Julie Owens – Member for Parramatta
The right for same sex couples to marry passed in the senate last week and from January 9th it will be legal for all couples to wed. It’s taken a lot of arguments and completely avoidable hurt to get there. The Australian public were asked and returned a national decision of YES with 61.6% voting in favour of marriage equality.
However, when the results were broken down the majority of NO votes came from Western Sydney – which is simply no surprise whatsoever. The result reflects what we already know – that many people who live in this area have strong religious beliefs, which include marriage being only between a man and a woman. While that is not the opinion of all people in Western Sydney, here it does reflect the majority.
A few days before the bill passed through parliament we spoke with Julie Owens, Member for Parramatta – who although her electorate returned a majority NO vote, chose to vote YES. Read on to find out why.
Sometimes you lead, sometimes you look ahead and think, “Well, we really have to do this, and I have to persuade people it’s the right thing to do.”
The Westies: Can you tell me a bit about how you got into politics? You have a background in the arts and don’t have a political family, how did you end up there?
Julie: My family were swinging voters, nobody in my family has any political history at all, but I’ve been really into it since I was about twelve. I think it was the election of the Whitlam government, I was an artist then, and Whitlam saw us. It’s one of the most powerful things that you could do as a person in a representative position, is to see people.
I didn’t join a political party until I was 30. I used to hang around the Labour Party a lot, they all thought I was a member, but actually I wasn’t. I didn’t join until I was at least 30. I joined for the Keating election, because I thought whatever doubts I had about joining a party while I was still an angry young woman, I disagreed with some of the things that Labour does, and still do, I thought not having Paul Keating as Prime Minister was worse than joining the party. So I joined.
The Westies: You have been representing Parramatta for a long time, since 2004. What made you want to represent them?
Julie: I think if you can represent Parramatta, you can represent the country. And if you get it right for Parramatta, you get it right for everyone. But to get it right for Parramatta, you really have to put your own views aside, and try and work out a path that makes the most people better off, and the fewest worst off. It is an ethics issue of trying to find a path that is most acceptable. Given, when I say that, you don’t always find a path that people are comfortable with either. Sometimes you lead, sometimes you look ahead and think, “Well, we really have to do this, and I have to persuade people it’s the right thing to do.”
We are a marginal city, and traditionally we are a bellweather seat, where we go with the government – though I have sat in the opposition twice. It’s not marginal, because it’s a homogenous group of people. It’s actually extremely variable. We don’t have remote Australia, and we don’t have rural Australia, but we’ve got everything else. And then when you put it all together, it kind of comes out fifty-fifty, politically. But there is not one story, there is not one Parramatta, there is not one Western Sydney, it’s not one anything. It’s just all different, it’s all over the place.
There are times when you go out on a limb, and say, “Well, we have to do this, because if we don’t, these are the consequences. And experts have told us this.” Climate change is one of those cases that even if it turns out that people want action on renewables – which they do, but even if that wasn’t the case – we would be obligated to go and argue it, because we know that we are in a very dangerous place if we don’t.
Now, I really think from the people I’ve talked to, the community has moved a long way since then , and even though it’s still 61.6% “no”, that’s pretty much what I was expecting. That was not a surprise – but a few years ago, it would be much higher than that.
The Westies: Talking of going out on a limb, we’ve just had a nation-wide postal vote asking whether the law should be changed to allow same sex marriage, the result of which was a clear no from Parramatta, yet you are going to vote?—
Julie: I am going to vote “yes”.
The Westies: Tell me why?
Julie: I voted “no” last time [in 2014], because I’d had extensive meetings with my community, and I thought they needed more time. There are large communities in which the gay community is still hidden, people that don’t think they have ever met a gay person – it’s not true. I kept hearing an unease. People were saying “I’m not quite sure what this means”, and they hadn’t had the time to think about it. So I voted “no”. Now, I really think from the people I’ve talked to, the community has moved a long way since then, and even though it’s still 61.6% “no”, that’s pretty much what I was expecting. That was not a surprise – but a few years ago, it would be much higher than that.
A lot of the people that I’ve talked to, who voted “no”, voted “no” because of their personal views, but they don’t have a very strong concern about it. Others do. Again, within the “no’s”, there are those that can live with it, and they will be fine, and there are others that have profoundly strong views, so it’s a great range.
I’ve been in communication with everybody who has contacted me, who voted “no”, we’ve been having conversations through email. So far the conversation has moved away from marriage equality itself, and to what the implications might be when religious freedom clashes with anti-discrimination law. It’s where the two collide that people are concerned about. I think a lot of the concerns are things that won’t come to pass, I think a lot of them are already legally protected, but we have to work that through as a community, because there are people in our community who are profoundly worried at how this will impact on their right to raise their children.
This for me allows a religious belief and alternate belief to exist in our society. So, this is actually about religious freedom for me.
The Westies – Will you be asking for any amendments?
Julie: I won’t. I don’t think it’s necessary in the Marriage Act. The Marriage Act is about marriage. Anti-discrimination laws and religious freedoms aren’t in the Marriage Act, they are elsewhere and already the church can decide those things for themselves. The churches don’t marry you if you are divorced, they won’t marry you if you aren’t the same religion. The churches already do all that, and this [Same Sex Marriage] will just add one more thing that the churches have the ability to make decisions on.
If we are going to talk about religious freedom, it doesn’t belong in the marriage act, it belongs in other laws. The religious freedom thing is interesting, because the Muslim and Sikh community – who suffer a lot of religious discrimination – have been asking for an additional religious protection for a long time. And the same people who are now arguing for religious freedom argued against it, when it was the Muslims and the Sikhs asking for protection against vilification. And they’re asking for protection against being abused in the street, in front of their children. Again, I’m really happy to have the debate about it, because people are worried about it, and it’s a debate that we probably should have – I just don’t think it has anything to do with the Marriage Act. It’s bigger than that.
For me voting “yes” is actually about religious freedom, because it protects the rights of churches to decide what marriage is [for their community], and it protects the right for people who don’t hold those religious beliefs to determine what marriage is for them. This for me allows a religious belief and alternate belief to exist in our society. So, this is actually about religious freedom for me.
Interview: Katrina James
Photos: Katrina James