After years of public debate, a $122 million voluntary postal survey that delivered an overwhelming yes, and a private member’s bill from gay Liberal senator Dean Smith that managed to survive multiple attempts to amend it unchanged, Australia’s parliament voted overwhelmingly in favour of same-sex marriage today.
And people celebrated that historic moment. The achievement. The sense of righteousness in the decision. The floor of the parliament and gallery erupted in cheers and applause before the gallery managed to serenade the politicians with a very unparliamentary rendition of “I am Australian” without censure from the speaker.
And amid the tears of joy, the backslapping, the rare show of unity between Labor and Liberal MPs who shook hands and embraced, including Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Opposition leader Bill Shorten, there was the moment Labor’s Linda Burney leapt into the arms of Liberal Warren Entsch.
It captures a humanity in politics that’s rarely seen in the pantomime of partisan conflict, but says so much about this debate.
Entsch is your typical knockabout Queensland bloke. He spent a decade in the RAAF, working as a fitter and welder, then as a croc farmer and grazier before turning to politics. He’s a 21-year veteran of Canberra who, for more than a decade, swam against the tide of his party, campaigning in support of same-sex marriage as far back as 2004. He was dubbed a “progressive redneck” and in 2006, first tried to introduce a private member’s bill to parliament in support of changing the marriage act, before biding his time and trying again in 2015, only to be shut down by his then leader, Tony Abbott.
During debate on the issue this week, it was Entsch who stood again and again to speak in support of the legislation as many of his Coalition colleagues tried, unsuccessfully, to amend the bill.
Sydney-based Liberal MP Trent Zimmerman, the first openly gay politician in the lower house paid tribute to the 67-year-old late in today’s debate saying Entsch should be considered an “honorary gay”.
On the other side of the house, Linda Burney delivered one of the parliament’s most extraordinary and moving speeches as she spoke in favour of the bill.
The Sydney-based MP has just returned to Canberra after taking leave following the death of her 33-year-old son, Binni Kirkbright-Burney, on October 24.
Fairfax’s Tony Wright captures the poignancy of the moment in this account, but in a week of small confessions, it was Burney’s acknowledgement of her son that had many listening and watching holding their breath.
We borrow from Wright’s account:
And then, a gear shift: “I support marriage equality as someone who has and has had loved ones who identify as LGBTI”.
Suddenly you knew, watching her, that this was no mere politician giving just another speech. The voice teetered on the edge of breaking before this mother of a lost son willed it back under control.
“To them,” she said, “Marriage equality would mean so much.”
Ms Burney looked up from the dispatch box, her eyes seeking the camera that was broadcasting her speech beyond Parliament, making sure no one missed her purpose.
“I honour these people,” she said.
“In particular my late son, Binni.”
This has been a long road, with pain for many too, but suddenly, just a minute before 6pm on December 7, the clouds parted. And there was joy.
And hugs and love.
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