Senator MOORE (Queensland) (10:08): I rise to speak on the Marriage Equality Amendment Bill 2013. In 2004 we had a debate in this chamber about the change to the Marriage Act. The process that led to that debate was extraordinarily painful. Senator Reynolds has just discussed the process that happened in her party room that led up to the decision that we now have about the plebiscite. The process in my party room that led up to that debate in 2004 was equally painful. People had a wide range of opinions. It was discussed. There had not been a long period of time in the community leading up to that debate. The decision by Prime Minister Howard to propose that change was very rapid. There had not been the opportunity for the community in its widest sense to feed in to the parliamentarians as much as has happened previously. I was agonising about whether I would take part in that debate, because I was personally very distressed by what was going on and my own views were not the ones that were then taken by my party. I listened and I was concerned, but I finally felt that it was my job as a parliamentarian to express what I felt about what was happening. Whilst we were bound at that stage to vote for the government-there had been a binding decision in our caucus-what I talked about at that time was the pain I felt as a result of the community comments that had been flooding in during the very short time of this discussion. I said in this place that I was saddened by the anger and hatred that people in the community were prepared to express around the issue of marriage and any concept of what I termed marriage equality.
That was 2004. As Senator Rice has explained in her contribution, since then we have had a range of opportunities in this place, a range of bills that have come forward, where we have had a debate like the debate we are having today. Sadly, most of those debates have been in private members' time. It is a wonderful opportunity to express our views and to share our opinions, but we knew that there would be no result of that process. It was a chance to discuss how people felt about marriage equality. It has been valuable to listen to those contributions over the years. You learn much about the people with whom you work when you hear people expressing their own views and hear what drives them and the comments they have.
But I continue to say that the thing that upsets me and concerns me most is the amount of hatred that comes through my emails and my office from people who are opposed to marriage equality. I hear Senator Bushby mumbling under his breath over there. There are also concerns and hatred expressed by people who support marriage equality, Senator Bushby. But what I have done a couple of times recently is I have shared with people I know, without naming names, some of the things that people have sent me on my email.
This is not a reasoned debate. There seems to be a depth of feeling and concern around this issue that causes people to attack others, to make comments which do not actually always relate to marriage, but which relate to their worries, concerns and fear about homosexuality. That is where the emails focus. Not only do they focus on their hatred of people whose views they do not share, they then turn that hatred on the parliamentarians, saying, 'If you vote for this you will be anti God, you will be turning your back on your community, you will be burned in hell.' That is my personal favourite; I actually keep that in my office as a hope for my future.
I do not wish to minimise the concern, but I want to put on record something that is very important to me about how we are engaging with our community. I take absolutely many of the points that Senator Reynolds has just made about the fact that we need to listen and share, have the tough debates and engage with people whose opinions we do not share. It is clear that that is part of our job. It is part of our job as elected representatives of our communities to listen, to respond and to try and understand, so that when we are in this place taking votes on a range of important issues we come here well informed, we have done our job and researched our issues, and we continue the debate with the community to explain what has led to the decisions we have made. On that point, I truly believe that the debate we are having now is about the decision the government of the day has made that the parliament will not be the place where a decision is made about marriage equality but rather that this decision will be outsourced to a plebiscite.
We have only just heard the details of the plebiscite, but still we have no clear indication on whether this plebiscite will be binding. I listened with interest to Senator Reynolds's comments. Her contribution tended to say that the members of the government had agreed, at one of their meaningful party room meetings, that now they would vote as the plebiscite determines. That is what I heard, but I have not heard any clear decision from the government that says that they will be bound by the results of the plebiscite. That is a side point, but it is still quite important.
We are being told as a community and as a parliament that this plebiscite will have a certain purpose. Certainly it was my understanding that it was a large and expensive opinion poll-that people in the community would have the opportunity to give their opinion on a question placed before them. I have not heard from the government that that would actually determine what would happen in the parliament, and I am very keen to hear that. If that were their position, whilst I still strongly reject the need to have a plebiscite, that would change one of the arguments I have been using against it-that, in fact, it is just throwing a question out to the community and saying, 'We want to hear what you say, thanks a lot, and then we will just go ahead and vote.' However, the argument that we have been hearing is that the plebiscite will take place and then, after that, at some time, there will be a vote in the parliament.
This relates marriage equality to the choice of the national flag, because, up till now, that is the only other issue that we have had a plebiscite on in our country. If taking a plebiscite to the people is the way that the government will make decisions on difficult matters, we are then setting up for future operations of parliament that-when there is a difficult decision that has an impact on people in the community-we will then go to a plebiscite before we come back to a parliamentary vote. That could lead to a very long period of parliament in the future, and we would be able to sit here and just about make a case for any difficult question. For any question about which there was any concern, any question about which there are wideranging issues in the community, we would say, 'Whacko, well, we will not do that. We will let the people have their say on this issue and, at some time in the future, we'll have a plebiscite and then we'll listen to that and then have a vote and not care what they say anyway,' which is seemingly the argument that we have had around the issue of marriage equality.
