Second reading speech – Plebiscite (Same Sex Marriage) Bill 2016

When the Prime Minister introduced this Bill he noted that marriage is a much-cherished institution in our society.

It is an institution afforded significant respect, and at the same time an institution about which many people hold different views.

I know many people who strongly believe that access to marriage should be open to all adult couples in our community, regardless of their gender or sexual preference.

And I know many others who believe equally strongly that marriage should only be entered into between a man and a woman.

Indeed there are many in this chamber who – at one time or another – have held to both of these views in the last several years.

So it should come as no surprise to us that same-sex marriage is a matter of widespread public interest, with deeply-held views on both sides of the debate.

People on both sides of this debate have a right to express their views.

Accordingly, the Coalition committed at the last election to hold a plebiscite so that all Australians could have their say and resolve this issue for themselves.

This is the first occasion in which any Australian Government has had the courage to address this complex issue.

Indeed Labor made no effort to resolve this issue during their six years in government.

In returning the Coalition to Government this year, Australians endorsed the Government’s plan to hold a plebiscite.

With this Bill, we are doing no more, and no less, than honouring our commitment to voters to hold a plebiscite as soon as practicable.

 

I turn now to the specifics of the Bill.

As Special Minister of State, I have worked with the Attorney-General to develop a plebiscite framework that is fair and transparent.

The Plebiscite (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill is the result of consultation with stakeholders on both sides of the debate.

The Bill sets out a framework for a national plebiscite to ask the Australian people whether the Marriage Act 1961 should be amended to allow same-sex couples to marry.

The Bill authorises and provides funding for the Australian Electoral Commission to conduct the plebiscite. This will be in the amount of $170 million.

To ensure a voter experience consistent with federal referendums, the Bill incorporates provisions contained in the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918, the Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Act 1984 and other relevant Commonwealth legislation.

The provisions in the Bill provide for a compulsory attendance ballot on 11 February 2017, with normal access to pre-poll voting, postal voting and declaration voting.

The result of the ballot will be determined by a simple national majority. The simple majority will be achieved when either the yes or no vote receives more than 50 per cent of the votes cast, disregarding informal ballot papers.

Materials will need to be authorised, as is normal in elections, and these requirements will also be expanded to include new communications mechanisms, such as robo-calls and SMS messaging.

‘Yes’ and ‘No’ advertising committees will be established. This is based on the precedent of the 1999 Republic Referendum.

These Committees will be composed of parliamentarians and citizens, appointed jointly by the Attorney-General and myself.

Each Committee will include up to five Commonwealth Parliamentarians, and up to five members of the public. The Opposition will be invited to nominate two of the five members, and the cross bench will be invited to nominate one member.

$15 million will be divided equally between the ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ advertising committees.

The Bill enables me as Special Minister of State to issue, by notifiable instrument, guidelines for the Committees’ advertising, to ensure that there is proper accountability for the use of public funds, and that advertising meets appropriate standards. Again, this is based on the precedent and practice of the 1999 Republic Referendum.

The Bill specifies the plebiscite question ‘Should the law be changed to allow same-sex couples to marry?’.

It is a simple and fair question. It does not presuppose any particular view.

Each side of the debate will be given reasonable opportunities to pay to broadcast material about the plebiscite.

Broadcasting rules in the Broadcasting Services Act 1992 and the Special Broadcasting Service Act 1991 will be extended to apply to conduct relating to the plebiscite.

This too is consistent with the framework for federal elections.

These rules will also include a blackout period during which broadcasters will be prohibited from broadcasting advertisements about the plebiscite.

If this Bill is passed, and if Australians vote in support of same?sex marriage at the plebiscite, then the Government will move quickly to respect the outcome and introduce into the Parliament amendments to the Marriage Act.

The Government’s Bill provides the framework for a fair, transparent and democratic public vote – so that all Australians can have their say and resolve this issue.

It deserves the support of Senators who want this issue to be resolved, including those – like me – who have changed their minds in recent years and think that it is time to allow same-sex couples to marry.

 

Holding public votes to resolve contentious issues is not without precedent in Australia. The ABC’s Antony Green has tallied some 35 such votes since federation, at various levels of government.

These include public votes on the payment of parliamentarians, hotel licensing, prohibition, trading hours and religious instruction in schools.

Voters in the ACT have been asked to vote on the question of self-government, and Northern Territorians have voted on statehood, while Queenslanders have voted on daylight savings.

And of course at the federal level, the very contentious and serious issue of conscription has been the subject of two plebiscites.

A plebiscite on the matter of same-sex marriage is consistent with this tradition.

Indeed, this is perhaps an issue uniquely suited to resolution through a plebiscite.

As I have already said, marriage is both an institution that is held in high regard, and about which many people hold different views. It plays an important role in our society as it has for thousands of years.

It is an institution about which parliamentarians can claim no special knowledge or insight.

And importantly, putting this issue to a popular vote will allow all Australians to conclusively resolve this issue for themselves.

