Marriage Amendment Bill 2012 - Second Reading

Ms BIRD (Cunningham—Parliamentary Secretary for Higher Education and Skills) (20:41): Tonight I reaffirm my intention to support the Marriage Amendment Act 2012, introduced as a private member's bill by my colleague the member for Throsby, which aims to amend the Marriage Act 1961 to establish marriage equality for same-sex couples. Over recent times, I have sought the views of my constituency on this issue and have received arguments both for and against the change. Indeed, over 1,500 constituents contacted me, some on multiple occasions, by various methods, including petitions, standard email campaigns and personally written emails and letters.

I came to the debate undetermined about my own views on this issue. I have a significant appreciation of the special nature of marriage for those with various religious affiliations. I have also spent much of my adult life arguing that people in committed relationships who are not married deserve to have that relationship given the same legal and social acceptance and recognition as those who are married. I also have a profoundly held belief that gay and lesbian individuals and couples should not face harassment, discrimination or denial of rights extended to other Australians. For that reason, I welcomed the significant legislative reforms put in place by the new Labor government when we came to office in 2007.

Since I was genuinely undetermined about my own views, I read with an honestly inquiring mind all the submissions made to me. I received personal representations both in my electorate and in Canberra from groups wishing to explain their views on the legislation. In large part, these interactions were well considered and respectful and I appreciate those who argued their case passionately but without attacking the other side of the argument—or indeed me—in a personal way. Sadly, this was not universally the case. But those who resorted to personal attacks simply wasted an opportunity to influence my views.

When the ALP determined that members were to be given a conscience vote on the issue, I concluded my own consideration and determined that I would be supporting the change for reasons I will shortly outline. I then wrote to all of the constituents who had contacted me to let them know of my decision.

I acknowledge that there are some who were, and remain, disappointed by my decision, as there are those who welcomed it. I can only assure all that I reached the decision after extensive consideration of all the submissions made to me and I am entirely comfortable that I have determined the decision conscientiously.

The exercise of a conscience vote is particularly important, as it does not bind a member to a predetermined outcome and therefore the numbers are not the overriding consideration; rather, it is expected that the member will bring their own judgement to the matter. It is a matter of great regret and shame, I believe, that the Leader of the Opposition has not afforded his own members a similar right to exercise a free conscience vote.

The existence of the Marriage Act and the use of that status in various other acts mean that the institution of marriage is not a church-only matter; it is also a matter for consideration by the state. There is much discussion still in this debate that a new form of formal recognition, such as a civil union, would be a more appropriate response as a formal recognition of committed same-sex relationships. Initially I felt this might be an appropriate way forward. I could see the logic of the mechanistic nature of the arguments for this model. But, at the end of the day, it is my view that this is simply splitting hairs. In everyday life, people are asked, 'Are you married?' not 'Are you civilly united?' The nature of the relationships should be equal, so, to my mind, the process should be equal.

As a result of my considerations, I also believe it is critically important that this apply to the state's operation and recognition of relationships for its purposes. I remain firmly of the view that churches and other religious institutions should be protected in their right to perform marriage ceremonies according to their own principles and values. Indeed, the ALP platform specifically states this, as does the amendment bill before us. In the final analysis for me as a parliamentarian, it is up to the state to determine whether or not to expand the definition of marriage, and it is up to the church and its clergy to solemnise marriage according to its traditions.