National Press Club debate on same-sex marriage - transcript

STEVE LEWIS:

Ladies and gentlemen, would you now please welcome Senator Bernardi to make his opening remarks.

CORY BERNARDI:

Thank you, Steve, and thank you to the Press Club for putting on this debate today.

Nine years ago in my maiden speech to the Senate I said:

“one could argue that the entire concept of rights has been so debased in recent times that it is now difficult to know what is a right and what is simply a desire. Desires are governed and formed by personal belief and self-interest, and yet they are often presented in the public sphere as a right to correct a perceived wrong.”

Now, ironically in this new culture of rights we are often taken into the realm of a contest in deciding whose rights should prevail. And the homosexual marriage debate is a clear example of this contest. Marriage is not a right, it was not invented, marriage simply is. Marriage has been reserved as a sacred bond between a man and woman across times, across cultures, and across very different religious beliefs. It is the very foundation of the family and the family is the basic unit of society. And thus marriage is a personal relationship with public significance and I believe we are right to recognise it in our laws.

Now, despite marriage being based in accordance with millennia of lived experience, we are now facing the 16th attempt in the last ten years to redefine it to mean something it has never meant, and it's being done in the names of rights and equality. Now, both words have been used by the same-sex lobby in a textbook propaganda campaign to convince people to support their cause.

The term "marriage equality" is a master piece of sloganeering even though it’s got no basis in reality because in 2008 the Federal Parliament removed legal discrimination between same-sex couples. In fact, during that debate some of us sought to include all interdependent relationships in the bill. These relationships are often non-sexual in nature, but they are based around shared love and shared lives, and the argument for that equality was rejected by the same-sex marriage lobby. They also rejected the equality case of religious or cultural traditions involving more than one spouse.

So I believe, and I think it's crystal clear, this campaign is not about equality, but it's about personal desire and self-interest of a vocal minority. In the last Census, there were 33,714 same-sex couples that chose to disclose their relationships. That's a very small group indeed.

And we are told by the same-sex marriage advocates that 72 per cent of Australians support redefining marriage; whilst they also seek to paint those who support the time-honoured traditional definition as ‘offensive’; we have been called bigots, homophobes, or worse. On the name calling, once again it is simply another well-known propaganda technique designed to silence an alternative voice. I believe it is crude; it smacks of hypocrisy and intolerance, but it is very effective in silencing many from sharing their view.

Which takes me back to the polls. Many polls reflect a vastly different view from that espoused by the same-sex marriage lobby. By a margin of three to one, Australians believe the right to marry includes the right to raise a family and, where possible, that child should be raised by both the mother and father. By a margin of three to one, Australians think it is more important a child should have a mum and a dad than that two men should have the right to marry and create a family. When surveyed, 90% of mothers agreed that a mother's love for a child could not be replaced.

Despite these results, the campaign to change the very nature of marriage and families, in effect denying the rights of children to have the opportunity to have a mum and a dad, is being pursued relentlessly and it's all being done in the name of rights.

I know it's going to be maybe unpopular in this room and it might be called quaint and old fashioned, but where I come from it is children who have rights and it’s adults who have responsibilities. That very concept is being turned on its head by advocates for this cause. If you grant the right to marry for same-sex couples, one logically cannot deny their right to a family, which immediately impacts the right of a child.

Professor Margaret Sommerville wrote: “it is one matter for children not to know their genetic identity as a result of unintended circumstances, it is quite another matter to deliberately destroy children's links to their biological parents and especially for society to be complicit in this destruction.”

I cannot and I will not deny that some same-sex couples make much, much better parents than some married heterosexual couples. However, it does not change the general principle that the ideal is still a child being raised by a married mother and father. It’s a sentiment that seven out of 10 Australians agree with.

Now, I have always been of the view that what other countries do should not dictate Australia's self-determination. However, I do want to comment briefly on the recent decisions in Ireland and the USA.

