close to for many years.

It is a long list but surely in this place, at the head of the line of advocates stands perhaps the most unlikely, but in many ways the most patiently persistent, the Member for Leichhardt, Warren Entsch.

But most of all, to same-sex couples in Australia; you are equal, you are respected, you are loved.

I commend the Bill to the house.