Chapter 3 Values in Australian society
This chapter provides a discussion of some of the key social values in
Australia, in particular family constructs, religious beliefs and freedoms, and
a commitment to equality and acceptance, that were raised in relation to the bills
The chapter includes a number of text boxes which provide a selection of
the responses made to the inquiry around the bills and the values in Australian
Families and marriage
Families are an essential part of our society. The International
Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) states that the
family unit is the fundamental unit in society and the International Covenant
on Civil and Political Rights describes families as the ‘natural and fundamental
group unit of society [that] is entitled to protection by the State’.
The importance of the family unit was apparent in the inquiry evidence. The
Australian Christian Lobby (ACL) said that the family is ‘society’s most
fundamental unit’ and ‘the core social unit around which communities are built’.
Salvation Army’s position is that:
In spite of changing
lifestyles and values, the family unit—father, mother and children—is still the
ideal social institution in contemporary Australian life.
The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference stated that:
Families are small communities
in themselves on which the wider community is built and they are the main place
in which children are socialised to take their place in the wider community.
The Australian Family Association (AFA) believes that family is central
We know that family and identity are closely related, because
we have seen in our own nation’s history the traumatic loss of identity
experienced by several generations of children who, for various reasons, were
separated from their biological families, and for which governments have seen
fit to apologise … We know how important biological family ties are when we see
the soaring popularity of television programmes like Find My Family, and Who Do
You Think You Are?
It was observed by some groups that marriage is considered to be a vital
ingredient of the family unit. Article 10 of the ICESCR recognises ‘the
importance of marriage to the family unit’.
Australian Marriage Equality explained:
Marriage is not just about creating a new legal relationship
between two parties, it is about creating a new relationship between the
families of those parties. … That is why we have the terms … [like] mother-in-law
and son-in-law. Marriage creates kinship in a way that other types of legal
relationships do not.
FamilyVoice Australia stated that ‘marriage has provided the bedrock of
family life that is essential for the survival of society’.
The ACL claimed that marriage is ‘a social good, providing the best environment
for family to flourish, and in particular, for children to be raised and
According to the Lutheran Church of Australia:
Marriage, along with the
family which revolves around it and is established by it, is the foundational
institution for the social and political order of a nation. So the stability
and prosperity of marriage and the family, in large part, determines the stability
and prosperity of our country.
The Chinese Methodist Church in Australia submitted that ‘marriage is
the logical basis of the family’. The Seventh Day
Adventist Church concurred:
… marriage is the natural
basis of the family because it secures the relationship between biological
parents and their children, and provides a microcosm of social unity that is
time-honoured as a core ingredient of stable societies.
The Rabbinical Council of Victoria took the view that
… the institution of marriage is central to the formation of
a healthy society and to the concept of family.
In a speech submitted to the inquiry by the Hon. Michael Kirby, he explained
Marriage tends to be beneficial for the individuals who chose
its status. It is an affirmation of relationships before society. Such
relationships are generally to the advantage of their participants and of
society itself. They involve very substantial health benefits; as well as civic
benefits in terms of the mutual support and protection provided to individuals
The ACL told the Committee that:
The modern state does not usually regulate interpersonal
relationships among its citizens. One of the few exceptions is marriage. Its
interest in regulating marriage stems from the importance of marriage as a
foundational unit in society, of upholding marriage as an ideal.
The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference pointed out that:
Governments promote stable
marriages because they are important to the welfare of children and because
marriages and families are key to the future of the community.
Moreover, the AFA suggested to the Committee that government involvement
in the regulatory environment relating to marriage:
… has do to with recognising
the significant public interest in fostering lifelong, exclusive fidelity
between a man and a woman intending to engage in a relationship whose very
nature is oriented towards the creation of children and of a new biological
New South Wales MLA the Hon. Trevor Khan stated that:
… marriage is no longer seen as the starting point at which
young people move from the family home, commence an intimate relationship and
‘set up home’. Instead marriage is, for the majority of young Australians, a
later step in the relationship. It is occurring at a point long after the
commencement of a sexual relationship, and indeed long after co-habitation.
Mr Khan further noted that:
… reasons such as love, stability, sexual satisfaction and
companionship are all recognised in contemporary Australian society as valid
reasons for marriage.
According to Australian Bureau of Statistics data, 31 per cent of
the 121 000 marriages conducted in 2010 were solemnised by ministers of
religion and 69 per cent by civil celebrants.
As the organisation Engage Celebrants pointed out:
We have solemnised first marriages between people who haven’t
yet lived together, those who already have children together, blended families
and older couples where there is no possibility for children to be born into
the marriage. We’ve even officiated over marriages that, due to medical
reasons, will never be consummated.
