Monday, 21 November 2011
Matters of Urgency
We tend not to rely on day-to-day polls. We always say that these are things we have to be very careful about. To see the Greens before the Senate promoting what they call marriage equality in this motion on the basis that it has a majority of support in the Australian community is ironic given that only a few days ago the Australian Greens voted to support a carbon tax which, according to the latest Newspoll, has the support of only 32 per cent of the Australian community—less than one in three.
However, this issue deserves to be addressed on a substantive basis, not just on the basis of the dynamics behind it. It is well known that in 2004 the coalition legislated to provide that marriage should be a union between a man and a woman, and a man and a woman only. That accorded with the traditional understanding of the institution and was consistent with the position that the coalition took to subsequent federal elections. The ALP also took this position to the last two elections, but this may not be consistent with the position that the Labor Party proceeds with in future.
There are a number of perspectives possible on same-sex marriage. As both a large-L Liberal and a small-l liberal, I believe that governments and parliaments should minimise their intervention in the personal behaviour of citizens. If Australians make choices about how they live, how they arrange their affairs, what relationships they enter into and who they love, provided that no harm is done to anybody by such choices then, as a general rule, governments and parliaments should stay clear of such personal arrangements. If governments and parliaments do get involved they should be involved to the extent of removing any forms of petty discrimination against people on the basis of how they have chosen to live their lives.
Indeed, I note that that has very much been the underlying principle which has educated the decision of the coalition in the last decade, both in government and in opposition, to remove any petty discrimination which derogates on a person's right to make decisions about the course of their own life and the lives of others with whom they choose to form relationships. In 1999, for example, the coalition took steps to remove discrimination in superannuation legislation to provide that trustees of superannuation funds could, at their discretion, pay a member's accumulated benefits to the member's dependants or legal personal representatives if the member died. That would include anybody with whom the deceased person had been in an interdependent relationship. We also made amendments to permit funds to change their governing rules to provide for binding death benefit nominations. If a person is a member of a fund which provides for binding nominations that person can nominate a same-sex partner who is a dependant.
At about the same time we also agreed to extend certain conditions of service entitlements to members of the Australian Defence Force in interdependent relationships, which includes members in same-sex relationships. From early in the life of the Howard government steps were taken to provide that an employer could not terminate a person's employment on the ground of their sexual preference. There were a number of steps taken by the coalition in government and supported in opposition to achieve the same effect. So it needs to be put on the record very clearly that the coalition does not favour discrimination against people on the basis of their sexuality or the basis of the relationships that they form.
The question of whether or not the symbolism and the title of marriage ought to pertain to people in certain relationships is a different question from the question of the substance of the law as it affects people in such relationships. There is an argument, which I personally subscribe to, that the title and institution of marriage were essentially under the custodianship of the church or churches for many centuries. If the state no longer needs that institution or that title to convey or deliver certain rights to people, as was once the case, then the state should leave that institution in the hands of the church, possibly with other appropriate recognition of the rights of people in same-sex relationships so that they do not experience discrimination.
The federal parliament has a role to play in this debate because placitum (xxi) of section 51 of the Constitution entrusts the stewardship of this institution to the federal parliament, but it is not an excuse for us to make decisions without due regard to issues such as the history of this institution and the expectations of the Australian people. On that question, this urgency leaves a multitude of sins not properly addressed. (Time expired)