In the case of Ireland, the same-sex marriage advocates ran a splendid campaign, I believe they invested about $25 million and that virtually left their opponents voiceless in the public sphere. But it is my view, and as a Catholic, it pains me to say this, but I nonetheless believe it to be true, that the result was influenced by the past practices, the dogmatic rule and some of the hypocrisy of the church in Ireland.

In the USA, the circumstances were somewhat different. The equality advocates didn't like the people, or the legislatures, having their say. They wanted the unelected and politically compromised judiciary to force nation-wide acceptance of same-sex marriage. This they did in a 5-4 vote that found some new constitutional right that had not existed since the American constitution had been written.

Which brings me back to where I began - the concept of competing rights and determining whose should prevail. If same-sex marriage becomes a reality in Australia, do religious institutions or people of faith have the right to not participate or not to provide services to a same-sex wedding? Will teachers in schools be compelled to endorse same-sex marriages in their classroom? Will even speaking in favour of traditional marriage be deemed offensive and the speakers subject to sanction?

All around the world, the same-sex marriage advocates have maintained that will not be the case - until they get marriage redefined. Then the process of eroding the rights of others begins.

Charities, businesses and individuals that do not support homosexual marriage have been sacked, forced to close, or change their practices because of their beliefs. Florists, photographers and bakers, they have been taken to court or forced to pay thousands of dollars in fines for exercising their right not to act contrary to their conscience. Churches have been compelled to officiate in same-sex marriage ceremonies and teachers have been stood down for publicly supporting traditional marriage. But, of course, we are told that such coercive infringement on personal liberty and freedom of speech will not happen here.

Unfortunately, it’s too late, it's already begun. Just a few weeks ago, the convener of the same-sex marriage campaign encouraged people to lodge discrimination complaints against the Catholic Church because it decided to support the Catholic view of marriage through their school system, a view by the way that is actually entirely consistent with Australian law. So one can only imagine what actions might happen if those laws were to change.

So let me be clear in summing up; there are many things redefining marriage won't do but there are many things that redefining marriage might do and if overseas experience is any guide, it will do.

It will lead to calls for further redefinitions using exactly the same arguments of equality made by the same-sex marriage advocates today.

It will become a constant battle ground of competing rights between individuals and businesses.

The freedom to speak differently, to work differently, to conduct a business differently, based on personal belief and choice will all of a sudden be regulated and controlled by an already bloated discrimination industry.

I believe there is no need to redefine marriage on the basis of equality. To do so is to live in a dictatorship of relativism, where nothing is real, truths are denied if they are considered inconvenient by the politically correct system.

Marriage should remain what it has always been, the enduring union of a man and a woman to complement the raising of a family and the interests of the next generation. Thank you.

STEVE LEWIS:

Thank you, Senator Bernardi.

Just before we head to questions, ladies and gentlemen, if you would like to follow this debate on Twitter you can using the Twitter handle @PressClubAust or the hashtag #NPC.

We'll now move to questions. Our first question is from Catalina Florez.

CATALINA FLOREZ (NETWORK TEN):

Thank you very much. Cory Bernardi, do you still believe that legalising same-sex marriage will lead to bestiality and polygamy?

And Penny Wong, you have in the past described these comments as a pathetic attempt to drum up fear and prejudice. Have either of you moved from these positions?

CORY BERNARDI:

I'm not sure if you ever read my comments in this regard before, but I never said it would lead to that, I merely said if we redefine marriage it would lead to further calls for redefinition and for other relationship types to be in there. I don't know where that will lead.

Let me make this point: that's been borne true, because in England, if you go there and you want to examine what's happening there, the Green Party is now considering lobbying for multi-member relationships to be included in the marriage campaign.

In Brazil, you are seeing judges say, ‘well, how can I logically deny more than one person to have the same rights as a married couple.’ The same thing has happened in the Netherlands. It is taking place all around the world.

