Thursday, 31 May 2012

Pregnancy and Infant Loss Day Speech

NSW PARLIAMENT, 31 May 2010 on the following motion:

Mrs SHELLEY HANCOCK (South Coast—The Speaker) [12.32 p.m.]: I move:
      That this House:

      (1) acknowledges the continued work of PILARI, the Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness and Research Institute;

      (2) notes that 15 October is internationally recognised as Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day;

      (3) notes the Fifty-Fourth Parliament unanimously endorsed a motion to give consideration to recognising an annual Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day in New South Wales; and

      (4) calls on the Government to declare 15 October as Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day in New South Wales.
Ms KRISTINA KENEALLY (Heffron) [12.49 p.m.]: I speak today on this motion not only as the member for Heffron but also as the patron of the Stillbirth Foundation Australia. I thank the Speaker for bringing this motion to the House and all members of the House who have supported it. This is a difficult issue to talk about; it is difficult for women, for their families and for our society to talk about it. But it is important that we talk about it, because until we start to talk about the scale of the problem of pregnancy loss as a major public health issue in this country we will never be able to direct the type of money and resources needed for research that could avoid this tragedy for so many families. I can speak of this from personal experience: I am the mother of a stillborn daughter, Caroline, who was born in June 1999. Her life stays with me always. She changed me and she changed our family. I have never met the parents of a stillborn baby who have said anything but that—that a very short life, a very small life, has introduced enormous changes to them and to their families and, indeed, brought a new dimension of love into that family; great sorrow and loss but also love.

That is why days of remembrance are important. Stillbirth is a major health issue in this country. Six babies a day are stillborn in Australia; that is one baby stillborn for every 135 live births. More than 2,000 babies are stillborn in Australia every year, and that rate has largely unchanged for decades. To put this into context: stillbirth can be credibly claimed to be the leading cause of death for infants under the age of one year in Australia. Sudden infant death syndrome accounts for 66 deaths a year. Those are tragedies, but as the member for Macquarie Fields has pointed out, the incidence in the rate of sudden infant death syndrome has come down by 85 per cent since the 1980s when the campaign started to put babies to sleep on their backs—an insight that was gained and a campaign that was developed out of research. That is why research is so important when it comes to stillbirth.

As I said, more than 2,000 babies are stillborn in Australia every year—that is 7.4 deaths per 1,000 live births. If we cannot recognise that as a major health problem in Australia and put the resources we need into research then as a nation we are failing families, we are failing parents and, particularly, we are failing those babies. Some people ask me how stillbirth can be prevented. We know a whole range of things about stillbirth, but we need to know more. Some jurisdictions in the world already provide advice to mothers about how to sleep and how to do foetal monitoring, and the role that maternal age and other risk factors play in stillbirth. Yet in Australia one-third of all stillbirths at term are still unexplained. If we can do anything as a country to prevent those tragedies we should.
That is why a day like the Pregnancy and Infant Loss Day on 15 October is so important.
I also note that legislation is currently before the South Australian Parliament to provide a birth certificate to mothers who have gone into labour and who have given birth to a child who has died before 20 weeks into pregnancy. It will be the parents' choice whether they receive a birth certificate. Those mothers have given birth, they have held their child and they have buried it, yet they have no access to any form of legal recognition from the State. The legislation in South Australia may pass in its current form, it may be rejected or it may be modified, but I encourage all of us in this State to pay attention to what is happening in South Australia; it may provide some insight into how we can better honour those parents and those families who have suffered the tragedy of a stillbirth.

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Speech on the O'Farrell Government's 'Get Clover' Bill

3 April 2012
Ms KRISTINA KENEALLY (Heffron) [11.51 a.m.]: "I do not agree with what you say, but I will defend your right to say it." That statement, often mistakenly attributed to Voltaire, was in fact made by his biographer. However, the bill before the House today puts me in a Voltaire-ish frame of mind. That great defender of democracy, Voltaire, would be appalled by legislation of the type being debated in this House today. That quote also puts me in this frame of mind today, because quite frankly I have never supported the member for Sydney in a campaign; in fact, I have supported candidates against her in local council and State elections—and I will do so again.

