Speech by The Hon Christian Porter MP

Same Sex Marriage – Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017 – House of Representatives

Location: House of Representatives

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Mr Speaker

The issue before the house is how our society should define marriage.

That issue is as complicated as it is old.

There is an image I recall vividly – of a site roughly 5,800 years old – of a Neolithic man and woman arms and legs interlocked in an embrace which all these thousands of years later is recognisably tender.

This image for me brings to mind a pivotally important truth of marriage – that the institution is beyond ancient.

It is probably fair to say that almost as early as there was such a thing as sentient beings that we would regard as human – those humans have been seeking someone to share their lives with – pairing for support – for comfort – to build and care for families.

It is not that marriage reduces down to how unpleasant we humans have found being alone.

Much less shamefully it boils down to the fact that human life has traditionally been so difficult and so full of tragedy – that we have found a great truth in living.

That hard individual lives are improved by the finding of a greater strength and resilience in sharing life’s tragedies than is ever attainable from living and dying as creatures of solitude.

So I look at that image from the Peloponnesus preserving with remarkable dignity the final moments of a couple that held each other in their arms and I think whatever was their fate and however hard and likely cruel their lives – they had each other right to the end.

Most things about their lives we will never know.

But we can assume with some safety that their lives were hard – much harder than ours.

It is no stretch to note how in the great sweep of human history life was in whole generally full of want and tragedy and very often unimaginably violent.

Also, it is far from a stretch to conceive of this ancient couple as married to each other.

This is because marriage is so ancient it predates written history or even writing itself – the instinct and want to couple is likely as old as the instinct to use tools.

So while this couple may have been the subject of only the humblest ceremonial recognition of their existence as a couple – they may well have made a commitment to each other every bit as real and human as the commitments we make now governed by law and sanctioned in different ways from various religions both new and old.

And being a construct of such antiquity marriage in its practice has always evolved.

For a great part of human history, the practical considerations of alliance and intertribal arrangements dominated the romantic reasons for marriage.

Over time the marriage of reasons has been replaced by the marriage of emotion.

Alain de Botton described modern marriage as “a hopeful, infinitely kind gamble taken by two people who don’t know each yet who they are or who the other might be, binding themselves to a future they cannot conceive of and have carefully omitted to investigate“.

But for all its changeability the reason for its endurance is that Marriage is driven not by reasons but by the fundamental human emotion – to want to conquer life’s challenges by sharing its burdens.

Marriage predates governments and organised religion.

In fact, I suspect that the instinct for humans to want to couple is as old and as fundamentally defining of humanity as the instinct to use tools and may so be older even than the instincts for religion or art.

Religion adopted and synthesised marriage so that it is a critically inseparable part of many religion’s theology; which is why extra protections for religion should accompany this Bill.

But neither governments nor churches can lay claim to inventing or owning marriage.

As the most thoroughly and fundamentally human of institutions – only people own it.

And only people can adapt and evolve the institution.

That evolution in western nations has wisely been – in the last several 100 years – undertaken slowly and with due and proper care – reflecting the institution’s fundamental influence on our entire way of life.

The plebiscite was not just an extraordinary democratic event it was the eventual form of a democratic event that was absolutely necessary to make durable and acceptable the change to our most fundamental of institutions.

The foundational nature of marriage and the wide divergence of strongly held opinions about its proper form meant that – a vote – a referendum – a plebiscite – however it was constituted – a mass democratic movement was always going to be the best way to settle this dispute in a broadly acceptable enough form to be enduring.

The simple fact is that the Party that was to facilitate this Bill being brought before this house in a way that could secure its sustainable passage into law was always going to need the clearest authority of the people that truly own the institution of marriage.

If this change – if this progress – could have been easily achieved – without an underpinning direct democratic mandate and simply achieved by parliamentary vote held without this foundation, why did Labor not achieve that progress when they were in office for six years?

Opposition to a plebiscite is in and of itself not beyond understanding.

But that opposition is made very worthy of scrutiny by virtue of the efforts of those same opponents of a plebiscite to now characterise themselves as the chief architects of change.

