Gender and Sexual Orientation Matters of Public Interest

I too rise to speak to this motion brought forward by Senator Siewert on behalf of the Greens.

Senator Siewert, I’d have to say, is somebody that I have worked with collaboratively in the past. One of the positive things about this place is work on issues of common interest. The Community Affairs Committee did an inquiry into rural health, and there was actually very constructive work done. Often, this is something that the public, who only see question time, don’t see. But most of the work in this place can be constructive.

The comment in this motion, though, I take largely as a political comment, because it talks about attacks. And we’ve just had Senator Rice saying ‘demonise’. I have to say that I don’t see Prime Minister Morrison demonising or attacking anyone. The thing that I see being attacked here is the very nature of Australia’s democracy. For a democracy to work, you have to accept that there will be a plurality of views—that people can have different views. Those views should be respected and people should be able to speak to those views without being hounded or labelled by other people.

This issue is very near and dear to Senator Rice; I accept that, and I respect her right to state her position. But what I don’t accept is the increasing tendency of people, when they hear a view that they don’t agree with, to shout down that view or seek to silence or shame somebody for sharing it.

I know that we can have respectful debates. A year or so ago I was asked to chair a Senate select committee looking at the issue of religious freedoms, should the nation legislate for same-sex marriage. I’m pleased to report that we had a wide range of stakeholders who came to give evidence to that committee. The tone that we set, as a committee, meant that people were able to put their views succinctly and respectfully, and argue their case without being labelled and without being put down by anybody else in the debate.

So it is possible. But what we see, increasingly, is that when somebody who speaks against a view that is popular or a view that is current—particularly, I’d have to say, on the progressive or left side of our community—those who disagree with that seek to silence them, either by labelling them as ‘haters’, or, in this case, as somebody who has demonised or attacked. Sometimes, literally, it’s a case of shouting down the pure volume we see on university campuses sometimes, where speakers are literally shouted down, through to physical obstruction—in some cases violence—or even attempting to use the institutions of state to silence the dissent of somebody who has a different view. We’ve seen in the recent past people like Archbishop Porteous, who in a very respectful manner put forward the Catholic Church’s position on the definition of marriage and yet was hauled before a tribunal.

We see, even this last week, reports about a faith based organisation where the CEO, during the debate around same-sex marriage, wrote to employees saying what the position of the organisation was and encouraging people to support the traditional definition of marriage. They made it very clear that every individual should be supported, respected and valued for who they are, and yet that organisation has been taken before a tribunal in Queensland. Thankfully, the charge of discrimination has been dropped, but there is still a matter outlying in terms of general discrimination that they are facing. Yet executives of large corporations who supported the approach to say their employees should support a redefinition of marriage to the extent of wearing particular jewellery or other items weren’t held to account in any way for disrespecting the rights of those employees who have a different view. There is a real double standard at work here. It’s a problem. It’s a problem for our democracy. The more people say, ‘You don’t have a right to express your view,’ the more they are shouted down and the more they are labelled, particularly in an era of social media where people can go online—whichever particular platform they choose to use—and it reinforces their views.

We have seen many studies looking at what they call the ‘echo chamber effect’ where people’s biases, prejudices or points of view are reinforced to the extent that they almost find it hard to conceive that anybody of goodwill, intellect or moral character could hold a position which is contrary to theirs. That is a bad outcome for our democracy, because our democracy requires that people who have a dissenting view are allowed to put forward that view, and particularly that the power of the state is not used or co-opted to suppress that dissenting view. To take it to its logical extension, you see totalitarian states where the government suppresses dissenting views. You’ve only got to look back to last century—Stalin who murdered some 30 million of his own people, Mao some 45 million and Pol Pot—to see the authoritarian approaches used to suppress dissent amongst tens of millions of people by those who felt that they could override the rights of those people who had a differing view. It is really important for Australia to say: ‘What kind of nation do we want to be?’ If we don’t want to even get on the path to being like one of those autocracies where there is no allowance for dissent, every individual citizen and every organ of the government needs to allow for people to express different views, without shouting them down or labelling them.

In the case of the Prime Minister, we have a very clear indication of what he believes, because he articulated this just recently in his speech at Albury. He reinforced the fact that he believes in the value of individuals, of all individuals. He reinforced his belief in the value of family and the love and the support that they can provide as a framework, and the importance of supporting that wherever possible; the value of community; the value of housing and health care being affordable and accessible to all. He emphasised his belief in the importance of a stable job and good pay, and that explains why this government has put so much priority on the creation of new jobs, because it is the best possible form of welfare that lifts people out of poverty and gives them a hope for the future. That’s why, since 2013, over a million jobs have been created, the majority of which are full time. But, for people who distrust employment figures, the other way to look at it is that we have now reached the lowest level of working-age people on welfare in 25 years. It demonstrates that, no matter which way you move the figures, people are moving off welfare and into work, and that includes, just last year alone, 95,500 young people, the majority of whom have moved into full-time work, and that is the largest amount in 30 years.

Mr Morrison also highlighted his belief in freedoms—the freedom of faith, the freedom of speech, the freedom of association—which are fundamental to the working of a plural democracy such as Australia. He talked about his belief in the fair go; equal opportunity, not just mandating equal outcomes; lower taxes; the fact that we got rid of the carbon tax; lowering personal income tax; reducing tax for small businesses so that they have the opportunity to employ more people, which is what has been happening and which is why we’ve seen that increase of over a million new jobs. He has talked about his belief in the security of Australia, which is why we have committed to increasing it to two per cent of GDP and why we have committed to a paradigm shift where we are seeing defence industry as a fundamental input to our capability. We are creating thousands of new jobs through the investment we are making in new defence capability. We are creating opportunities—in fact, just last week in South Australia, in partnership with the Marshall government, we launched a $203 million program to create 20,000 new traineeships and apprenticeships.

The Prime Minister has highlighted his belief in health and education and the fact that we are making record payments, despite the rhetoric of those opposite, who reference against the benchmark of a promise that was made by Prime Minister Rudd, just before he was defeated, to an unfunded, unrealistic amount. They keep referencing that. The reality is this government has made payments every year that have increased the amount that is being paid to record amounts in both health and education. Finally, the Prime Minister said it was important to love not only our immediate family but all Australians.