Senators across the spectrum rise to endorse legislation a day after historic survey result revealed more than 60% of Australians support equality.
Liberal senator Dean Smith has introduced a historic marriage equality bill to the Australian parliament and senators from across the spectrum rose to endorse it just a day after the results of a national survey revealed more than 60% voted in favour of removing discrimination in the marriage law.
After the overwhelming mandate with 61.6% in favour of same-sex marriage, Smith and the cross-party grouping of Labor, the Greens, the Nick Xenophon Team and Derryn Hinch lost no time in introducing the bill and commencing debate on Thursday.
In his second reading speech, Smith thanked Australia on behalf of LGBTI people, saying the result had shown “a glimpse of the country we all yearn for, a country that is fair-minded, generous and accepting”.
Speaking from his perspective as a gay Australian, Smith said “the biggest hurdle” for LGBTI people is often “that of self-acceptance”. Inclusion in the institution of marriage is vital because “nothing speaks more of acceptance than marriage”, he said.
Smith credited Liberal MP Warren Entsch for his advocacy for same-sex marriage before any LGBTI Coalition members were elected to parliament, saying the bill was “more Warren’s than anyone’s, we simply walk in the track he has laid”.
As a fight in the parliament looms with conservatives set to push for greater protection for religious freedom and conscientious objection, Smith said the postal survey and the bill dealt only with changes to the Marriage Act, and debates about freedom of expression and living out one’s beliefs should be left for another day.
“Amendments that seek to address other issues or which seek to deny gay and lesbian Australians with the full rights, responsibilities and privileges that they already have will be strenuously opposed,” Smith warned.
“Australians did not vote for equality before the law so that equality before the law that is already gained be stripped away.”
Smith’s speech was applauded by Labor, the Greens, the Nick Xenophon Team and Coalition MPs Trent Zimmerman, Tim Wilson and Trevor Evans, and senators George Brandis, Simon Birmingham, Marise Payne, Linda Reynolds, Jane Hume, Bridget McKenzie, James Paterson and Jonathon Duniam.
Senior conservatives including the finance minister, Mathias Cormann, and the resources and northern Australia minister, Matt Canavan, were absent from the chamber.
The Labor leader in the Senate, Penny Wong, said it was “proud day for Australia, a day of joy and a day of grace”.
“A day for all Australians to be proud of themselves and our nation, a nation that has shown itself to be as generous and big-hearted as we had hoped,” she said.
Wong spoke of her first experience of exclusion as the only Asian-Australian in her primary school, leading to an analogy that exclusion of LGBTI people from marriage was as discriminatory as anti-miscegenation laws had been in the past.
Legalising marriage equality would counter the message of the current marriage law that LGBTI Australians are “lesser” and that “our relationships and our children matter less”, she said.
Wong revisited the Howard government’s decision in 2004 to legislate that marriage was between a man and a woman, describing it as a “dark moment in the history of this parliament”.
“For me, Labor’s support for the Howard government’s amendment meant I voted for discrimination against myself and the people whom I love,” she said.
Wong said she decided to stay to “fight discrimination within the political system” rather than “go out in a blaze of publicity and take a public stand against my party”.
Wong concluded by thanking her partner Sophie for her love and commitment and giving a message to her daughters, Alexandra and Hannah: “I work for and fight for the world I want for you.”
The Greens LGBTI spokeswoman, Janet Rice, spoke about how marriage equality would extend rights to intersex and trans Australians.
Speaking about her partner Penny’s transition, Rice said the couple, who are married, “went from being a perfect family in the eyes of others, to being weird”.
The pair self-censored, stopped holding each other’s hands in public, and feared violence as they experienced the “blatant transphobia” of the reaction of some towards Penny.
Rice said the Greens would seek amendments to Smith’s bill in good faith, because it already represented a compromise to what the Greens would have proposed. The Greens leader, Richard Di Natale, has said they will not do anything to imperil marriage equality.
The education minister, Simon Birmingham, a senior moderate in the Coalition, said the Smith bill posed no threat to freedom of religion, while at the same time extending rights and freedoms to people of all genders and sexualities.
Although he reserved his position until he had seen amendments, Birmingham warned he “won’t support any that extend inequality and discrimination”, because the Australian people had “spoken so comprehensively” against discrimination.
On Wednesday the Senate passed a motion that will see the bill debated through the parliamentary sitting week beginning 27 November, with supporters of marriage equality aiming to pass a bill through both houses of parliament before they rise on 7 December.