Just as Voltaire's biographer said, "I do not agree with what you say, but I will defend your right to say it," I do not agree with much of what the member for Sydney might argue for. But there are some things that I do agree with; in fact, there are some things on which we have cooperated. I do not necessarily agree with everything the member argues for in this place. But I absolutely recognise and respect the mandate that the member has from her community to represent them at both the State and the local level. This person has been elected by her community, at State and local level, time and again since 2004, to represent them at town hall as their Lord Mayor and to represent them in this Chamber as the member for Sydney.

Make no mistake: this bill will undo a democratic decision of the people of the City of Sydney and of the constituents in the State electorate of Sydney. This Government is led by a Premier who said before the election—if he said it once, he said it a hundred times—"We in the Liberal and National parties trust local communities; we trust local people to get it right; we trust people to make decisions for themselves." How has that trust been repaid? How is that trust expressed? How is that trust demonstrated by the O'Farrell Government? It brings into this House legislation that will undo a democratic decision taken by the people of the City of Sydney and by the people of the State electorate of Sydney.

This is an appalling piece of legislation. What it says to the people, not just of Sydney but of New South Wales, is that they can no longer have confidence that their opinion, their verdict, their will expressed through the ballot box will be upheld by the laws of this State. This Parliament is asked to do what I have not seen in my nine years in this place: in an affront to democracy, it will overturn a result rendered by the people. Voltaire spoke of respect for democracy. We are a democratic society: we uphold freedom of speech; we uphold freedom of assembly; we uphold freedom of expression; and we uphold the freedom of the people to choose their representatives—until today. Today, that right ends. Today, the right of the people to have their will expressed at the ballot box is overturned. This is a sham. It is a shame.

I want to speak about dual roles. I can speak from a fair bit of experience; I know what it is like to be a senior Minister and the local member; I know what it is like to be the Premier and the local member. Let me say for anyone on the Government side who does not understand: When you are a Minister and a local member you have dual roles, and sometimes they conflict. We had a ridiculous contribution by the member for Drummoyne who spoke about the supposed conflict in being the Lord Mayor and a local member. He shows his naivety by not understanding that sometimes your role as a Minister and your role as a local member conflict; sometimes your role as Premier and your role as a local member conflict.

Nonetheless, you are able to discharge those roles; you are able to manage those roles; and you can, as the member for Sydney has pointed out, use the efficiencies built into being a Minister and the local member to better serve the people of New South Wales. That is exactly what the member for Sydney and Lord Mayor is doing. I have yet to have anyone explain to me the difference between being the Minister for Local Government and the member for Ballina, and being the Lord Mayor of Sydney and the member for Sydney. I have yet to have anyone explain to me how those two sets of circumstances are different in demands on one's time and one's ability to work for one's electorate, or indeed the conflicts that that brings. I have yet to hear from any member of the Liberals and The Nationals any cogent argument as to why there is a difference.

I ask the House to reflect on this. I stand in this place as the member for Heffron. I recognise that my State electorate is covered by four local government areas: Randwick, Botany, Marrickville and the City of Sydney. The majority of the State electorate of Heffron is within the City of Sydney. The people of the City of Sydney, and therefore a large number of the people in the State electorate of Heffron, have cast their vote for Clover Moore to be their Lord Mayor; they have cast their vote for Clover Moore to represent them at town hall. It is my constituents who are seeing their democratic rights denied them. The people of Heffron are seeing in this bill the overturn of their decision that Clover Moore be their Lord Mayor.

Clover Moore has a proud and long history of representing South Sydney. She was first elected to South Sydney Council in 1980. To put that in context, when Clover Moore was elected a councillor New South Wales had not even had its first female Cabinet Minister; that was to come eight years later. Clover Moore, as a female politician, has stood up for her local community; she has stood up and represented South Sydney. Over the years, through various local boundary redistributions, Clover Moore and I have shared parts of the State electorates of Sydney and Heffron. At times, part of the Heffron electorate has been in Clover Moore's electorate.

She has a long tradition of representing the people of Sydney, particularly South Sydney. Although I may not have always agreed with her, I have seen the work she has done as both Lord Mayor and as member for Sydney bring benefits to the people who live in my electorate. She has brought benefits in improved parks and facilities, and she has championed more equality and greater legal rights for people who are gay and lesbian. She has brought a change in the way government delivers services to some of the most vulnerable people in the community, particularly people with drug and alcohol addictions. In the two roles she holds the member for Sydney has effectively represented the people of Sydney and, particularly from my perspective, the people of South Sydney.

