Michael Sukkar MP

Federal Member for Deakin
Assistant Treasurer
Minister for Housing
Minister for Homelessness, Social and Community Housing
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Second Reading: Plebiscite (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill 2016

It is a pleasure to have the opportunity to speak on the Plebiscite (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill. Very pleasingly, the introduction of this bill is the culmination of our fulfilment of the clear mandate that we have from the last election. It was very clear to Australians when they went to a polling booth on 2 July that should the Turnbull government be re-elected a vote in parliament on same-sex marriage would only occur following a public vote, a plebiscite, put to the Australian people to garner their views on the proposed change to this very important institution.

The fact that the Labor Party and the Greens have chosen to oppose this legislation is very disappointing—not surprising but disappointing. I accept that particularly the Shorten opposition is basically obsessed with any political advantage they can get, and I do not whinge about that. I can understand that oppositions engage, as a general rule, in political advantage as opposed to fulfilling what I think should be the values that this parliament should uphold. Putting that aside, what did surprise me is the Labor Party’s position, seemingly, that the Australian people cannot be trusted and, indeed, are not entitled to have a view on a proposed change to this very, very important institution. That is what surprised me and many of my colleagues and, I suspect, secretly surprised some people within the Labor Party itself. We know the Labor Party have basically adopted an approach that anybody who supports a traditional view of marriage effectively puts their preselection in jeopardy. We know that from 2019 they will bind all their party members to a position supporting same-sex marriage. But it is very surprising to me that they would use the argument that they do, particularly in the context of a parliament where we will, presumably, soon be trying to further the recognition of Indigenous Australians in our Constitution. I wonder if those opposite will use an argument that we should not proceed with a referendum recognising Indigenous Australians in our Constitution for fear that such a referendum would unleash hate in our society and bring out the racist fringe groups in our society, thereby causing Indigenous Australians much hurt. Might I say, that is a flimsy argument, but it is an argument that I would expect correlates with the argument that they have put forward here—that, because of the fear that a debate on a plebiscite could contain elements that make unsavoury, unfair, cruel or harsh comments, we should not have a plebiscite. Clearly, that same theory would apply to the recognition of Indigenous Australians in the Constitution.

We have been having this debate for many, many years, and it was the advocates of same-sex marriage who have insisted on ensuring that this is debated in our society, notwithstanding the fact that we have had 16 individual pieces of legislation introduced, debated and voted for in this parliament. On the basis of that argument—that we should not unleash such hatred and hateful comments in our society—why has there been, in a sense, a perpetual campaign from the advocates of same-sex marriage? Clearly, those issues were not a concern at that time.

I am very proud that, as a government, we are fulfilling our election mandate but, more importantly—crucially—saying to the Australian people: ‘We think you deserve to have a direct say on a change to an important institution like marriage. You deserve that.’ I know that, because most of them end up crawling their way onto these benches through the union movement, patronage and other things, those opposite in the Labor Party, who scarcely would live or socialise or spend much time outside a five-kilometre radius of our CBDs, do not really have a great ability to converse with what I would describe as mainstream Australians. They are displaying the same arrogance that we saw very recently in the Brexit campaign in the UK. It is the same arrogance that says: ‘You do not deserve, you are not entitled and you cannot be trusted to have a say on an important issue such as this. Leave it to us. We know best.’ What we do know is that most Australians are decent, have views, can agree to disagree and will differ but can have a respectful debate.

When we talk about being concerned about the consequences of a plebiscite and concerned about the campaign, I would make two points. Firstly, I do not think a plebiscite campaign would be markedly different to the campaign we have seen for the last five years. These issues have been aired in detail. It feels like we have spoken about this issue ad nauseam for at least five years. In a plebiscite, albeit with the intensity of a campaign, particularly given that our plebiscite is scheduled to be held on 11 February, a relatively short time from now—there would be some intensity—I do not think the substance of the arguments that would be aired in that debate would be markedly different from what we have seen over the last five or so years.

