3 June 2015




PATRICIA KARVELAS: Australia’s most senior openly gay Parliamentary Leader Senator Penny Wong watched in the House and we welcome her on the program now. Welcome to drive.


KARVELAS: It’s the eleventh time politicians have tried to pass a marriage equality bill through Parliament. What chance do you give this one, given you don’t even have bipartisan approach from the Government?

WONG: What I’d say is this, things will only change if we make them change and that means people listening to your program who support marriage equality, we need you to campaign to get your local MP and your Senators to support this. We need pressure on the Government, pressure on MP from the Government side and Senators to bring on, do what the Prime Minister said he would do, which is once a Bill is before Parliament that it will go to the party room in the usual way.

Tony Abbott could break his duck and do what he said he was going to do and he said very clearly on a number of occasions, including since being elected, that this would go to the party room when they’ve got a bill. Well they’ve got a bill, time for the party room to consider it and to get a free vote.

KARVELAS: But clearly you can see that Bill Shorten’s bill is dead?

WONG: This bill, in terms of whether there is a fuller debate, whether there is a vote and ultimately whether it succeeds is first in the hands of the Government, that’s true. What I would say to all of those Members and Senators from the Liberal party is step up. I understand you’ve got opposition in your party room; I understand you’ve got opposition from the Prime Minister’s office, but Australians are looking to you to step up on this issue. People want this debated and they want this change to happen.

KARVELAS: If a bipartisan approach is necessary, Penny Wong, how are you going to get there? I mean, we know all the names, they have been out in the public, Warren Entsch and others who are apparently in favour of marriage equality, but how do you actually turn that into something real?

WONG: I think they need to step up to the plate. Let’s have a bit of history here. I’m not going to go back 10 years, I’m only going to go back to last year when Tanya Plibersek didn’t proceed with her bill, but wrote to all Members from the Coalition and said I want you to co-sponsor this bill with me, a marriage equality bill, I want a bipartisan approach, work with me to bring it on and to put the bill into Parliament. That’s some 14 months ago and no one stepped up.

We offered as late as yesterday, Tanya offered to be, to step aside for a coalition co-sponsor, so we could have the bipartisanship that Tony Abbott talks about. Regrettably it seems to me sometimes  that when Tony Abbott talks about bipartisanship, what he is actually saying is find me another excuse not to act.

KARVELAS: Part of the Prime Ministers argument, which potentially I think could be very, very attractive to voters is the budget’s just been delivered, there are budget bills that need to be dealt with. Doesn’t this indicate in some ways, you bringing this on today, you know the budget has been largely uncontroversial and you’ve got not much to say about it?

WONG: I don’t agree with that at all. This budget contains a whole range of unfair measures in it that are retained from last year

KARVELAS: But given that, isn’t it a bit odd that you’ve changed the discussion, I mean we’ve just had a budget delivered and you’re not discussing it?

WONG: We have discussed it, but are you seriously saying that we can’t do more than talk about one bill at a time, where the majority of Australians believe that we should grant marriage equality. This has become an issue again at this time because of what happened in Ireland and the Irish referendum and the overwhelming reaction from the Australian community.

Now I’m happy to debate the budget , I’m happy to say we don’t support $100 000 dollar degrees. I’m happy to say we don’t support the $80 billion dollar cuts to health and hospitals and to schools, but I don’t think – the Parliament is capable of doing a range of things and what is happening at the moment is we have a Prime Minister who doesn’t want to talk about marriage equality and has been trying to defer consideration of this for a very long time and I think Australians have looked at him and they’ve said time’s up.

KARVELAS: Tell us about the numbers in Parliament, Penny Wong, supporting marriage equality. Because I find in recent days my own observation that the marriage equality campaign has been almost saying it’s happened, we’ve achieved this, but you haven’t.

WONG: No, not at all, and I’d sound note a caution again. I’ve been in this Parliament for some time, I’ve seen a lot of debates on this issue, going back to 2004 when John Howard first moved the changes to the Marriage Act to prevent marriage equality. We will only win the vote in the lower house and in the Senate if people on both sides of the Parliament, vote against discrimination and vote for equality, and we will only get them to that if people in their own states and in their seats ask them to do that.

Now I’ve been really heartened, as I’m sure lots of people across Australia have, with the number of people who previously opposed this legislation who have come out in recent weeks and declared that they have changed their positon. I acknowledge that, and I recognise that and I congratulate them for that. But we have to continue to press for more people to demonstrate their support.

KARVELAS: Penny Wong, ten years ago I was a reporter in the Parliament and I recall you were, you spoke out in a meeting, a private Labor meeting, but you were forced to in favour of changing the definition of marriage, which was a proposal John Howard put and Labor supported, to changing the language to a man and a woman. Did you ever think this would change so dramatically, because you were certainly put in a position that you didn’t support.

WONG: Yes, it was not the most fun time, I think in the Parliament, but you know that’s what happened and since that time a great many of us have worked very hard to shift Labor’s position on many issues to do with the rights of gay and lesbian Australians – whether it’s, as you know, removal of discrimination in all laws except for the Marriage Act under the previous Labor Government, over 80 laws where discrimination was removed, and of course the change at Labor’s most recent national conference, the change in our platform to support marriage equality.

It was quite moving today, given that history though, to see the alternative Prime Minister and Leader of the Labor Party stand up and say what Bill said today, I mean he is the first Labor leader to be prepared to do that, and for me, and I’m sure for many people around Australia, many people inside our party, that was a very proud moment.

KARVELAS: So Penny Wong, I’ve got to ask you were forced to vote for a heterosexual definition of marriage that excluded yourself from ever being able to get married, you actually voted for that all those years ago. Do you think that people who are opposing same sex marriage in your own party now should be forced like you were to vote in favour of marriage equality?

WONG: Well, I think that’s a discussion we’ll be having down the track, there is obviously a range of views about that and I think it is important to recall we are talking about what the secular state does, not about what religious institutions do. The bill that Bill Shorten has put before Parliament makes it clear that religious institutions shouldn’t be required to recognise or consecrate same sex marriages if they don’t wish too, and I think that is reasonable. That is a matter of conscience, but the issue before us at the moment is what the secular state does and I think that’s a conversation we will have internally. But more importantly I’d like the issue to be whether or not we can get the bill through and I’m really grateful to the many Australians who have campaigned so long and so hard and shifted public opinion on this. The community is ahead of the Parliament.

KARVELAS: I’ve got just a few questions just briefly. Treasury Secretary John Fraser says Sydney is unequivocally in a house price bubble, as are high end parts of Melbourne. Can the government have any impact in this regard? It’s up to the Reserve Bank isn’t it?

WONG: I’ve been in Senate Estimates and other meetings today so I didn’t see all that’s been said, but I certainly saw the Prime Minister referencing his own house price, which I don’t know is the best way to look at it.

I think the issue here is we know there are some people who are being priced out of the housing market. There are a lot of Australians who are finding it hard to gain their foothold into the market. First home buyers in Australia are really confronting some very difficult circumstances and I think we need to have a discussion about that. As you say obviously the RBA sets monetary policy, that’s always a matter for the independent Reserve Bank, but the broader issue of housing affordability and the extent to which investors are influencing housing prices is an issue worthy of discussion.

KARVELAS: Penny Wong, thanks for joining me on RN Drive.

WONG: Good to speak with you.