As we watch this Liberals-Nationals Government deny democracy and deny the will of the people as expressed at the ballot box—and overturn the will of the people as expressed at the ballot box—we see a dark day for democracy in this State. I have recently nominated the Lord Mayor to be the Heffron electorate's nominee for the Women's Honour Roll, introduced by the Minister for Women. Due to the quirks of boundary redistribution Clover Moore lives in the State seat of Heffron: I am her local member. I am very proud that we have in our electorate a woman who is a game-changing politician, a woman who was the first elected female Lord Mayor of the City of Sydney and a woman who has effectively earned the trust of the people of Sydney to represent them at both State and local levels. It is a sad day indeed to see that trust being broken by the O'Farrell Government. If this bill passes it condemns this House. It is a mockery of democracy and it should be opposed.

Monday, 2 April 2012

Public Housing in Redfern and Waterloo

2 April 2012

Ms KRISTINA KENEALLY (Heffron) [12.24 p.m.]: Heffron is ranked first out of 93 State electorates as having the highest percentage of public housing. In particular, Heffron contains several high-rise estates in Redfern, Waterloo and Eastlakes, and low-rise estates in Waterloo, Daceyville, Erskineville and Mascot as well as properties throughout other suburbs. As the member for Heffron, I understand that social housing can provide significant challenges. I also know that it is home to vulnerable people, many of whom would be without housing otherwise. For many people in high-rise housing their communities have developed and flourished. In fact, years ago, so outraged were the elderly residents Matavi and Turunga in Waterloo about an untrue rumour that their high-rise buildings were to be demolished that I had to promise to chain myself to their buildings if the bulldozers ever came. These buildings are their homes.

A great project in Waterloo is being trialled: The Waterloo Green project installs concierge services and new security features in high-rise buildings. This project, introduced by the Keneally Government, is—according to my constituents—making a real difference to their personal security and to decreasing the levels of vandalism and graffiti in the building. The project, combined with a change to the law—also introduced by the Keneally Government—allows alcohol free zones to be introduced by council on Housing NSW land, and specifically on Waterloo Green. The trial is currently being evaluated. I hope the Government sees sense in continuing and possibly expanding this program.

I was interested to hear the comments of Minister Goward in this House on 28 and 29 March, when she proudly proclaimed the transformative changes she was introducing to the management of public housing, and what a significant difference it would make to tenants to have their maintenance issues addressed in a timely manner. I draw the following to the Minister's attention. On 30 March 2012 I held a meeting with public housing residents in Redfern. I remind the House that this was a full year after the election of the O'Farrell Government and a full year after Minister Goward stepped into the Housing NSW portfolio.

Tenants raised issues of antisocial behaviour in the three towers of Poet's Corner: drug dealing, sleeping in stairwells, residents being intimidated by drug dealers, security being a major issue, fire doors broken, no lights in Lawson building common areas and cleaners not reporting that lights were out. I was informed that lifts in the Kendall building were breaking down and unauthorised tenants were staying in the buildings. The McKell building was full of graffiti and pigeon faeces, it needed a handyman, and there were syringes in rubbish room. I also draw to the Minister's attention an email from Ross Smith, precinct representative of the People's Precinct Neighbourhood Advisory Board, Waterloo, to Housing NSW on 19 January 2012. Mr Smith stated that 33 John Street Waterloo, the Dobell building, had:
... non-functioning lock systems on perimeter doors leaving building with no security. Doors are not locked and can be opened by pushing on closed door.

This matter was originally raised with Housing NSW on 17 October 2011. Over the period various tenants have made multiple reports to the call centre. Mr Smith further stated:
... non-functioning lights in undercover parking area on Pitt Street extension frontage of building ...

It was originally reported to Housing NSW on 17 October 2011 and followed up on 18 October 2011. Tenants report that workmen attended three times, but lights were not restored to a functioning state. On 11 March 2011 in a follow-up email to Housing NSW Ross Smith wrote:

In the last few days the community room in the Dobell complex has been trashed, the broken window giving unfettered access to the room has not been repaired, and the room has not been cleaned up so that the restoration of community owned facilities in the room by the community can commence. There is now a group of juveniles running rampant throughout the complex. This is in no small part due to the ongoing failure of Housing NSW to restore the electronic door locks controlling access to the building to a functional state.