If we are going to redefine marriage to include one section of the community that has never been included in it before, how can we logically deny others who are going to use the same rights, the same words, ‘You can’t choose who you love’, ‘we just want our love to be acknowledged and our relationship to be endorsed’. It's a logical argument, and it's been borne true by evidence in the lived experience overseas.

PENNY WONG:

Well, I would suggest to anybody who doesn't think Cory said what he said to consider the Hansard. I think it's quite clear what was said. I stand by my previous comments and I think those statements are what I referred to in my speech as the slippery slope argument, aren't they?

I would say to Cory if you want a commitment from me that I would stand with you in a defence against bestiality being recognised at law, I'm happy to give that today.

CORY BERNARDI:

You should take that up with Peter Singer, Penny.

PENNY WONG:

I would make this point, though, in his speech and we see it again, to some extent, in this response, those who want equality are referred to as the vocal minority despite the fact that the majority of Australians have indicated their support for marriage equality. I would say this point - we don't shout you down, we don't denigrate your relationships, we don't suggest your children are somehow compromised, so who are the people hurling insults in this debate?

STEVE LEWIS:

Our next question is from Tim Lester.

TIM LESTER (SEVEN NETWORK):

Senator Bernardi, the night before last, our news service reported that the Prime Minister had canvassed at least some within the Government on the option of a plebiscite on this question in 2019, or thereabouts, perhaps as a means of delaying any parliamentary vote on the issue beforehand.

Can I ask, have you been canvassed in that regard by anyone in the Government? Is it a live option and what do you think of the suggestion?

Can I ask you, Senator Wong, what you think of the suggestion of a plebiscite on this issue any time as a way of dealing with it? And can I also ask, given Labor has just agreed as a party to 2019 as a reasonable wait time for going to full-party support for same-sex marriage, haven't you in effect opened the door for the Government to argue that a wait until 2019 is actually okay?

CORY BERNARDI:

Tim, the first I knew of that report was when I read it in the paper the next day.

Let me deal with the substantive issue. The Constitution empowers the Parliament to deal with marriage, and I think the Parliament has dealt with that because it's been presented with 16 bills over the last ten years, and it hasn't endorsed any of them.

The question is ‘what are we going to do?’. Are we going to continue down the path of introducing three bills a year - [this year] we have had two and there is another one expected - for the Parliament to decide until it's a war of attrition and people give up? Or, should we look at other options? And that's maybe a live option. I don't know. Maybe if the people are not satisfied with the parliamentary decision and determination, maybe it should be put to the people, and if the majority of people in the majority of states want this change to happen, go. But I'm not endorsing that. I think the Parliament should deal with it, but I think the Parliament has dealt with it.

PENNY WONG:

I think the plebiscite idea is a delaying tactic from a Prime Minister who is worried and whose supporters are worried that they might actually be losing the numbers for a cross-party bill and I think we need to be clear about the motivation. A plebiscite would not be binding. Of course, spending is unregulated. The Prime Minister sets the question and I think I'd invite people to consider whether or not it would be a polarising debate given the tenor of some people's arguments. More importantly than this, the High Court made it very clear whose responsibility marriage laws are, they are the responsibility of the Federal Parliament. And at the moment, we have a free vote. At the moment, they don't. And Cory and other people inside the Liberal Party who are vehemently opposed to progress on this front have made it very clear they will do anything to avoid a free vote.

CORY BERNARDI (interjecting):

Every vote is a free vote in the Liberal Party.

PENNY WONG:

We know before the last election, Tony Abbott said that if a bill were before the Parliament it would go to the party room in the usual way. It has not done so. I really do want to lay on the record my respect for those members of the Liberal and National Parties who have been prepared, despite the views of some in their party room and their Prime Minister to come out for the cause of equality.

PETER JEAN (THE ADELAIDE ADVERTISER):

It's great to see two South Australians debating this issue.

PENNY WONG:

People might take it both ways, Peter.

