Here’s What The Senate Report Into Marriage Equality Means

The recent Senate report into marriage equality is an important moment in the marriage equality debate for several reasons.

It reached a cross-party consensus on key issues.

Marriage equality has always progressed fastest when partisanship is taken out of the debate and politicians from different parties, usually backbenchers, work together. Cross-party co-operation saw the passage of same-sex marriage bills and motions at a state level from 2009 to 2016. In 2015 the first cross-party bill was introduced in federal parliament with two Liberal co-sponsors, Warren Entsch and Teresa Gambero.

The latest Senate report builds on this tradition of cross-party co-operation and takes it to a new level. Progress now depends on maintaining the trust and good will the report has fostered.

It failed to endorse anti-LGBTI trade offs.

When George Brandis unveiled a draft marriage equality bill last year it was riddled with provisions that allowed wedding service providers – civil celebrants, military chaplains and organisations with a link to religion – to refuse to provide their services to same-sex couples (and only same-sex couples).

The Senate report fails to endorse any of these. Instead it offers common-sense solutions. Civil celebrants will not be allowed to discriminate but those who primarily serve religious congregations can opt to be in a new group called religious celebrants. Like ordained ministers of religion who are celebrants, religious celebrants will be able to turn anyone away. Military chaplains can currently turn anyone away and will continue to be able to, but the report says the military should appoint officers who can perform civil ceremonies.

Other wedding service providers will be governed by existing religious exemptions in the Sex Discrimination Act (SDA). The SDA is the federal law that prohibits discrimination against LGBTI people. In themselves, the SDA exemptions are old, vague and wide. The definition of “religious organisation” needs to be tightened up. But court decisions have filled the gap by providing some clarity. Essentially courts have allowed discrimination against LGBTI people if it’s by institutions that are chiefly about religious practice (churches and church halls) but not by commercial businesses even if they are linked to churches.

Getting agreement on refusal-of-service provisions was a big achievement.

The cross-party agreement not to endorse refusal-of-service provisions that target same-sex couples has surprised a lot of people on both sides of the debate. How did it happen? One reason was that both the LGBTI and broader communities were against them. This was shown clearly in research auspiced by PFLAG, just.equal and the NSW Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby. The largest LGBTI community survey ever done showed 90% opposition while a Galaxy poll conducted last week showed 65% opposition in the general population.

Another reason was that advocates stood shoulder to shoulder in opposition to the discriminatory provisions of the Brandis bill. Not one group agreed to replace an old form of discrimination with a new one. A third reason is that Senators who actively support marriage equality worked really hard to find positive solutions. I tip my hat to senators Dean Smith, Louise Pratt and Janet Rice for deploying their considerable powers of persuasion.

The report is the basis for a new bill.

My hope is that the Senate report will be a solid foundation for a new marriage equality bill that will be co-sponsored by members from across a range of parties, including Liberals and will not include any new discriminatory measures. Most important of all, my hope is that the bill will prompt the Liberal party room to reconsider and support a free vote, or, if that doesn’t happen, at least inspire Liberals and Nationals to cross the floor and support marriage equality.

The report focusses us on the job ahead.

The report refocusses supporters of marriage equality on what we need to do to move marriage equality forward: insist on a timetable for legislation, demand a free vote on that legislation and resist new discriminatory provisions. There will continue to be Government members who say they owe the electorate a plebiscite, even though the most recent Galaxy polling shows 71% of Australians would look more favourably on the Government if it allows a free vote and drops the plebiscite. There will also be members of parliament who demand discriminatory refusal-of-service laws in return for their support for either a free vote or marriage equality.

We can’t let them hold back reform. In the coming days PFLAG and just.equal will unveil new campaigns that will build the campaign for a free vote and against refusal-of-service provisions. In the meantime, you can ask key Liberals to actively support a free vote by sending an email through this webform.

We should feel a renewed sense of optimism.

Recent national and global events have dampened the hopes of many Australians for marriage equality. They understandably ask, how can we achieve marriage equality when politics is being pulled to the right by resurgent prejudice and minority-bashing? The Senate report is a small but potent answer to that question. It says that progress is possible when we all work together. It says people of goodwill across the political spectrum can unite behind marriage equality. It renews my optimism that we can achieve marriage equality sooner rather the later, and I hope it renews yours too.