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Lee on the Marriage Amendment Bill (2017)

Speeches in Parliament
Lee Rhiannon 28 Nov 2017

On Monday 27th of November, 2017, Lee gave the following speech in the Senate.

 To Senator Dean Smith: thank you so much for your speech. I found it incredibly moving and it captured the unique circumstances that are about to deliver marriage equality. To senators Janet Rice, Penny Wong, Louise Pratt and Sarah Hanson-Young: your speeches also took us into the intensity of this issue in terms of people's feelings and the long road that it has taken to get us to this point. Thank you so much for your words and actions. I found them extremely moving.

As we all know, the people of Australia came to support marriage equality long before parliament did. Achieving marriage equality is another clear example of the importance of social movements, how the actions of people push our MPs to stand up and vote for what is right. For years, the tireless efforts of countless LGBTQI and community groups have kept the issue of marriage equality on the national agenda and swayed public opinion in strong favour of marriage equality—thanks to the numerous rallies regularly held across the country; to the Mardi Gras and other forms of pride marches held around the country; to the lobbying efforts; to all of those efforts in schools and universities; to dinners with friends and having all of those conversations that built up such wonderful, colourful, loving actions; and to a strong movement coming forward. Yes, at times there was a difference in tactics, but there was always a united and clear purpose: that marriage equality was well overdue to be passed into legislation.

There will be MPs and political parties who will try and claim this win as their own, but this win sits squarely with the LGBTI community and their supporters across Australia. In Australia, we can trace this issue back to a Saturday night, 24 June 1978, when a group of people marched down Sydney's Oxford Street towards Hyde Park, dancing, singing, skipping and walking to the sounds of 'Glad to Be Gay' and 'Ode to a Gym Teacher'. The music was blaring out of a sound system on a truck. The group chanted to passers-by and people in nearby pubs and clubs: 'Out of the bars and into the streets!' Despite receiving permission from the police for the march, upon arriving at Hyde Park the police confiscated the truck and the sound system. Undeterred, the crowd continued marching. They went up to Kings Cross, and there things changed—the atmosphere changed. It was very wrong what the police executed that night. The revellers were met with violent repression—53 people were arrested and many injured. These marchers these days are known as the '78ers, and that march was the very first Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. It was arguably this night and those people that kickstarted the mainstream LGBTQI movement in Australia, a movement which has just celebrated a momentous victory. That's why I wanted to bring these things together. Maybe on that night they didn't talk about marriage. They probably couldn't have imagined that that's where things would come to, but we really do trace what is happening here today back to what happened on that day in Sydney in 1978.

In 2004, then Prime Minister John Howard saw the writing on the wall as more countries started to legislate for marriage equality. In a calculated and what I would call a hateful move, the Prime Minister sought to amend the definition of marriage in the Marriage Act legislation to be explicitly between a man and a woman. It was totally unnecessary, but he did it, for really wrong and very dangerous reasons. This amendment, sadly, was supported in parliament not only by the Liberals and Nationals but also by Labor at the time. It was the Greens and Democrats who voted together to oppose that amendment. LGBTQI Australians were betrayed on that day. It has been a long history and, for many, I acknowledge, a very painful journey to this point.

Since 2004, there has been an ongoing diverse and beautiful movement to achieve marriage equality. Like all social movements, there have been peaks and troughs, a variety in tactics and strategies. There have been fallouts and bitter disappointments, but a campaign that at its core was about the right to equality and love was always going to win—and it is, and it has. In April 2005, in Tasmania, Greens MP—now Senator—Nick McKim introduced into the Tasmanian parliament the first marriage equality bill presented to a parliament in Australia. It was backed by the Tasmanian Gay and Lesbian Rights Group and, after the first stage of the debate, the bill was sent to an inquiry. I was fortunate in that I was in the New South Wales state parliament at that time. Senator McKim rang me up and explained what he had done, and we discussed doing it in the New South Wales parliament. I was in the position to be able to come forward with a New South Wales application of that bill. That was discussed with our New South Wales Greens LGBTI working group, and I was able to introduce the bill into the upper house. Neither of these bills were successful because again, sadly, the Liberals, Labor and the Nationals were in lock step to deny Australians the right to marry. But, again, because of the pressure of public opinion, because of the rise of a very creative and hardworking social movement, it's changed, and we're seeing that play out here today. We still have some final stages to go through, but the momentum is with us. You can see that change is in the air.