Further, he states:
Housing NSW actions in the cases above make a mockery of their oft repeated claim of wanting to engage with the tenants and actively undermine the efforts of other Housing NSW business units ...

What does it take for Housing NSW to resolve these longstanding matters? The tenants are fed up with being told, "You must ring the call centre," when they see every day that this course of action is not producing any results. The question in their mind is why should we bother when Housing NSW is not capable of producing an answer, despite all their glossy fact sheets and media releases. Is there any reason that these matters are still unresolved?
That is a very good question. And one that seems to remain unanswered. Mr Ross Smith again emailed me on 26 March 2012 and told me that he had no response from Housing NSW to date, which makes you wonder about the reality of Minister Goward's statements in this House on 28 an 29 March. It has been my great honour to represent the people of Redfern and Waterloo, to fight for better standards of living for them, to introduce programs like the Waterloo Green project, and, under the Keneally Government, to decide not to increase public housing single pensioners rent as their pensions were increased. I look forward to a time when housing residents in Redfern and Waterloo receive benefits from the O'Farrell Government. The extension of the Waterloo Green project would be great. Fixing some of the maintenance issues raised by the Waterloo People's Precinct would be a start.

Sunday, 1 April 2012

Heffron Electorate Nomination for Women's Honour Roll: Clover Moore

30 March 2012: Member for Heffron Kristina Keneally today nominated Heffron resident Clover Moore to receive recognition as part of the NSW Government's Women's Honour Roll.

Under the Women's Honour Roll program, introduced by Minister for Women Pru Goward, local members are invited to nominate a woman from their electorate who had made a significant contribution to the local community.

"A resident of the Heffron electorate, Clover Moore MP has won the confidence of voters to represent them simultaneously at state and local level since 2004," Ms Keneally said.
Clover Moore is the first elected female Lord Mayor of Sydney.  The majority of the Heffron electorate is within the City of Sydney boundaries.  She was elected to South Sydney Council in 1980, and to the NSW Parliament in 1988.  At various times, through electoral boundary changes, Clover has represented portions of what is now the state seat of Heffron.
"Though Clover and I are opponents politically, and often disagree, I cannot but admire her success as a female politician. She started her political career at a time when women rarely held high political office - when Clover was first elected to Council, NSW had not even yet had its first female cabinet minister," Ms Keneally said.

"Clover's election as the first female Lord Mayor of Sydney, and her success at winning the confidence of voters to represent them simultaneously at state and local level is a significant achievement, and worthy of acknowledgement on the Women's Honour Roll."

"Clover’s work as a MP and Lord Mayor to improve community safety has resulted in many upgrades to parks and community facilities in South Sydney," Ms Keneally said.

"Clover's efforts to address the challenges of drug and alcohol addiction has changed how government services are delivered to vulnerable people in the inner city.   Her voice on behalf of the gay & lesbian community, which has a strong presence in the inner city, has championed significant changes to create equality in our legal system."
Ms Keneally also noted that Ms Moore established the Lord Mayor Clover Moore MP Salary Trust to support the City's most disadvantaged people and promote animal welfare. As at December 2011, the Trust had donated $1.1 million to inner city charities.

Ms Keneally said the fact that she had campaigned against Ms Moore in the past - and would support Labor candidates against Ms Moore in the future - demonstrated that her nomination of Ms Moore to the Women's Honour Roll stood above politics.

"Clover Moore is a game-changing female politician, and her unique position of earning the support of voters over many years in simultaneous state and local roles, deserves acknowledgment as a great contribution. "

Ms Moore said she was honoured to have been nominated.

“I thank Kristina for this nomination and hope it inspires other women to think about representing their communities. I first entered politics as a young mother with two small children and know just how hard it is to juggle competing demands. I’ve also seen how one person can start the process of change to improve their community and that’s a really powerful reason to be in politics.”

The nominees for the Women's Honour Roll will receive a certificate from the NSW Government.

Monday, 7 November 2011

Speech to Rainbow Labor 4/11/2011

Text of a speech I gave at a Rainbow Labor event on 4 Nov 2011

Recently I was asked at a public forum if holding more conscience votes in the Parliament would strengthen democratic decision-making in Australia.

My view is no. In our Westminster system, we elect parties, not individuals. Our parliamentary system is based on a group of people, collectively, backing a set of policies that they have agreed upon.

