Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017


Peter Khalil: I rise to speak on the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017. On 14 November at 10 am the result of the marriage law postal survey was announced. The result was clear and definitive. Australia said yes, the state of Victoria said yes and my electorate of Wills said yes. More than 7.8 million Australians, 61.6 per cent of voters, voted yes for marriage equality. This ‘yes’ vote was carried in every state and every territory. Seventy per cent of constituents in my electorate of Wills said they wanted to see Australian marriage law change to allow same-sex couples to marry, and this was from an 83 per cent turnout of voters in Wills.

However, the fact is that the Turnbull Liberal government chose to spend $122 million on a postal survey that was non-binding, a waste of taxpayers’ money and needlessly damaging and divisive. The result in no way alters this fact and the fact also that it was fundamentally an abrogation of our responsibilities as elected representatives in our federal parliament, a representative democracy here in Australia, and our role and responsibility to make and amend laws. And all of these responsibilities have been effectively deferred to the work that we have before us for the last few days of this week. It is now time for the parliament and its representatives to do what they were elected to do, which is to vote on legislation.

I supported marriage equality well before the postal survey. In fact, during the last election campaign, I made very clear what my position was, and I publicly stated I would vote yes regardless of the results of the survey because the principle of equality before the law, regardless of one’s ethnicity, one’s faith or one’s gender or sexual preference should be the fundamental basis of our secular democracy, and in fact it is the same principle that underpins freedom of religion for religious minorities.

Freedom of religion, freedom from religion, and the separation of religion and state, as we have heard from previous speakers, are all fundamental principles of our secular democracy. Indeed it is my conviction that in order to ensure religious freedom, which is sadly lacking in many autocratic states overseas, where many religious minorities are persecuted because of their faith, we must maintain the principle of equality before the law for all, and that is what protects those in religious minorities from any impingement by the state.

I come from a community which is more traditional. I come from an Egyptian background. We have heard from many previous speakers that many of the more recent migrants to this country have voted no in parts of Western Sydney and other parts of Australia. They are entitled to their views. One thing I have tried to explain to people in those communities, whether they be imams in the local mosques in my electorate or priests in the local churches, is that the reason they are able to practise their religion so freely in Australia, the reason the state can’t interfere in their freedom of worship, is that principle of being treated equally under the law in this country, a treatment that is not afforded to them in countries that do not share the secular principles of democracy that we have here in Australia.

We know that Australians have made their views very clear in this postal survey. The parliament must ensure that the will of the people becomes law as soon as possible. There has been more than enough dithering and delay by the government on this critical issue. We on the Labor side have been very clear from the outset of this debate that we do respect freedom of religion as one of the foundations of our diverse and harmonious society, but it is true to say that we don’t believe that marriage equality and religious freedom are mutually exclusive. While there is a respect for religious freedom, we do not believe that same-sex marriage in Australia warrants a repeal of antidiscrimination laws. This is not what Australians voted for when they voted for marriage equality in such large numbers.

The protections for religious freedoms set out in the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017, which was introduced by Senator Smith on 15 November and passed by the Senate on 29 November, strike an acceptable compromise between achieving marriage equality and protecting religious freedoms. These religious protections included in the bill are based on the unanimous recommendations of the Senate Select Committee on the Exposure Draft of the Marriage Amendment (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill. This committee consulted extensively with communities and stakeholders across Australia, and its cross-party members worked very hard to reach a consensus position.

This legislation, this bill before us, contains provisions that preserve religious freedom in the performance of the marriage ceremony and the provision of goods and services reasonably incidental to the marriage ceremony. Respect for those views held by people of faith and respect for the rights of religious institutions is, as I have said, a fundamental part of our civil society. As several speakers have suggested before me, it is appropriate that the parliament take the proper time to carefully consider what protections are required as a separate matter to this particular legislation. We will see recommendations from the panel convened by Philip Ruddock in the coming weeks, and the Australian Labor Party will consider them carefully.

Some key principles are what guide us in supporting the bill that is before us. One is a commitment to religious freedom and the ability of churches and other religious institutions to practise wedding and marriage ceremonies according to their own religious doctrines because, as we’ve said, freedom of religion is a constitutional right—section 116—and must be respected. Also, there is the important principle that the Australian people have spoken—and we’ve heard that result—but, more than that, there is the principle of confirming equality before the law, which is what we have before us in this place. We won’t stand for delay or further discrimination as part of this process. This is the kind of common sense approach that, I think it is true to say, we are committed to. As such, I don’t support further measures or amendments—argued for by some—that would have the effect of rolling back existing anti-discrimination laws.

The explanatory memorandum to the bill, which we endorse, makes this position very clear. Specifically, at point 64, it states:

Commercial businesses, their employees and independent operators who provide goods or services, or make facilities available, are currently prohibited from discriminating in connection with marriages on various grounds including race, age and disability.

These prohibitions have been in place for a significant period of time, and they ensure that people are treated equally in public life and protected from discrimination. Point 65 further states that ‘the bill does not propose any new carve outs’, particularly for the LGBTIQ community. Whatever you are—whether you are a taxi driver, florist, baker or whatever other examples have been raised—if you don’t work for a body established for religious purposes, you can’t lawfully refuse to drive a person to their wedding reception or provide them with the flowers or prepare a wedding cake. These are part of existing anti-discrimination laws which don’t allow refusal for service, and this will continue on with this bill.

This has been a difficult debate for some people, but it’s an important debate. Ultimately, though, it’s quite simple. All Australians should be treated equally under the law, regardless of their sexual preference, faith, gender or ethnicity. This is the foundation principle that protects minorities in our secular democracy. In order for us to protect those minorities in this democracy, we need to make sure that that equality before the law is given to all before the law. It is the principle that is tied to the principle of freedom of religion and to the separation of religion and state. This has been a long process—one that could have been completed much earlier if we didn’t have to go through the postal survey—and I commend the bill to the House. I look forward to returning to the chamber in the not too distant future to vote yes on the bill. Thank you.