Ms SWANSON (Paterson) (20:42): I rise today to speak on the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017. Twenty-one-and-a-half years ago, a smiling young Meryl Partridge stood next to the love of her life, Nick Swanson, in the Kurri Kurri Baptist Church and exchanged vows that allowed them to become husband and wife. My dad bet me on that day, knowing that I have an inclination to run late, as my staff will attest, that if I turned up on time at the church, he would buy me a canteen of cutlery. I wanted that cutlery very badly, and I got to that church on time. Our minister was a very well-known politician in local circles. He doubled as the Liberal state member for Maitland, Milton Morris—also known as Mr Maitland—and a Baptist minister, but I had worked with him for a number of years before Nick and I were engaged. When we were engaged, Milton Morris said to me, 'Meryl, it'd be my honour to marry you.' It was a remarkable time in my life, where I had an elder statesman of the Liberal Party, and my personal mentor, marrying me to my husband, who came from a very different set of life circumstances to me. He was a country boy from a wheat, sheep and beef farm in central New South Wales, marrying a coalminer's daughter. His family were Catholic and mine were Protestant. We were poles apart.
An honourable member: A mixed marriage!
Ms SWANSON: Yes. As my father, Ben, walked his youngest daughter down the aisle in our family church that had been beautifully decorated by my mum with flowers from our garden, it was one of those moments in my life where I thought, 'Wow, this is amazing, and I'm getting that cutlery, because I'm on time!' At the time of my father's passing last October, my parents had been married for an incredible 65 years. They'd been known to each other, courting, for five years before that, so that makes 70.
Marriage is a very special thing, as so many of us know, and it can bring very odd couples together at times, as I am here to attest today. As I've often said, I was a small, ground-dwelling bird, a Partridge, before I got married, and then I married a Swanson. I have become slightly more elongated, I hope, and more elegant, perhaps—but that's for others to judge, certainly not me! Marriage is that legal statement of love and joy and commitment that has not been available to everyone in Australia, until now. We are on the cusp of something special in this country—and it's not before time, but it is time.
An interesting twist to my day and Nick's day was that one of my very best friends was also with us on that day. He had been my friend since year 7 in high school, when we met. He came from a different primary school to me. We met in English, probably in the first week or so of year 7. I knew he was different, but there was just something about him. He was just the most generous and fantastic person. When I rang him and said that I was getting engaged, he was so happy and delighted for me. I said, 'Will you be in the wedding?' and he said, 'Of course'. So he was one of Nick's groomsmen. I'm happy to say, if we can make a really fabulous decision in this place this week, he and his partner, almost 22 years after Nick and I were able to make our vows, will be able to make their vows. But it's not before time, and I have to say that these last few months have been an incredibly painful time for my high school friend and the love of his life. They've been together for almost as long as my husband and me.
So much pain and hurt has been relived in these last few months. I don't say that lightly and I'm not saying it to try to create a tear-jerking moment. I'm saying it out of truth and compassion and all of those things that come up for people who are different, when they have to face the obstacles of life and when they have to talk to their families about who they are and who they've known themselves to be since they were very young. My friend had that discussion with me often at school. He'd say to me, 'Meryl, if I could be different, I would be, but I'm gay.' I've lived with that and with that friendship since I was 13. It's taught me so much about acceptance. It's actually made me a better person.
So I want to apologise to the people of Australia who are in loving, wonderful relationships and have been through a torrid time these last few months. For many of you, the pain of other judgements in past years have been brought back to you. I'm sorry for that, but I stand here today saying that I am proud that the electorate of Paterson voted yes and I am proud that, even if it hadn't, I would have voted yes because, when I stood to become a member of parliament, through my life experience, I always said that I believed that treating people equally was the most important thing.