I have met with advocates of change who know the Irish example well, Mr President.

One of the architects of Ireland’s ‘yes’ campaign told The Australian in June that the vote in Ireland was “an astounding and unifying moment for our country”. They also said that it “brought people together instead of tearing them apart”.

Contemporary newspaper reports at the time captured the same celebratory mood, as well as the validation and acceptance felt by many same-sex couples.

I see no reason why an Australian plebiscite would be any different.

A plebiscite deals with this matter in a uniquely conclusive way. All Australians would have the opportunity to have their say, respect the result, and move forward together.

Allowing only parliamentarians to have a say in the matter will shut out the many Australians who tell me that they would like the opportunity to participate directly in this debate.

Of course there may be a small minority of individuals who behave inappropriately – on any side of the debate.

But as anyone involved in politics knows, this is true for debates on every contentious issue, and it is a feature of debate regardless of whether that issue is resolved by a popular vote or a parliamentary vote.

We on this side of the chamber believe these to be exceptions to the fundamental decency and civility of our fellow citizens – not the other way around.

 

In 2013, Mr President, Bill Shorten, the now Leader of the Opposition, expressed support for a plebiscite to allow the Australian people to make their views known on this issue.

He said ‘Personally speaking, I’m completely relaxed about having some form of plebiscite’.

He also said ‘But in terms of a plebiscite – I would rather the people of Australia could make their view clear on this than leaving this issue to 150 people.’

Now, Mr President, Mr Shorten has an opportunity to do just that by backing legislation for a national vote.

In 2015, Senator Di Natale too supported a plebiscite.

Senators Rice and Xenophon sponsored legislation for a plebiscite in this place just last year.

 

But now the Labor Party and the Greens say the Australian people cannot be trusted to have their say.

They say debate must be shut down due to the risk that a small minority might say very hurtful things. This argument is wrong, and it sets a dangerous precedent that is becoming, unfortunately, much more prevalent on the left of politics.

It’s disingenuous to think that debate over same-sex marriage will cease if there is no plebiscite.

Opponents of the Government’s plebiscite have cited examples of intemperate debate as a reason to deny all Australians their say.

Yet the same examples they use have all taken place in the absence of a legislated plebiscite. Anyone who thinks that stopping a plebiscite means stopping discourteous speech is fooling themselves.

Indeed, by delaying a resolution they are only ensuring debate continues indefinitely.

In the days since Mr Shorten announced he would no longer support a plebiscite, we have seen advocates of change launch a new campaign with new advertising advancing their position.

And on the other side, advocates of the status quo have thanked Mr Shorten for playing a helpful role in stopping same-sex marriage, saying “We now have more time to continue building our campaign, more time to build our coalition, and more time to win the hearts and minds of millions of Australians.”

And on the same day he announced his opposition to the plebiscite, Mr Shorten sent an email to his supporters asking for donations to support continued advocacy on the issue.

Clearly, this debate is not over.

The advertisements and the arguments will continue – in newspapers, on TV and online.

Voting against a plebiscite will not stop this debate – it will only deny Australians the opportunity to bring it to a conclusive resolution themselves.

Secondly, Labor’s argument sets a dangerous precedent, as it could logically be used to shut down any contentious debate in the future.

In a free society, citizens have a right to express their views.

How can we as a country resolve any controversial issue if parliamentarians can declare a topic out-of-bounds, on the basis that they don’t trust their fellow-citizens to have a civil conversation?

If Australians can’t be trusted to discuss same-sex marriage, how will Labor and the Greens trust them to discuss other contentious issues or other issues that may be put to a referendum.

As the Member for Goldstein said of Bill Shorten’s argument, “Australians are apparently capable of deliberations to elect him to the highest political office in this country, but not to discuss one of his policies.”

Labor’s argument betrays a dim view of one’s fellow citizens.

Those who represent Australians in this place should not denigrate them in this way.

Rather, we ought to respect their intelligence and civility.

Finally, it must be said that this argument is a touch hypocritical.

It seeks to restrict participation in a public debate out of fear that a small minority may behave disrespectfully. Yet in the same breath, some of those advancing this argument call those they disagree with “bigots” and “homophobes”.

Now I don’t think Labor Senators were being “bigots” or “homophobes” just a few short years ago when they supported their party’s position that marriage remain between a man and a woman.

But I do think those in the Labor Party who would lecture others on civility, ought to demonstrate just a little bit of it themselves towards people advancing the very same position that the Labor Party held when they were in government.

 

I conclude, Mr President, by reminding Senators that this plebiscite gives every voting Australian a say on the question of same-sex marriage.

This Bill provides for a fair, transparent and thoroughly democratic way to conclusively resolve this issue, so Australians can move forward together.

A number of Senators are on the record supporting a plebiscite to determine this matter. The Bill deserves their support, and the support of all Senators.

I commend the Bill to the Senate.

(ENDS)

Author: senatorryan

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