PETER JEAN:

They might. Senator Wong, I wanted to give you the opportunity to address a couple of concerns that Senator Bernardi has voiced today and that others who oppose same-sex marriage also raise. The issue is frequently raised, you know, on the slippery slope argument, will this lead to a push for multi-member relationships to be able to be recognised as marriage? I want to ask you, would you be willing to support any move to change the definition of marriage to recognise multi-member relationships?

PENNY WONG:

No.

PETER JEAN:

Fair enough. In terms of this issue that is frequently raised about business owners who have a conscientious objection to same-sex marriage, potentially facing legal penalties for failing to provide services; is that a real concern those people should have? Would they face potentially legal action if they refuse to assist same-sex marriages or weddings?

PENNY WONG:

Thank you for the question. Although I have to say, I sometimes think we look for problems but I appreciate that this has been raised in the public debate by others. We sort of try to get into the detail of how something might work as a way of saying well we shouldn't do it at all. But I guess what I'd say is this - I suspect the market will probably resolve most of it. I suspect that gay and lesbian couples are unlikely to go to bakers who really don't like gay and lesbians, so I suspect we'd probably work it out.

I'm not sure it will be as much of an issue as some suggest. Our existing system of anti-discrimination laws does have a whole range of exemptions. Not all discrimination is contrary to our discrimination law. So I think if this were to happen, those would be the sorts of discussions that would need to be had, about how do you recognise that and how are those circumstances recognised in our current anti-discrimination laws.

That's a discussion which no doubt would be had. I think the most important issue, though, is to do as I said in my opening, which is to recognise the separation between Church and State, and that religious institutions ought not be required to preside over ceremonies between same-sex couples if that does not accord with their beliefs.

SENATOR BERNARDI:

Thank you. On the first point, it was interesting that Penny was so happy to rule out multi-member unions or redefining marriage further. And that says to me she's got a line in the sand, as we all do, about what marriage should mean and what it should encompass.

Some people are in the traditional definition, and there are incremental changes that others would want to pursue in that regard. So it’s not about equality for all, it's only about equality for some, apparently. The second substantive issue is you have to look at the lived experience overseas. We can give all the promises we like here but it's the same tactics, the same results we can expect. Overseas we have had enormous issues with people’s freedoms being curtailed on the basis of the changes to marriage.

PENNY WONG:

I see Cory is desperately holding on to the slippery slope argument. I think there is a very big difference between making a decision to discriminate, or treat differently on the basis of the number of people, as opposed to a decision to discriminate only on the basis that the two people are of the same gender. I think they are different propositions and I think in today's society the latter really flies in the face of the notion of equality of treatment before the law.

JUDITH IRELAND (SYDNEY MORNING HERALD):

My question is to Senator Bernardi. I wanted to ask you why there is so much focus on children in the same-sex marriage debate when same-sex couples can already have children and they already are having children. I wanted to also ask what you make of the analysis that it would actually for be better for these children for their parents to be able to get married in terms of providing for stability for the relationship.

CORY BERNARDI:

It’s is interesting question, Judith. There is a focus on children. As I said it's because I believe that the rights of children tend to trump the rights of adults in many respects. I make no bones about it; some same-sex parents do a much better job of raising kids than do heterosexual parents. There are dysfunctional parents no matter what sphere there is.

There is a slight difference in the sense that a same-sex couple can't produce children alone. They need assistance from a third party. That makes a difference to, I guess, the relationship for that child in some respects. But I would put to you, if a child is loved, if a child is nurtured, if it is developed and supported, that's all we can really hope for in a child.

But there is a different role that a father plays and a mother plays. They are complementary roles. I think they have a different impact in how they engage with their children. I don't think you can easily dismiss the role of one and I don’t think you should deliberately dismiss it. I have to acknowledge there are plenty of circumstances where that is not the case and the children come out perfectly fine, well developed and well balanced.

But I just don't think it's in society's interests to deliberately deny those complementary inputs into a child's development.

PENNY WONG:

I think the arguments against marriage equality ignore the proposition you put in your question, Judith, which is we already have children. So it's not actually - whatever people's views about children - it's not actually the issue in the marriage equality debate as much as some people wish to make it so.

