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Uncivil debate on civil unions

Speeches in Parliament
Rachel Siewert 15 Jun 2006

I rise to support this motion for the disallowance of an instrument made by the Governor-General disallowing the ACT's Civil Unions Act, and to appeal to senators on both sides of the House to simply accede to common sense. My colleagues have very clearly outlined our position on this motion. However, I felt compelled also to make a brief statement so that I could look into the eyes of the thousands of Australians who are being affected by the government's action. I did it particularly so that I could look into the eyes of my friends and loved ones who could be affected by this government, so that I can say I did everything I could to uphold the meaning and value of the long-term, committed relationships that they have been in and are in. We value those relationships.

Whether the Prime Minister likes it or not, as of 2004 there were at least 20,000 couples, 40,000 people-these figures come from the Australian Bureau of Statistics-who want to be married, are living as married couples and are not heterosexual.

These people confirmed it through the census process. They are part of the lesbian, gay and transgender community, and more importantly they are part of the Australian community.

Once again Australia has been dragged along behind George W Bush. President Bush introduces a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriages; John Howard decides he wants a crackdown here too.

There is no contentious point of constitutional law here. Let us call this what it is; it is simply homophobia dressed up in a bogus argument about the rights of states and territories to govern themselves, and in other spurious arguments. You have to accept that these 40,000 Australians are equal citizens in law. What we are talking about is making them unequal in law. Having specifically excluded their rights to marry under Commonwealth law in 2004, the Prime Minister is now pursuing them via this shambolic and heavy-handed process of overturning an act that passed lawfully through the ACT Legislative Assembly.

The Commonwealth government has provided no coherent rationale for whose interests it is protecting in this attack on the rights of same-sex couples to be treated equally by the law. We have not been told whose interests are being harmed by what the ACT Legislative Assembly has done. In fact, what it has done is to make these people equal before the law. The Prime Minister and Attorney-General have fallen back on vague, unsupported claims that the institution of marriage has been undermined. I would like the government to show me how this institution has been undermined in any of the states around the world where commonsense has won over prejudice and discrimination. Can the government show that the institution has been undermined in Canada, the Netherlands or Spain? Of course it cannot.

I want to remind the Prime Minister and those who follow his lead that real people in committed relationships are harmed by intolerance. I want to quote from a letter that I received this morning from friends of mine in Western Australia who had to travel to Canada to have their marriage recognised in law.

This is from Graham and Damian Douglas-Meyer:

Even though we were covered in WA by some of the best de facto laws in the country, we wanted to demonstrate our committment to each other, in the same way our siblings have demonstrated their committment to their respective partners.

The symbolic and ceremonial aspects of our siblings marriages were important to our families and we felt strongly that we wanted the same.

We held a committment ceremony in Perth in May 2004 with all of our family and friends and had our union blessed by an Anglican priest. Even though this had no legal standing, it was to us, and to our families, our wedding ceremony.
However, we also wanted to gain the recognition from the wider community.
Our siblings were all married and had a state-sanctioned contract to that effect. We could not do the same in Australia. However Canada had recently changed it's laws to allow same sex couples to marry and non-residents were welcome to access those laws.

So after our wedding, we flew to Toronto and were married, legally under Canadian law, on March 26, 2004 in Toronto City Hall. Our marriage is registered with the Registrar General of the province of Ontario in the exact same way as any heterosexual couple. There is no difference.

Returning to Australia, of course, our marriage wasn't recognised, but we are still married. Under the Hague Convention for the celebration and recognition of foriegn marriages, it should be recognised, but the passing of the amendments to the Marriage Act on Black Friday, August 13 2004 put paid to that.

However, to us we are married. In Canada we are married. In Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain and the US state of Massechusetts we are married as those jurisdictions all recognise foreign same-sex marriages.

In New Zealand our marriage is a civil union; In the UK it is a civil partnership; both automatically. In Tasmania, it is automatically equivalent to a registered domestic partnership.

And in the ACT it was to have been recognised as a civil union, and we hope that, from today, it will be again when the Senate re-instates the ACT Civil Unions Act.

However, in the eyes of our family and friends, and most importantly in our hearts we are married; we are husband and husband.

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