Interview on ABC Radio Adelaide with David Bevan and Ali Clarke
Topics: Same-sex marriage
David Bevan: Let’s start Super Wednesday by welcoming our guests. Simon Birmingham is Liberal Senator for South Australia; he’s the federal Education Minister. Good morning, Simon Birmingham.

Simon Birmingham: Good morning David and I hope you are enjoying your sleep in.

David Bevan: I certainly am. Thank you for your concern. Penny Wong is the Labor Senator for South Australia and she is Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister and Leader of Opposition in the Senate. Good morning Penny Wong.

Penny Wong: Good morning to you all.

David Bevan: And leader of the Australian Conservatives, the South Australian Senator Cory Bernardi. Good morning to you.

Cory Bernardi: Good morning to you all, too.

Ali Clarke: Cory Bernardi, what is it about you and your wife that makes your relationship so much more valid than Penny Wong and her partner’s?

Cory Bernardi: ..a leading question, I’m just a traditionalist. I believe that marriage has always been between a man and a woman. I’m not saying my relationship is superior [indistinct] marriage has been defined as what it is, and I wouldn’t change the definition of a word due to lobbying for any reason.

Ali Clarke: While I’m asking you this next question, Cory, if you can just take a step to the left because you were dropping in and out a little bit there. I guess what I’m getting at is that all she’s asking for is the same recognition that her relationship has as yours does. It does sound like you do think yours is superior, or how else should hers be acknowledged?

Cory Bernardi: Well, same-sex relationships have all the same rights under the law, under Commonwealth legislation, and I think under most state legislation as well. But marriage has always meant a particular thing. It’s only in recent times that there’s been demands to have it redefined, and what I would suggest to you is that, say, there are some types of religious marriages – like under Islamic marriages where they have multiple wives – that have a much longer tradition than same-sex marriage and yet no one is calling for equality for that in this country.

Ali Clarke: Okay. So you’re representing people, clearly, that are against same-sex marriage. What about this from a texter who says: I am gay; I am so exhausted already with this debate; it’s demoralising and I now turn the TV off when it comes up. Watching people who know nothing about you debating your future and using it for political gain is depressing. How are you helping those people, and how are you looking after them?

Cory Bernardi: Well, the Parliament has had 16 – maybe 17 now – individual bills introduced. It’s resolved this issue repeatedly, and I just question why we have to continue to discuss it. I’m bored with it too. I think there’s many more pressing things to deal with, but it just seems that it continues to be brought up by a very vocal minority who want to ignore some of the more important issues that I think this country needs to face.

David Bevan: But how do you benefit from denying marriage equality to people of the same-sex relationship?

Cory Bernardi: Well, there’s no benefit to me. So, unlike many in this space, this is not a personal crusade. I simply do not think that because some people are demanding it, we should redefine the meaning of a word to satisfy their personal circumstances, or undermine or change the meaning of an institution that has been around for such a long time.

David Bevan: Well, hang on, if nobody benefits from denying them marriage equality and they want it, why don’t you give it to them?

Cory Bernardi: Well, you asked me how I benefit. I don’t benefit. This is not, as I said, something that is going to benefit me, but …

David Bevan: [Interrupts] Well, how does anybody else benefit from denying a same-sex couple marriage?

Cory Bernardi: Well, there’s lots of people who feel very strongly about this, including in religious circumstances, or people who want to see marriage maintained as a relationship between a man and a woman. Now, there are many options – a multitude of options. Firstly, if you go back five or six years, there was a demand for equality for same-sex relationships under the law. That was recognised in the Parliament, and we were told that was all they wanted. That was done to satisfy, I think- it was initiated essentially by the retirement of Justice Kirby, and things continue to morph on in that space. Why do they want to take the word marriage rather than another word?

David Bevan: It was quite clear, Cory Bernardi, that that wasn’t all that people wanted, that this was another step towards what they wanted, which was equality.

Cory Bernardi: Well, equality is a very fashionable word. It’s a catchy slogan, right? And I note that people who choose to use that aren’t calling for equality for other forms of marriage that have a much longer tradition than the demands for same-sex marriage, so let’s dispel that marketing slogan and talk about what it is. We’re redefining a word …

David Bevan: [Interrupts] Hang on.

Cory Bernardi: No, hang on. We’re redefining a word to mean something [indistinct] …

David Bevan: [Interrupts] Cory, let’s have a conversation here. You’re saying we don’t recognise all kinds of marriages, such as polygamy, but these people aren’t asking for polygamy. What they’re asking for is, if I fall in love with somebody else of the same sex and we are deeply committed to each other, that should be recognised in the same way as a heterosexual couple falling in love and having a deep commitment to each other. So it’s got nothing to do with polygamy or other types of marriage.

