Dean Smith

In Parliament

BILLS Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017 - Third Reading

November 29, 2017

Just under three years ago, I moved from no to yes. At 30,000 feet on a flight from Perth to Albany, I reflected on the life of Tori Johnson. Tori lost his life in the Lindt Cafe siege. He was brave, he was courageous and he had a partner named Thomas. On that flight, I thought of their love, I thought of their loss, and it changed me. I realised that people with real lives deserve their love to be blessed and affirmed by the institution of marriage if they so choose.

I am, as many of you know, a man who draws strength from institutions. They are the structures that bind us as communities and as a nation. So I begin by acknowledging my pride in this institution, the Australian Senate. Every senator has brought honour to their state and to the pillar of democracy to which we all belong. This has been a respectful debate—but, I should add, not an insipid one. It has drawn out intellect, wisdom, judgement and compassion. In this debate, we saw the soul of the Attorney; the lived experience of Senator Wong, Senator Rice and Senator Pratt; the conscience of those who oppose this bill; and the conviction of those who supported it. In a time when institutions are questioned, we have seen in this debate how our parliament was meant to work—where life experiences inform decisions, where amendments are weighted and assessed against good argument and where we debate according to an argument's merits rather than taking the political shortcut of questioning each other's motives or integrity. The real question out of this debate is: why isn't our parliament like this more often?

Over the past few years, there have been times when it has been tough to not be part of the majority of my party on this issue. I had to find my place where my conscience and my duty could be reconciled. So I say to all in this chamber: be kind to those who, in following their conscience, choose a different path. They have my respect, and I ask you to give them yours. There it is a cost that accompanies the privilege of service, but that cost should never include giving up one's conscience. It is for that reason that the bill includes protections for religious liberty. I am a conservative. A true conservative does not believe that they are the embodiment of all wisdom. Conservatives are not supposed to resist change; they are simply supposed to weigh change. We weigh change by considering the past as well as listening to our contemporaries. I acknowledge all in this debate.

The debate confirmed the evolutionary nature of this bill. The lack of substantive amendments indicates we got the balance correct. The bill expresses a faith in the current architecture of Australia's religious protections. The architecture is precise. It has allowed a multitude of faiths to thrive, and that will not change. The bill is the fulfilment of the people's will to extend equality to all citizens and it takes away no religious or civil right from anyone.

To those who have opposed this bill, I say: there is enormous goodwill to ensure that this is not the triumph of one group over another but the advancement of the sum of freedoms for all of us. Unlike so much of what characterises modern politics, this is not the triumph of one politician over another or even one party over another. Instead, it has restored faith in our parliament and in this Senate. Maybe, again, there's a broader lesson to be learned.

Like much of what we do here, most of the real winners we will never meet. We will never truly know what it means for the young Australian boy or girl who is working out that they are gay, lesbian, intersex or transgender and who quickly realises they have nothing to fear. We will never meet the thousands of families that will bless their children at marriage ceremonies that will occur because of this bill. Those parents do not think of their children as LGBTI; they think of them by their names. To their parents, they have no rainbow initial, because they see them as flesh and blood. They are kin, and that is what matters most.

And this house, the embodiment of the states, and the other place, the embodiment of our citizens, want the very same thing. We want the very best for our citizens: that they are loved and can be loved. We want them to experience joy and hope, and to experience exhilaration and its companion, heartache, because that is what it means to be human.

In a world where there are more tensions between people than ever, our country has offered a loving embrace to its own. As the Attorney-General said, in the course of a generation, we have seen the LGBTI community move from rejection to tolerance, from tolerance to acceptance, and now from acceptance to embrace. We should be proud of that. I certainly am.

This debate has demonstrated that the bill proposed is evolutionary in nature. There are no substantive changes. Is it perfect? No. As senators Di Natale and McKim admitted in their second reading speeches, it is a compromise. As Senator Kitching reminded us, it even brings together senators Rhiannon and Leyonhjelm—at least for a few brief moments. But a few brief moments of joy is what our country has ached for, because we know it will result in a lifetime of joy for so many others.

As we prepare to vote, we should recall this has been a very long path. Some have put this case for a decade and a half; others, like myself, are latecomers. For all, it has been an accepting and welcoming cause. The Good Book says:

Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life.

We can say today, after so long, that our hopes are no longer deferred.

Most in this chamber came from a party, and our parties are in so many ways the modern tribes of our nation. And let me, for a brief moment, express my pride in my party. Liberal and National voters voted yes—71 out of 76 coalition seats voted yes—because coalition voters understand that this reflects the best of our Liberal and conservative traditions.

It is correct to say many people across this chamber can take pride in their role in bringing this to a successful conclusion at this historic juncture. I especially want to thank my coalition Senate colleagues Senator Birmingham, Senator Payne, Senator Reynolds and Senator Hume.

If there is a lesson for my party from this debate, it is that we should not fear free debates. We should not fear conscience. The more the debate was resisted, the more the strength was found to fight for it. At some later point, we should reflect on how we can avoid that tortured process from ever having to happen again.

This debate has been good for the soul of the country, it's been good for the soul of this chamber and it will be good for the souls of LGBTI children throughout our great country. It's been good for us all, no matter whether you were a 'yes' senator or a 'no' senator, because we lived out the call of the saint: in essential things, unity; in important things, diversity; in all things, generosity. Unity, diversity, generosity—they are the hallmark of this bill, they are the hallmark of this chamber and they are the hallmark of our shared great country, Australia. I commend the bill.

Honourable senators: Hear, hear!