In addition to nuclear families, Australian families are represented by
single-parent families, extended families and blended families of step- and
Couples may have no children, biological children, adoptive children or
children conceived through IVF or surrogacy. Depending on state laws, single
parents and same-sex couples have adopted children.
Professor Kerryn Phelps, from Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays
(PFLAG), observed that:
… quite a number of children, and an increasing number of
children, are being raised in single-parent families and in blended families
where there are one or two step-parents, and some children are being raised by
grandparents, some children have two fathers and some children have two mothers
and so forth, whatever the shapes of those children’s families are it should be
acknowledged and respected.
Many of the above opinions about family and marriage derive from
religious beliefs and traditions.
Religious traditions form an integral part of Australian society. While
Australia was founded as a predominantly Christian British colony, processes of
migration and shifts towards embracing multiculturalism have created a modern
Australia that is rich in religious diversity. The varieties of communities
that practice religion in Australia have many different structures of beliefs
and values that shape people’s attitudes to life.
While Australian society includes citizens of differing faith beliefs
and their respective faith-based organisations, it is a secular state. This
means that citizens can hold whatever religious beliefs they choose. However,
as Professor Andrew Lynch commented, the Constitution of Australia ‘ensures
that the Commonwealth cannot impose any religious observance upon people’.
Section 116 of the Constitution sets out the separation of the Church and
State in Australia. It states that:
The Commonwealth shall not make any law for
establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for
prohibiting the free exercise of any religion.
This means that although Australia respects religious beliefs and
traditions, legislation is a matter reserved for the deliberation of
parliaments in our secular state in the best interests of society and without
favour to one or other faith system.
Australia’s religious diversity was evident at the Sydney public hearing
which included the participation of representatives of the Anglican, Catholic,
Lutheran and Seventh Day Adventist Churches, the Salvation Army, the Union of
Progressive Judaism, the Federation of Australian Buddhist Councils, the Hindu Council
of Australia, and the Sikh Council of Australia.
In addition to the participation of these organisations, the Committee
received written responses from a range of other religious organisations,
including Quakers Australia, the Chinese Methodist Church in Australia, the
Episcopal Assembly for Oceania and the Rabbinical Council of Victoria.
The religious representatives who spoke to the Committee at the public
hearing held a range of views about the nature of marriage and of the passage
of the two Bills. A common view held by all the participants was that marriage
has a spiritual component in addition to it being a social or legal contract
between two people. The views diverged, however, when it came to same-sex
Reverend Dr Michael Semmler, President of the Lutheran Church of
Australia, strongly supported the separation of church and state, saying that
Lutherans ‘do not want to interfere with the government ordering society’, but
urged the government to ‘preserve the uniqueness of the husband/wife – the
male/female – in marriage’.
According to Professor Nihal Singh Agar, marriage within the Hindu
religion ‘is between a man and a woman for progeny and for their spiritual
growth’. Similarly, Mr Bawa Singh
Jagdev stated that according to the Sikh religion, marriage ‘unites a man and a
woman for the purpose of procreation and raising children in a caring and
loving family environment’.
Representatives of the Salvation Army and the Anglican, Catholic and
Seventh Day Adventist Churches all held marriage to be a spiritual and social
joining of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others.
Conversely, Mr Steve Denenberg from the Union for Progressive Judaism
supported the bills and took the position that ‘it is time for our society to
move on’. Similarly, Venerable
Bhante Sujato from the Federation of Australian Buddhist Councils said that
‘the overwhelming response of the Buddhist community has been supporting
It was made apparent to the Committee that even within faith-based
organisations, there is often a wide range of divergent beliefs and values on
the question of the recognition of same sex marriage. The Uniting Church in
Australia acknowledged this diversity, stating that:
There is a great diversity of opinion amongst our Church
members, derived from the different ways in which people understand the Bible
and their own Christian faith.
While some Christian churches are adamant that marriage is a lifelong
union solely between a man and a woman, others support marriage equality for
same‑sex partners. Reverend Greg Smith from the Metropolitan Community
Church Sydney, said that:
We at MCC Sydney strongly believe in the holy rite of
marriage for all couples ... Practicing the rite of holy matrimony for same sex
couples is as much a part of our faith as is practicing the rite of holy matrimony
for opposite sex couples.
Different attitudes arise from different values placed on, or
interpretations of, religious texts. For example, while the Rabbinical Council
of Victoria does not support the bills on the basis that the Torah’s ‘conception
of marriage is a covenantal relationship between men and women’, the Union of
Progressive Judaism considers ‘that the behaviour of people has to reflect both
modern values as well as the eternal values that we have from the Torah’.
In addition to the separation of church and state, Australia prides
itself on its ‘fair go’ attitude and respect for equal rights. This was
reflected in comments made by legal advocates and religious organisations.