Cory Bernardi: No, but you see, what you’re conflating is the fact that you’re seeking to- people are seeking to redefine a word – which is marriage – that has always meant the union of a man and a woman. In recent times, there’s been demand to redefine what that means, that word. If you’re talking about equality and marriage equality, and governments should have nothing to do with defining marriage [indistinct] sorts of things that people are talking about, then you cannot close your mind to other traditions of marriage that have a much longer history than same-sex marriage [indistinct]. It’s not a personal thing [indistinct] …

David Bevan: [Interrupts] We’ve got a really bad phone line here. Maybe we can call you back, Cory Bernardi, because we’d like to hear more of what you’d say. And while we’re sorting out the phone line, should we go to Penny Wong?

Ali Clarke: We will. Penny Wong, good morning.

Penny Wong: Morning, Ali. Are you enjoying it?

Ali Clarke: We’re getting there. Drawing the line between personal and work for you, we were talking about benefit with Cory Bernardi there about this same-sex marriage. Why is it that it wasn’t until the political pain stopped for you that you really opened up and pushed for same-sex marriage?

Penny Wong: What do you mean the political pain? I mean, that’s a bizarre thing to ask, if you don’t mind me saying. I first made a speech about marriage equality in 2004 when I was bound as part of the Labor Party to vote to agree with the insertion into the Marriage Act of the definition man and woman. I’ve spent a lot of time – because, of course, we are a party that did have a binding position on these matters – working with a lot of people inside and outside the party, and I was very proud to be one of the people to move the change to the party platform in 2011, and to stand up in the Parliament in 2012 and support it.

Ali Clarke: But in that, do you understand that people call for the hypocrisy of there maybe not being that overt pushback against the Gillard Government when there could’ve been moves made in here?

Penny Wong: I understand a lot of people are upset about this issue, but I just don’t think that bears any analysis of history. I mean, we had a very big debate …

David Bevan: [Interrupts] You’re not cutting Malcolm Turnbull anything like the same slack you gave Julia Gillard.

Penny Wong: Hang on, David. I actually think, if you look at what we’ve said over the last few months, we’ve been very careful to try and give them space to do the right thing. But I just would make this point: we had a big debate inside the Labor Party, and in 2011 – our national conference, in front of the whole media – me and Andrew Barr from the ACT moved the motion that changed the party’s platform for the first time. Now, that was an important debate and …

David Bevan: [Interrupts] Yes, but you were not prepared to tear your party apart on the altar of same-sex marriage …

Penny Wong: [Talks over] Because we had a vote.

David Bevan: …but you are prepared to break the Liberals on this issue.

Penny Wong: No, actually I don’t want to break the Liberals on this issue. And if you look at what I said about Dean Smith and Trevor Evans last week, I just want a vote, and I think most people just want a vote.

And if I may respond to a couple of the things that Cory said. First, he says marriage has never changed. That’s not true. I mean, marriage used to be that a woman effectively became the property of the husband; when married women used to not be allowed to have a legal character or legal identity other than as the wife, they used to not be allowed to own property. Now, we’ve redefined marriage in very fundamental ways over many years, so he’s wrong to say it’s never changed.

Second, the important issue of religious freedom. I think it’s really important that we recognise we’re talking about civil marriage here. We’re not talking about imposing on churches, their right to determine whom the sacrament of marriage is offered to. I think that is a discussion the churches have to have for themselves, but this is about civil marriage. This is about secular marriage. This is about what the state says, and I just say to people, really, if two people want to make that commitment, why are you so worried about enabling them to do that?

And my final point – just one last point – is this: I agree with Cory, this is taking a ridiculously long time, and I also – the person who texted the program – I understand why people are very upset about this ongoing debate. You know, all we want to do is vote, and the reality is the conservatives don’t even want to vote.

Ali Clarke: Let’s go to West Lakes now and hear from Monica. Good morning.

Caller Monica: Yeah, g’day, how you going?

Ali Clarke: Good.

Caller Monica: I rarely ring, but I’m so infuriated. I think the politicians have just so got it wrong. My daughter is getting married, she’s 30 years of age. She’s getting married in about a fortnight, and what they’ve done is they’ve gone to the extent- they wanted- in your vows you legally have to say that the union is between man and woman. She wanted that dropped. So she’s marrying – she’s heterosexual – she’s marrying another guy. They both wanted that taken out, but they couldn’t have that taken out because that’s the legality of marriage. So they then went and said: however, the couple do not believe that marriage is a union between man and women; they believe it’s between two consenting adults who love each other. She’s 30 years of age.

These politicians have got their heads so far up their butts, they are going to lose voters of that age bracket because this is a generation that just doesn’t care. Like, they are so fluid when it comes to what’s okay and ofay. You’re arguing over things, you’re costing taxpayers huge amounts of money when the next generation that’s coming through is going to think this is just absurd and I totally agree. I’m 52 and I don’t even know what we’re arguing about. It is just crazy.