Unlike the country of my birth, America, Australia does not usually see its government decisions and legislation held hostage to the single-issue views of individual members (the current minority government with its four independents is a notable exception.) Collective decision-making more often forces people to act in the best interest of all.

All that being said, should we have a conscience vote on gay marriage? Is there a credible argument to support it being a party-line position? Yes.

But the reality is that it can’t be an issue that is decided by the party rooms, and won’t be. However, that doesn’t mean it won’t succeed.

Tonight I want to reflect on these very issues. The policy imperatives to support same sex marriage. The policy grounds on why political parties could and should support same sex marriage. And yet the reasons why it will likely be a conscience vote, and why there is still room for hope that, even with a conscience vote, the Marriage Act could be changed.

First, the policy imperatives and the reasons why political parties could and should support amending the Marriage Act to incorporate same sex marriage.

I am going to say upfront that I acknowledge and support the human rights argument for same sex marriage. Denying the right to marry based on sexual orientation is a form of discrimination. Rights and freedoms afforded to some are denied to others only on the basis of sexual orientation. It is correct that we recognise this as a human rights issue.

And all of the major political parties in Australia state opposition to discrimination and support for human rights. And in a perfect world, this alone would be enough to see party platforms amended.

This isn’t a perfect world. I think we understand that. The rights and freedoms for the poor, for women, for indigenous people, for people of colour have all been won because they have been fought for, because people have challenged the status quo and argued for change. So too, as we all know, it has been the case winning rights and freedoms for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and intersex people. So too it remains with marriage.

In addition to the human rights issue, there are also sound policy reasons to change the way marriage is defined in Australia: policy reasons that have their roots in the platforms of our major political parties; policy reasons that could and should allow this change to be accommodated in our political party platforms.

In considering whether to amend the Marriage Act, all political parties should ask themselves two questions. The first question is: do we support families?

Of course, they do. The major political parties in Australia explicitly express support for families in their platforms.

The National Constitution of the ALP asserts that our party stands for social justice and equality for individuals, the family and all social units. Note that family is singled out and privileged – the Labor party upholds the centrality of the family as a basic building block of our society.

The Liberal Party platform says it believes in the family as the primary institution for fostering the values on which a cohesive society is built.

And the Nationals platform says the party recognises the social and economic benefits of maintaining a strong family unit.

If I may be slightly mischevious, I note that the Nationals have inadvertently included in their platform the boldest and most explicit statement yet supporting a gender-neutral definition of what defines a family. I quote: “The Nationals believe that a family unit comprising two parents..... children and grandparents, provides the best chance for a prosperous, stable and happy family relationship.”

Oops. They forgot to mention whether those two parents should be a mother and a father!

I reckon a fair number of same sex families in this room, and definitely in this country, could meet the Nationals definition.

In short, the first question is answered. All political parties support families as the basic building block of society.

The second question political parties should ask themselves is ‘do we support marriage as the best basis by which families should form?’

Interestingly, neither the Liberals, Nationals nor the ALP make explicit statements privileging marriage in the same way they privilege families.

Why interestingly? Because there is a stack of social science research both in Australia and abroad that repeatedly shows the benefits of marriage on the health and welfare of families: Married people live longer, are healthier, make more money, and generally report less stress and more happiness. Married people also enjoy the easy legal and social recognition that comes from being defined by an established institution.

Forgive me, but these are the kind of people governments like – people who are readily understood and interpreted by a range of government policies and regulations (believe me, it cuts down on red tape), people who contribute more to the tax system, who draw less upon health and other services, and who overall are givers rather than takers upon the public purse.

If a political party privileges the family, it is hardly a leap for a political party to say that it privileges marriage as the preferred basis by which families should form.

I feel I should introduce a caveat here, and be clear that I am not arguing that families cannot exist if there is no marriage, or implying that single parent families are not families.

What I am arguing is that if we are going to start from scratch, and have two parent families forming – as the Nationals so helpfully suggest – then there are very good social and economic policy reasons for arguing that marriage is the preferred mechanism by which those families form.

Another way political parties might ask themselves the question is to consider if they are willing to set up and support a ‘competing basis’ to marriage, like civil unions? Would the political party be happy, on policy grounds, to accept an increasing number of heterosexual couples using these forms of unions, rather than marriage?

