Senators Dean Smith and Penny Wong have delivered emotional speeches as debate gets underway on his same-sex marriage bill.
Smith’s widely-supported private member’s bill was introduced to the Senate on Wednesday with the help of a cross-party group of Senators, just hours after it was announced 61.6 per cent of Australians had voted ‘yes’ in the same-sex marriage postal survey.
Senator Smith, who is gay, said despite personally opposing the postal survey, the announcement of the result was a moment of unity for the country.
“Yesterday we saw a glimpse of the country we all yearn for, a country that is fair-minded, generous and accepting,” he said on Thursday morning.
“I never believed the day would come when my relationship would be judged by my country to be as meaningful and valued as any other. The Australian people have proven me wrong.
“To those who want and believe in change, and to those who seek to frustrate it, I simply say, don’t underestimate Australia. Don’t underestimate the Australian people.”
Labor Senator Penny Wong, Australia’s first openly gay MP, said she had seen “the best of our country and also the worst” during the postal survey campaign.
“For those of us fighting for our own equality, this has been a deeply personal debate, as I demonstrated quite publicly yesterday,” she said, referring to the viral footage of her emotional reaction to the “yes” vote announcement.
“This is a personal debate, because it’s about the people we love. I say to [partner] Sophie, thank you for your love, commitment and all that you do. And I say to our beautiful daughters Hannah and Alexandra, I work for and fight for the world I want for you.”
Senator Wong also spoke of her disappointment the day Labor sided with the Howard government to amend the Marriage Act to specifically exclude same-sex couples in 2004.
“The Howard Government’s amendment meant I voted for discrimination against myself and the people whom I loved. I had a choice at that time,” she said.
“I could go out in a blaze of publicity, take a public stand against my party and become an outsider in a pretty dramatic way. I decided to fight this discrimination from within the political system.”
Labor Senator Louise Pratt fought back tears as she told colleagues she wanted to marry her partner Bec.
“I know we share the feelings of other same-sex couples who look forward to the focus turning from a massive public debate about our lives and our identities to each other and the love we share for each other and for our children,” she said.
Greens Senator Janet Rice spoke of the discrimination she and partner Penny faced after Penny transitioned to female 17 years after they married.
“We went from being the perfect family in the eyes of others to being weird, and we started being discriminated against,” Rice said.
“You don’t know the pain of having to let go of your partner’s hand because you’re not sure of the reaction it might get from people around you.”
On Wednesday, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull pledged to get the reform through the parliament by the end of the year.
“The Australian people have spoken, and they have voted overwhelmingly ‘yes’ for marriage equality. They voted yes for fairness, they voted yes for commitment, they voted yes for love,” he said.
“And now it is up to us here in the parliament of Australia to get on with it, to get on with the job the Australian people have tasked us to do and get this done, this year, before Christmas. That must be our commitment.”
A rival same-sex marriage bill from Liberal senator James Patterson was withdrawn, after it was met with outrage this week for proposing discrimination against same-sex weddings by commercial service providers.
Smith’s bill also includes exemptions to allow religious organisations and existing civil celebrants to refuse to participate in same-sex weddings.
Attorney-General George Brandis told the Senate on Wednesday he would propose a further amendment to the Smith bill to “extend the right of contentious objection” from ministers of religion to include civil marriage celebrants.
He also proposed a line in the bill to “make it clear that nothing in the bill makes it unlawful for people to hold and to express the views of their own religion on the subject of marriage.”
“That is my own personal view,” he said.
“Nothing in [the Smith bill] inhibits the right of churches or people of faith to continue to adhere to the doctrines or teachings of their church when it comes to marriage,” he said.
He later told ABC Radio the amendments would be “worthwhile, to give reassurance to the millions of Australians who voted ‘no’ that their religious freedoms will not be impinged on by this bill.”
Senator Wong and Greens leader Richard Di Natale said Senator Smith’s bill had been agreed upon by a Senate committee.
“I believe the Australian people voted to remove discrimination and I trust the bill will reflect that,” Senator Wong said.
Senator Di Natale urged senators to “think very, very carefully about entrenching discrimination in order to appease your colleagues rather than the Australian people, who spoke very loudly and clearly” on Wednesday.
Marriage equality campaigners called on the parliament to vote down Brandis’ amendments.
“Civil celebrants are delegated by the government to perform an official duty and should not be allowed to discriminate in the conduct of that duty,” just.equal spokesperson Rodney Croome said.
“Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has promised there would be no new forms of discrimination and we want the parliament to hold him to that promise.”
Co-sponsors of the Marriage Amendment Bill Senators Louise Pratt, Janet Rice, Dean Smith, Skye Kakoschke-Moore, Penny Wong and Derryn Hinch pic.twitter.com/fDnHGwa8Pu
— andrew meares (@mearesy) November 15, 2017