The Castan Centre for Human Rights referred to ‘the basic Australian
ethos of a “fair go” for all’ and PFLAG called
Australia ‘the land of giving everyone a “fair go”’.
Liberty Victoria noted that:
Australia was once a leader in the protection of human
rights, and in the valuing of a fair go for all, which is at the very
foundation of human rights.
Auxiliary Bishop Julian Porteous, Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney,
… in Australia … we are very strong about human rights, and
that is one of our great traditions, and our Constitution and so forth supports
it. I would fully support, obviously, the protection of rights.
As discussed in Chapter 2, Commonwealth and state and territory
legislation has extended married rights to de facto couples, including same-sex
couples. The vast majority of respondents to the inquiry were supportive of equal
legal status for de facto relationships.
The ACL stated that:
Non-discrimination against same-sex couples is exactly what
Federal Parliament achieved in 2008 when over 80 pieces of legislation were
amended by a bipartisan majority. Homosexual couples now enjoy effective
equality with married couples in every way short of marriage.
Moreover, in their evidence given at
the public hearing, the ACL stated that:
… we supported that [legislation] because we believe there
should be no substantive discrimination.
The Anglican Church Diocese of Sydney similarly supported such
legislation. Bishop Robert Forsyth
told the Committee:
I am not saying there should
not be committed, even legally authorised gay relationship matters. I am simply
saying calling the two realities by the same name is confusing and it does
affect what marriage means. I would not mind a thing called ‘gay marriage’.
In contrast, the Committee heard from other organisations who said that
legislative reforms to remove discrimination against same-sex de facto couples
may have achieved fairness, but not equality, and that banning same-sex couples
from taking the further step of marriage creates a two-tier relationship
The Australian Human Rights Commission stated that:
The principle of equality requires that any formal
relationship recognition available under federal law to opposite-sex couples
should also be available to same-sex couples. This includes civil marriage.
The AME noted that some people of faith support marriage equality:
It is because they value fairness; it is because they value
the power of love, and it is because they value the importance of equality.
UnitingJustice declared that:
… no person in our society should be denied the rights and
benefits afforded by the state to others in equivalent situations, based on
their sexuality or their involvement in a committed same-sex relationship.
Professor George Williams noted that:
… nothing competes with
marriage for its iconic status, the symbolism that it contains within our
society. I am not sure it would be possible to set up a different way of
recognising a relationship that could be seen within the eyes of the broader
community as being of equivalence. Of course, that is what it is about. It is
about an equality and equivalence. I think even in countries where they have
had [relationship] registration schemes it has not prevented the debate moving
onto a marriage debate as it has here.
UnitingJustice stated that without equal access to marriage, same-sex
relationships may be seen as less significant than heterosexual relationships:
Without acknowledgement of same-sex relationships under the Marriage
Act, there runs the very real risk of viewing same-sex relationships as somehow
inferior to opposite-sex relationships.
The Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby added that:
Marriage offers symbolic as well as legal recognition.
Relationship ‘apartheid’, where couples are granted equal rights but different
status promotes a cultural hierarchy of relationships. Whilst legal
entitlements between de facto and married couples are virtually the same, the
absence of marriage places same-sex relationships as ‘inferior’ or ‘lesser
than’ heterosexual married couples.
According to the Australian Human Rights Commission:
We do hold a very genuine concern that anything that publicly
legitimises discrimination of any kind does play to a feeling, in some sections
of our community, that these relationships are second class and therefore the
people can be treated with less respect.
The Public Interest Advocacy Centre submitted:
To some extent, by failing to
provide equal recognition of committed same-sex relationships, it might even
reinforce the notion that committed relationships between heterosexual and
homosexual couples are not equal.
It was submitted by Gilbert + Tobin Centre for Public Law that although
same-sex couples have the same legal rights as any de facto couple, ‘heterosexual
couples are able to have their relationship formally recognised under law by
taking the deliberate step of marriage, [but] this is not an option open to
same-sex couples’. Professor Andrew Lynch elaborated
that this ‘then means that there are legal disabilities associated with
same-sex couples because they do not have that ability to choose between a de
facto status and married status’.
Australian Marriage Equality argued that:
… same-sex partners are not equal under the law if they are
excluded from the legal rights and responsibilities which flow from and are
associated with marriage.
The Defence Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex Information
Service provided many examples of the inability to marry negatively affecting
Australian Defence Personnel because de facto recognition is not sufficient for
accessing Defence family benefits, such as those attached to overseas postings.
Mr Alex Greenwich, National Convenor of Australian Marriage Equality,
told the Committee about his impending marriage:
This is a celebration that I am really looking forward to. I
unfortunately have to go overseas to marry my partner. I have to go to another
country to give me more rights than the country that I am a citizen of.
Venerable Sujato asked simply: ‘Why marriage. Why not civil union?
Because marriage really means something to people.’
