Marriage Amendment Bill 2012

Mr CLARE (Blaxland—Minister for Home Affairs, Minister for Justice and Minister for Defence Materiel) (12:32): I have always thought that marriage is between a man and a woman. That is what I grew up with. That is the way it has always been. It is what society says it is. But society’s views are not set in stone. They change, and so have mine.

I have been thinking a lot about this issue over the last few months. I am getting married later this year to a wonderful woman named Louise—the most important person in my life. Our relationship is the most important thing in my life. I have been thinking about how I would feel if I could not marry Louise. Louise is a Vietnamese Australian. If we had met in another place at another time we might not have been able to get married. One hundred years ago interracial marriages were illegal in most parts of the United States. In the 1950s half of the states in the US still had laws banning interracial marriage. The US Supreme Court only struck out these laws in 1967. In Australia, the Northern Territory ordinance act 1918 banned Indigenous people from marrying non-Indigenous people. It was not revoked until 1953. Similar laws existed in other countries.

It has made me think, in the words of Paul Keating’s poignant and oft-quoted Redfern speech, ‘How would I feel if this were done to me?’. I am fortunate, we are fortunate, that we live in a more equal, more tolerant time—more so every day. Society’s views have changed about lots of issues over the years. A bit over 100 years ago women were not allowed to vote. We used to think that was right. We used to think that was the way that it should be. We do not anymore. Fifty years ago Aboriginal people were not allowed to vote. We used to think that was right. We do not now. Sixty years ago there were parts of Australia where Aboriginal people could not get a drink at the same bar as other Australians or sit in the same part of the cinema. People used to think that that was okay. We do not now. Things change. Society has changed.

The way that we look at homosexuality has also changed. One hundred years ago we sent people to prison for it. Forty years ago it was a crime in every state of Australia. It was still a crime in Tasmania 15 years ago. Today there are very few people who would say that gay people do not deserve the same rights in the workplace, our legal system and the health system as everybody else. But we once did. Our views have changed. Four years ago we passed legislation that gives gay couples the same rights as de facto heterosexual couples when it comes to superannuation, inheritance rights, social security and veterans entitlements, hospital visits and the right to file a joint tax return. It was not a contentious debate. It probably would have been if we had had it 20 years ago—but not any more. It is an example of how society’s views have changed. This debate about gay marriage also shows us how society’s views have changed. There would not have even been a debate on this 30 years ago. It would have been inconceivable. In 30 years time I suspect there will not be a debate either. In 30 years I suspect that people will look back at this debate like other contentious debates and wonder why it was so contentious—the way we look back at debates about women’s suffrage, Indigenous rights, and equal pay for women.

If this was a debate today about civil unions rather than marriage, I suspect it would not be a big debate either. Most Australians and most politicians agree that gay couples should be able to have a civil union, to legally bind themselves together and have a ceremony and a certificate to mark the occasion. That has not always been the case either. People did not always think that, but most people do now. If this were a bill about civil unions rather than marriage I suspect it would pass with the support of about 90 per cent of the members of this parliament. That shows us just how much things have changed over the last few years. The debate now is about whether that legally binding agreement should be called ‘marriage’. I recognise that there are strong views on both sides of this debate. I understand why. It involves change to something that we have all grown up with. Big social changes are often controversial. When homosexuality was removed as a crime it was very controversial. In New South Wales in 1984 it passed by only two votes. The debates over giving women the right to vote were also contentious at the time. Here is a quote from the House of Representatives debate in 1902:

I have a mother, and I have a wife and a sister and daughters, and I wish to continue in the position of their supporter and their protector, and not to place them under the necessity of protecting their own political position. I do not wish them to have extended to them the right not only to vote, but to sit in this Chamber. It is man’s duty to be here, and it is woman’s duty to attend to the family.

Imagine somebody saying that today. The debates about equal pay and the debates about counting Indigenous people as part of the population of Australia were also contentious at that time. In all of these debates the argument that eventually won the day was that people should be treated equally, that all people should have the same opportunities in life. And this is an important principle. Everyone should have the same opportunities in life regardless of the colour of their skin, their religion, their sex or their sexual preference. I know a lot of people have a different view of this issue. I respect and understand them. I held it for a long time myself. I have changed my mind because I think this debate, at its core, like other debates I have mentioned, is about fairness.

We should treat others the way we would like to be treated. As Barack Obama has said on this issue, ‘In the end the value that I care most deeply about is how we treat other people.’ We should treat others the way we would like to be treated. We are all equal and we all deserve the same rights and the same opportunities in life, whether it is the right to vote, the right to equal pay for equal work, the right to practise your religion, the right to drink in the same pub, sit in the same cinema or marry the person you love.