6 July 2015




FRAN KELLY: Senator Penny Wong is the Shadow Trade Minister and Labor’s leader in the Senate. Senator Wong welcome to Breakfast.


KELLY: The Oxford English Dictionary defines decadence as “moral or cultural decline as characterised by excessive indulgence.” Do you think our neighbours will view us differently if we legalise same-sex marriage?

WONG: Well I have got to say this is one of the more inventive excuses I have heard from those who are opposing marriage equality in Australia. The reality is there are legal differences which already exist between Australia and a range of the countries in Southeast Asia. And I think the prospect of having a National Party minister saying that he doesn’t want to change Australian domestic law because of how Southeast Asia might view it is certainly an inventive new excuse.

KELLY: Except that they would argue, and I think they have argued, that those who are pro same-sex marriage are arguing that because Ireland has done it, because the United States Supreme Court has ruled it, because New Zealand has done it, Australia should do it?

WONG: I think those events demonstrate that democracies around the world are shifting on this. Not every democracy, but certainly many of the Western democracies that we would identify with. But look we should do this because it is right for us. Let’s not beat around the bush, we should do it because Australians decide, as they have within the community, that couples should be treated equally regardless of the gender of their partners. And once we do that then it is a fairly simple step to say the parliament should agree to marriage equality and Tony Abbott should get out of the way.

KELLY: This debate is heating up. Over the weekend you were quoted as saying you were concerned about some of the more extreme language being used. What particularly has concerned you?

WONG: I was making two points actually. One was that it seems to me in this debate the language lurches between the illogical and the offensive. And the second point I was making is we need to remember how this is heard by many outside of the beltway. I always try to think of young people around Australia who might still be struggling with who they are, might be in the process of coming out or having just come out and how it is for them to hear some of the ways in which those who oppose marriage equality debate this issue. You know, it is not a positive experience.

The thing I think is, people who oppose marriage equality, they are fundamentally saying to Australians ‘Look I just think we should discriminate against gay people, that’s my view.’ But because that is no longer a powerful argument in the community we see a whole range of new excuses developed. This creative one about how Asia will see this, over the weekend; the slippery slope one around polyamory and polygamy. And prior to that, Cory Bernardi suggested bestiality. These are people in search of an argument because they know that the heart of their argument is no longer accepted by most of the Australian community.

KELLY: Those who are on that side of the debate for preserving marriage as a union between a man and a woman say that they get in fact bullied for holding that view, they get called homophobic and it is nothing of the sort. Eric Abetz for instance has written a letter to the Hobart Council around same-sex marriage. And he is arguing, as he has argued publicly, that it is all about children, children deserve the best start in life and he says that there is plenty of research that shows the best possible start in life is linked with children having the security of knowing their biological parents and the diversity of male and female role models. Now you and your same-sex partner have two children. What is your reaction when you hear this from Senator Abtez?

WONG: I think it is disappointing and it is primarily disappointing because he is looking to denigrate families, again in search of an argument against marriage equality. Does anyone believe that preventing marriage equality for more years is going to prevent same-sex couples from having kids? Memo to Eric: we’ve already got children, all you are doing is saying the parents can’t be married. There is a whole set of arguments which can be put about the quality of the relationship and the quality of parenting being of primary importance when it comes to bringing up children but rather than getting into that, because I think that is a tactic by Eric and others to try and garner support for their position.

KELLY: Are you offended by it?

WONG: I find it sad that senior politicians in this country seem to want to tell my children and children of other same-sex couples that somehow they are not normal. I’ve been on the receiving end, when I was younger, of racism. I’m sure others of your listeners understand how it is to be seen as different or described as different. Why have a politician continuing to articulate those views, which are really about division, in this debate simply because he doesn’t want marriage equality? We know same-sex couples have children now. All that debate is, is saying their parents can’t be married.

KELLY: Senator Wong since news of the cross-party bill leaked last week there has been a very strong pushback from the conservative wing of the Liberal Party, led by Senator Abetz and others, Cory Bernardi on this program, and it is clear that within the Coalition party room the numbers are very much in favour of marriage staying as a union between a man and a woman. Are you starting to lose hope or any optimism that change will be legislated in this term?

WONG: I’ve always thought this reform is going to be hard won, particularly with Tony Abbott as Prime Minister. He is behaving as a roadblock in this debate and his excuse for not allowing a bill to come forward, not allowing a bill to be debated continues to shift, continues to change. My view about it is that ultimately we will one day win this in Australia. And we will win it not because our Parliament is behaving well but because the community has moved. The sense in the community is frankly much more charitable, much more respectful, much more tolerant and much kinder in many ways on this issue than the members of our Parliament.

KELLY: It’s a quarter to eight on Breakfast, we’re speaking with Labor Senator Penny Wong. You are a member of Labor’s Left, there was a meeting of the Left on the weekend to talk through positions ahead of the ALP National Conference later this month. Is the Left still intending to push for a binding vote, or some in the Left, for a binding vote on marriage equality?

WONG: Look there are many people who are well on the record as saying we should have a binding vote when it comes to matters of discrimination. I’m one of them, I made that clear in 2011. But I think everyone’s focus at the moment certainly is on trying to ensure we get a free vote in the Liberal Party and this bill passes through the Parliament. Of course Labor Party members and senators already have a free vote. On the issue of principle, whether or not there should be a conscience vote or not, that is obviously a discussion we will have at Conference.

KELLY: What about on another issue, completely different to this, that’s likely to come up at the ALP National Conference on boats. We know that the Right in your party are pushing for effectively adopting boat turnbacks as Labor Party policy. Did the Left deal with this on the weekend, is there a Left position on this?

WONG: To be honest I wasn’t participating in that part of the discussion. What I would say is there are two key principles that Labor is very clear about. We are committed to ensuring no more lives are lost at sea. We are also committed to ensuring that this nation adheres to our international legal obligations and that the human rights of asylum seekers are respected. Those principles I am sure will guide the discussion at National Conference on the final form of the policy.

KELLY: A difficult week for Bill Shorten looming. He will make his appearance at the Royal Commission into unions and union corruption on Wednesday. He has been hit hard by some poor polling today. The Fairfax Ipsos poll has reported Bill Shorten’s lowest rating as opposition leader, to minus 20. In the Newspoll his approval is stuck at minus 28. Labor is still ahead of the Coalition two-party preferred, but do you ever wonder how Labor might be doing much better if your leader wasn’t so unpopular?

WONG: My observation about that poll is twofold. First you mentioned the trade union Royal Commission and I think Australians are very clear that we are seeing a politically motivated attack on Bill and the trade union movement from a party that knows WorkChoices wouldn’t be able to be legislated today, but wants to try and attack the trade union movement in other ways. That’s what this commission is about, it’s a creature of government, it is not a proper court and it is not behaving as such.

In relation to the polls, as I said on your program before I am not in the habit of commenting on polls. The message I get out of the polls is that since their Budget, which broke promises and hurt people, I think the Government’s two-party preferred position has continued to lag Labor’s, that’s under Bill Shorten. But it is also a reminder for us always that we have to put forward a positive alternative to Australians. That’s what people are searching for, that is what they want us to do. We have started to do that and we will continue to do that up to the election so that people will be very clear what a Labor Government would do.

KELLY: Senator Wong thank you very much for joining us.

WONG: Good to speak with you again Fran.