Throughout the course of the inquiry, the Committee heard much about the
symbolic significance of marriage equality to the social and family acceptance
of same-sex couples.
Ms Shelley Argent, a mother of a gay son said:
It is about inclusion. It is not necessarily about the
wedding ceremony. It is about what that piece of paper represents. It is the
symbolism. That piece of paper would tell my son and the rest that his
relationship was equal. And it is equal.
The Union for Progressive Judaism noted that:
What we do find of the gay groups within our movement is that
they feel they have been excluded, possibly for centuries. Homophobia has been
prevalent in our society, so when we have offered same-sex commitment
ceremonies for many of them it is insufficient.
Australian Marriage Equality fears that:
… the negative messages sent out by discrimination in
marriage foster prejudice, discrimination and unequal treatment against
same-sex relationships in the wider community.
Professor Phelps noted that:
Amending the Marriage Act for equality is not going to solve
this problem overnight, but it is a hugely symbolic gesture towards saying that
we respect you, we respect the fact that you may form a relationship with
somebody of either the opposite gender or the same gender and, regardless of
that, you can aspire to having a loving, lifelong, committed marriage at some
point in your future, should you choose to do so.
… what marriage equality will do is remove the feeling from
our sons and daughters that they are seen as second rate citizens with second
rate relationships and provide them with the same rights, responsibilities,
privileges and choices as their siblings, colleagues and society generally
which is the right to have their relationships legally celebrated and
recognised in their home country.
In addition to the evidence received at the Sydney public hearing and
the 42 written statements published on the inquiry website, the Committee
received a large number of responses via email and post and through the online
The online survey was established to provide a simple means for the
public to engage with the inquiry, especially those who wished to remain
anonymous. It is also provided a viable means to collate and record responses,
as the Committee had anticipated a very large response that could not have been
processed in the usual way by existing staff resources.
The online survey was not a statistically valid, random poll.
Respondents were self-selected, in that they chose to participate if they
wished. It was also anonymous, so it cannot be ascertained whether it is truly a
representative sample of the broadly-held views of Australians.
The Committee accepts that some respondents may have completed the
survey more than once in order to ‘boost the numbers’. However, the data was
able to be checked for responses from duplicate or invalid email addresses as
well as for multiple responses at one time from the same IP address. This
occurred with those who supported the bills and those who opposed them, but at
such an insignificant rate (4.4 per cent) as to have little effect on the
The anonymous online survey received 276 437 responses, the majority of
which were supportive of the bills. When asked about the specific bills, 64 per
cent of the respondents supported the Marriage Equality Amendment Bill 2012
(the Bandt/Wilkie Bill), and 60 per cent supported the Marriage Amendment Bill
2012 (the Jones Bill).
Table 1 Support for the bills
Marriage Equality Amendment Bill 2012
(Mr Bandt and Mr Wilkie)
Marriage Amendment Bill 2012 (Mr Jones)
that the results are not statistically significant. There is an insignificant
rate of duplication of approximately 4.4% (3.6% for ‘agree’ responses and 0.8%
for ‘disagree’ responses) of the responses.
In response to specific elements of the proposed amendments, 177 663
people supported the legalisation of same-sex marriage in Australia whereas 98
164 people opposed and 610 people were unsure. A similar number, 177 035,
supported the legal recognition in Australia of same-sex marriages performed
overseas, whereas 94 449 people did not agree and 4 953 were unsure. Only 37
252 people disagreed that religious ministers should not be obliged to perform
same-sex marriage, while 24 786 were unsure.
Table 2 Responses to proposed amendments
The law should be changed
to legalise same sex marriages in Australia
Same sex marriages
performed in foreign countries should be recognised in Australia
being ministers of religion, should not be obliged to perform same sex
marriages. (Note: authorised celebrants, being ministers of religion, are not
currently obliged to perform any marriage)
that the results are not statistically significant. There is an insignificant
rate of duplication of approximately 4.4% (3.6% for ‘agree’ responses and 0.8%
for ‘disagree’ responses) of the responses.
The online survey elicited 213 524 general comments and 86 991
comments about the legal or technical aspects of the bills.
Of the 2 353 emailed and posted responses, 142 were in support of the
Jones and Bandt/Wilkie Bills, and 2 211 were against. A large number of those
responses were form letters in support of or in opposition to the bills.
The Committee thanks the public for their contribution to the inquiry.
Many people provided personal stories about their marriages, relationships and
families to the Committee in person or in writing. Others talked about faith
and soul-searching. Some provided comprehensive research papers.
Notwithstanding that the survey was anonymous, the number of responses
was the largest received in the history of federal parliamentary committees, thus
representing very high community engagement with this issue. It demonstrates
that this topic goes to the heart of so many people’s beliefs and values about
family, marriage, religion and equality.