Marriage debate resumes in Australian parliament

A bill to legalize same-sex marriage had its second reading on Monday in the Australian Parliament but its prospects remain uncertain, with no date set for further debate or a vote on it

Marriage debate resumes in Australian parliament
21 August 2012

A bill to legalize same-sex marriage had its second reading in the Australian House of Representatives on Monday.

However little light was shed on the bill’s prospects, with only five MPs speaking, and no date for a vote or further debate set.

Labor’s Sharon Grierson was the first to speak in support of the bill, proposed by her Labor colleague Stephen Jones.

‘This private member’s bill … will amend the current legal definition of marriage to read that “marriage means the union of two people, regardless of their sex, to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life.” Grierson said.

“For life” is a big commitment for anyone to make, but this is a commitment that many same-sex couples would like the opportunity to make.’

‘We should never discriminate against people based on sexual orientation … It is unacceptable to treat one group of citizens different from another. This is why I am proud to be a member of the party that removed 85 odd pieces of discrimination against same-sex couples from Commonwealth laws when we came into government.’

Grierson said a clear majority of those who had contacted her from her electorate supported same-sex marriage – in line with national polling data and noted that hundreds had turned out for a rally in her electorate on August 11 in support of the issue.

‘It is lovely to be with the Australian people on this issue, and I would love to think this parliament would also be with the Australian people on this issue. I do respect the right of others to hold differing viewpoints when it comes to the issue of marriage. I also respect the rights of religious bodies to be exempt from having to perform non-heterosexual marriages.’

‘It is time to legislate for marriage equality. We would not be acting alone—many countries have done this. I am pleased to support the bill.’

However Opposition whip and Liberal Party MP Patrick Secker complained that the Labor Party had gone to the last election promising that it would not move to legalize same-sex marriage and claimed that same-sex marriage had had adverse effects in the US state of Massachusetts.

Secker cited an article written by the founder of the American far-right group MassResistance which described how a homophobic parent had been arrested for refusing to leave his child’s school grounds after meeting with teachers to demand he be notified every single time the school discussed LGBT people.

We do not want to see that in Australia,’ Secker warned, ‘Above all, we do not want to see parental rights taken away.’

Labor’s Sharon Bird also spoke in favor of the bill, saying she had come to the debate on the issue without preconceptions but had been convinced of the rightness of allowing same-sex couples to marry.

‘When the [Australian Labor Party] determined that members were to be given a conscience vote on the issue, I concluded my own consideration and determined that I would be supporting the change,’ Bird said.

‘The existence of the Marriage Act and the use of that status in various other acts mean that the institution of marriage is not a church-only matter; it is also a matter for consideration by the state.

‘I remain firmly of the view that churches and other religious institutions should be protected in their right to perform marriage ceremonies according to their own principles and values … [but] n the final analysis for me as a parliamentarian, it is up to the state to determine whether or not to expand the definition of marriage, and it is up to the church and its clergy to solemnize marriage according to its traditions.

Opposition National Party whip Mark Coulton complained that the bill was being introduced by a government MP as a private members bill and not as a government bill, and said it was a tactic to show those who supported marriage equality that the Labor Party was doing something about it when it was not – although he opposed marriage equality.

‘If same-sex marriage is such an issue, as it is reported to be, and so many members of the government are in support of it, why has it been introduced by a backbencher?’ Coulton said.

‘Why wasn’t it introduced through the normal cabinet process, brought before the House and a decision made? As it is now, it gets trotted out about every four weeks, like a child’s pony, and paraded around the chamber. I presume the tactic there is to give people the idea that something is actually happening on this front.’

National Party deputy whip Paul Neville also spoke against the bill, citing tradition.

‘I do not think that it is in the capacity of the state to redefine the essence of marriage as being other than between a man and a woman,’ Neville said.

‘It is the framework central to a 3,500-year Judeo-Christian tradition and, until comparatively recent centuries, a commitment which took the form of a religious, ceremonial and legal union which was always between a man and a woman. Even in modern times priests and pastors continue to be the front-line celebrants of the marriage ceremony, though it is recognised in a pluralist society that other non-Christian clergy or appointed civil practitioners deliver the ceremony to those who are not part of the Judeo-Christian tradition.’

In a sign of division in the Government’s ranks on the issue, Labor MP John Murphy, an opponent of same-sex marriage had earlier tabled a petition from Muslim and Christian constituents opposing any change to the Marriage Act by MPs.

‘To amend the definition of marriage to include same sex homosexual or lesbian "marriage" would be to change the very structure of our Australian society, especially the education system to the detriment of all, particularly children,’ the petition read.

‘We, the undersigned citizens therefore request that any Marriage Equality Amendment Bill be opposed. And, as in duty bound, will ever pray.’

The Australian Senate will begin debating another bill to legalize same-sex marriage, this time from the Greens party, on Thursday.

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