Hon. Penny Wong
SENATOR THE HON PENNY WONG
LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION IN THE SENATE
SHADOW MINISTER FOR TRADE AND INVESTMENT
SENATOR FOR SOUTH AUSTRALIA
21 June 2016
28TH ANNUAL LIONEL MURPHY MEMORIAL LECTURE
Time for change
In Australia, we can achieve marriage equality by rewriting a few dozen words in the Marriage Act.
We don’t need a referendum, a plebiscite or a contest in our highest court – what we need is political leadership.
The sort of political leadership Lionel Murphy was prepared to show on law reform when it mattered.
Support for marriage equality is no longer an act of political courage.
Polls show around two-thirds of Australians support marriage equality.[v]
Support for marriage equality isn’t an act of partisanship.
Supporters of all political traditions support marriage equality.
· Social democrats and progressives who support government action to enhance equality and protect the rights of minorities;
· Liberals who champion the primacy of the individual and freedom of choice;
· Conservatives who promote the role of the family and want to maintain the strength of institutions; and
· Libertarians who seek to as maximise individual liberty and minimise state intrusion into people’s personal lives.
Parliamentarians representing each of these traditions in our national parliament support marriage equality.
Yet our Parliament has not been prepared to act.
The proposed national non-binding plebiscite is just the latest in a series of obstacles erected by opponents of marriage equality.
Australia has not had plebiscites on other fundamental issues of justice and human rights, such as abolishing the death penalty, ending the White Australia policy or enacting the native title regime.
The Racial Discrimination Act and the Sex Discrimination Act were enacted without a plebiscite.
State and Federal Parliaments have legislated on abortion, voluntary euthanasia and stem cell research without holding plebiscites.
In a clear statement, the High Court has said: “Under the Constitution and federal law as it now stands, whether same-sex marriage should be provided for by law … is a matter for the federal parliament.” [vi]
Tony Abbott proposed a plebiscite because he had exhausted other avenues to stymie the demand for a free vote in the Liberal party room.
That Mr Abbott embraced a plebiscite proposal supported by Cory Bernardi, Scott Morrison and the Australian Christian Lobby organisation is no real surprise.
What has surprised me – and many others – is the decision of Malcolm Turnbull to support the plebiscite proposal.
Mr Turnbull obviously needed some votes from marriage equality opponents inside his party room to wrench the prime ministership from Mr Abbott.
In supporting the plebiscite Mr Turnbull repudiated the position he had previously put to the party room and in the public domain.
He now tells us that a plebiscite campaign will be conducted respectfully.
These are the hollowest of hollow words.
I know that a plebiscite designed to deny me and many other Australians a marriage certificate will instead license hate speech to those who need little encouragement.
Mr Turnbull – and many commentators on this subject – don’t understand that for gay and lesbian Australians hate speech is not abstract.
It’s part of our daily life.
My Twitter feed already foretells the inevitable nature of an anti-equality campaign – and it does it in 140 characters or less.
As a public figure I’m familiar with the slings and arrows of political debate.
I’m not immune from the hate thrown my way.
But I’m resilient enough to withstand it.
Many are not.
Opponents of marriage equality already use words that hurt.
And words aren’t the only weapons wielded by some of those who harbour animosity towards gay and lesbian people.
Assaults – and worse – are not unknown in Australia, even today.
Many gay and lesbian people don’t hold hands on the street because they don’t know what reaction they’ll get.
Some hide who they are for fear of the consequences at home, at work and at school.
Not one straight politician advocating a plebiscite on marriage equality knows what that’s like.
What it’s like to live with the casual and deliberate prejudice that some still harbour.
I don’t oppose a plebiscite because I doubt the good sense of the Australian people.
I oppose a plebiscite because I don’t want my relationship – my family – to be the subject of inquiry, of censure, of condemnation, by others.
I don’t want other relationships, and other families, to be targeted either.
I want the Australian Parliament to fulfil the function laid down in the Constitution – to legislate on the matter of marriage – to remove discrimination against gay and lesbian Australians in the Marriage Act.
This is Labor’s position.
If Labor is elected on 2 July, Bill Shorten will introduce a marriage equality bill in the Parliament within 100 days.
Let me end on a note of hope, and recognition.
Australia’s history tells many stories – stories of struggle, conflict, change and progress.
Ours is hardly a story without prejudice and discrimination, but we know from experience that prejudice and discrimination can be overcome.
What we have in common matters more than what sets us apart.
Back in 1973, when Lionel Murphy introduced a Human Rights Bill into the Senate, marriage equality was not amongst the rights set out in his proposed law.
At that time, homosexuality was still criminalised in all of our States and Territories.
In my home town of Adelaide, law lecturer George Duncan had been drowned after being thrown into the River Torrens, almost certainly by police officers engaged in gay bashing.
Those responsible for that crime have never been brought to justice.
But the public outrage which it provoked led to a movement for gay law reform which saw South Australia become the first state to decriminalise homosexuality in 1975.
A great deal has been achieved since then.
Marriage equality is a remaining hurdle for those seeking equality for gay and lesbian Australians.
And those advocating for this reform stand on the shoulders of earlier campaigners for equality and social justice.
Our campaign would not be possible without the new discourse on human rights which Lionel Murphy introduced into Australian public life, both as a politician and as a judge.
Murphy was almost certainly the only judge anywhere in the world to have an astronomical entity, a supernova remnant no less, named after him.
A supernova is an exploding star which releases tremendous energy, emitting light which travels vast distances throughout the universe long after the star’s demise.
In that sense, the Murphy supernova remnant in the Large Magellanic Cloud is aptly named.
For Lionel Murphy was one of Labor’s brightest stars.
His radical and transformative political energy, and his profound commitment to human rights, reverberate in Australia to this day.
May the path of progress be ever lit.
[i] United States Supreme Court, Obergefell v Hodges, No 14-556, slip op at 22 (US, June 26, 2015)
[ii] Obergefell v Hodges, at 13.
[iii] Andrew Leigh, Battlers and Billionaires: The Story of Inequality in Australia, Redback, Collingwood, 2013, pp 110-23.
[iv] Rodney Croome, “True and good citizens”, Overland, vol. 203, Winter 2011, https://overland.org.au/previous-issues/issue-203/feature-rodney-croome/
[v] Support in recent polls: 72 per cent (Crosby Textor, July 2014), 69 per cent (Ipsos, August 2015), 58 per cent (Newspoll, June 2015).
[vi] The Commonwealth v Australian Capital Territory,  HCA 55, 12 December 2013