Indeed, the passage of marriage equality legislation through the Senate last week marked a historic day for Australia, and now it's up to us here in this House to take that final step. As many of my colleagues have said, taking such a significant step towards equality makes Australia a better place for everyone. The day on which Australia achieves marriage equality has been a long time coming. It's not here yet, but we are close. All that is needed is for this House to pass this marriage equality bill. I firmly believe that parliament is at its best when we work together for a common cause, and, just as we saw in the Senate last week, MPs from all sides of this House can work together to get this done. The bill that was passed in the Senate and comes to us was negotiated across party lines and belief lines. It reflects an appropriate balance, the right balance, between ensuring marriage equality for all Australians and protecting religious freedoms for all Australians. This law does matter to Australians. This law gives rights to Australians, but, more importantly, this law expresses the values of Australians.
I was incredibly proud of my electorate of Paterson when the results of the marriage equality plebiscite, or the survey, were declared. While the national 'yes' vote came in at 61.6 per cent, in the electorate of Paterson, my electorate, the 'yes' vote, was a resounding 65.5 per cent. Thank you, Paterson. That means that 60,915 people in the electorate of Paterson voted that the law should be changed to allow same-sex couples to marry. Nearly two out of every three voters said yes. The communities that make up the electorate of Paterson proved themselves to be communities that respect and value equality. For that, I'm immensely pleased and proud.
Of course, just as a percentage of people nationwide voted no, so did a percentage of people in the Paterson electorate. For various reasons those people chose not to extend marriage equality to all, and I respect that view. Some have criticised my support for marriage equality and some have questioned whether I truly represent them if I vote yes in this bill. To them I have to say today that I acknowledge the concerns that you have and I do not dismiss them. But I also say to you that more than 7.8 million Australians, 61.6 per cent of voters, voted yes for marriage equality. The overwhelmingly positive vote in every state and territory, and in my electorate of Paterson, cannot be avoided or ignored. The will of the people is clear and the parliament must work to ensure that their will becomes law.
I have made it clear from the outset of the debate on this issue that, like my Labor colleagues, I respect freedom of religion. I have also made it clear that I will support measures that are necessary to protect freedom of religion. I am satisfied that the protections for religious freedom in this bill are suitable and adequate. Those protections are based on the unanimous recommendations of the Senate committee, a multiparty Senate committee that examined the same-sex marriage bill. In preparing the report, the committee consulted extensively with the community and, with its cross-party members, it then worked very hard to reach the consensus position. Their position is shared by the vast majority of Australians.
I do respect that there are a range of views about the question of marriage equality and that there are a range of views on how religious freedoms should be protected, but I am confident that this bill goes far enough. It protects freedom of religion while allowing marriage equality. I support the provisions in the bill that preserve religious freedom in respect of the performance of the marriage ceremony and the provision of goods and services that are reasonably incidental to the marriage ceremony. But I do not and will never support measures that would effectively roll back hard-fought-for antidiscrimination laws. Like this bill, those antidiscrimination laws are far too important.
I would like to conclude by saying that we have shown the Australian people that respect for marriage equality is equally an important foundation of our diverse and harmonious society. One doesn't rule the other out, and those who would try to persuade us otherwise are simply pushing a barrow or fuelling political mischief. The legalisation of same-sex marriage in Australia does not warrant a repeal of any antidiscrimination laws. In fact, the sentiment—the value—contained in this legislation, that of equality for all, demands quite the opposite. It demands protection of antidiscrimination laws. This bill strikes a sensible and acceptable compromise between achieving marriage equality and protecting religious freedom.
Like many in this House, I have been contacted by many constituents since the 'yes' vote was declared and even more so since our colleagues in the Senate voted for marriage equality. Some have sent form letters, and we have seen several organised lobbies and campaigns. Others have sent individual responses, most expressing their personal heartfelt joy at the direction we are taking, but in some cases their personal and heartfelt concern, and in other cases, fear. This vote, this bill, has never been about political correctness or removing the rights of parents to control what their children learn at school. This bill has been about marriage equality. The people have spoken: love has won. Let's get this done. Thank you.