Mr CHESTER (Gippsland—Minister for Infrastructure and Transport) (12:05): I rise to speak on this important issue. I do so more out of disappointment and frustration than anger, and that disappointment and frustration is directed towards the decision by the Australian Labor Party to oppose the Plebiscite (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill 2016.
I fear that, for those of us who have a view in support of same-sex marriage, as I do—albeit a view that I only reached in the last 12 months—I see no other pathway that is likely to succeed in this term of parliament other than a plebiscite to be put to the Australian people and a compelling vote at that time. So it is disappointing and frustrating that the Labor Party has chosen not to support the plebiscite bill. I would just like to reflect briefly on my own personal journey in relation to this issue. It is one that is illustrative of perhaps many in this place and perhaps in the broader community. When I was first elected in 2008 I was asked the question by a journalist in my electorate as to whether I would vote in support of same-sex marriage. Having assessed at that time that there was what I believed to have been a majority view in my community of Gippsland opposed to such a change to the Marriage Act, I indicated that, no, I would not support any such
change and voted accordingly during my first two terms here in the federal parliament.
My view changed over time through discussions within my electorate, through meetings with people who werethe families and friends of same-sex attracted couples and through meetings with couples themselves. Over the course of perhaps three or four years, I detected what I believe was quite a significant change in attitude within the community as the discussion was being held in Gippsland. The change in attitude was to such an extent that I believed that my electorate was actually supportive of change and that I myself was comfortable with voting in support of that change. So, last year, I perhaps surprised some people within my own grassroots party structure in Gippsland when I announced publicly that I intended to support same-sex marriage if a vote came to parliament in the future.
The reason I raise my own personal experience is to reflect on the fact that I think the nation itself is on a journey on this issue. We may not all reach the same destination but I think the nation is on a journey on this issue. If you had put this issue to the Australian people in a plebiscite even as recently as five or 10 years ago, I think there would have been a resounding no. I am not one to try to predict the future but I would have thought if
there were to be a plebiscite next year then there would be a strong case and a strong vote for yes. As someone who has changed their own position, I am disappointed the Australian people are not going to get that chance, as it stands here today.
People often ask me why I changed my view. It is not an easy question to answer. Mr Deputy Speaker Broadbent, you have many conversations in your role in your own electorate. You have many conversations with people who raise issues where you can feel compassion and empathy for them but not necessarily the need to change your own personal opinion on a topic. For me, it was more about providing for more acceptance in the community of same-sex attracted young people, particularly in regional communities. My concern came from reports of young people self-harming and reports of young people committing suicide, particularly in rural and regional areas where the support services were not necessarily there. These young people felt the need to suppress their sexuality. Sometimes they did not feel accepted within their own family, and certainly they did not always feel accepted within the broader community. Whether or not this was justified or warranted, their personal sense of wellbeing, their sense of self-worth and their sense of self-esteem was undermined by the fact that they did not feel that they were accepted in the community. As much as they have appreciated the changes in legislation, which have given all legal rights to same-sex couples in a whole range of other areas, the issue of having access to the great tradition of marriage was one that was holding them back in feeling fully accepted within the community.
I have participated in this debate many times over the past eight years, and at all times I have tried to be calm, moderate and respectful of different points of view. That is why it disappoints me, I guess, more than anything else that the Labor Party are basically saying that they do not believe the Australian people are capable of having a calm, moderate and respectful debate on this issue. I freely acknowledge that there are people on either side of this debate—there are extreme elements on either side of this debate—who have put points of view which I find repugnant and offensive, but that is not the vast majority of Australians. I happen to strongly believe in the goodwill of the Australian people. I believe the Australian people would be able to conduct this debate in a respectful, calm and moderate manner. I am disappointed in the way that the Leader of the Opposition has chosen to play this more as a political issue than one of important public discussion.
The challenge we have more broadly on the topic is that the coalition took a position to the Australian people that we would support a plebiscite. Having won that vote, we are duty bound to bring that legislation to the parliament and pursue it through a thoroughly democratic, fair and transparent process. It is not up to the opposition to decide which promises the government is allowed to keep and which ones the government is allowed to break. We have a contract with the Australian people, and that contract to form government was based around the Prime Minister canvassing very strongly during the whole election campaign that we were supportive of a plebiscite and we would give the Australian people a chance to have their say. If the Leader of the Opposition is serious about resolving this issue, if he is serious about his support of same-sex marriage and same-sex attracted couples, he would convince his Labor Party colleagues to support the plebiscite.
There is really only one reason or one plausible justification for opposing this bill, and that is the cost. I would freely acknowledge that the cost is something of no little substance. But to suggest the Australian people are not capable of having a debate on a difficult issue says more about the Leader of the Opposition than it says about anyone else. We have the capacity to have this debate. We need to have this debate because, quite frankly, the
parliament itself has not been able to deal with it. For the whole time I have been here, it has been hanging around as an issue. We have had votes on this issue, and it is still here. It is unresolved. While plebiscites should be rare, I think in this particular case, when it is on a topic of such great social importance to our nation, it is appropriate that we do in fact hold the plebiscite and that we simply wear the cost involved.
