Senator WRIGHT (South Australia) (21:39):
I rise today to speak on the Marriage Amendment Bill (No. 2) 2012. The Greens and my colleague Senator Sarah Hanson-Young in particular have long been working to change the law so that, finally, all Australians can marry the person they love no matter their gender or sexual orientation. There are so many good reasons to achieve marriage equality at this time in our history, but the most compelling for me is quite simple: it is about recognising and celebrating loving and committed relationships. Basically, I believe we just cannot have too many of them.
Relationships are like everything in life. They are the basis of everything we do, everything we achieve and our deepest sense of self. They are our connection with other human beings and the framework for social cohesion and strong communities, and I believe that committed, loving, loyal relationships, whether sexual or platonic, are the gold standard. Surely any society worth its salt would seek to uphold and embrace loving, committed relationships and do anything to encourage, support and celebrate them, and to support those of its citizens who wish to formalise them. Allowing people to marry is one very powerful way to do that.
There can be no doubt that the time for this change is now. We know that marriage equality now has broad support in the Australian community: 64 per cent of Australians support marriage equality and 61 per cent of married people support marriage equality. Interestingly, polls show us that support among coalition voters is the highest it has ever been-more than half, at 52 per cent. Many church groups support marriage equality. Fifty-three per cent of Australian Christians support marriage equality.
The Australian Greens' Marriage Equality Amendment Bill, introduced into the Senate by my colleague Senator Hanson-Young, has the strongest cross-party support. The Senate committee inquiring into the bill, which included Australian Greens, ALP and coalition MPs, recommended that all Australians should be equal under the law, including under the Marriage Act. In short, we know that this change has support from parliamentarians across the spectrum and Australians of all ages and in every corner of the country.
It is interesting that Barack Obama's view has evolved over time, and ultimately he has come out and voiced his support for equal marriage in May this year. It is clearly time for this inevitable reform but, in Australia, both leaders of the old parties are still standing in the way of history. I call on them to show real leadership on this issue now. I urge the Prime Minister to allow members of her party to champion this reform which seeks to apply the very policy of the Australian Labor Party. I urge the Leader of the Opposition, Tony Abbott, to have the decency and courage to be true to the traditions of his party-the so-called Liberal Party-and allow members of the coalition to vote according to their conscience. It is time for leadership in this Commonwealth parliament. Some of the states-Tasmania and South Australia-are leading the way, but it is infinitely preferable to have this reform at a federal level to ensure uniformity across Australia.
It is not just here in Australia that we can see change coming; we know that the tide is inexorably turning around the world. Fundamentally, that is because at its basis this is about fairness and respect for human beings and loving relationships. We have moved into the 21st century. Twelve countries now have marriage equality, along with eight states in the US, and change is coming in New Zealand, Scotland, France and Brazil. New Zealand will have a marriage equality bill in the next few weeks and it will be supported by Conservative Prime Minister John Key. Scotland's government has announced it will move for marriage equality later this year. British Prime Minister David Cameron, a conservative, supports marriage equality. This is despite the fact that Britain already has civil union legislation, but it is not popular or widely used, not surprisingly because it is a second-class option.
As the Australian Greens spokesperson for legal affairs I am committed to seeing the enhancement of equality in the Australian community. Equality is basically about treating people with courtesy and respect-the way we would all expect to be treated by our friends, peers, colleagues, employers or strangers. The right to nondiscrimination and equality are fundamental components of international human rights law and are contained in a number of international conventions to which Australia is a party. These include the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and article 26 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which states that all people 'are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law'. The right to equality before the law guarantees equality with regard to the enforcement of the law. The right to the equal protection of the law without discrimination is directed at the legislature and requires state parties to the conventions to prohibit discrimination and take action to protect against discrimination. The principle of equality requires that any form of relationship recognition available under federal law to opposite-sex couples should also be available to same-sex couples, and this includes civil marriage. Australia has an obligation under international human rights law to ensure that LGBT people are not discriminated against on the grounds of their sexual orientation or identity. Reforming marriage laws will uphold that obligation. The current Marriage Act restricts marriage to heterosexual couples and so contains inherent discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. The Australian Greens want to see true equality when it comes to marriage so that all people regardless of their sex, sexual orientation or gender identity have the opportunity to marry, to formalise their loving, committed relationships. This is not only the right thing to do to accord all people equality and respect for who they are; there is clear evidence that this is good for societies too, leading to fairer, healthier and more inclusive communities.