I think children need to be loved and nurtured, treated with fairness and firmness. I think if we want to have a discussion about how we try and support all families to bring their children up in that way, I'm happy to have that discussion, but that's a very different proposition to saying, well, we have to exclude some people from the institution of marriage.

ROSIE LEWIS (THE AUSTRALIAN):

Senator Bernardi, we understand Coalition MPs are expected to face a debate on whether to have a free vote very soon, in this term of Parliament. Is that how you see it? I also wanted to ask you to expand on what you meant when you said that marriage wasn't invented.

Senator Wong, how concerned are you that if there was a free vote in the Government party room, that perhaps it wouldn't get up?

CORY BERNARDI:

The first part of your question was in respect to the deliberations in the Coalition party room. I have no special knowledge or inside knowledge about what's going to happen there, when it’s going to happen or anything else. But I would make the point that our party, probably one of its longest standing policy positions from when my party it was founded in the late 1940s, it was never envisaged that marriage would be anything different than what it is. When there was a push in the late 90s, the response from my party was to codify in 2004 that marriage was between a man and a woman. That was supported by the Labor Party and the Coalition, and that's the Marriage Act we have today. So we endorsed, if you will, what was just an unwritten rule in 2004. There's never been any proposal to change that.

I want to go back to this point that was dismissed so easily by Senator Wong. In the Coalition we have this time-honoured principle that if you disagree with a party policy you can cross the floor on that. Some of us have done that, because we are interested in a policy, the substance of it. If my colleagues choose to do that, that's entirely up to them but I don't believe it's in the Coalition's interest, I don't think it's in the national interest, quite frankly, for the Liberal Party to change its position, that's why I'm advocating for it.

PENNY WONG:

First, we will only achieve marriage equality if there are members of the Coalition who are prepared to support it, both in the party room and in the Parliament. I think that will be the case for some time. I do worry about the Coalition party room and the reason I worry is that it's been so clear from the public statements of some on the other side of this debate, how aggressively they will pursue their interests.

I mean, we have had Liberal Senators calling for people to step down from the frontbench. We have had a very aggressive set of interventions in the debate from the Leader of the Government in the Senate and others, and it's quite clear that whilst there might be a free vote in theory, there isn't a free vote in practice. There isn't a permission in the party room to say, ‘Actually, you know what? We are actually going to have a genuine conscience vote on this issue, a genuinely free vote because people have different views’.

CORY BERNARDI:

Would you like me to respond to the second part of the question?

In doing so, I’d like to make this point. Principle is very important in politics. And when Senator Wong was the Finance Minister and she was asked on Q&A about same-sex marriage and it wasn't her Party's policy, she said, ‘I don't have a position other than the Cabinet position’. That is an important principle of Cabinet solidarity.

Now, we are in exactly the same circumstances today for the Coalition. We are in Government, we have a policy position, it should be expected that frontbenchers uphold that.

PENNY WONG:

Toe the line. You want them to toe the line.

CORY BERNARDI:

That is indeed what it's about; that’s Cabinet solidarity, ministerial responsibility.

Anyway, going back to the substance of your question, marriage wasn't invented because it never was defined. It emerged by the fact there was a man and a woman joining in a union, generally that union was about procreation, sometimes it was about money, sometimes it was about companionship, but this was going back thousands of years. It was never defined. It has never been sought. It just emerged as the way it should be. What the proposal is now is to change those years and centuries of lived experience to turn it into something that it never has been.

TOM CONNELL (SKY NEWS):

Senator Bernardi, if I could ask again on the children aspect. You outlined why it is better for so-called traditional couples to raise children, but the argument itself to do with same-sex marriage, are you saying there would be more with of those children if it could come with marriage – because obviously already same-sex couples can have children - and just more broadly, you've got a Prime Minister at the moment who is a traditional conservative, who has always been a strong advocate for traditional marriage, but even he is seeming to consider there is momentum in the issue, talking about his party getting a say. If even he is saying that do you see it inevitable or in 100 years’ time do you think Australia will stand as almost a lone Western nation at least as still not having same-sex marriage?