My general outlook on the Australian people is, I would have to say, for more positive and optimistic than that of the Leader of the Opposition and the Labor Party more generally. This is about fairness. As much as possible, the government has endeavoured to make the process as fair as possible. In resolving to provide public funding of equal amounts for both a yes case and a no case, the Prime Minister has acted with complete honour and integrity and tried to ensure that the process is as fair as possible. In the construction of the question itself, again, the Prime Minister and the cabinet have endeavoured to act with complete openness and integrity in trying to put forward a question which is as fair as possible. As I said, the parliament has not been able to deal with this issue conclusively, and it is only fair that we take it to the Australian people and give them a chance to have their say. I fear that there is only one credible pathway to legalising same-sex marriage in the 45th Parliament, and that is through this proposed plebiscite. As I indicated previously, as someone who does support changes to the Marriage Act, I believe this is the course we should be taking. We need to end all doubt in relation to this issue. One of the compelling reasons for holding a plebiscite is that in the community there is a lack of trust in the opinion polls or the surveys—whatever you like to call them—and in the findings from them. We would actually end all doubt if we held a plebiscite. It would add extra strength to the argument of those who support same-sex marriage, and the weighted numbers would, I believe, be compelling. I am not saying that people need legitimacy to their relationships, but the plebiscite would add legitimacy to their argument that the majority of Australians support a change to the Marriage Act and, in fact, support same-sex marriage.
In conclusion, I simply say that I believe the only fair way to decide this issue is to give every Australian a chance to have their say. The people of Gippsland who honoured me with their vote at the last election—who actually honoured me with an increase in my primary vote, despite the suggestions that my decision to support same-sex marriage would cost me in an electoral sense—expect me to vote in support of a plebiscite, because that is what I said I would do in the lead-up to the election. Yes, it is expensive, but I am very confident we can have a calm, moderate and respectful debate. Whatever the result of the plebiscite, if in fact it is held, I would respect the view
of the Australian people, just as I am sure the vast majority of members of parliament would. My job, as a local member of parliament and as a member of cabinet, is to deliver a process which is fair to both sides of this argument. I said at the outset that I am disappointed and frustrated that the Leader of the Opposition has a different view of the Australian people. I think he has a very mean-spirited view of the Australian people. I think he is being mean-spirited in the sense that he does not believe we can have a civilised debate on an issue where people have had strongly-held views. We are capable of doing this as a nation. I have always participated in this debate in a very respectful manner and will continue to do so, and I am confident that the people in my community, the community of Gippsland, would like the opportunity to do so as well.
We have had plebiscites and referenda before on very difficult issues and we have been up to the job as a nation. I cannot believe that the modern Australian Labor Party believe that the Australian community in 2016 is somehow less capable than communities of years gone by—that they are not able to have a tough discussion on an issue of some level of division in the community. As I said earlier, I think this is the only fair way to resolve this issue —an issue which parliament has not been able to deal with conclusively during the eight years that I have been the member for Gippsland. The result would be decided by a simple majority of votes, which is 50 per cent plus one. I believe that the Labor Party need to reflect on what they are actually saying to the Australian people on this issue. They are simply saying that you are not up to this; you are not capable of making a tough decision. I would urge those opposite to reconsider that view. If they do not reconsider that view, if we do not hold the plebiscite, I do not see a credible pathway towards changes to the Marriage Act in the 45th Parliament. With those few words, I again urge the Leader of the Opposition to reconsider his position.
I find it staggering that the Leader of the Opposition is seriously trying to suggest that, with the support of the Labor Party, with the support of the Prime Minister and the support of the Leader of the Greens, plus at least two National Party cabinet ministers, Australia cannot have a rational and respectful debate on this issue. If the plebiscite vote were to go ahead, some of the loudest voices in this federal parliament would be on the side of change. It would have the Leader of the Liberal Party, the Leader of the Labor Party, the Leader of the Greens and at least two National Party cabinet ministers speaking in support of same-sex marriage, yet the Leader of the Opposition believes we would not be able to have that debate in a calm, respectful and moderate manner. The only final point I would make is in relation to the media’s role on this topic. I have a view that the media have an important role to play in this debate. The media can choose how much airtime they provide to people who have more extreme, offensive or repugnant views on the topic. I am not saying they need to censor themselves, but they need to acknowledge that there are people participating in this debate in a way which is intended to be inflammatory and is intended to undermine the calm, respectful and moderate debate that I referred to. So I would simply say that, if you had the Leader of the Liberal Party, the Leader of the Labor Party, the Leader of the Greens and at least two National Party cabinet ministers all speaking with one voice on this topic, the case for change would be compelling. I support the bill before the House and I urge those opposite to reconsider their position.