There are 10 sitting days left in the 46th Parliament.
There is a crisis in our senior care system. Hundreds of Australians are dying in understaffed and underfunded homes, yet this government is doing nothing about it.
Two years ago, the government promised to set up a federal anti-corruption commission. The Attorney General told us yesterday that no such promise will be kept.
There are skills shortages and supply shortages that are preventing businesses from opening and the economy recovering.
Interest rates will rise, adding to current pressures on the cost of living.
These are the issues on which we should focus during the last weeks of this legislature.
Instead, we are debating a bill that no one likes.
I support freedom of religion. I understand many in our community who want to see existing laws strengthened to protect their freedom of religious expression. I support that too. Although we are a long way from the days when employers could legally place ads in newspapers saying Catholics did not need to apply, I understand the desire for greater recognition and rights for people of faith .
The sometimes toxic debate sparked by the Prime Minister has highlighted the fact that no right is unlimited. Where the exercise of one person’s rights clashes with another person’s freedoms, we must find a solution. It can be done. It is the role of this Parliament to do so.
The contest of ideas and ways of life is handled by social norms, civility and human decency – or not. Unfortunately, the law has a very brutal way of doing it.
If we have to do this… Then we have to do it right. According to the articles in today’s newspaper, the government has not introduced legislation that protects children.
For me, this is not an academic question.
The courage to swim against the tide
Last week my family said goodbye to my nephew Ollie. He was only 15 when he committed suicide. He was a handsome, creative and courageous young man. He was loved and accepted by his parents, brothers and friends. His mother and father are in anguish. We are all. He was gay. He was unsure of his gender and had mental health issues. Now he is gone and we will no longer be able to love and support him on his lifelong journey. Obviously, the love and acceptance of her family and friends was not enough.
My own son is also a handsome, creative and intelligent 14-year-old boy. He designs and makes clothes, is a gifted makeup artist, seamlessly transitions between men’s and women’s wardrobes. He wears heels that make me dizzy and has more handbags than his sister.
He’s got more courage than any boy I’ve met. He swims against the tide.
I love and support him unconditionally and brag about his talents to anyone who will listen.
But I worry every time he leaves the house. I know that the love and protection he enjoys from his mother, friends and family is very different from the welcome he may receive in the outside world.
Could it be the day we receive a call telling us that something has happened? That he was attacked just because he is what he is?
It’s about my children, but it’s not… it’s about families and every child who has the courage to swim against the tide just to be themselves.
What message do we want to send?
Earlier today the Prime Minister said we should wield our power with love. It’s so easy to laugh and dismiss a sentence like that… But I agree. I ask the Prime Minister to reflect on those words as we consider this bill.
I would ask the Prime Minister and all other members of the House to put themselves in the shoes of the parents or the heels of their children when they go out in public.
What message do we want this Parliament to send to these children? Are they as loved, cherished and respected as all the other children? We sure don’t tell them – it’s okay if you’re gay… As long as we can’t see it.
Because the thing that every parent of every gay or trans child knows is that the love and protection we provide them in our homes and families is not enough.
At some point, they have to go out into the world and deal with it as it is.
So, as parliamentarians, we have the power to shape this world…by what we do and what we say. What message do we want to send to our children?
Shaping the Australia we want to have
You know there’s a simple ease in which the members of this place throw sausages at a charity barbecue, drink a beer, put a cap on our head and smile for a camera, put on a football sweater and cheer on our favorite team. I do it regularly.
And when we do, we know we’re signaling to Australia that we’re like you…or at least Australia as we imagine it.
But the fact is that Australia is a much more diverse place than we project from our pulpit here.
Being an Australian is a lot more complex than throwing the Melbourne Cup or shouting ‘go Sharkies’.
It is the high responsibility of us, called here, to reflect and shape the kind of Australia we want to have.
It’s a damn diverse place.
It is black and white and brown. He prays in a church, in a mosque, in a shrine, in a hall or on a surfboard just behind the breaking waves.
It’s male and female, it’s straight and gay and trans and intersex…all of it.
We are the Australia of Storm Boy, Breaker Morant, Puberty Blues and Priscilla Queen of the Desert.
It’s not easy to create a national story that includes us all, but that’s our job. And that national history must have a place for all of us and all of our children – how we imagine them.
But above all how they are. If a young child has the courage to be themselves and take ownership of their identity, the least, the least that can be done is to say “welcome”.
There have been too many funerals and too many grieving families. We have in our gift the power to do something.
Let’s not pass.
Stephen Jones is the Shadow Deputy Treasurer and Shadow Minister for Financial Services
This is an edited transcript of a speech given in parliament during the debate on the government’s Religious Discrimination Bill
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