‘The day the world changed for LGBTI Australians’: my week in Canberra

‘The day the world changed for LGBTI Australians’: my week in Canberra
Image: Image: Star Observer / Robert McGrath

Rainbow parent and LGBTI rights advocate Jacqui Tomlins was in Canberra the day Australia achieved marriage equality. Here she pens a behind-the-scenes look on the historic week in parliament.

dean smith marriage equality warren entsch
Image: Star Observer / Robert McGrath

The girls cartwheel across the parliament forecourt as Corin parkours up the surrounding sloping walls.

Given the events of yesterday, I am amazed they have the energy. They had smiled, chatted, thanked, posed, and shaken hands with numerous MPs and Senators over the course of the day.

Parliamentary offices are spread far and wide over a huge labyrinth and Scout had logged her target 10,000 steps by lunch.

We had been led through that labyrinth by the indefatigable Felicity Marlowe, Executive Director of Rainbow Families Victoria, who knows this place and the people in it like the back of her hand.

I had warned the kids beforehand: ‘We’ll be meeting some important people and sometimes we’ll have to move quickly at short notice. Flis is in charge. We do as we’re told.’ No one does parliament as well as Flis.

After the result of the postal survey, we had made the decision to fly up to Canberra as a family to witness the passing of this historic legislation. We wanted to be there with our friends, Jason and Adrian Tuazon McCheyne and their son Ruben, with whom we had run the legal case in 2003 that had prompted the Howard government to change the Marriage Act.

For us, the passing of the legislation bookended our respective families’ 14-year journey: one piece of legislation that inserted discrimination and one piece that removed it.

jacqui tomlins rainbow family
Jac Tomlins and her rainbow family. Image: Supplied.

Day one had been crazy. Over breakfast we had wrapped rainbow socks which we then delivered to the Shadow Attorney General Mark Dreyfus, Green’s Senator Janet Rice, and ALP Senator Louise Pratt, all of whom have been incredibly supportive of rainbow families over many years.  

In between, we had done interviews with BuzzFeed’s uber talented Lane Sainty, and with the Australian Marriage Equality documentary film crew.

We had also met with our local member, Josh Frydenberg.

A few years ago, my partner Sarah and I went to see Josh to share our story and talk about marriage equality. I had also hand-delivered a dozen roses on behalf of Australian Marriage Equality to his office one Valentine’s Day.  

Josh was one of the first Liberal members to publicly support marriage equality and when we decided to go to Canberra, we’d asked if he wanted to catch up.

“Come in, guys,” he said. “Welcome. Thanks so much for coming. Sorry to rush you, but I’m just finishing my speech and I want to run it by you first.”  He leaned over his desk and read from his hand-written draft.

He talked about his own personal journey; about the fact that initially he had been hesitant to acknowledge the need for change, but after hearing from so many constituents about their own personal relationships he had recognised the need to move forward. He talked about how proud he was that Kooyong had returned a Yes vote of 73.7 per cent, higher than the national average.  

And then he talked about us.

“That okay?” he said, looking up from his desk to a teary Sarah and me.

Five minutes later we sat in the public gallery as he talked about meeting our family – mentioning each of the kids by name – and about how there was no reason why our 25-year relationship shouldn’t be recognised as a marriage under law; that our marriage in no way diminished his and that, in fact, it strengthened the community as a whole.

Watching the kids listening to Josh affirm their family so positively in the national parliament was an extraordinarily powerful moment.

greens janet rice richard di natale jacqui tomlins
Jac’s kids meeting Greens leader Richard di Natale and Senator Janet Rice. Image: Supplied.

It’s now the following morning and, changing the world aside, we still need to feed the kids and I’m pre-coffee which is never a happy thing.

We spot Wil Stracke from Trades Hall on the Parliament forecourt and do a quick photo op with all the Victorians who are up for the day.

Flis has an early press conference organised for us and we need to get to the café sharpish. We order breakfast and Scout is eagerly spreading cream on her scone when Flis phones from the lobby and tells us we need to be there. Greens leader Richard di Natale is waiting to meet us.

“Sorry kids,” I say. “Hold the scones, we’ve gotta go!”

Flis gets us signed in and we troop through the labyrinth to the press conference. I talk about the fact that when we walked down the aisle at our wedding in 2003, we carried our son who was then nine months old, and that nine month old is the teenager standing next me. This campaign has been fought his whole life, and his sisters’ too.

Richard asks Cully if she’d like to be a politician one day, and she explains that yes, she had thought she might like to be a politician, but the problem is she’s a dual citizen so she isn’t sure how that’s going work.

He laughs, and tells her that hopefully they will have fixed that by the time she is old enough to run.

It is December 7, the last sitting day for the year, and speculation is rife. Yes, the vote will go through today; it will happen quickly and before lunch. No, it won’t happen until after Question Time; the government will want to catch the evening news cycle. No, it won’t go through at all; the opposition will hold it up with amendments. Everyone we speak to has an opinion and it’s driving me crazy.  

Stop with the speculating, people, I want to yell. It’s not helping.

The problem for us is that there are strict rules about what you can and can’t do in the public gallery.

You are not allowed to take anything in with you; no iPads, laptops, or phones, not even a book.

We know that competition for seats will be fierce and once you’ve got a spot, you can’t be ducking in and out. You’re not allowed to take any food either, or even a bottle of water, and that’s challenging enough for adults, let alone three children.

