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It's Only Dead Fish That Go With The Flow, Says Eric Abetz, On Marriage Equality

"It's only the live fish that have the capacity to swim against the current."

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Liberal senator Eric Abetz.
Lukas Coch / AAPIMAGE

Liberal senator Eric Abetz.

Tasmanian senator Eric Abetz invoked George Orwell, an analogy about dead fish, and the trauma suffered by "no" voters as they were forced to pass by rainbow flags advocating a "yes" vote during an all-stops speech that will likely be one of his last stands against same-sex marriage in the parliament.

It was one of a number of colourful speeches on the second day of same-sex marriage debate in the Senate, where a long list of senators lined up to have their say – albeit in a much lengthier manner than the two seconds it took most Australians to tick their survey forms.

There was rainbow apparel (Richard Di Natale's shoes, Anne Urquhart's shirt and badge), a Bowie and Queen hit (Peter Whish-Wilson recited Under Pressure), and an ongoing game of parliamentary ping pong (too many to name) over central questions: Who suffered more during the postal survey, LGBTI people or "no" voters? And was the postal survey good, or bad?

Abetz, who took the floor around 12.45pm Monday, used his wide-ranging speech to urge the government to not forget or neglect "no" voters.

He also argued that Australians had voted to allow only same-sex couples to marry, suggesting many "yes" voting Australians felt "betrayed" at the prospect of wording that includes all intersex or gender diverse people, some of whom have an X marker on their passports.

Abetz pointed out that the 38.4% of people who voted "no" is "three to four times the Greens vote", and also noted that "the latest opinion poll doesn't determine one's morality, principles, or policy".

In a quote made famous by former Republican vice-president candidate Sarah Palin, he also analogised same-sex marriage supporters to dead fish getting swept along by the current.

"As someone told me the other day, it's only dead fish that go with the flow; it's only the live fish that have the capacity to swim against the current."

Abetz also defended "no" voters as "inherently good people who were willing to embark on a campaign where the odds were stacked against them from the beginning."

"The media and celebrities were relentless, yet the 'no' campaigners held their course. They had to go to work passing 'yes' propaganda in their very own offices or physically work under the so-called rainbow flag."

Labor senator Jenny McAllister painted a harsh picture of life for LGBTI people told the Senate that as the chair of a senate committee looking into the postal survey, she had seen many of the anti-LGBTI flyers, online messages, and graffiti that was distributed during the campaign.

"It has been cruel, it has been crude, and it has been spiteful," she said. "What this material tells us is that there are still a small number of people out there, a very small number I believe, but a highly motivated small number of people, who wish to roll back the rights that have been acquired by gay and lesbian Australians.

"Harm to the gay community is not merely an unfortunate collateral of their campaign. It was one of their primary goals."

Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young cries as she speaks on the same sex marriage bill in the Senate.
Mick Tsikas / AAPIMAGE

Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young cries as she speaks on the same sex marriage bill in the Senate.

Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young, who has introduced seven failed same-sex marriage bills to the parliament, broke down as she delivered an emotional speech about former Greens leader Bob Brown.

Brown, who is gay, was one of just seven senators who voted against the 2004 amendment to the Marriage Act.

"It was a bitter thing to do. It has now taken up to 12 years to reverse," Hanson-Young said. "No long-winded debates and no postal survey were required when former prime minister John Howard decided that he would single-handedly outlaw love."

"When Bob retired, in 2012, I said to him, 'Bob, I'm really sorry that we weren't able to reverse that awful law before your time was up'," Hanson-Young told the Senate.

Labor senator Helen Polley was the first "no" voter in the Labor caucus to add her voice to the debate, broadly stating her support for the wide-ranging exemptions based on religious and conscientious belief to be moved by conservatives.

She stressed that the challenge senators face is ensuring that "the almost 5 million people who voted 'no' are not marginalised".

Citing several talking points about the overseas experience used by the "no" campaign, Polley said "We must ensure that we balance the rights, rather than exceptions, for religious freedom."

The debate wrapped at 9.50pm, 45 senators having weighed in so far. A handful remain on the speaker's list, and then the chamber will move to debating a series of amendments.

You can read a twitter thread of the various speeches here.

Peter Whish-Wilson is in the Senate talking about Queen & Bowie's "Under Pressure" in relation to SSM. "Crank up th…

Lane Sainty is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Sydney, Australia.

Contact Lane Sainty at

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