Speech to the Senate - Marriage Bill

Marriage as a social unit pre-existed the nation state and parliaments. It is common to all cultures. It's very rationale was about the best way for raising and socialising the next generation, providing the certainty and stability of their biological parents and the diversity of a female and male role model. In its variations between cultures, the 'man, woman, children' element of marriage is the common denominator. It is not about the adults, but the potential children. It is 'other' focused, not 'self' focused. As even the atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell opined, it is through children alone that sexual relations became of importance to society and worthy to be taken cognisance of by a legal institution. Our own Australian Law Reform Commission noted that marriage in Indigenous communities is a central feature of traditional Aboriginal societies, and the union was considered to be strengthened by the birth of the first child. So, here, too, we have marriage and raising children inextricably interlinked.

It's not surprising that the UN in its charter acknowledges as a fundamental human right the right of marriage to men and women to, you've guessed it, form a family—in other words, to have children.

Same-sex marriage is not a recognised human right such as freedom of speech, marriage between a man and a woman, and freedom of religion, amongst others. That, of course, of itself does not stop parliaments from legislating for it, and I suspect at the end of this process Australia will have changed its law on marriage. It's a change I regret for the sake of our children, but I recognise Australians voted for such a change. But let's be clear—what were Australians asked in the postal survey? They were asked: 'Should the law be changed to allow same-sex couples to marry?' The legislation before us is not restricted to same-sex couples. It goes a lot further. The explanatory memorandum tells us, under item 3, on the definition of marriage, at paragraph 13, that same-sex couples and others will be able to marry. It goes on:

For example, this would include an intersex person … and a gender diverse person who is legally recognised as having a non-specific gender.

The bill therefore goes further than that which was approved by the Australian people and adopts the ideology of gender fluidity, which is part of the much discredited and rightly reviled and Orwellianly misnamed Safe Schools program. If gender fluidity had been part of the campaign, the result may well have been different. If this was always intended then the question should have been explicit. Australians deserve an explanation as to why it wasn't.

So much for a simple amendment to allow gays to marry. The gender agenda is already being stretched and the bill goes a lot further than that for which the Australian people gave their approval. Many yes voting Australians rightly feel betrayed that we are debating changes for which they did not vote. During the lead-up to the postal survey, we were told by yes advocates nothing would change other than gay people would be allowed to marry. We now know that to be incorrect. When our fellow Australians engaged in the consequences argument, there was a shift in popular sentiment. From an alleged consensus position of over 70 per cent in support, we saw a 10 per cent collapse to 60 per cent in the actual survey result. To staunch the collapse in support, Australians were told by yes advocates that religious freedoms would be protected. Indeed, one promised their support for religious freedom was stronger than their support for changing the Marriage Act. Yet now we are being asked to wave through the changes without any substantial protection to freedoms, such as parents' rights to guide the moral education of their children, freedom of speech, freedom of religion and freedom of conscience, all of which are fundamental, well-established, internationally accepted rights enshrined in treaties and covenants—rights which are inalienable to each of us; rights which government can neither take away nor give, because they are inalienable.

As a direct result of the consequences argument in this debate, we are now to have a full inquiry into religious freedoms. But after this bill. Having been told religious freedoms are more important it seems strange we should deal with these matters in reverse order. Further, we were told by a yes advocate: 'The key question is who do you trust—a coalition government that respects the rights and liberties of the individual or Labor and the Greens, who don't care about religious liberty?' And here we are with a bill, that Labor and Greens have accepted as a starting point, that does restrict freedoms. Even Mr Shorten said he wouldn't support legislation which impinges on religious freedoms. Well, it's time to deliver on that promise. Given the Australian people were told that these freedoms would not be assaulted or compromised, one would have expected full agreement with the proposed Paterson bill. Yet regrettably the vehemence of the opposition from some quarters exposes there are consequences and they actually want the rights-restricting consequences—consequences which are there for all to see in other countries that have changed the definition of marriage: consequences threatening private schools, closure of charities and parental rights.

These are not imaginary. For example, in the UK, the Charities Commission for England and Wales removed the charitable status of 19 Catholic adoption and foster agencies because they preferred not to adopt or foster to same-sex couples. In Johns v Derby City Council [2011], the English High Court supported a local council decision that a Christian couple with traditional views on sexual ethics who had very successfully fostered many children would not make suitable foster carers anymore because they would not be open to promoting or accepting a homosexual lifestyle. In Washington state, Barronelle Stutzman was successfully sued in the Benton County Superior Court for declining a request to provide flowers for a same-sex wedding. Flowers had been provided previously to the complainant, so what caused the issue for the florist was not the person's attribute but the particular activity. In the United Kingdom, the Vishnitz Jewish girls primary school failed their school assessment on one criterion, which was its inadequate promotion of homosexuality and gender reassignment in a primary school.

