Intelligence Squared Debate: Same sex marriage should not be legalised

( 6pm 29 May 2012, City Recital Hall)

I oppose the statement that same sex marriage should not be legalised.

I strongly believe that same sex couples should have the same rights and legal protections as heterosexual couples, and recent surveys show that the majority of Australians support this view.

Same sex marriage will happen, it's just a matter of when!

You have to ask the question in an age when technological change is driving us into the future, why social change takes so long and is so tortuous?

And before presenting my argument I want to acknowledge the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, the traditional custodians of our land, and pay my respects to their elders both past and present and note their ongoing struggle for equal rights and recognition.

At a fundraising function two weeks ago I congratulated a gay couple just back from Argentina where they were married. They were talking excitedly about the wedding and I was happy for them.

Their wedding didn't as the churches argue, demean my catholic marriage in any way.

Neither did the actions of our celebrating priest who left the church soon after our wedding and married my university tutor! She was female.

There is wide acceptance that gay men and lesbians can and do have loving, caring and lifelong relationships and it is beyond time that the law reflected this fact.

So what is the history of this law?

Our legal definition of marriage, which says that marriage is between a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others for life, comes from a 19th century divorce court ruling on a polygamy case.

At the time child labour was the norm, people were locked away in debtors' prisons and women had virtually no legal rights.

But legal rulings can and should be overturned or updated with new information and evidence, and as community values change.

We no longer send children down the mine or up chimneys. And women now occupy the highest offices in the land. People from different races are no longer banned from marrying each other.

But up until now national leaders have kept marriage locked in the 19th Century paradigm.

My 1997 Significant Personal Relationships Bill in the New South Wales State Parliament proposed a legal register to recognise same sex couples. While it didn't pass, it inspired proposals for legislation in Tasmania and Victoria, and when I became Lord Mayor, for a City of Sydney register.

New South Wales followed in 2010, thirteen years after it was first proposed, which is almost a record for social reform.

A register gives same-sex couples legal protection for their relationship. But a register is not the same as marriage.

Marriage is about more than legal recognition -it is a public celebration of love and lifelong commitment, and the official public acceptance of a couple.

Former Prime Minister John Howard's outrageous 2004 amendment to the Marriage Act, which passed with support from the then ALP Opposition, to expressly exclude same sex marriage highlighted the discrimination in our system and it sparked a massive campaign and made marriage equality a priority for many lesbians and gay men.

Ironically it also seems to have renewed the desire by many young couples to get married - including straight couples.

As one who has been in State Parliament since 1988, local government on and off since 1980 and Lord Mayor of Sydney since 2004, I have played a part in pushing recalcitrant and timid governments on equal rights and social change.

My 1993 Anti Discrimination Amendment Act to stop vilification of gay and lesbian people passed by one vote when a government member crossed the floor, the opposition was from the establishment churches and we have the enduring vision of the leader of the Christian Democrats an escapee from Sydney Hospital, in a wheel chair and clad in pyjamas filibustering against the reform for 3-4 hours in the Legislative Council. And of course he was the subject of a stand-out Mardi Gras float in the next parade.

What dismayed me then and dismays me now is the churches were exempted from the legislation and remain free to vilify and discriminate against gays and lesbians.

The major churches also drove opposition to my Adoption Amendment (Same Sex Couples) Act 2010.

This Act allows same-sex couples to adopt their children as a couple in New South Wales. Ironically before this, individual gay men and lesbians could adopt, but not as couples! When I first proposed changes in 2000, not one MP gave support, but in 2010 MPs of all parties worked to get the bill passed.

This only took a lightning ten years!

For children in same sex headed families this law ensures legal protection for their relationship with both their parents and hopefully removes discrimination so that school, friends and the community will see their family as "normal".

Same sex couples have a long history of fostering neglected, abused and seriously disadvantaged children - children often from dysfunctional families with heterosexual parents. These are often children that no-one else wants.

Barnardos, the Benevolent Society and the Uniting Church supported the Bill having seen first hand how same sex foster parents provide love and security for traumatised children.

After the Bill became law I met some of these families and was deeply moved by the happy, lively children who were so clearly benefiting from a loving and stable home life. One couple said the passage of the legislation was the happiest day of their lives - they and their two boys could become a "proper family".

Ironically churches that vehemently opposed adoption reform now oppose marriage equality.

Yet both reforms are about human rights and the value of committed relationships and supportive families.

I was moved by Federal Minister Penny Wong's words on a recent 'Q and A' - "I know what my family is worth". This goes to the heart of the point. In response to Joe Hockey's comments that the best circumstance for children is to have a mother and a father she said "'When you say those things, Joe, what you're saying to not just me but people like me is that the most important thing in our lives, which is the people we love, is somehow less good, less valued."

Discriminatory laws reinforce social discrimination, which supports violence and abuse of lesbians and gay men.

Giving same sex couples the right to marry would send a message of acceptance.

Same sex marriage is not a threat to the institution of marriage - it will strengthen it. Marriage is about love and commitment. It's about building relationships. It's not about discrimination!

All citizens deserve equal treatment, irrespective of gender and sexuality and governments should remove legal discrimination. Australia has been working towards this. While we've made progress there is one more step.

That step is important to same sex couples who want to get married in Australia and celebrate with their family and friends.

But it is important to all gay men and lesbians regardless. My 1993 legislation to amend the Anti-discrimination Act to stop treating them as second class citizens, and to stop treating their relationships as less valuable - symbolically marriage equality is essential.

It's just ludicrous that in our rich and socially advanced country, two consenting adults have to travel overseas if they want to marry. Close friends Elaine and Kathleen travelled to Canada and only recently we know Alex and Victor had to travel to Argentina.

Every Australian who wants to make a life commitment to the person he or she loves should be able to do so, with full access to the law.

The Government should reflect society's values and apply the law equally. It is in the best interests of all couples and their children.

The bottom line is that any argument against marriage equality comes from the desire to discriminate, the desire to treat gay men and lesbians as lesser.

In a fair, just, decent and compassionate society, which is what we all believe Australia is, we should not discriminate, but should ensure all citizens have equal access to the law.