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Nick McKim Marriage Equality speech

Speeches in Parliament
Nick McKim 28 Nov 2017

I'm very happy today to rise to support the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017, which will strengthen the institution of marriage by making it more relevant and more accessible to more of the people we represent in this place. It has been a long and winding road that has taken us to where we are today. The most recent twist in that road has been the postal survey, something that never should have happened and has caused significant harm to so many in Tasmania's LBGTIQ community. What should have happened is that we parliamentarians should have simply done our job by making the laws of this land and voting to deliver marriage equality to Australia without putting such a fundamental human rights question to a popular vote. After all, there was no popular vote before the coalition and Labor got together in 2004 to insert the hateful and discriminatory amendments into the Marriage Act that survive to this very day—that marriage in Australia can only be between a man and a woman.

But there is a silver lining to all the harm and the hurt that was caused by the survey—that is, there can be no argument now about the position of the Australian people on marriage equality. It turns out that the silent majority in this country believe in fairness and equality. Who would've thought it? Marriage equality is supported by an overwhelming majority of Australians. It's supported by a clear majority of people in every single state and territory in our country. I want to give a shout-out to my home state of Tasmania, which voted in support of marriage equality at a higher rate than the rest of the country taken as a whole. Who says Tasmanians aren't progressive? We've been catalytic in this debate, and I want to spend a bit of time putting some of that Tasmanian history on the record.

Tasmania had the first openly gay MP in Australia's history, when Bob Brown entered the parliament in Tasmania in 1983. At that time it was a crime in Tasmania for adult men to have consenting sex with each other, punishable by up to 21 years in prison. Bob moved quickly to reform the law by moving to decriminalise consenting sex between adult men. When he put that up, his was the only vote in support as Labor and Liberal MPs locked in behind discrimination. That has been a recurring theme in this country and will be a recurring theme in my speech tonight.

In 1988 the Gay Law Reform Group formed in Tasmania. Later that year, we had the infamous Salamanca arrests, where members and supporters of the Gay Law Reform Group were at their stall at Salamanca Market, asking people to sign a petition in support of decriminalisation. They were asked to desist, they refused, and the arrest of 130 people followed shortly afterwards. Those people included Rodney Croome. Many have given a lot to the campaign for marriage equality in Australia, but Rodney, in my view, is the person who has done more by some margin than any other Australian to campaign for marriage equality, not just in Tasmania but nationally, and get us to where we are today. It's worth pointing out, in the context of the Salamanca arrests, that, to its credit, the Hobart City Council, which runs the Salamanca Market, apologised in 2008 for its role in those arrests. And later, in 2013, the Hobart City Council had embedded across the pavement on each side of Salamanca Place, at the market boundary that people were arrested for crossing to campaign to remove discrimination, two phrases of apology. They are beautifully lit from below at night and they read, 'Forgive me for not holding you in my arms,' and, 'In the wake of your courage I swim.' Beautiful words and beautiful sentiments.

It was around the time of the Salamanca arrests that the then Liberal Premier of Tasmania, Robin Gray, said, 'Everyone's welcome in Tasmania—even Greenies are welcome in Tasmania—just not homosexuals.' What a time that was. It was also around then that I personally witnessed something that has stayed starkly with me to this very day. I saw a rally opposing the decriminalisation of sex between consenting adult men. I was at Salamanca Market, saw the rally from a distance and wandered over to have a look. I saw a sign at that rally that I remember verbatim to this very day. It said this: 'Kill all the poofters before they kills us all with AIDS.' What a time that was in Tasmania.

In 1989, shortly after a state election, the Labor-Green Accord was signed between the then Labor leader, Michael Field, and the Green independent MPs, led by Bob Brown. That accord included a commitment to gay law reform, a commitment to end the criminalisation of consenting sex between adult men. Legislation was tabled and passed through the lower house, but was twice rejected by Tasmania's upper house in 1990 and 1991. In 1991, Rodney Croome and his then partner, Nick Toonen, took Tasmania's discriminatory laws to the United Nations Human Rights Council, and in 1994 they memorably achieved victory in their case. That paved the way for Paul Keating to move the Human Rights (Sexual Conduct) Bill, which then passed through the Commonwealth parliament—again, events in Tasmania catalysing national reform to reduce discrimination faced by LGBTIQ people.

It was that act, the Human Rights (Sexual Conduct) Act, that allowed Rodney and Nick to take their famous High Court case against the Tasmanian government in 1995. When the High Court accepted that case for hearing, the then Liberal Premier, Tony Rundle, agreed to grant his MPs a conscience vote on the issue of decriminalisation. So the then Greens leader, Christine Milne, put up a bill, which passed through the lower house. On 1 May 1997 it passed by a single vote in Tasmania's upper house, and became law shortly afterwards. What a time! In 2003, Tasmania passed Australia's first civil partnerships legislation—and to this day that remains Australia's most comprehensive and inclusive relationships legislation. A year later, of course, John Howard, with the support of the Labor Party, took Australia in the opposite direction by amending the Marriage Act to explicitly ban same-sex marriage.

