I also rise to make a contribution to the debate on the Marriage Amendment Bill (No. 2) 2012. It has been difficult to keep track of the number of different bills that are afoot on this issue at any given time. As Senator Hanson-Young has just joined us in the chamber, I want to acknowledge my colleague for her enduring work on this issue and also acknowledge that passage of this legislation, or legislation like it, will happen. It is not a matter of if; it is just a question of when. I suspect, on the basis of the comments we have just heard from Senator Abetz and those like him, that that day is not today, but it will come. We have no doubt whatsoever about that.
The Greens support this bill and this is not an issue which will go away. The majority of Australians support it. I do not think this is as simple as a generational thing. I know of any number of people of older generations who support this concept who cannot work out why we have not got around to removing this discrimination from the statute books. I think support among young people is pretty strong and people are scratching their heads asking: 'Why is this even a debate? Why is there still even a contest to removing this pointless discrimination from Australia's laws?' This is one of the last places where it still exists, as states and territories have gradually acceded to the bleeding obvious and removed this discrimination which serves no purpose other than to denigrate people based on their sexuality. This Commonwealth parliament will get there. It makes me profoundly sad that tonight is not the night.
If representatives of all political parties in this place were able to vote according to their conscience and in line with the views of the vast majority of their constituents, this matter would have been resolved a long time ago, as it has been in many countries around the world. I am not even sure why removing discrimination should be a conscience issue. It should be straightforward and it should be something we had dealt with well before now.
The Greens are passionately committed to seeing Australia eliminate this form of discrimination. The Greens have led the way on this debate. The work of Senator Hanson-Young and our state and territory colleagues in parliaments and assemblies around the country has led the way on this debate, but of course we are not alone. This is not a Green issue, this is not a left-right thing; this is about people. I am proud the Greens have led the way. A Westpoll in 2010 in WA showed that 90 per cent of Greens voters support gay marriage—not a lot of room for ambiguity there. This pointless legal discrimination deeply insults and disadvantages same-sex couples by declaring their love as second-class. By removing this legal discrimination, we can have a real impact on the cultural discrimination of homophobia.
Homophobia is hate. I do not believe for a moment that most of the senators who will come into this chamber tonight and tomorrow and put their views against this bill and this concept hate gays and lesbians, but homophobia is about that. It is an ongoing affliction in Australian society and in other societies around the world. The struggle of lesbian women, gay men and people identifying as transgender, bisexual or queer is one of courage up against some of the most vicious hate and brutal violence. The struggle for marriage equality is a part of that struggle. It is not the whole struggle, obviously, because we are a way down that road and Australia has changed in recent decades. It is a marker on the road. It will not be the end of the campaign, but it has become significant of broader currents in Australian society, about why we leave these forms of discrimination on the statute book.
Senator Abetz has just given his views. I feel closer to those expressed a few moments before by Senator Faulkner, who gave an extremely powerful and compelling speech. I wish more of his colleagues shared those views. I want to remind senators of how we got to where we are, where marriage has become the issue of the day and where things like pride marches around the country are normalised and legitimised. This did not happen by itself—it took a lot of courage. It took defiance, it took organising and it took endurance to get to the point where we are at today. It took a movement and a different kind of courage for people who lived outside major cities and for whom there was not safety in numbers. People should absolutely have the right to get married if they want to, but let us recall that it is not that long ago that to be out, to be loud and proud, declaring your right to exist, could get you killed. In 1991—not that long ago—a Sydney man was beaten to death because of his sexuality. He was beaten up by a group of young men who thought that beating up a fag would be heaps of fun, so they encouraged him to go to a park and then they killed him.
In 2003 a study conducted by the New South Wales Attorney-General and a number of others titled found that gay men and lesbians were between four and six times more likely to be assaulted in a 12-month period than other Sydney men and women. What an extraordinary disgrace—in 2003. I wonder how much better those statistics are these days. The community looks to us for leadership. That is part of what we are paid for, and tonight you would have to say the record is pretty patchy on whether they are getting the leadership that people deserve. The study by the New South Wales AG found that gay people were subjected to verbal abuse and harassment, such as spitting, offensive gestures and being followed. They were threatened, they were the victims of attempted physical attack and assault and they reported experiencing property damage with petty things like vandalism and theft, written threats and psychological abuse—hate mail, bullying and that kind of thing. They were also subjected to sexual assault.
Although it has changed through a process of continual education, campaigning, advocacy, hard work and courage, we know that HIV and AIDS related discrimination are focused primarily towards crimes against gay men who are scapegoated in expressions of fear towards the virus. That has changed in Australian culture. That took leadership and courage. And we are not there yet, but we can see how these things can change through a process of community effort, education and advocacy.
What happens to people experiencing homophobia? We know what happens: stress, depression, withdrawal, anxiety, loss of confidence—the same things that can happen to any individual who is being bullied and picked apart for something that they do not necessarily have any control over. It does not feel like a disease; it is something that is about them and is intrinsic to them. The higher rate of suicide in gay youth is part of the evidence. Despair is the result of discrimination when you are not accepted for being who you are and loving what you love. Because of the violence, hatred, abuse and discrimination that are experienced, marriage equality would be an achievement in the struggle against this. I can already hear the words that will come back at us from senators opposing what we are proposing to do to the institution of marriage, such as it is. These senators would say, of course they are not against hate crimes, hate speech and discrimination, the sort of bullying and psychological abuse that I have described. But it is all part of the puzzle and this is the sticking point now. This is where the country has decided the national debate will stick until we have resolved this issue. So it invokes all of those other aspects of this very, very long campaign for equality. Tonight is not just about marriage equality. It is about equality more broadly, based on the fact that all of us in all of our diversity and difference are human beings and fundamentally the same.