This win sits with the Community Action Against Homophobia, which has organised countless rallies and actions in support of marriage equality and other issues experienced by the LGBTI community going back nearly two decades. There is an incredible history of strength there. This win also sits with the queer collectives at university campuses across Australia that provide a safe, nurturing and educating environment for LGBTQI youth. This win also sits with the '78ers, whom I just mentioned, whose bold and brave march on that Saturday night so many years ago inspired so many, gave courage to so many and is a legacy that we can be so proud of. This win sits with Equal Love, an organisation that has been fighting for marriage equality for over a decade and which hasn't been afraid to push the envelope for LGBTQI rights. This win sits with Democracy in Colour, Muslims for Marriage Equality, the Asian Australian Alliance and other community groups who reached out to culturally and linguistically diverse communities. This win sits with ACON, Australians for Equality, Australian Marriage Equality and GetUp! and, of course, this win sits with the thousands of people and organisations who worked together these past few months to bring home a 'yes' result.

In our celebrations at the recent 'yes' result, we must pay heartfelt homage to the countless community groups, activists and LGBTQI communities whose tireless, often painful, efforts across decades allowed a 'yes' outcome to be achieved. I would be remiss if I failed to mention the immense contribution of the union movement in achieving the 'yes' result. Around the world, the labour movement and the LGBTQI movement have a long history of supporting each other's struggles. Here in Australia, there has been a similar history of support.

I often speak of the green bans as one of the great social movements in Australian history. During this time, in 1973, a student was expelled from student accommodation at Macquarie University because he was gay. The student representative council turned to the Builders Labourers Federation, now a union called the CFMEU. They asked for assistance. Macquarie University at the time had a whole lot of building under construction. The workers met, they discussed the issue and then they refused to finish the job until the enrolment of the young man—Jeremy Fisher—was reinstated. That was actually courageous. It was courageous for any group of people to take action, and here you had building workers at the university standing up for a young man who had been victimised and lost his enrolment. He got back in university because of their action. That was an example of a green ban at the time. Some people called it a 'pink ban'. But it was unionists standing with the LGBTQI community.

This support and solidarity between the union movement and the LGBTQI community has been out in force again in the past months. During the marriage equality survey, the union movement showed immense support for and solidarity with the LGBTIQ community. I quote here from a poster designed and disseminated from the Victorian Trades Hall Council. These are their words:

99% of the work we do as union members is about fighting for our right to decent, safe, well-paying work. But that's one fight in a larger battle to build a just and fair society for everyone.

We can't build a just and fair society for everyone while our lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) workmates are treated differently to other workers. They have the same right to happiness as every other union member and the same right to have their loving, committed relationships treated equally.

We stand up and fight for all workers, because equality is union business.

I would like to make a special mention of the Victorian Trades Hall Council. Their work was outstanding. That leaflet was so significant. I will also mention other peak bodies and unions who were involved in the marriage equality campaign but, as I said, the Victorian Trades Hall Council went above and beyond expectations. They produced beautifully designed action guides, conversation guides, campaign guides, T-shirts, posters, fantastic social media graphics and so much more, including possibly the largest rainbow flag I have ever seen fluttering across the Victorian Trades Hall Council. I was so fortunate I was in Melbourne and so fortunate I went down the right street and there it was.

The Victorian Trades Hall Council organised phone backing, doorknocking and union member turn-outs for rallies. They organised the huge 'yes' marriage result street party outside Victorian Trades Hall. I was in Canberra, obviously, that week and I was able to join the Canberra street party. That was fantastic! But I would have so loved to have been outside Victorian Trades Hall Council and I would have so loved to have been on Oxford Street. But, still, I had the privilege to be in parliament to see the happiness and the joy that so many people experienced when that announcement came through and I had the privilege to join the street party that night.

Many other unions and peak bodies, including the ACTU, put time, money, staff and resources into the marriage equality campaign. For that, I thank them most sincerely—and, I know, so many people do. The union movement has shown fantastic support and solidarity during the marriage equality survey, all the while continuing to undergo shocking attacks from the Turnbull government. We know how often anti-union legislation is being pushed through this place. The marriage equality survey has once again shown that we are stronger together. I hope that other progressive movements and political parties show as much support and solidarity for the union movement in its fight against a war on workers as the union movement has shown for the marriage equality campaign.