David Bevan: Monica, thank you very much. Monica from West Lakes. Let’s go back to Simon Birmingham. He’s Liberal Senator for South Australia; he’s one of the most senior Liberals in the country and he’s from South Australia; he’s the federal Education Minister.

Good morning, Simon Birmingham. You find yourself parked between Bernardi and Wong on this, don’t you? And how excruciating that must be for you.

Simon Birmingham: Well, it’s not excruciating David. I want to see change to the Marriage Act. It’s about seven years since I first made a public statement of support for the recognition of same-sex marriages in Australia, for marriage equality. I agree with Penny, we must be very clear in this debate that this is a discussion about the law of Australia, not about the way in which churches and individual religions conduct themselves; that we should maintain absolutely prime respect for the integrity, the autonomy of those churches and faith groups to define and determine marriage as they choose in terms of the sacrament they offer in their places of worship.

However, the law of the land is not determined by faith, is not determined by religion, and it should treat Australians equally. And it should, in the recognition of two individuals who want to make a lifelong loving commitment to one another, to support each other, to provide all of the types of assistance that conservative Australians would often argue is essential in terms of the assistance of family in tough times, for self-reliance and so forth, that it should recognise them regardless of their gender.

David Bevan: So, in that case, don’t you think there’s much better things you could be spending $122 million on?

Simon Birmingham: Well, I think, and the argument that has been put – and the Government obviously took to the last election in terms of giving the Australian people a say – is that there is a significant social change here in making this adjustment to the Marriage Act. You’ve heard, obviously, two strongly conflicting opinions this morning, coming from Cory on the one hand, from Penny and myself on the other hand. And that if we are to make sure that at the end of this process it is something that has unified Australians, and that a change the Marriage Act actually brings the type of support that is necessary for it to succeed in the future, that will best be achieved if it also has the endorsement of Australians.

David Bevan: So if you get your plebiscite – and it’s not going to get through the Senate, but say if you get a postal plebiscite – and the majority answer that comes back from a postal plebiscite is no, don’t change the Marriage Act, don’t change the definition of marriage, how will you vote if this gets to a private members’ bill in the Parliament? Will you ignore that plebiscite and follow your conscience, or will you be bound by that?

Simon Birmingham: Well, David, you’re many steps down the track. Firstly, the Parliament today will vote in relation to whether or not we can proceed with the full, compulsory, national plebiscite, and I hope that of course that vote succeeds and that will give a clear answer. If we proceed to the postal plebiscite, we’ll get a result from that. It could be a strong yes vote, it could be a strong no vote. It will, of course, have influence in terms of the attendance and participation as well, and I’ll have a look at all of the different permutations if and when we ever get to that eventuality.

David Bevan: Well, hang on, so you’re saying you wouldn’t necessarily be bound by a postal plebiscite?

Simon Birmingham: Well, David, the Government’s been very clear that if there is a yes vote the Government will provide time in the Parliament for this matter to be resolved by the end of the year. That’s what I hope happens. I’ll certainly be voting yes in the plebiscite, I’ll be urging other Australians to vote yes, and I would then be voting yes in the Parliament.

David Bevan: But what if there’s a no?

Simon Birmingham: Well, David, if there is a strong no, then I don’t imagine the matter will come before the Parliament.

David Bevan: Well, hang on, it may well. It may well.

Simon Birmingham: And we’ll deal with all of those contingencies if and when they happen.

David Bevan: Okay. But these aren’t silly hypotheticals, because people are entitled to know whether or not you’re going to be bound by a $122 million plebiscite. Okay, now, if it’s a no result that comes from that postal plebiscite, alright, and one of your party gets up and puts up a private members’ bill – maybe somebody from Penny Wong’s party does, or maybe the Greens do – and so there is a private members’ bill in the Parliament, will you be bound by a no result from a postal plebiscite?

Simon Birmingham: Well I will be informed by the results of the plebiscite.

David Bevan: Informed does not mean bound.

Simon Birmingham: Well there are, as I say, a number of different permutations that the postal plebiscite could take and I will be informed by it.

David Bevan: In other words, you don’t think the postal plebiscite’s worth the paper it’s written on, because if you get a no result you’re going to look at all the permutations, you say. So you’re going to look at, well, how many people actually took place, what was the demographic?

Ali Clarke: So what’s the point?

David Bevan: What is the point?

Simon Birmingham: Well, I think the postal plebiscite can hopefully give us a strong yes vote that gives us, then, the momentum not just for the Parliament to deal with this issue, but for it to be achieved and reform achieved in a manner in which we actually have community support for the outcome, and that it becomes something unifying right across the country.

Ali Clarke: Well, Simon Birmingham, Liberal Senator for South Australia and Education Minister; Penny Wong, Labor Senator for South Australia, thank you very much; and also Cory Bernardi, leader of the Australian Conservatives, thanks for joining us for Super Wednesday.

Cory Bernardi: Thank you.

Penny Wong: Thanks very much.