Within Australia, marriage retains significant status. For many, it represents a relationship that attracts social approval and respect, affection and legitimacy. Not surprisingly, excluding certain members of our community from the opportunity to have their relationships recognised in this way sends a very clear message that their committed, loving relationships are illegitimate. I thoroughly agree with the observation that my colleague Senator Pratt made yesterday that it is a cruel irony that gay people in Australia have often been demonised as being promiscuous and unwilling to commit to meaningful relationships while being denied the ability to marry and show their public commitment to their partners in the same way as Australians who happen to be heterosexual.
The Australian Human Rights Commission has stated that the maintenance of laws that discriminate on the ground of sexuality and gender identity tend to support and perpetuate beliefs which are likely to lead to violence and other antisocial conduct against members of the GLBTI community. The effects of this second-class status are pernicious and harmful not only to the physical health and safety of members of that community; there are huge mental health implications too. That leads me to reflect on the importance of marriage equality through the lens of another of my responsibilities: spokesperson for mental health for the Australian Greens.
There are members of parliament, and we heard from some of them tonight and yesterday, who try to claim that this is not an important issue worthy of the attention of this parliament, that there are far more important issues to deal with, they tell us; it is merely a distraction from the more important affairs of state-whatever they may consider them to be. But when we consider the consequences of the current discriminatory situation we have in Australia, it is clear that this is a hugely important issue for many Australians and their families, their friends and their loved ones. It has been put to me that the single most important and cost-effective mental health policy that Australia could undertake would be to introduce marriage equality. Almost revenue neutral, it would reduce the incidence of anxiety, depression and ultimately suicide in the stroke of a legislative pen. Let me tell you why.
Last year, I was visited by the Psychologists for Marriage Equality and they pointed out to me some alarming statistics from the Australian Bureau of Statistics 2007 national survey of mental health and wellbeing. These statistics indicate that homosexual and bisexual people are four times more likely to have ever been homeless, twice as likely to have no contact with family or no family to rely on for serious problems, more likely to have had a chronic condition in the last 12 months, twice as likely to have experienced psychological distress, almost three times as likely to have had suicidal thoughts, five times as likely to have had suicidal plans and four times as likely to have attempted suicide.
Psychologists for Marriage Equality provided me with information based on detailed research about the adverse effects of discrimination and negativity on people in minority groups, called minority stress. There is clear evidence that social prejudice, discrimination and violence against stigmatised groups play a significant role in poor mental health. They pointed out that the Australian Psychological Association recently endorsed the resolution of the American Psychological Association calling for:
... the legalisation of same-sex marriage on the basis of psychological evidence showing the mental health benefits of marriage and the harm caused by social exclusion and discrimination arising from not having the choice to marry.
In endorsing this resolution, Professor Simon Crowe, President of the Australian Psychological Society, said:
Decades of psychological research provides the evidence linking marriage to mental health benefits and highlighting the harm to individual's mental health of social exclusion. The APS supports the full recognition of same-sex relationships on the basis of this evidence.
Paul Martin is a psychologist with 25 years experience and he specialises in mental health and same-sex attraction. He trains GPs, psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, counsellors, managers and Christian leaders about the psychological issues facing those who are gay, lesbian and bisexual. In his submission to the Senate inquiry into the Marriage Equality Amendment Bill 2010, Paul Martin pointed out that the mental and physical health of same-sex attracted people is measurably poorer than for the general population, citing those same ABS statistics, but pointed out that this is not a result of the psychological effects of same-sex attraction. All the psychological evidence demonstrates that being same-sex attracted is not a disorder. Rather, Paul Martin says:
Poor health outcomes are the result of the high levels of psychological distress experienced growing up surrounded by negative attitudes and behaviours to same-sex attraction. Growing up gay or lesbian is to grow up as something you've been taught to hate. These 'homophobic' messages continue to occur into adulthood and can intensify the distress.
They can take the form of hate crime, workplace discrimination and being excluded from 'normal' society. Worst of all, this homophobia can be internalised leading same-sex attracted people to hate and harm themselves.
On the positive side, there is clear evidence about the positive link between marriage equality and mental health. Paul Martin also points out:
Studies from North America and Europe have shown that feelings of well-being, security and acceptance among same- sex attracted people and their family members increases dramatically when same-sex couples have the choice to marry.
This is for two reasons. First, some of the most negative messages internalised by same-sex attracted people are about the instability and worthlessness of same-sex relationships. Second, marriage, with its emphasis on care, commitment and fidelity, continues to define the meaning of love and relationships in our society. The government reinforces the very worst stereotypes about gay and lesbian people when it excludes them from marriage.
The American Psychological Society states:
... ... ...
