On Wednesday August 2, 1972, Mr Murray Hill, a Liberal member of the South n Legislative Council, rose to move the second reading of the Criminal Law Consolidation Act Amendment Bill. The effect of the bill was to provide that homosexual acts between consenting adult males should no longer be offences under the criminal law.
Murray Hill’s bill was the first step taken in any n Parliament to reform the laws discriminating against homosexual people – the word “gay” had not entered the vocabulary at that time, at least not in the sense we use it today. In the quarter century that followed, all of the states and territories, under governments of both political persuasions, would follow suit. The last was Tasmania, where private consensual homosexual acts continued to be a crime until as recently as 1997.
The decriminalisation of consensual homosexual acts removed a stigma which had blighted the lives of hundreds of thousands of ns. There would, I daresay, be very few people today who would argue that the removal of that stigma was not a good thing – although it is surprising to think that it only occurred so recently.
But merely to decide that conduct should not be the subject of the criminal law is a long way short of acceptance. By decriminalising consensual homosexual acts, the n community only began its long, halting journey to recognising the complete equality of gay people – a journey first of toleration, then of acceptance, then of respect and, at last, of embrace.
In the coming days – 45 years since Murray Hill and his colleagues in the South n Parliament set on that journey – this week in the Senate and next week in the other place – we will complete it. These late spring and early summer days of 2017 will always be remembered as a time when the Parliament heeded the wishes of the overwhelming majority of ns that ours should be a society defined by greater decency, truer equality, more perfect freedom. The full legal equality of gay people will, at last, have been recognised. Marriage equality will be a reality by Christmas.
Profoundly important though the acceptance of same-sex marriage may be as a social change, its symbolic significance is even greater still. With the passage of this bill, we will demolish the last significant bastion of legal discrimination against people on the grounds of their sexuality. At last, will no longer be insulting gay people by saying: different rules apply to you. So this bill is important not merely because it will enable gay people to marry, just as everybody else is able to marry. It is more important than that. After centuries of prejudice, discrimination, rejection and ridicule, it is both an expiation for past wrongs and a final act of acceptance and embrace.
I want to reflect for a moment on the message this will send, in particular, to young gay people: to the boy or girl who senses a difference from their friends, which they find difficult to understand and impossible to deal with. In his first speech in the Parliament, my friend Tim Wilson spoke movingly of his own experience of confronting that knowledge, as a tormenting fear “that took an energetic 12-year-old and hollowed his confidence to eventually doubt his legitimate place in the world”. How many hundreds of thousands of young ns have known that fear? How many have lived with it, silently and alone? How many have failed to come to terms with it and been overborne by it? By passing this bill, we are saying to those vulnerable young people: there is nothing wrong with you. You are not unusual. You are not abnormal. You are just you. There is nothing to be embarrassed about. There is nothing to be ashamed of. There is nothing to hide. You are a normal person and, like every other normal person, you have a need to love. How you love is how God made you. Whom you love is for you to decide and others to respect.
Wednesday November 15, when the result of the postal survey was announced, was a day the like of which has seldom seen. At a time when the prevailing public mood is one of frustration and cynicism, that cynicism gave way to rejoicing. As the Prime Minister said: “The n people have spoken in their millions. ??? they voted ‘yes’ for fairness. They voted ‘yes’ for commitment. They voted ‘yes’ for love.” And, it is important to acknowledge, the people who were not persuaded about the desirability of change accepted the result with generosity and grace.
Since the long road to homosexual law reform in was begun, 45 years ago, by a Liberal politician; and the seminal intellectual case for same-sex marriage was made, 28 years ago, by a conservative writer, it is appropriate that it should have been brought to fulfilment by a Liberal government. Malcolm Turnbull is the first n prime minister to have advocated and prosecuted this cause, and it will stand as one of the signature achievements of the Turnbull government. It rises above tawdry day-to-day politics as an imperishable legacy.
If I may draw a comparison: nobody today remembers the arguments about the state of the economy, or the policy controversies or the political intrigues, that took place during the government of Harold Holt. Like all political ephemera, they have faded into history. But people do remember the 1967 referendum, that great act of inclusion of Indigenous ns. As the years and decades pass, its significance only grows. And I predict that, like the 1967 referendum, this decision by the n people, enabled by their government and enacted by their Parliament, will come to be seen as one of those occasional shining moments which stand out in our nation’s history, about which people will still speak with admiration in decades, indeed in centuries to come; one of those breakthroughs which have, as the wheel of history turns, defined us as a people.
As senator Dean Smith said in his speech introducing this bill, success has many fathers. And although this achievement was brought to fulfilment by a Liberal government and a Liberal prime minister, it would be churlish not to acknowledge the role of so many in the Labor Party in also promoting this cause. I can well imagine their frustration during the six years of the Rudd and Gillard governments when the cause was delayed, because it is the same frustration I have felt at times with leaders on my own side of politics. But in the end, through long years and many false steps on both sides of politics, through many stops and starts, we have come at last to this end. As Martin Luther King famously said: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”
The bill we are debating is the work of many hands, but it is our colleague Dean Smith who is the author of the final version. Dean has, through a long and politically difficult process, displayed abundant tenacity and conspicuous moral courage. I was privileged to have been Dean’s confidant at critical times in the last several weeks, and I know better than most the burdens of stress, of loneliness and of hurt he endured, to make a better place for countless others. Whatever else he may achieve in what has already been a significant political career, Dean Smith will always be remembered for this. Dean is one of a group of parliamentarians who, in the 45th Parliament, resolved – at some considerable risk to their own careers – that they would not allow this issue to be pushed off any further. Among them, we should recognise in particular Tim Wilson, Trent Zimmerman and Trevor Evans.
But, of course, towering above this debate, we must acknowledge the seminal role of Warren Entsch. Warren deserves to be remembered as – indeed, I daresay is already well on the way to becoming – one of the great folkloric figures of n politics. Many think him an unlikely champion of the cause of same-sex marriage. And yet he is in many ways its ideal champion, embodying as he does, in his exuberance, in his generosity, in his larrikin spirit and his gentle soul, so many of the qualities which are so essentially n. In the years to come, he deserves to be celebrated in song and story; an icon of our age.
may have been slow to reach this day – we are the last of the English-speaking democracies, and one of the last countries in what was once called Western Christendom – to embrace marriage equality. But when that day did come, it came triumphantly, it came joyously, and it came, most importantly, from the n people themselves. Like all of the best and most enduring social change, it was not imposed from above. The will for it germinated in the hearts and minds of the people themselves. Now that the n people have spoken, it is for us, their elected representatives, to respond.
And so, let us now complete the task which they have set us, and for which so many of us have worked for so long.