By 10.00am we are seated in the public gallery listening to the first amendments. Sarah and I do our best to explain what’s happening, but it’s not riveting entertainment by anybody’s standards and after an hour they start to get restless. I try a whispered I Spy.  

Sarah tries clothes spotting on the chamber floor, but beyond admiring Linda Burney’s blue suede shoes and Mark Dreyfus’ rainbow socks, that doesn’t go anywhere either.

Finally, I pass them a small notebook and three pens that I managed to smuggle in and they make Dots and Boxes and Hangman last a good hour. When I glance over Cully’s shoulder, I see two phrases to which they have hung a man: Scout is awesome and Me no like Turnbull.

Meanwhile, there are more amendments – and more amendments – and, it might just be me, but they don’t sound that different from the last lot of amendments. Celebrants seem to feature highly.

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‘Me no like Turnbull’. Jac’s kids playing hangman during parliament. Image: Supplied.

We make it through to 1.30pm when they clear the chamber for Question Time, for which you need a ticket. We get the kids out quickly, cartwheel them to the café, eat, drink and head back. Our tickets have been organised by Josh’s office and we pick them up on our way.

They are individually named and signed by the Speaker and when I show them to the security guard, he smiles. The kids are super impressed with our posh tickets and we make our way to the front row of the public gallery. Magda and Thorpey are there, along with Sally Rugg, Alex Greenwich and the AME crew, and Rodney, Shelley, and Flis – amongst many others.

We get through the hour of Question Time and then amendments start over again. No one seems to know exactly how many there are and – even though they are all being defeated – they keep coming.

Scout and Cully are scribbling in the notebook which turns out to be a Godsend. I take a peek. They have devised a quiz:

Is it spelt:

  1. Politition
  2. Polititian
  3. Politician
  4. Politicion

Is it spelt:

  1. Amendent
  2. Amendmant
  3. Amandment
  4. Amendment

Should we have marriage equality?

  1. Hell yeah!!!
  2. I guess
  3. Yes
  4. I don’t really care

Four o’clock. Five o’clock. There is a slight flurry of interest as Bill Shorten and Penny Wong drop into the gallery for whispered hellos and handshakes. Sally appears wiping her mouth: “I smuggled in a muesli bar,” she says, “and I just ate it in the loo!”

Still the amendments roll on and the kids finally give it up. Cully and Scout fall asleep with their heads in Sarah’s lap, and Corin with his head in mine.

And then all of a sudden – after fourteen years of campaigning, after twelve weeks of the tortuous postal survey, and after eight hours in the chamber – second reading is done. Turnbull moves third reading and the Speaker calls for the division.

Everyone – bar four MPs – gets up and moves to the ayes side where there is standing room only. It is a truly remarkable sight.

The Speaker announces: ‘The ayes have it’ and the clerk declares the bill is passed and the entire chamber and public gallery is on their feet.

I lean over the kids and fling my arms around Sarah and we are sobbing on each other’s shoulders and the relief and the joy is beyond words.

I lift my head to applaud and everywhere people are crying and cheering and clapping and in that moment I feel immensely, immensely proud. The gallery leads I Am Australian and the floor joins in. That, there, is our unifying moment.

jacqui tomlins
Jac’s family posing for a photo in parliament. Image: Supplied.

Outside the public gallery, there is a media scrum and I see a joyous Magda surrounded by cameras and microphones.

Flis grabs us and tells us to stay put; Patricia Karvelas is expecting us in the recording studio to do RN Drive. She’s already on air and has a couple of politicians lined up, but she is desperate for the human story.

But in order to get to the studio we need to be escorted. Everyone is following the media pack and we are all of a sudden alone.

The security guard won’t let us in the lift without an appropriate escort and we starting to stress a little. Then, out of the blue, Tanya Plibersek appears. “We’re trying to get to the Radio National studio,” Sarah explains hurriedly. “Can you escort us?”

“Er…Actually I don’t think I can,” she says, looking at security. “I don’t have the right lanyard.”

Oh FFS, you must be joking! You’re Tanya Plibersek, the Deputy Leader of the Opposition and right now that’s, like, the equivalent of the leader of the free world… which I think, but don’t say out loud.

But we all smile at the security guard and he gives Tanya the nod. We race into the studio – the kids are exhausted and starving and thirsty – and James, the lovely Producer, finds them a bag of snakes which they swallow whole while Sarah and I do a completely buzzy interview with Patricia.

We finally make it back to the throng to hear an emotional Rodney Croome talking to the world: ‘I think of this achievement tonight as a gift to the next generation, a gift of equality and inclusion for them to build on for a better Australia.’

We feed, water, and reunite the kids with their devices, which gives Sarah and me the chance to grab a glass of champagne and watch the celebrations, but we don’t stay long.  

We need to get the kids back to the Canberra Central YHA, and ready for the return flight to Melbourne in the morning.  

The world has changed today – radically, fundamentally – for Sarah and me, for our kids, for the LGBTIQ community, our families, friends, and allies.

Australia is a better place now than it was this morning and that is an extraordinary thing to have witnessed.

As we head out of parliament, I pause a moment to enjoy the fading evening light and watch the girls cartwheel across the forecourt and Corin parkour up the surrounding sloping walls.

This is for all the rainbow families out there – the parents and kids who change the world every day by having the courage to be open and honest and proud of who we are. Thank you. 

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