The chief lobbyist for big business has defended the right of company bosses to take a position in the same-sex marriage debate, and hit out at "deeply offensive and deeply wrong" comments about the children of LGBTI families.
Business Council of Australia chief executive Jennifer Westacott??? said companies "employ millions of Australians, they stand very strongly for diverse workplaces and some of them have very strong views that this is a kind of symbol of that kind of diversity in the workplace".
Ms Westacott - who has been in a same-sex relationship for 30 years - said it was "not fair" to expect business to take a role on issues such as gender equality and community development but not same-sex marriage.
"I don't think people can have it both ways and I think business, who employ so many people, who are big parts of communities, are entitled to take views on this and have strong opinions on this either way - provided it's respectful and informed," Ms Westacott told ABC Radio National on Thursday morning.
Business leaders who have spoken for and against same-sex marriage have attracted controversy.
Qantas chief Alan Joyce - who has donated $1 million of his own money to the 'yes' campaign - has been a strong proponent of changing the Marriage Act and has been criticised by Immigration Minister Peter Dutton for his position.
Roger Corbett, the former Fairfax Media chairman and former managing director of Woolworths, attracted public ire when he gave an interview comparing heterosexual and same-sex marriage to "a black man and a white man".
The interview prompted supermarket giant Woolworths to distance itself from Mr Corbett and reaffirm its support for same-sex marriage.
Ms Westacott, whose organisation represents some of Australia's largest companies including Qantas and Woolworths, said the debate had affected her personally.
"I'm in a same-sex relationship, I have been for over 30 years," Ms Westacott said. "And to me, this whole debate and the decision for the Australian people is one about respect, about acceptance, about legitimacy. I've spent my whole life feeling like an outsider. I have spent my whole life and the long relationship I've been in, which has been a happy and loving relationship, feeling like it doesn't have the same legitimacy, the same respect, the same acceptance as other people's relationships. To me, it's important for people like me to come and out and say 'for me that's the fundamental issue, that my life, my relationship ought to be treated with that same level of respect'."
Ms Westacott, who has overseen the departments of community services, housing and education in NSW and Victoria, said she had been "deeply offended" by claims the children of LGTBI families "are not going to be okay".
"I actually know quite a lot about what's good for children and I can tell you this - children are better with people who love them and respect them and I saw some horrific examples of what happened to children in heterosexual relationships, you know, terrible abuse, neglect. Kids are well off when they're with people who love them and respect them, and as a society we should love and respect them. So when I hear people that say I - and people like me - are not capable of caring for children, that is deeply hurtful, deeply offensive and deeply wrong."