Conservative columnist Andrew Sullivan, a gay Christian Englishman living in the USA, makes this argument more eloquently than I do. In short, he asserts that if you support marriage, then you support it.

Sullivan argues that it is not in the interest of governments to construct a range of new legal forms to compete with marriage. Whether they are relationship registers or civil unions or the like, these new legal constructs are not marriage, and do not carry with them the benefits of marriage.

But once these new legal forms are introduced to ‘accomodate’ same sex couples, they also become available to heterosexual couples. The inadequacy of civil unions for same sex couples also becomes a less beneficial family arrangement for heterosexual couples. Supporters of marriage should realise, Sullivan says, that the best way for governments to undercut marriage as an institution is to credit and introduce unions that compete with marriage. The best way to defend marriage, Sullivan says, is to privilege it and provide it for all.

So, it isn’t hard to mount an argument for a policy basis for redefining marriage. Not only do all parties say they support human rights and oppose discrimination, but they also say they support and privilege families.

Our major political parties should and would want families to have the best possible basis on which to form. All the research tells us that marriage is provides that. Therefore, ergo, we make marriage available to all families, regardless of the gender of the two people whose union is creating the family.

Of course, we all know it isn’t that simple. If it was, we wouldn’t be here: this amendment would have been made ages ago.

Whilst you can use the preferences for families, found in the platforms of our major political parties, to argue for amending the Marriage Act, you can also find in those platforms a very real barrier: that marriage is defined as between a man and a woman.

Of course, this was as a result of the Howard Government’s change to the Marriage Act in 2004 to define legal marriage as being exclusively between a man and a woman.

It would be amusing if it weren’t so serious an issue, but the current Liberal Party platform seems to have forgotten to restate this position.
I’m prepared to be proven wrong, but I could not find any definition of, or even mention of, marriage in the Liberal Party platform or constitution.

I acknowledge that the amendment moved by the Howard Government was a classic ‘dog whistle’ manoeuvre, one of many Howard was deft at executing, and also a perfect ‘wedge’ issue for Labor – and Howard was no slouch at that either.

Of course, we know that support for the Howard definition of marriage is explicitly stated in the ALP and the National Party Platforms.

But we also must acknowledge that the definition of marriage as currently stated in the Act comes from cultural understandings, shaped by people’s experiences, religious views and moral convictions.

We simply cannot ignore this, or pretend it doesn’t matter. Of course it does. It is the case that some people hold a view about marriage, and hold it as strongly as we hold ours, based deeply held convictions or religious beliefs. This issue, what it is to be married, and who can marry, is not just a policy issue. It goes right to the core of what it is to be human, what it is to be a person in a relationship, and how we define who we are as people and how we live in relationship to one another.

I may not agree with people who hold convictions and beliefs that two people of the same sex cannot be married, but I can understand it. And this is the real challenge of living in a multi-cultural, multi-religious, open and diverse society.

I would like to stand here and argue that the ALP party platform should be changed to define marriage as incorporating same sex marriage, and it should be a binding decision on all Labor members of Parliament.

I struggle against the logic of the arguments for same sex marriage – the compelling logic, the compelling human rights position, the compelling policy reasons – to assert that we as a political party cannot bind all of our members to a position that some of them, in their consciences, cannot support with a vote on the floor of the parliament.

But nonetheless I do assert just that – if we are to change the ALP position on this issue, it must be to a conscience vote.

We have conscience votes in the ALP for a reason – because we recognise that there are some issues that – in addition to their compelling logic or policy arguments – also cut to people’s deeply held convictions and beliefs.

And our party believes that on those issues – life and death, or the questions of morals and ethics – that the inviolability of conscience takes precedence. We don’t, as a Party, ask people to violate their conscience and their convictions on these questions.

This isn’t to argue that ALP Members of Parliament don’t exercise their consciences in other debates. It’s just that questions of how to deal with graffiti or how to distribute education funding or how to regulate the building industry rarely throw up deep moral and religious questions. The stark reality is that this issue – who can marry – does.

Brute force will not bring about change, or even if it did, it would likely be short-term change. Forcing our Labor party colleagues, with whom we agree with the majority of the time (we wouldn’t be in the same party if we didn’t) to back a position that violates their consciences is unjust.

It is as unjust as the current situation, where those of us who do not support the current definition of marriage as only between a man and a woman are bound by a platform that proclaims just that.

