News & events

Penny Wong
Professor Stephen Bottomley, Emeritus Professor David Brown, and Senator Penny Wong. Photo: Nicole Harman, ANU.

A plebiscite on marriage equality for same sex couples could licence hate speech - or worse - from those who need little encouragement, the Hon Senator Penny Wong told a packed theatre at The Australian National University last night.  

Delivering the annual Lionel Murphy Memorial Lecture, Senator Wong said Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and many commentators on this subject didn’t understand that for many gay and lesbian Australians hate speech was not an abstract concept.

“It’s part of our everyday life - my Twitter feed already foretells the inevitable nature of an anti-equality campaign in 140 characters or less,” Senator Wong said.

By changing a few dozen words in the Marriage Act, marriage equality could be delivered by the Parliament for same sex couples, Senator Wong said

“It doesn’t take a referendum, we don’t need a plebiscite, we don’t need a contest in our highest court. What we need is political leadership – the sort of political leadership Lionel Murphy was prepared to show on law reform when it mattered.

“Opponents of marriage equality already use words that hurt and words are not the only weapons wielded by some who harbour animosity towards LGBTI Australians - assaults and worse are not unknown in Australia, even today,” she said.

Senator Wong said she didn’t oppose a plebiscite because she doubted the good sense of the Australian people, rather because she didn’t want her family and people in other relationships and families to experience censure and condemnation.

“Not one straight politician advocating a plebiscite on marriage equality knows what that is like - what it is like to live with the casual and deliberate prejudice that some still harbour.”

Senator Wong said the current campaign for same sex marriage would not have been possible without the new discourse on human rights that Lionel Murphy introduced into public life both as a politician and as a judge.

“Some four decades ago Lionel Murphy changed laws relating to the dissolution of marriage because he recognised that the current law did not accord with current standards and visited indignities on the parties.

“Those same considerations, of which Murphy spoke, apply to the definition of marriage today. The discrimination at the heart of the Marriage Act does not accord with community standards and it visits indignity on every same sex couple that wishes to marry.”

Senator Wong said that Lionel Murphy had a brilliant mind, personality and courageous spirit and his focus on social justice and human rights helped reshape the nation. 

“He was an advocate for equality, justice, progress and the rights of the disadvantaged and the dispossessed and he championed these causes tenaciously – as a lawyer, as a politician, as a Parliamentarian and as a Judge and often at considerable personal cost.

“He was not intimidated by vested interests, entrenched attitudes or conventional wisdom and he did not shy away from controversy,” Senator Wong said.

BY LYN LARKIN

Updated:  24 August 2017/Responsible Officer:  College General Manager, ANU College of Law/Page Contact:  Law Marketing Team