Wong and Bernardi

Senators Wong and Bernardi in marriage equality showdown

Wong and BernardiSenator Penny Wong, an openly lesbian Member of Parliament and the current Leader of the Opposition in the Senate, and Cory Bernardi, a Liberal Party member of the Australian Senate and a well-known anti-gay politician, held a public debate yesterday at the National Press Club of Australia on the subject of marriage equality.

The debate was highly anticipated, but it became the very definition of an anticlimax. Nothing new was added to the public discourse on the subject, emphasising that discussions on the matter have now reached their natural conclusion.

Senator Wong was her usual eloquent self and, among other things, noted:

  • the public acceptance of marriage equality in Australia; and
  • how this debate is about real people who are brothers, sisters, sons and daughters, friends and fellow Australians.

One of the more amusing highlights of the debate was a guarantee by Penny Wong:

I say to Cory if you want a guarantee that I will stand with you against bestiality being recognised, I would give that today.

She also noted proponents of marriage equality are not the ones who denigrate the relationships of those who disagree, nor suggest their children are somehow compromised. In closing she stated:

… this has been an interesting debate in many ways, but what I would say to you is what we have heard from the other side are the same old tired arguments that we’ve always heard and fundamentally, the position that Senator Bernardi and many on his side have is that LGBTI Australians, same-sex couples are really not equal, and they point to many things that they say you should worry about or be scared about and I say this to you.

Let’s lift the gaze, let’s look at what we can be, because marriage equality is about just that, it’s about equality. It’s not about treating people differently, it’s about equal treatment before the law. Something we do in every sphere of our life. It’s time friends to make the change, it’s time for marriage equality. Thank you.

Extracts from Senators Wong and Bernardi’s respective opening statements

Meanwhile, Senator Bernardi insisted marriage is not a ‘right’ and spent much of his time referring to the concept of ‘traditional marriage’ being the union of a man and a woman and insisting that excluding gays and lesbians from the framework of marriage is not discriminatory because ‘there is no legal discrimination between same-sex couples and how they are treated except for the categorisation of their relationship as not being a married couple.’ He was also stuck in a loop about the ‘redefinition’ of marriage and that the legalisation of same-sex marriage would ‘lead to further calls for the redefinition’ of marriage.

Marriage is not a right. It was not invented, marriage simply is. Marriage has been reserved as a sacred bond between a man and a woman across times, across cultures and across very different religious beliefs.

I have a very different view of the history and definition of marriage, which highlights that marriage is not a timeless and unchanging institution, and religions don’t have a monopoly on sanctioning it.

He was particularly cautious about the use of children in his argument against marriage equality on this occasion, particularly when it came to the parenting skills of same-sex couples. Perhaps this is a reflection of the growing and accepted scientific conclusion to date that children are not negatively affected by virtue of being raised by a same-sex couple. Although he did take the point that same-sex marriage ‘deliberately destroys children’s links to their biological parents.’

He did express his belief that the debate is not about equality but the ‘personal desire and self-interest of a vocal minority.’ He also voiced concerns about the religious freedom of people being infringed by potentially being forced to provide services to gay couples. Would someone think of the bigoted and homophobic bakers, florists and photographers of the world who may be forced to support or witness love and happiness?!

One of his most cringeworthy and disingenuous moments was continuing to insist that members of the Liberal Party have a free vote on marriage equality when the matter comes before parliament, despite the common knowledge that in practice that’s not the case.

He also appeared to attempt to engage in the misleading interpretation of the landmark 2014 Crosby Textor same-sex marriage research, by focusing on the fact that ‘only’ 48% expressed ‘strong’ support, despite the conservative pollsters concluding the overall support was 72%.

He stated the decision about marriage equality is within the purview of the legislature, and Parliament had already dealt with the matter repeatedly – rejecting it. He did flag he would accept the result of a plebiscite on the matter.

I’m not advocating for a plebiscite, but if the parliament continues to go through bill after bill after bill and it keeps, continues to get rejected we have to decide it one way or another in a decisive manner. And, quite frankly, if there was a majority of states that said and a majority of people in a majority of states said that’s what we want, we want to redefine marriage to open it up to same-sex couples, who am I to argue with that, quite frankly?

I had considered the idea of a referendum or plebiscite on the issue previously, and concluded that in the context of our Constitution, and Parliamentary powers, it would be inappropriate and unnecessary for Australia to go down that path.

Senator Bernardi was notably on his best behaviour during this debate, compared to some of his previous comments on the subject, and the language he used was particularly tempered on this occasion.

In closing Senator Bernardi noted:

Once again, I will suggest to you that marriage equality is a catchy slogan, but it has no meaning in reality because there is no legal discrimination between same-sex couples and how they are treated except for the categorisation of their relationship as not being a married couple.

And that’s because marriage has always stood as a heterosexual union since time immemorial and the consequences of changing that are not as simple as allowing one group of people to join in. It’s broad ranging, and quite significant and we’re seeing the impact of those consequences internationally.

We have to observe the lived experience and we have to recognise that marriage has always been a sacred bond between a man and a woman and I believe it should remain that way.

Perhaps the room was filled with ‘liberal media’, but Penny Wong appeared to have carried the debate if measured by the applause and laughter from those present.

However, the reality is that we are still having the same debate after a decade and a half on the subject, and frankly I am fatigued. Meanwhile the people truly affected by the lack of political courage and will continue to be ignored and suffer the ongoing indignity of being second-class citizens.

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