What should not pass without mention is that when the Coalition did take the risk of advancing this issue to a durable resolution by committing itself to a fair and broad democratic mechanism – a democratic process that was absolutely necessary to actually get this issue resolved.

Labor did not merely oppose that democratic process.

They argued the debate would be intemperate – and the wild irony was – they put this argument in the most savagely opportunistic and blisteringly intemperate way.

There is no avoiding now that Labor carefully cast predictions of rampant widespread hate and chaos and harm – and that these now look absurd.

The reality was that the generally civil, fair and temperate way the plebiscite was conducted displayed merely that excessive intemperate activism is no more enlivened in debates to do with sexuality than it is sadly enlivened in any number of other issues.

Excessive conduct in activism on any issue is a sad reality and fixture of democracies – it should be called out and decried wherever it’s ugly head is raised – but its mere existence should never be a reason TO NOT have a public debate because that would be its ultimate victory.

But even worse than the absurd predictions of calamitous widespread hate were Labor’s calculated efforts to undermine the necessary democratic path forward by characterising the process as rigged.

The Member for Isaacs said: “The entire rigged exercise is designed to divide Australia and to encourage hateful words and arguments in order for the no case to win“.

The idea of a conspiracy designed to rig a no vote is absurd.

Those statements were ridiculous before the outcome

But in the result – in the face of the actual outcome – they should be called out for the utter garbage that they were.

It can be truly said that rarely has a conspiracy theory been proved so wrong in the outcome that this absolute howler from the Member for Isaacs.

Over many years there has been great effort to recast important progressions in Australian society as the exclusive province of Labor politics.

It is a surprise, often and particularly to young Australians, to learn that important social progressions were the result of actions of conservative governments. That this side of politics took on the evergreen risks and the tough grinding work of advancing and making real – important policy changes to eliminate prejudice.

It was a Coalition government that abolished the White Australia Policy in March 1966 and the same government that delivered the seminal 1967 Referendum to include Indigenous Australians more completely in our nation.

The modern rewriting of political history is most remarkable for how quickly it now occurs.

So let’s start by getting the history right – right from the start.

  • The plebiscite was an outstanding civil success of a truly voluntary democratic process
  • The Coalition made a clear assessment that a plebiscite was critical to both parties and this chamber being able to craft a broadly acceptable and enduring change to a foundation institution in our society
  • The Coalition Government, against enormous opposition, made the plebiscite happen and work

That the process was bitterly opposed by progressive politicians who themselves failed to progress the issue over their six long years when they had their chance to do so – is now an undeniable fact.

The Leader of the Opposition said about the plebiscite.

“They have stacked the deck against young people, against expats, against Australians who have supported equality. … the opponents of marriage equality have set this process up to fail.”

Well it did not fail – it succeeded thoroughly and brilliantly and fairly.

And the dictum made living by John F. Kennedy that success has a thousand fathers and failure is an orphan – has never been more true than on the night of the plebiscite result.

Some of the people, some of the many people who celebrated the result of the process were people who did everything they could to stop the process that brought us to this point in this chamber right now.

They said it was stacking the decks against young people.

They said it was set up to bring about failure.

They said it was rigged in order for the no case to win.

The Opposition Leader said, “I hold the PM responsible for every hurtful bit of filth this debate will unleash“.

Well what the debate actually unleashed was the democratic will of the Australian people.

It is a case study in the way the world’s greatest democracy devised the best and most temperate way to resolve the most emotional, delicate and difficult of issues.

And the progress it catalysed is what the Prime Minister is responsible for – that is the legacy of this Government and this Coalition.

As we now head to consider amendments there are several protecting religious freedoms that I consider worthy of support and I will be free support them if I wish. Members opposite who may hold similar views to mine will be gagged and bound in a collective exercise, which will limit their conscience and free choice on this issue.

And the fact will always stand – Labor’s role in the foundation of this progress was to oppose the critical democratic process that enabled it. The progress that we are now all engaged in was, in the ultimate event, achieved by this Coalition for the simple reason that we trusted the Australian people and in the face of overwhelming political and media criticism made sure that their say was had.