That our consciences are violated by the current party platform is unjust.

Righting that injustice by violating the conscience of others in our party is also unjust, and ineffective.

I know that many fear that an amendment would fail if voted in the current parliament as a conscience vote. Perhaps they are right. But I don’t know that we should be so certain.

I wonder sometimes if we Australians give ourselves too little credit for our capacity for reasoned, considered and thoughtful debate and reflection. Let me suggest a few considerations that run counter to the conventional wisdom on a conscience vote.

In the NSW Parliament we have passed legislation approving same sex adoption, and equalised the age of consent, on conscience votes. Both times they passed with a mixture of government and opposition MPs on both sides of the house. Both times I witnessed MPs wrestling with their consciences, considering their electorates, seeking out opposing points of view, consulting religious leaders, consulting experts, talking amongst themselves, and yes, even praying.

One of my very first speeches in the Parliament, made the day after my inaugural, was in the debate on the equalising the age of consent.

It was a very short speech. But I spoke about my religious faith and the gospel of love and of my understanding of Jesus as a man who preached love and acceptance.

Just after that, a Labor colleague who represented a regional area, a fellow Catholic, said to me “I didn’t know what I was going to do on this bill. I don’t think my electorate will like it if I vote for it. But I listened to your speech and I heard you describe the gospel I believe in too. So I am going to vote for it. Anyone who doesn’t like it can get stuffed.”

Sometimes social change happens that way – one conscience at a time. We might be able to easily predict how a vote on a mining tax or a carbon tax will go in a vote, but I don’t know that we can easily predict what will happen with each individual MP as they consider their conscience and their responsibilities and their beliefs.

And we don’t know what words in a debate, a letter, a constituent meeting or an article might open their mind to a new dimension or consideration. We don’t know what person they might meet or experience they might have that changes or directs their conscientious decision in such a vote. To that end, I commend the work of groups like Australian Marriage Equality, who are tackling this issue one MP at a time, and assisting people to meet with their local MP and tell their stories.
Often times the media hype of a conscience vote outweighs the actual importance of the issue to the broad electorate. Despite the fact that Australians have never shown a strong propensity to vote against their economic interests in order to support a social issues agenda, the media still predicts electoral doom for the MP whose view is perceived to be ‘out of sync’ with their electorate.

MPs who have been fearing a backlash or outcry find out that their electorate, largely, is either uninterested (because the issue at hand doesn’t affect them), or more interested in the bread and butter issues of cost of living, education, health, transport and the like.

There is also a strange dynamic that enters into a conscience vote. MPs fearing the wrath of their electorate sometimes realise that a conscience vote is a very messy thing. I mean that in a good way. Labor MPs from a socially conservative electorate suddenly discover that the willingness of some National and Liberal MPs to vote for a “progressive” conscience issue blurs the lines and gives them cover to do the same. For the record, my friend who voted in support of equalising the age of consent was re-elected. It was never an issue in his electorate.

Finally, can I make an obvious but overlooked point: no one has ever really asked our Federal MPs to cast a real vote on this issue. The vote in the Senate last year was undertaken under the current Labor party platform. It was not a conscience vote, and many Senators simply did not turn up.

Presumably some Senators chose not to violate their conscience by voting the party line, and took the easier route of skipping the vote altogether. I suspect a similar result would occur if the platform was changed to support same sex marriage. MPs opposed to same sex marriage might also skip a vote, robbing the chance to ‘use the numbers’ that a binding position would impose.

As a party, and indeed as a nation, we haven’t really afforded the MPs the chance to truly speak their minds, and wrestle with their conscience, and debate the issue. If we are going to achieve a change, we will need to afford them all that opportunity.

Real change, lasting change, change that has deep support and broad acceptance, is not easy to achieve. Winning the numbers, or the policy arguments, is not enough. We have to win the minds, and also the consciences of our fellow citizenry.

Time and time again in conscience votes in NSW, and indeed on other great matters of social change across the globe, we have seen the capacity for humans to expand their views, incorporate new information, and imagine a society that is different and better and more just than what we know today.

I have a great conviction – as both a Christian and a politician – that changing the Marriage Act to recognise same sex marriage is the right thing to do. I also have a great optimism that the Australian people and their elected representatives, when finally asked to consult their consciences, are more likely than not to agree.