We know that this is a declaration by the Commonwealth to gay and lesbian Australians: you are not abnormal, you are not wrong, you are not unequal; we are simply removing those clauses that were placed there consciously. I can remember when that happened. The Howard government, in an act that I think the country has learned to regret, deliberately inserted those words into the Marriage Act to take those rights away from people. The words were designed not to remove ambiguity but to install discrimination. Equal legal status is a big step towards preventing homophobic violence and it undermines the notion that inferior status should be accorded to gay people. It would of course remove the Commonwealth's tacit support for the idea that there is something wrong with homosexuality. Equal status would also pull the rug from under the bigotry that seeks to justify homophobic hate crimes and the sorts of behaviours that I have just described and that do still exist in our society and are still experienced by Australians.
It is a breach of article 18(1) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to have barriers to the right to marry. I guess that is something Senator Abetz had not come across in his sketchy and hasty reading of international covenants to see if he could find some evidence to support his case that this is a planet wide phenomenon that Australia would be bucking. Sorry, Senator Abetz, but you did not do your reading. It is a violation of the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. As the Western Australian Women's Law Centre stated in their submission to the inquiry into Senator Hanson-Young's bill:
Same-sex couples who engage in the act and commitment of marriage are not putting the public at any risk of health, safety or order, are not breaching the rights of freedoms of other people, and as such should not be subject to such limitations.
My dear colleague the Hon. Lynn MacLaren, MLC in the Western Australian Legislative Council, announced a bill to be brought into the Western Australian parliament. She has called on the West Australian Minister for Education; Energy; Indigenous Affairs to introduce a specific policy against homophobic bullying in schools, drawing on recent research that shows that such policies are working in other states.
Such bullying is actually alarmingly common in schools. Studies still show that suicide rates amongst gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and intersex communities are 2½ to 14 times higher than in the general community and that young people are particularly vulnerable. We in this place have a duty of care to protect students from such bullying. Lynn's efforts on bullying are due to the fact that children learn homophobia at a very young age. Prejudice and targets to express prejudice begin at school. Gay people are dehumanised for having violated gender norms. It can be subtle or it can be really explicit. One of the ways in which we can make it explicit is to write into the law that people are different. That is something that this chamber could change and fix.
If the federal government refuses to get out of the way of reform at a Commonwealth level, we are the ones who are charged with oversight of the Marriage Act, a Commonwealth act. But if this chamber fails to get out of the way of a reform that the majority of Australians clearly support then the Greens in Western Australia want to provide the opportunity at the state level to make this possible. We have seen the moves in the territory assembly in recent weeks to do effectively what is obvious. Because Canberra has failed—that is loose language, I suppose—or because this Commonwealth parliament has failed, the assembly have taken that step and in the legislative council in Western Australia, Ms MacLaren will take that step.
For many years I have been proud to join the gay pride march in Perth. I have been there as a straight man supporting the right of gay people to live, love and express their diversity and political goals exactly as they wish. It is not something that should be up to me. It is well overdue for the Australian government to proudly join like-minded secular democracies around the world that have removed discrimination against same-sex couples, allowing them to celebrate the legal, emotional and social commitment afforded to heterosexual couples who choose to marry.
I acknowledge my colleague in the Western Australian parliament, Giz Watson, MLC, who was the first openly lesbian parliamentarian in Australia. She has said that gay marriage in Australia is a matter of time. It is not something that we would force people to do—if you are opposed to gay marriage, don't have one—but it is a right that we believe should be afforded to those who would choose it. Giz led the way in Western Australia, and I acknowledge Western Australian ALP colleagues in the state parliament there, particularly the state Attorney-General of the day, Jim McGinty, for removing all discrimination from the Western Australian statute books. This was a campaign led by the Greens WA and the Labor Party in Western Australia, and if Senator Louise Pratt were here tonight I would tip my hat to her as well.
That is how this work is done; in a long campaign. They went through the Western Australian statutes with a fine-toothed comb and pulled out dozens of discriminatory phrases. That campaign took years to come to fruition, and it was fought at the time by much the same people who are fighting and kicking and screaming over this, in my view, entirely innocuous change to the Marriage Act. The sky did not fall in; nothing has changed. The institution has not been undermined, or if it has it has been undermined by completely different things—
Senator Hanson-Young interjecting—
In fact, as my colleague Senator Hanson-Young reminds me, the institution has been strengthened because it is something now that can apply to us all should we choose it.
When the time comes I think Australia will celebrate this step forward. The celebration and credit for this turning point will be due to the long and courageous struggle on the part of lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans- and intersex people for their basic human rights to be recognised, protected and celebrated. I strongly commend this bill to the Senate. If we do not pass it tonight we will pass it one night, and may that night come soon.