There is no doubt there are consequences—consequences which sacrifice long-established rights on the altar of an aggressive, politically correct agenda. We can avoid this travesty in Australia by acknowledging the reality of these disturbing examples from overseas and providing the protections needed. The substantial 'no' vote, at 38.4 per cent, cannot be arrogantly dismissed as of no consequence. It is, in fact, three to four times the Greens vote. To assert that, because the 'no' vote lost, its voice should be obliterated from the public discourse is a display of ugly hubris. The parliament has an opportunity to deliver for the 'yes' voter, by changing the definition of marriage, and for the 'no' voter, by alleviating and ameliorating some of their very valid concerns.

'No' voters are good, decent Australians. They voted for fairness and love, amongst other things, just as much as 'yes' voters. To deliberately alienate 38 per cent of your population is never wise. Indeed, most statesmen, on winning an election, reach out and recognise that not everyone voted for them, and they will seek to govern for all. Similarly, on this occasion, where a victory has been won for the 'yes' case, it is important to recognise the concerns of the 'no' campaigners and voters. Having spoken with literally thousands of them, I know them to be decent, loving, concerned Australians. Indeed, two 'no' advocates I know, when facing abuse from a 'yes' voter, invited them for coffee and a chat, which saw both 'yes' voters break down, cry and apologise.

'No' voters and campaigners are people that live next door. They are at the next workstation. They served you your coffee or lunch. They are inherently good people who were willing to embark on a campaign where the odds were stacked against them from the beginning. The media and celebrities were relentless, yet the 'no' campaigners held their course. They had to go to work passing 'yes' propaganda in their very own offices or physically work under the so-called rainbow flag.

I take this opportunity to salute and thank all those who helped the 'no' campaign through advocacy and donations. Their efforts saw a substantial change in public sentiment. I place on record my sincere thanks to the thousands of volunteer campaigners who advocated for marriage, especially when they knew from the beginning it would be a difficult campaign. They put principle before populism and made the case for marriage in a calm and respectful way. I pay particular tribute to Lyle Shelton, Karina Okotel, Sophie York, Damian Wyld—along with the mothers and the tradie who were the public face of the campaign—and Israel Folau. I also pay tribute to all those involved at senior levels behind the scenes in the marriage campaign, including Tim James and Steve Doyle, amongst many others.

From a Tasmanian perspective, I want to thank the hundreds of Tasmanian volunteers, as well as the leadership in the Tasmanian campaign, including Mark Brown and Alex Sidhu, and the coordinators and those who letterboxed, doorknocked, made advocacy calls, engaged in letters to the editors and social media advocacy. I thank Karen Dickson.

The actual evidence in favour of retaining marriage as a man-woman-children construct, which saw overwhelming support for marriage in this parliament in 2004, has not changed; the windsock of public opinion has. To remain true to your beliefs in the face of changing public sentiment, vitriol and threats displays character and integrity. For parliamentarians, I suspect the public will have a higher regard for those who are willing to take a stand on an issue of principle. The public knows there is backbone, principle and integrity and that the latest opinion poll doesn't determine one's morality, principles or policy. Indeed, I am reminded of the republic campaign, where the electorate that John Howard represented voted yes, yet he remained a staunch monarchist, and the electorate of Mr Kim Beazley, the then Labor leader, voted no, yet he remained a staunch republican. The electorates re-elected both gentlemen at the next election. So I think that the electorate can distinguish between a particular point of view on an issue and their high regard for their parliamentary representative. As someone told me the other day, it's only dead fish that go with the flow; it's only the live fish that have the capacity to swim against the current.

It would be incongruous if the parliament in establishing a new right in relation to marriage jettisoned, threw overboard and trashed the long-established rights of parental control of their children's moral education, freedom of speech, freedom of religion and freedom of conscientious objection. Given the unequivocal promises made by both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition, I trust the parliament will have no difficulty in supporting the suite of amendments moved by my colleagues Senators Fawcett and Paterson—amendments which will allow the definition of 'marriage' to be altered, while providing the protections which were guaranteed. A failure to do so will be rightly judged harshly against us by our fellow Australians.

The postal survey result does not provide a licence for the parliament to trample on our long-established and accepted rights. Many 'yes' voters will, in particular, feel betrayed, having voted yes on the strength of guarantees from both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition, as will others who accepted that nothing else would change and those who voted 'yes' simply to get rid of the issue. For the 20 per cent who didn't vote, I suspect the denial of fundamental freedoms may well arouse them from their slumber and awaken their political interest. The same polls predicting a yes vote also gave overwhelming support to protecting our long-held and deeply cherished liberties of parental stewardship over children and freedom of speech, religion and conscience.

As for my position, I have no doubt that I'm currently in a minority amongst my fellow Australians on the definition of 'marriage'. Similarly, I'm in no doubt that I'm in the majority amongst my fellow Australians in my advocacy for the protection of their long-held and deeply cherished freedoms. The parliament's challenge is to deliver on both same-sex marriage and the full protection of our freedoms. 

About Eric

Eric Abetz has been a Liberal Senator for Tasmania since 1994 and has served in a range of Leadership, Ministerial and Shadow Ministerial roles.

Read more


136 Davey Street
Hobart  TAS  7001
(primary office)

(03) 6224 3707

48 Cecilia Street
St Helens  TAS  7215
(satellite office)

(03) 6376 1972