My speech to the Legislative Assembly on the Marriage Equality Bill 2013

October 22, 2013

Thank you, Madam Speaker.

The bill we are debating today is about equality. It is about ending discrimination that currently exists for some members of our community. It is an important day in the history of the Legislative Assembly and that of the ACT. It is a proud day for the government and I know for many across our community. I welcome everyone here today in the public gallery and watching outside on the television. Thank you for coming here to show your support for this bill. It is so nice to have you here and see the chamber full.

Today you are the face of thousands of people who believe in this reform. You are not all in same-sex relationships and you do not all want to get married. But you, like us, believe that arbitrary discrimination against any group or any minority is wrong and must be made right.

We on this side of the chamber are prepared to challenge out-dated legal notions and meet our responsibility to the people we represent to make sure that each and every one of you is treated with recognition, equality and fairness before the law. These are the principles which have brought us into government. They are the principles the ACT community holds dear. They are the principles of ACT Labor and they are the principles of this bill.

The government has long held the belief that marriage equality is necessary if we are to end discrimination against same-sex couples and deliver equality under our law. We went to the 2012 election with a public commitment to continue to legislate for an end to discrimination on the grounds of gender or sexuality, and the passage of this bill delivers partly on that commitment with much more work to be done.

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Madam Speaker, there is no doubt that Australian society has come a long way in its understanding and acceptance of same-sex relationships. In fact, my own view is that the Australian people have moved much faster than our political institutions have been able to respond. The fact that less people in Australia today have to live in fear of ridicule or isolation or hate as a result of their sexuality is progress that we should, indeed, celebrate. But where institutional discrimination persists, governments have a responsibility to remove it, which is what the Marriage Equality Bill seeks to do here in the ACT.

The bill provides for a law to allow people of the same sex who cannot marry under the commonwealth Marriage Act to marry. Here in the ACT, for the first time in Australia, same-sex couples will have the opportunity to have their relationship recognised and registered as a marriage. They will have the opportunity to celebrate their commitment to each other with their family and friends in the same way heterosexual couples do.

The bill provides for eligibility, notice of intention, disillusion, annulment and other regulatory requirements, and we expect it will be operational before the end of this year. Couples from interstate will be more than welcome to come to the ACT and marry under these laws.

I would like to acknowledge the broad spectrum of opinion on the issue of marriage equality. I have received many letters from Canberrans and from people across Australia offering support, thanks and encouragement. I have also received letters expressing concern over the bill. I want to acknowledge all of these views today. Your engagement shows our democracy working as it should. Your voices have been heard and I respect your views. I do want to respond to some of the comments which have been made in opposition to the bill.

Some members of the community have said they are concerned that this bill dilutes the value of marriage and opens it up to new variant forms. This is not the case. It does not provide for polygamous marriage or variant forms of marriage. The bill clearly provides that a marriage is between two people, between two unmarried and consenting adults and, as with any marriage, the value of the same sex marriage will rest with the two people who have committed to it.

Some say this is an area of law over that only the commonwealth has jurisdiction. We disagree with that view. Some in the community suggest that we have rushed into this reform, without properly consulting or flagging our plans. Our intention to legislate for marriage equality was a clear and public commitment, made during the election a year ago and anyone who asks why this government is determined to legislate for marriage equality need only consider our record of social reform.

In 2003 we amended the Adoption Act to remove barriers preventing same sex couples from being considered as adoptive parents. In 2004 we passed the Parentage Act to make sure courts could make parentage orders, solely in the best interests of the children, without discriminating in relation to a person’s sexuality or relationship status. In 2006 and 2012 we passed civil unions acts.

Some further argue that the views of 17 members in this place is somehow not representative of a community view. I disagree with that and, in fact, I would argue that we are one of the most representative parliaments in the country.

Finally, I want to address the concerns of those who believe marriage equality is at odds with their religion. Some believe marriage is and can only be a religious sacrament. While I respect these views, I do not accept them as just cause to preserve such plain discrimination against some members of our community and I do not believe this bill in any way challenges, diminishes or undermines the religion or faith of any individual.

As the Attorney‑General and I have repeatedly said there is no compulsion and no obligation in this bill. No minister of religion will be required to solemnise a same sex marriage. In fact, no minister of religion will be allowed to, under this law, unless they are authorised under the law. Nor will any church or place of worship be required to host these marriage ceremonies. I accept that for the religious beliefs of some these arguments are not sufficient. Well, if we are to be judged by a higher being on this law, then let it be so. We are not rewriting religious doctrine, we are simply legislating to improve outdated human‑made laws and provide greater freedom, equality and choice for everyone. I acknowledge today many people of faith, some here with us today, who support this important reform.

Madam Speaker, in turning to the impending High Court challenge, we have had our right to legislate in this area challenged before. Unfortunately, it looks like we will now have it challenged again, but we are not deterred. We understand this creates some uncertainty ahead, but that should not deter us, it does not rattle us and it does not change our path. I am very disappointed with the confirmation from the commonwealth that they will challenge the bill in the High Court. The commonwealth says it considers the bill to be inconsistent with the Marriage Act, an act it says was clearly intended to cover the field.

Yesterday the government agreed to move amendments to the bill to make it absolutely clear that our laws can operate concurrently with the commonwealth Marriage Act and also to respond to reviews of stakeholders who have fought long and hard for marriage equality. We stand by our advice and our view that this can occur. We stand by our view that we are not acting above our station.

The ACT government will defend the law in the High Court. We will continue to encourage the commonwealth to correct its own marriage law. It would give me great pleasure to repeal the ACT laws on the grounds that they are no longer necessary. Unfortunately, it seems more likely that we will fight out a basic matter of principle through the legal complexity of a High Court case.

I have been asked by the federal Attorney‑General not to commence this bill, on the grounds that couples who marry under this law could be adversely affected, because of the legal challenge. I have declined this and I do not accept the argument. I do not believe it is reasonable to pass a law in this place, and then let it sit idle and un‑commenced, until some unknown time in the future. While I am sorry that the commonwealth threat hangs over this law the couples who marry will do so with their eyes open to the action that the commonwealth is taking.

People have fought for this right long enough not to be put off by another legal challenge and I do not expect it would detract from the joys of the first weddings to occur under the Marriage Equality Act.

Madam Speaker, there is no longer any excuse, if there ever was, to discriminate against same sex couples in our community. They are our children, our parents, our brothers, our sisters, our leaders, our business people, our mentors and our colleagues. But more than anything they are our equals. The Marriage Equality Act puts this fundamental principle and human right into law.

I would like to acknowledge just a few people at this point. To the Deputy Chief Minister, Andrew Barr, his dedication to removing discrimination from the statute book exceeds well over a decade now. And also to the national debates he has led on marriage equality within the ALP, but also nationally. To Simon Corbell, the Attorney‑General, who remains unfazed as he progresses a long history of ending discrimination through our statute book in his role as Attorney‑General. To Shane Rattenbury as well for his co‑operation and collaboration on this bill, thank you very much. To all the people who have participated in drafting and people within the ACT Public Service who have worked long and hard to see these laws come to the parliament today. To all of my Assembly colleagues on the Labor benches, to each and every one of you, I am very proud to be the only leader I think of a Labor government in the country who leads a united team on this front.

No reasonable law maker ever sits down as they pass legislation and says, “These principles must stand for all time. Nothing must change the society or the environment in which this law is passed.” On the contrary, we do the best we can at the time we find ourselves in. We work with the knowledge and the comfort that our successors will adapt the laws of today to the society of tomorrow.

Madam Speaker, it is time we meet our responsibility and update the laws of the past for the society of today and I commend the bill to the Assembly.