The second point I would make, when we are talking about the concern about fringe groups and hurtful, hateful, negative comments, is that, yes, I am somebody, to be honest, who is concerned with that issue. I am very concerned for those people who hold a traditional view of marriage, because they are the ones who are subject to the most hateful, vitriolic comments that I have seen. I invite any member in this House to express on Twitter or Facebook a view supporting traditional marriage and see what sorts of comments they get. I challenge them to do that. So, yes, I do share those concerns. Most relevantly, I share those concerns for those who have a traditional view of marriage, but of course that would equally apply to same-sex marriage advocates. But for the Labor Party to argue that it is just same-sex marriage advocates who would potentially be subject to that vitriol is incorrect. I would say that those who are on the traditional view of marriage case have been suffering that for many, many years. I am one of those people who does not support a change to the Marriage Act. That is, in a sense, why I believe that a plebiscite is fair and a responsible course of action by this government.

Plebiscites as a concept are not novel. Yes, they do not happen all the time, but they are not novel in Australian political history. They have been employed to deal with a number of difficult issues over the years. So for the Labor Party to say that it is unprecedented for the Australian parliament to seek the Australian people’s views on highly contentious and highly significant issues is wrong. In the area of conscription and many others, the Australian parliament has asked the Australian people for their view on serious questions. The Australian parliament did it with conscription, and I do not think anyone seriously argued that the Australian people should not have had a say on conscription, albeit in our history.

Marriage is an institution. It is one that, formally and informally, has developed over millennia. It has been adopted into our civil law and, in my view, it is an institution that belongs to the people. It is not an institution of government. It is an institution that belongs to the people, and they should be the arbiters. They should be the direct and final arbiters of whether we make a significant change to the definition of marriage. This is not a minor tweak; this is significant and fundamental change to the definition of marriage. So I am very pleased that on 11 February, should this House and the Senate pass this bill, we will have a public vote on this question.

I am also very pleased to note that in this legislation funding will be provided to both campaigns, constituted in a similar fashion to the way funding was provided in the republic referendum in the late nineties. Both campaigns will have access to that funding. I think it is important that, in putting forward this question to the Australian people, they are entitled to hear the respective arguments of both of those cases. We have seen to date it has been, basically, one-way traffic as far as that case being made. I do not begrudge the same-sex marriage advocates—all power to them. They have run a very strong campaign. They have been very strong advocates for their case. They are obviously very well organised and extraordinarily well funded. I do not begrudge them that. I think it is fantastic. In a democracy, that is wonderful. When they commenced that campaign, I did not hear those in the Labor Party saying, ‘Just be careful, guys, because I don’t want you to unleash any hatred in our society by starting this campaign.’ So it is surprising that they have adopted that now. With this funding it is important that we will have both cases aired in a way that will ensure that the Australian people, when they go to the ballot box on 11 February, are able to make an informed decision.

Importantly, this legislation also provides that we will replicate, to the greatest extent possible, the ordinary voting experience for people at a polling booth on 11 February. We did not want this to be novel. We wanted it to, in a sense, replicate the voting experience that most people would have, as they did when they went to the polling booths on 2 July and gave us a mandate for this legislation. So the ordinary rules around pre-poll, attendance voting and postal voting will apply, so it is easily understood. I think it was important for the purposes of this plebiscite that there was not anything novel or anything that the government or, indeed, the parliament could be accused of, in a sense, changing for the benefit of one side or the other of the argument. I think we have successfully done that. I do not think anybody has criticised that the legislation—the bill before us—provides a voting experience that would be easily understood and familiar to all Australians.

I will conclude by saying that it is a proud moment for the government. It is a proud moment for me as a member of this government that, in the face of vitriolic hostility, the base accusations of the Labor Party impugning our motives behind this legislation and the inherent disregard or the inherent belittling of the Australian people that is basically contained within their argument that the Australian people cannot be trusted and do not have the right to make this decision, we, in the face of all of that, have brought this legislation before the House, fulfilling a key commitment that we took to the election and, most importantly—and this is the most important thing—ensuring that, if there is to be a change to same-sex marriage, all Australians could say, ‘This was a decision by the people.’ Alternatively, if there is no change, the advocates of same-sex marriage would, whilst they would not be happy with the outcome, appreciate that in a democracy the decision of the people was not to change the Marriage Act.

I think both sides of the argument—whoever the losing side was—would be, in a sense, happier knowing that their ambitions were frustrated not by a political stitch up by this parliament or lobby groups and well-funded advocacy groups running long-term campaigns but, actually, by the majority. In a democracy, the majority rules. The greatest thing about this plebiscite is: ultimately, whichever side is frustrated in their attempts—whether the advocates of same-sex marriage or the advocates of traditional marriage—they will live with the outcome because it will be the determination of the Australian people. I commend this bill.

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