In 2005, I had a sushi lunch with Rodney Croome at which we decided to work together to draft and table bills to provide for same-sex marriage in Tasmania. We did so because both of us believed that if we could achieve marriage equality we would erase all other forms of discrimination faced by LGBTIQ people along the way. As Greens justice spokesperson, I became the first member of any parliament in Australia to introduce explicit marriage equality laws when I tabled the cognate package of same-sex marriage bills.

It was during our campaign in support of that legislation that Rodney Croome and I decided to head up to the north island and promote marriage equality. As part of that, we had an event at the Newtown Hotel in Sydney. It was in the big upstairs room and, let me tell you, they were hanging from the rafters that night. There were plenty of Greens at that event in support of marriage equality, but, to my surprise, there were also plenty of Labor people there—but not to support my bills. Rainbow Labor stacked that event, they stacked it good and proper, and boy did they let us have it! To say the place went off would be a gross understatement. It was hostile. There was plenty of shouting. The then co-convener of Australian Marriage Equality, Luke Gahan, was spat on. I was heckled as a homophobe by Rainbow Labor for daring to try to deliver marriage equality in Tasmania. What a time that was!

So I tabled my bills and couldn't get a single vote from a non-Greens MP to even have them referred off to a House of Assembly committee—not a single vote. Again, Labor and Liberal uniting to entrench discrimination in this country. What a time!

I tabled those bills again in July 2008 and in 2010. In 2012, having finally got the support of the Labor Party for marriage equality in Tasmania, I moved that the House of Assembly express in-principle support for marriage equality. That was passed, therefore leading the Tasmanian House of Assembly to become the first chamber of any parliament in Australia to express in-principle support for marriage equality. Later that year, I co-sponsored with Premier Lara Giddings the same-sex marriage bill. It went through the House of Assembly, which then became the first chamber in any parliament in Australia to pass marriage equality legislation. We thought we had the numbers. We thought we were going to get it up in Tasmania. We had done the numbers and we thought we were a chance until, a couple of days before the vote, we lost a vote we thought we had; and then on the floor, during the debate, we lost another crucial vote. That second vote was cast by someone who was a devout Catholic. I'm not going to name them here, but I later found out that that person had been called by Cardinal George Pell the night before. Thankfully, Cardinal Pell's got a bit too much on his plate at the moment to be making those sorts of calls today. I tell this story to reveal one of the ways that the hierarchy of the Catholic Church has operated behind the scenes to entrench discrimination in Australia.

In 2015, Tasmanian Greens Leader Cassie O'Connor again moved that the House of Assembly express in-principle support for marriage equality. When a similar motion inspired by Cassie's was passed by the Legislative Council soon after, Tasmania achieved another equality first: it became the first parliament in Australia to give bicameral support for marriage equality. It has been a most amazing journey. It's been a journey that has seen Tasmania come from a long, long way back on this issue—from a situation where consenting sex between adult males in the privacy of their own home was a crime to leading the way on this issue in so many different ways. And the story on marriage equality in Tasmania has been part of the story of the Tasmanian Greens. We have led the way there, as we have led the way politically on the national stage—every MP, every single time, every single vote.

The bill that we're currently debating is not a perfect bill. But I do congratulate Senator Smith and everyone who's worked with him to bring this bill to us today to allow us to have this debate. I believe the bill has a strong chance of passing not only this chamber but the other place. It's not perfect and, to be frank, it has more exemptions in it than I would like to see. However, given the mood of the times, it's incumbent on us to do everything we can to pass marriage equality this year. On that basis, I am prepared to support the bill as it currently stands. But the Senate needs to understand this: if this bill is amended to include further exemptions that entrench discrimination, I will not be supporting it on the third reading.

In its current form, this bill removes the last major bastion of legal discrimination against LGBTIQ people. And it's so important that we do so—not just in the context of marriage but because we cannot hope to remove discrimination from our streets, from our schools, from our footy clubs and from our homes until we have removed discrimination from our laws. There's no such thing as 'mostly equal'. Laws that discriminate 'just a bit' are still discriminatory laws. And that's what we're debating here today. We need to show leadership to the people we represent in this place by removing discrimination from our law so we can show leadership in removing discrimination from our community.

The other thing that we are here to do today is give one of the most powerful gifts that any person or group of people can give, and that is the gift of hope—the gift of hope that gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer people can soon look forward to a wedding day, whether their own wedding day or that of their brother, their sister, their son, their daughter, their mother, their father or their friends. I absolutely hope that they will soon be able to come together with full access to one of the most fundamental civil institutions in our society, the institution of marriage, to celebrate their love for each other with their friends and families in a way that currently only couples of opposite sex can do in Australia. What a time that will be.


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