Malcolm Turnbull Speech On Same-Sex Marriage

Opposition frontbencher Malcolm Turnbull has spoken in parliament on the Marriage Amendment Bill.

Turnbull made clear that he supported same-sex marriage but was bound by the coalition’s decision to oppose the bill. He said: “In my view, the numbers would not be there even if there were a free vote on the coalition side.” He called on same-sex marriage proponents to support civil unions.

Turnbull’s speech was delivered in the Federation Chamber.

Text of Malcolm Turnbull’s speech on the Marriage Amendment Bill 2012.

Mr TURNBULL (Wentworth) (11:37): Following on from my very good friend the member for Leichhardt, let me return the compliment. He has been a vigorous, persuasive and very effective advocate for the rights of same-sex couples and people of a homosexual orientation, and has done a great deal of work, perhaps made more effective because of his unlikely persona as the crocodile farmer from North Queensland, speaking up for the gay community in the widest sense of the word.

Turning to the Marriage Amendment Bill 2012, as honourable members are aware, the coalition has taken a position as a party, and as a coalition party room, not to allow a free vote on this issue. So, like the member for Leichardt, I will not be voting in favour of this bill. Were, however, a free vote to be permitted I would support legislation which recognised same-sex couples as being described as in a marriage. I want to explain to the House why I would do that and also suggest an alternative.

The arguments that have been put against gay marriage fall into three categories. The first one we can call a taxonomic one. They say a marriage is between a man and a woman. You cannot make a table into a chair simply by calling it a chair. It is a table; it does not matter what name you give it. The weakness with that argument is that the definition of marriage has changed again and again over time. In my estimation, at least one-third of the marriages extant in Australia today would not be recognised by the Catholic Church, or indeed by the Anglican Church, because one of the parties to that marriage has been married before and their former spouses are still living. So the truth is that society has defined and redefined marriage again and again.

The second argument that is often put up is that homosexuality is a sinful activity, that it is an abomination and that those who practice it will go to hell, and therefore everything should be done to discourage homosexuality. That view, which I guess people are entitled to have if they wish, is one that has no place in this parliament. We have legislated again and again to accord recognition to same-sex couples and to cease discrimination against people because of their sexual orientation. Whatever view people have about the sinfulness or otherwise of homosexual conduct, it is not something that is relevant to the legislative mission of this parliament. Similarly, although many people take the view that adultery is sinful and wicked and that people who commit adultery should not be able to walk out on their partners and marry someone else, we have had no-fault divorce in this country since 1975. The moral arguments may be very persuasive within a religious community, but they simply are not going to be helpful to this House.

There is another argument that is put up against gay marriage. You hear this from the bishops, and in a speech which I will table shortly—a longer speech than I have time to deliver today—Archbishop Jensen made the point that if same-sex couples are entitled to have their relationships described as a marriage it will undermine the marriage between people of different genders. If ever there is an argument that is calculated to persuade you that same-sex couples should be able to term their relationship a ‘marriage’, it is that one. The proposition that my marriage to Lucy of over 30 years will be undermined because of a gay couple living together down the road or having their relationship described as ‘marriage’, is absurd. This whole issue drips with hypocrisy, and the pools are deepest at the feet of the sanctimonious. The reality is this: the threat to marriage, and to marriages, is not what gay people may do; it is lack of commitment, it is cruelty, it is indifference, it is adultery. It is all of those things that take the passion and the love out of a relationship. It is lack of commitment that is the threat to marriage. And yet where do you hear the people who most strenuously oppose gay marriage giving the positive message in favour of greater commitment in relationships today? When do you hear them say: ‘You should love each other more. You should work harder. Those of you that are together, you should work harder to love each other, to respect each other, to forgive each other, to be more committed.’

Gay people say: ‘We want to be together. We want to support each other. The law recognises us as being together.’ We have got dozens of acts which this parliament has passed which recognise same-sex couples for a whole range of areas, and gay people say, ‘We want our commitment to be given greater recognition.’ If there is one thing that we know we have too little of in our domestic arrangements across the nation, and perhaps across the developed world, it is commitment. So in some ways, the advocates of gay marriage and the gay community are holding up a mirror to the heterosexuals, and saying to us: ‘Look, we want to make a stronger commitment. What about you? How strong is your commitment?’

The peak of absurdity of this criticism of the case for gay marriage is made by Andrew Bolt, who, after I delivered the speech which, as I said, I will table shortly, said that there is another argument against gay marriage. He said that homosexuals are more promiscuous than heterosexuals. I am not sure on what basis he had researched that, or understood that, or came to that view, but that was his premise. And he said, ‘Therefore, if homosexuals are allowed to call their relationships ‘marriage’ they will be less faithful to each other than heterosexuals are, and this will set a bad example, and therefore undermine heterosexual marriage.’

I observed at the time, in response, that if you accepted this premise as being correct then, if Italy had recognised gay marriage, Silvio Berlusconi would have had even more bunga bunga parties. My former chief of staff, Chris Kenny, now writing for the Australian, responded to this in a very witty tweet. He said: ‘Bunga Bunga is an ancient Perugian dialect for ‘The gays made me do it.’

The case against gay marriage, therefore, is a very weak one, in my view. Nonetheless, it is these issues about faith—as Michael Kirby himself has observed, many times—tied up with morality and family arrangements that are ones where people are naturally very conservative and change takes a long time, and it is important the community comes along with the change. As the member for Leichhardt said, raising the marriage issue has been, in the past, quite an obstacle to a lot of the reforms that have been achieved.

My submission to the advocates for gay marriage is simply this: the numbers are not there, in this parliament, for this bill to be passed. That is the reality. In my view, the numbers would not be there even if there were a free vote on the coalition side. I am sure the numbers will be there in due course. Look at countries around the world, countries that are close to ourselves. The United Kingdom is proposing to legalise gay marriage. New York has already done it. New Zealand is talking about it. This is something that is coming, I would anticipate. But what we can do in this parliament, and I know the member for Leichhardt is very committed to this, is legislate for civil unions.

I know that will be seen as being not quite good enough but, as I have said in other contexts and on other occasions, one of the greatest mistakes for those who advocate reform is to allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good. It is better to get something than nothing. It is for that reason—like my friend—we would support legislation to enact civil unions legislation. In conclusion, I seek leave to table this 5 July 2012 Michael Kirby lecture, which goes into this matter at some greater length.

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