Legislative Assembly 17 November 2021
Mr MORRIS (Mornington) (11:27): It is a pleasure to join this debate on the Equal Opportunity (Religious Exceptions) Amendment Bill 2021.
I will have been in this place for 15 years at the end of the month, and we have dealt with many, many controversial issues during that time. Some of them have been of great significance to individuals; some of them have been more about social reforms, the evolution of societal attitudes and so on.
When I was a relatively new member we dealt with the Relationships Bill, which became the Relationships Act 2008, and I strongly supported that bill.
At the time it was seen as a vehicle for formalising same-sex relationships—relationships particularly for gay and lesbian couples—in the absence of changes to the Marriage Act 1958, which was, of course, a federal statute.
Marriage equality at that time was a far-off dream for many, but I think it is fair to say that it was also a very long way from being accepted by the community. In fact I commented during that debate that the passage of the Relationships Bill would not lead to a change in the Marriage Act. I think I effectively said,
‘It’s not marriage, and if it was I wouldn’t support it’.
Now, I have reflected on those views. It was 2008; it was a while ago. I have reflected on that statement and I think I can honestly say that it was more about the way the community was thinking at the time than about any personal views I may have held. Certainly had the opportunity to vote for it come up at that stage—outside the Parliament, as an individual at the ballot box—I know what my vote would have been, and it would have been positive.
But the community was not there yet; the community was a long way from it.
The reality is if you want to undertake these reforms, you really cannot get too far ahead of where the community is at. Public opinion does change, and it changes sometimes very, very quickly. We have seen that on a range of issues.
That bill, as I said, was debated in 2008. Nine years later the nation voted overwhelmingly in favour of marriage equality—overwhelmingly in support. Every state and every territory in the nation voted in favour of it. In my own patch, in the electorates of Dunkley and Flinders, there was a slight variation but it was around 70 per cent across the board.
We will not, of course—and God forbid that we do—but if views were reassessed now, I think that that number would be significantly higher even than 70 per cent.
By December of that year of course the amendments had become law, with 128 votes in support in the House of Representatives. So things move relatively quickly.
Can I say, though, I recognise the impatience of those in 2008 who said, ‘Look, the Relationships Act is nice, but it’s not what we want. It’s not what we need. It doesn’t go far enough’.
The fact is—setting aside the constitutional niceties—had this Parliament voted in 2008 to amend the Marriage Act in the way that was being suggested, we would have been doing it without widespread support, and it would have effectively been change imposed on the community.
When you impose that change you do not have the sort of debate—you would not have had the issue being embraced the way it has been subsequently by the community. When you impose that change you create division. People resent things being imposed on them and their positions become entrenched; they do not have open minds.
Of course we had that debate, and I should say I understand how uncomfortable that was for many members of the GTBTILQ+ community, because had it been about straight people, it would have made me bloody uncomfortable, I can tell you—very, very uncomfortable—but it was not.
So there was a cost to that debate, and I recognise that. But there was a benefit too, and that was that it had an educative role for the whole community.
It got people talking about it. It got people thinking about it. It gave people an opportunity to reflect on their own positions and how they came to their own positions—had they ever thought about it before? To the great credit I think of the Victorian community, to the great credit of the Australian community, when they did reflect their views evolved; the culture evolved.
If you want to have lasting change to societal attitudes, if you really want to get that cultural evolution and not just have political correctness, which is effectively forcing a segment of the community to keep their views to themselves, then you have got to have that cultural change, you have got to have that cultural evolution.
Without it the opposing views do not go away. They just go underground, but they keep up the fight; they keep up the resistance. They are still there. The society does not get to evolve. The opposition is invisible, but it still exists. I think the bill before us is unfortunately a perfect example of how not to handle a debate like this.
Now, I have spoken before in this chamber about the differences in approach between that of Steve Bracks and John Brumby and the current Premier. Premier Bracks and Premier Brumby were committed to outcomes. They were not above using the issue for politics—why wouldn’t they, as politicians?—but they were committed to the outcome, and they did not let the politics get in the way of the outcome. They wanted to genuinely bring the community forward, as did Ted Baillieu.
We have seen significant change in the last four parliaments. We have seen support across the chamber on a range of difficult issues, support that was both deserved and then received, but often that has been after a significant inquiry, whether it is a Victorian Law Reform Commission inquiry or whether it is perhaps a parliamentary inquiry of a joint standing committee—whatever.
That gives people the opportunity to provide input. It gives people the opportunity to be heard, to have their concerns addressed. Of course, as we all know, being heard does not mean your views are automatically taken on board, but it gives the decision-makers—in this case the legislators—the opportunity to test those views and come to a conclusion.
And if you do not accept the view that is being put to you, at least the risk is on the record; you know that it has been considered.
That is not the case with this bill. The government claims that this is overwhelmingly supported. The government claims there has been extensive consultation. We know that is not the case.
We know that a particular and considerable section of the community feels their rights are being overridden with this bill. It is clear from the ad that was in the paper yesterday and from all the emails and all the communication that I am sure we have all received on this issue that there is considerable concern, but certainly the Anglican community, the Catholic community, the Hindu community, the Coptic and Orthodox community, the Jewish community, the Sikh community, the Islamic community and a range of other faith communities do not believe they have been consulted meaningfully.
And as the ad said yesterday:
We … urge the Government to conduct meaningful consultation with faith groups and other stakeholders which will be in the interests of all Victorians.
I could not agree more. As I think my colleague the Leader of the Opposition said, no-one deserves to lose their job because of their sexuality. That is above and well beyond this discussion.
What this discussion is about is a legislative instrument that the government is bringing into this house to achieve a political outcome, and I think it is regrettable that politics has been allowed to dominate this discussion when this is an important issue and we do really need to bring the community with us.