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same-sex marriage debate: wong v bernardi



A surprisingly sedate affair occurred on Wednesday when South Australian senators Penny Wong and Cory Bernardi debated the issue of same-sex marriage at the National Press Club in Canberra.

There has been yet another push for Australia to legalise same-sex marriage, following the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in June to allow same-sex couples in every state to marry. It is expected that a cross-party bill will be introduced to the federal Parliament in August.

Senator Wong of the Labor Party is a lesbian, and has two young daughters with her partner Sophie Allouache. She has been vocal about the legalisation of same-sex marriage, particularly within her own party. At its national conference in July, Labor chose not to adopt a binding vote on the issue until 2019, instead allowing its MPs to exercise a conscience vote. Clearly it is hoped that by 2019, the issue will have been resolved. Wong had been pushing for her party to adopt a binding vote immediately in favour of the issue, but this was unsuccessful.

On the other hand, the conservative Senator Bernardi from the Liberal Party is stridently opposed to same-sex marriage. He was forced to resign from the Opposition frontbench in 2012, after commenting that legalising same-sex marriage would lead to the legalisation of polygamy and bestiality. Thankfully, there were no such outrageous comments from Bernardi during the debate.

In her opening comments, Senator Wong announced that ‘it’s time’ for marriage equality, clarifying that the law changes would not require religious institutions to perform same-sex marriage ceremonies. She reminded the audience that the issue affected real people, ‘the people we love.’ She concluded her opening remarks by stating that, in the event of legalisation, ‘the sun will rise, heterosexual marriages won’t crumble, three-year-olds will still want more ice cream than is good for them. But together we will have made a profound change.’

On the other hand, Senator Bernardi argued that the campaign was ‘not about equality,’ rather the ‘self-interest of a vocal minority,’ and that debates must consider the rights of children. Bernardi challenged the notion of the majority of Australians favouring same-sex marriage, arguing that the number was closer to 45%. Senator Wong hit back, arguing that same-sex couples do not denigrate heterosexual relationships or suggest that their children are compromised, so why is it acceptable when conservatives do so to same-sex couples?

There was even one point of issue on which the two could agree. Senator Wong sardonically promised Bernardi that she would stand with him against bestiality being recognised in the Marriage Act in future. For his part, Senator Bernardi claimed that his previous comments had been misunderstood, saying that he only meant that it could lead to further calls for redefinition.

In their concluding remarks, Senator Wong argued that marriage equality is indeed about equality, whilst Senator Bernardi countered that it was merely a ‘catchy slogan.’ Although no winner was officially declared at the debate, it may be argued that the crowd was in favour of Senator Wong, if the claps for her and groans for Senator Bernardi were anything to go by. However, the crowd and the debaters remained surprisingly well-mannered and measured, considering the heat of the issue.

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