E&OE - PROOF ONLY
HOST: Federal Labor here is moving faster in the area of marriage equality, far faster than the Government itself, the Coalition. Senior Labor MP Penny Wong, Senator Wong, joins us now. She has a very public stance on her position. Good morning Senator Wong.
SENATOR PENNY WONG, LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION IN THE SENATE: Good to be with you both.
HOST: Now Penny, is the problem Australia, as we stand right at the moment, is it Australia accepting marriage equality, or is the problem Tony Abbott?
WONG: Well, the problem is Tony Abbott and part of the Liberal Party who are desperate to avoid this. In fact I think the majority of Australians support marriage equality. The majority, over time, have come to understand people have nothing to fear from equality, and if you look consistently at the opinion polls across the nation over the last few years you’ll see that really the community is well ahead of our Parliament and certainly ahead of our Prime Minister. It really is time for Tony Abbott to get out of the way.
HOST: Penny, it seems that Tony Abbott, who’s currently in Singapore and was treading very carefully around the issue, I think, in light of what happened in the US with the Supreme Court ruling there. It doesn’t seem, despite what, his sister is gay and she’s been on program and she doesn’t quite get where Tony Abbott is going and what’s rattling around inside his head. Now, he might have a fixed view and he’s entitled to do so and he’s a very religious person as well, but where does it get to the point where the Liberal Party, in particular, they go into the party room and say: Prime Minister, I think we need to have a serious talk about this. Are you hearing whispers that there is even any sense of a conscience vote and the Liberals will be able to vote with their conscience on this issue?
WONG: Well, first you asked about the US and you rightly point to the fact this is a momentous decision and really I think President Obama’s articulation of it got right to the point: this is about equality and that’s a very difficult principle to argue against, equality before the law, equality for all our people.
And that’s the difficulty for Tony Abbott and yes there are people in the Liberal Party who are willing to support marriage equality and the first hurdle is we’ve got to get the Prime Minister to firstly let the bill be debated and second to grant a genuine conscience vote, or free vote.
But I would say to you and to anybody who wants to see this achieved: even when we get over that hurdle we can’t stop campaigning, because we’re going to be asking Liberal MPs and Senators to be voting against their Prime Minister’s position. So even if there’s a free vote, we still need to get the votes over the line. I think we can do that and I think ultimately Tony Abbott is going to have to get out of the way because I think once you have Ireland and the US, the pressure on him and his party room, I think, is going to keep building.
HOST: Senator, I was going to ask you that very question. Obviously now we’ve seen America do it, our Trans-Tasman rivals New Zealand have already passed this, but we’ve had 20 nations do this-
WONG: -It’s worse than the cricket isn’t it?
HOST: Exactly. Do you think though now that the pressure has got to a point where it’s inevitable that we will have same-sex marriage in this country, it’s just a matter of when, not if?
WONG: Look, I think this principle of equality ultimately is a very powerful one and is very hard for leaders to resist and I do think we will eventually have marriage equality. It’s a question of when, but I guess what I’d emphasise is you can never assume change will happen, you’ve got to fight for it, you’ve always got to fight for it, because you’re always going to have people who don’t want it.
And we’ve seen some of the comments from parts of the Liberal Party and National Party who are desperately opposed to this. I’m not quite sure what they’re so frightened of, but they appear to be pretty hardline and we’ve got to make sure we have sufficient people – both sides of the political aisle – to get this across the line and to embed it, because we really want to make sure this remains something that goes beyond party politics.
HOST: Penny, one of our callers, Mike, has given us a message and I’m asking the same thing myself, very interested. Why not then, what’s standing in the way of a referendum where you put it to the people of Australia, rather than have politicians decide and change the law, or courts change the law? What actually is standing in the way of a referendum?
WONG: A referendum would really be nothing more than a very expensive polling exercise, because under our system of law, the High Court’s made it very clear this ultimately is a matter for the Parliament. So even if we were to have a referendum, ultimately we would need to have laws passed through the Parliament and that’s why we’ve been so focussed on trying to make sure that we can get a bill into the House of Representatives and the Senate. Bill and Tanya put forward a bill, Tony Abbott didn’t want that debated. Well we’re saying ok, you don’t want that one debated because it’s got Labor people on it, in fact we offered to have Liberal people on it, and you tell us you won’t debate it, but you’re not going to get away, I don’t think, by just pretending this issue will go away, because it won’t go away.
HOST: Now Penny, you don’t get out of this absolutely lightly. A couple of tougher questions.
WONG: It was you Mike, so figured that would happen.
HOST: We know each other well, don’t we? Bill Shorten, is he in trouble?
WONG: Not at all. I think Bill’s done a great job since this Government was elected. I think he really took this Government to task over their extraordinarily unfair Budget full of broken promises, their first Budget. The Government will throw everything at Bill and at the Labor Party, because they have very little else to say.
The reality is this is a government that can’t really tell people what it wants to do when it comes to the economy, or when it comes to education, or social security. We know they lied before the last election and we know they broke their promises.
And now what they’re going to do is throw everything but the kitchen sink at Bill Shorten and the Labor Party in an effort to re-win government.
HOST: But Penny, you’ve got to be very careful using the “l” word, because Bill Shorten said that he lied in relation to the Gillard/Rudd situation and who said what to whom and when. Now he’s fallen on his own sword to a degree, certainly egg on his face. You can’t tell me that hasn’t landed a punch or two on him?
WONG: Bill has made clear the circumstances of that and he’s been upfront. I think that’s a very different thing to a Prime Minister, a man who wants to be Prime Minister, telling people he won’t cut education, he won’t cut health, he won’t change the pension, he won’t cut the SBS or ABC’s budget and he won’t change the GST-
HOST: -Yeah, but that’s not the question Penny. It’s not the question.
WONG: I understand what you’re saying. And then proceeding in government to do all of those things.
Now, Bill was upfront about it, he spoke to the journalist, and he’s made it clear to the Australian people why that occurred and that he regrets it, and I think that he’s taken it on the chin and that’s the end of the matter.
HOST: So you won’t go into Caucus and say: Bill, this isn’t a good look? No one would say to him, or dare I say it, tap him on the shoulder?
WONG: Look, Bill will lead us to the next election and so he should, because I think he’s really taken the fight up to the Government when it comes to fairness and opportunity in this country.
HOST: Ok, one last question Penny, on the horrible situation in Tunisia. Do you think that Tony Abbott’s comments were helpful, unhelpful, by saying they’re coming to get us? I think it’s a bit of a scare tactic and not helpful.
WONG: Look, first I think we all were horrified at what occurred in the three separate attacks overseas and our deepest condolences go out to those affected. These are cowardly acts or murder and we all have to stand against the threat of these sorts of terrorist attacks.
But you’re right, we have to deal with these matters sensibly and soberly and responsibly and I don’t think inflaming people’s fears in the way that Tony Abbott’s comments appear to be designed to is a helpful way of approaching this.
HOST: Senator Penny Wong, thank you so much for joining us on FIVEaa Breakfast this morning.
WONG: Good to speak with you.