"The denial of civil marriage, including the creation of legal statuses such as civil unions and domestic partnerships, stigmatizes same-sex relationships, perpetuates the stigma historically attached to homosexuality, and reinforces prejudice against lesbian, gay and bisexual people."
These conclusions are echoed by recent Australian psychological research, again discussed by Paul Martin.
In a recently released paper, researchers from the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre at the University of New South Wales called on the government to allow same-sex marriage as a preventative health measure. The researchers, led by Professor Ann Ritter, refer to studies which show a direct link between marriage equality and reduced alcohol and drug consumption. They also cite studies showing a link between marriage equality and reduced HIV infections, as well as the positive health benefits of marriage generally. According to the paper:
The best public-policy interventions are those which target a significant problem, have a clear rationale, are supported by research evidence, are least costly to implement and have strong community support. Legalising gay marriage as an alcohol and drug policy response meets these criteria ... It is now time to legalise gay marriage, as an important contribution to reducing alcohol and other drug harm in Australia.
Over the last few months I have been travelling widely in rural Australia, consulting with people from all walks of life about mental health and wellbeing. Evidence suggests that rates of poor mental health, particularly suicidal ideation and suicide attempts, are much higher for homosexual or bisexual people living in rural and remote areas, because the effects of social isolation and stigmatisation are amplified. There is less privacy and they have fewer peers, and they are often very exposed. This was something I heard consistently from mental health practitioners in rural areas and is particularly the case for young people, who are often extremely vulnerable at a time in their lives when they are learning about who they are and how they can make their way in the wider community. Their sexuality is obviously a crucial aspect of their emerging self-image.
One of the most inspirational people I have met in the course of this reform process is Shelley Argent, the passionate national spokesperson of PFLAG, Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays. I still remember when she visited me with a bunch of mothers from Queensland, who spoke so passionately about the concerns of their beloved offspring, including those who were same-sex attracted. In their submission to the Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs inquiry into the Marriage Equality Amendment Bill 2010, Shelley Argent wrote:
... as Australians, we bring our children into this world believing this country has a free and equal society, but when a loved one "comes out" we soon learn this is a myth.
... ... ...
It should be noted that our lesbian daughters and gay sons want no more or less than their heterosexual siblings, which is to just be equal. And we as their parents also want equality for them which includes the right to marry their partner of choice regardless of sexual orientation.
In relation to mental health, Ms Argent wrote:
We believe that if allowed to marry it will minimise depression and substance abuse that comes with low self esteem and unfortunately, many of our sons and daughters in the LGBT community do suffer mental health issues because of how they feel about themselves which is mainly due to societal attitudes and them being told in some subtle and sometimes not so subtle ways they are inferior. This is why suicidal ideation is such a problem in the LGBT community. Marriage equality will be a huge step forward in this area, because it will show that the government no longer condones discrimination under the cloak of "tradition" and the outdated belief of "marriage being between a man and a woman".
As the Australian Greens spokesperson for mental health but, more importantly, as a mother, a friend, a colleague and a neighbour, this deeply concerns me. I do not want to live in a world where same-sex attracted people feel so desperate about the prejudice they experience or so unworthy that they cannot be proud of who they are and they end their lives. Ultimately, I want to see equal marriage because I want to live in a community where every Australian can marry the person they love-it is as simple as that-instead of being told that their relationship is less valid than, less meaningful than or inferior to others.
Before I finish, I would like to acknowledge some of the people that I have met in the course of my thinking and learning about this issue. I have had the privilege of meeting many inspirational people. I remember meeting two significantly older men, in their sixties, at an equal love rally in Adelaide. They had been together for a long time. They told me that their wish was simply that they could walk along the street, hand in hand, just as most of us who are heterosexual would take for granted, without being harassed or berated by other people-that they could feel comfortable living in a society where they could actually show their long and enduring love for each other. I met two lovely young women from Adelaide, who visited me in Parliament House to put to me the cause of marriage equality and to explain that they had moved to Adelaide from interstate. They had been together for four or five years and were wanting to marry, because they had made a commitment to each other. I have met psychologists, doctors, clerics and teachers-gay, straight and bisexual, and all motivated to see this great overdue reform in Australia.
I want to live in a nation where all people are able to feel proud of who they are: of their ethnicity, of their appearance, of their religious beliefs and of their sexuality. Hand in hand with this is my desire to see Australia become a nation where all people are able to feel proud of the person they love and of the love they share-whatever their gender and whatever their sexuality. I believe it is truly time for us to ask why we cannot, in the 21st century, embrace an Australia which is fully, gloriously and humanely inclusive and equal. Legislation for marriage equality will save lives and celebrate the rich experience of being human in Australia.