We need to also consider the flawed process of the marriage equality survey. Rather than show leadership and bring on legislation in this parliament, the Prime Minister forced Australia to do his job for him. The cost was not only the $122 million spent but the fallout of an unregulated and vicious campaign that spread unchecked information and entrenched unnecessary and unacceptable divides in our community. As we celebrate the 'yes' result, we must acknowledge that a 'no' result was returned in some parts of Australia. In my state of New South Wales, we had the lowest 'yes' result, with 57.8 per cent responding yes and 42.2 per cent responding no. That 42 per cent of New South Wales residents who participated in the survey and responded no is, understandably, worrying for the LGBTQI community. I can't help but wonder how further along our society would be if the Turnbull government had, instead, used that money to run an education campaign on what changes the marriage legislation would actually mean for Australia—that nobody would be impacted unless they chose to get married, that, if they were a same-sex couple, they would be able to get married and that, after that, nobody was going to be detrimentally impacted. There really did need to be so much more work done by the government, but the Prime Minister shirked it. We measure a moral government by how it treats vulnerable members of society. Many in the LGBTQI community are vulnerable. As with many other issues, the Turnbull government failed in this.

A lot has been said about the high prevalence of 'no' responses in Western Sydney. As often accompanies conversations about Western Sydney, there was an immediate, uncritical reaction from many to lay blame with migrant communities. This, of course, is lazy, incorrect, and xenophobic. But would we have ended up in this divisive situation if the government had, instead, provided the public with a rational and clear case for equality? Had the government simply done its job, the divides in our society would not have been further entrenched and, maybe, not all sides of the debate would feel persecuted. Especially because of these circumstances, I would like to acknowledge and thank the important contributions of writers, political commentators, activists and LGBTQI residents of Western Sydney who have responded to these xenophobic, perfunctory claims so articulately and passionately. I would like to acknowledge and thank Greens New South Wales members Rachael Jacobs and Denise Abou Hamad, who wrote in the Huffington Post about the many complexities that resulted in the 'no' result in parts of Western Sydney, and the need for campaigners and allies to work in Western Sydney in solidarity with the LGBTQI community there and to help with work of informing people about equality and LGBTQI rights.

I would like to acknowledge and thank Democracy in Colour—in particular, Carrie Hou and Divinia Blanca, who undertook incredibly important work engaging with culturally and linguistically diverse communities during the marriage equality campaign. Carrie wrote an important analysis of why parts of Western Sydney returned a 'no' result, in particular highlighting that the 'no' camp campaigned aggressively in parts of Western Sydney, while the 'yes' campaign largely focused on other areas. I would like to acknowledge and thank Junkee political editor Osman Faruqi, who succinctly pointed out that all the comments about 'Muslims being to blame for the "no" vote', were not only incredibly Islamophobic but also statistically impossible. I would like to acknowledge and thank Western Sydney writer Albert Santos, who highlighted in Junkee that the majority of people scapegoating migrant communities for the 'no' result in parts of Western Sydney have most likely never stepped foot in Western Sydney and are relying on lazy stereotypes and a complete lack of understanding of the region to take their analysis. There is no doubt there is a lot of work to be done to achieve true equality and build broader support for LGBTI rights. We need to stand with the LGBTQI communities who live in areas that returned a 'no' result and help to make them feel safe in their own suburbs and regions.

To everyone who has paraded in the Mardi Gras, marched at marriage equality or Safe Schools rallies, been involved in queer collectives on campus or held a fundraiser, film screening or information night, this win is for and because of you. To everyone who has been arrested, been the target of police brutality or been attacked on the street for expressing their sexuality, this win is for and because of you. To everyone who has kissed a partner in public in defiance of strange looks, who has educated a co-worker who used derogatory language about sexuality, who has stood up to a homophobic relative at a family dinner, this win is for and because of you. To everyone who campaigned for LGBTQI rights, from the dismantling of homophobic laws to calling for the rights of LGBTQI refugees on Manus and Nauru, from Safe Schools to LGBTQI homelessness and everything in between, this win is for and because of you. I would like to acknowledge the entire LGBTI community, who have experienced blatant homophobia over the past months because of the way the Prime Minister chose to conduct this.

Our work here isn't done. Let's take the energy and the alliances we've established, bring the legislation home in parliament, leave our safe bubbles and campaign in areas with 'no' results and build strong campaigns tackling the high rates of homelessness and suicide in LGBTI communities, stopping the violence

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