I am reluctant to say that I am offended and upset by this, because people on the other side seem to say that a lot on this issue, but I am offended and upset as a person in the parliament that we are not able to have the respect of the Australian community-or in fact the respect of people in this place-to do our job, to make decisions, to effectively listen to the community, to effectively tell the community why we made the decision and to bring them with us. If we are going to say that a difficult question needs to go to the community, how, then, are we able to operate in the parliament? How are we able to say that we have any respect or integrity as elected representatives if we do not have the understanding in the community that the way the parliamentary system operates is that we take information, work through those issues and make a decision in law for the Australian community, as we have done on extraordinarily difficult issues ever since Federation? Some of those have been very tough decisions-decisions that impact on people's lives and on people's future. Nonetheless, the element of democracy determines that that process comes through this place-though, of course, there was that really important issue with the Australian flag. I should not forget that. We should remember that that was subject to a plebiscite in the past!
I am worried about this process, because of what I saw in the series of debates that happened in 2004. There have been very many debates around the issue of marriage equality, and many people stand up and talk about their personal views, how deeply they feel and how upset they are about the issues around marriage equality-which is important. No-one minimises the importance of, the sensitivity around or the deeply held views about this issue, but we are not moving forward on this.
In the last parliament, in the lower house, parliamentarians were asked to go out and ask their communities about how they felt about marriage equality and then to come back and talk to the parliament about it. It was a passing strange process to actually tell parliamentarians that, on this particular issue, they need to go out and talk to their communities and then come back and discuss it in parliament-and they did that, though I was deeply hopeful that would be parliamentarians' standard process on most issues. But they did that, and many parliamentarians stood up in the House of Representatives and talked to the parliament about what they had found when they had spoken with the people in their community. There were a wide range of views and, as always, not everyone agreed. But we had this process put in place by the House of Representatives, where they went out and talked with their communities and then came back into parliament and shared those views in the House of Representatives. There was no vote after that. They went out and did the process, came back and talked in parliament, but it did not lead to a vote on the floor of the House of Representatives! That was unusual. Why does this particular issue continue to have unusual processes which are not part of standard political practice? But that happened and nothing final happened at that time.
Then, towards the end of the Abbott period of government, this issue of the plebiscite arose. It actually caused a great deal of concern, because people had to find out what a plebiscite was. We had to find out how it operated in our system and found it did not, actually, because we only had one example, and that was the flag, to look at. But then marriage equality was not taken on the value of the issues, was not taken on the information that people who came to see all of us gave us. They were not the determining factors of how we would move forward on marriage equality; rather, suddenly, the plebiscite became the important element and that indeed was taken forward by the then government into the election. Now we are hearing that that election result, as narrow as it was, has enshrined the concept of the plebiscite process for handling marriage equality into this parliament.
The next element of the debate which is being ramped up now and which we will hear in debate now for weeks, I believe, is the direct allegation that people on this side of the parliament-I actually like that term 'people on this side of the parliament'; I do not how far that goes, maybe just down to the middle of the chamber-are making the issue of marriage equality politicised, that we are making political comment about marriage equality. That we are politicising a political process in the parliament-and I use the term rarely-is truly offensive. I would normally just brush that off as part of the rhetorical process, the normal process practice of causing hurt across the chamber and making comment. Why I find accusing people of making something political offensive is that it is talking about people who are vulnerable and who have rights. As a recent document by the Australian Marriage Equality Organisation said, 'Issues of marriage equality are about people.' Making an allegation that we are politicising the issue to the extent that we are putting politics above people's concerns is offensive.
I truly believe that we have an opportunity to move forward with marriage equality now. I truly believe that we, as political representatives that have been voted in by the community, have the opportunity to put a question before parliament, a question I hope would be actually led by the government. I think that the message to the community about where our parliament stands on marriage equality should be led by the government and then be taken up in a full cross-party, cross-parliamentary way so that we could say we have listened to our community, which is our job. And any parliamentarian who believes that they have not had the voices of their constituents shared with them on this issue since 2004, any parliamentarian that could say they have not listened to their community on these issues should not be in this parliament, because that is indeed how our system operates. As elected representatives, as I said at the beginning of my contribution, it is our job to ensure that we listen to our community on all issues but most particularly, I believe, this issue, which impacts on people's lives so deeply. It should be one that we treat with respect through our parliamentary process and do our job.
A couple of weeks ago I had the immense honour to listen to Justice Kirby when he was making comments in Queensland at a happy occasion. It was an occasion about the LGBTI Legal Service in Queensland celebrating an important anniversary. Of course there was a wide range of people there joining in this celebration of a hardworking team-who also need a lot of government money but we will handle that issue separately-that look at legal issues around LGBTI people in our community. Justice Kirby, whose experience is renowned, actually put it very clearly. Why should issues around marriage equality, issues around the legal rights of people who are gay or who wish to marry be treated so differently? Why should that be treated as a process for a plebiscite rather than a standard responsible parliamentary debate in this place, as all other issues are treated? He did not make the comparison to the flag; I did because I think that is the only time in our previous history that we have had such a discussion in our community. We can do better than what is happening now. Reverend Peter Catt, a mate of mine in Queensland from the Anglican faith, said in a contribution quite recently:
The marriage service in the Anglican Church commences with a quote from the Bible-
And it is a good time to quote the Bible because lots of people quote it to me.
God is love and those who live in love live in God and God lives in them.
Marriage equality will allow our communities celebrate a wide range of loving relationships and will therefore strengthen our common life.
We want that opportunity to come forward and we can make the decision in our parliament.