CORY BERNARDI:

I'd hate to predict what's going to happen in 100 years’ time, let me tell you that. I don't think anything is inevitable. It's been said death and taxes are inevitable and there are people working to stop those two things happening as well.

I just don't believe there is inevitability about it. That sort of argument has been put forward to the republic referendum in 1999. We spent the whole of the 90s saying how popular it was and how it was going to happen and it had to happen and it was rejected comprehensively.

More recently we had the Emissions Trading Scheme debate, how it was inevitable and that the Liberal Party was going to die a slow death if it opposed this action on climate change, and stuff and all the polls showed one thing and the opposite was actually true. So, you know, I just don't buy into something that just because it appears popular it's the right thing to do for the country.

In respect to the Prime Minister, look, he's allowed to have his view, as are other people in our party and we are allowed to voice them. I think that's an important thing and the Prime Minister is upholding the party's position. If there's going to be discussion and debate in our party room I expect it to be robust and vigorous, but I do not believe a majority of my party room want to see same-sex marriage introduced.

On children, it comes back to, I guess, the natural order of things, if you will. A man and a woman get together and they have a child and they raise that child together and there is a complementarity in the inputs they have into it. That's not to deny that children can be very successful and enjoy wonderful robust lives with same-sex couples or single parents or anything else. But there are always consequences to this, and people like Barack Obama and Bill Clinton and others have all acknowledged that there are societal consequences when you remove a father from a child's relationship or a mother from a child's relationship, particularly intentionally.

PENNY WONG:

First on that latter point, I think we shouldn't assume, as Senator Bernardi is, that our children don't have relationships with role models of both genders, which seems to be the assumption, or with biological parents.

The second thing I was going to say, though, is Cory's actually said something with which I agree, which might be the first time today. He said nothing is inevitable and I agree with him on that.

The example he uses of a republic is a very good one, because it is an example where the conservative side of politics, including the current Prime Minister, did manage to run a successful campaign against the republic despite there being majority support. So what I would say to the people in this room who support marriage equality and to Australians watching is progress is never made and reform is never won without us achieving it, without us fighting for it and we'll have to continue to do so.

DAVID ALEXANDER (STAR OBSERVER):

This is a question for Cory Bernardi. In your address you mentioned the Crosby Textor poll which indicated 72 per cent of Australians supporting marriage equality. In that poll, over 50 per cent, 53 per cent of Christians in Australia, indicated support for marriage equality and numerous other polls indicated that religious groups are in majority support of marriage equality. Are you actually speaking from a minority of Christians in Australia?

CORY BERNARDI:

Thank you for the question. I don't believe that's the case at all. If you go back to the 1,000 people that were surveyed by Crosby Textor and the real issue is what question is asked, quite frankly, 48 per cent of people, so less than a majority of them, strongly supported same-sex marriage.

I think in the Christian tradition that people believe that marriage is a sacred institution and it should be retained as being between a man and a woman. That's the feedback I overwhelmingly get. But that's not to say there aren't people who are Christians and of strong faith who think no harm will come of this and ‘why can't we do it?’. I mean, people can agree to disagree on particular things. We see it in various churches. I know there are people of very strong faith that want to see this change. But I don't believe it's a majority of Christians who want to go down this path just as I don't believe it's a majority of Muslims or a majority of Buddhists or any other religion, or Jews. It's just one of those things [on which] people will have different views.

PENNY WONG:

Well, I think Cory's conceded there are a range of views within religious traditions on this issue. And certainly some of what has been said by Christians who are supportive of marriage equality, frankly, I think has been a very rewarding contribution to the debate. Unfortunately, sometimes who has the loudest voice and who gives the quote to the paper that gets the run sometimes gets - people believe they speak for all people of faith and that's not necessarily true.

SHALAILAH MEDHORA (GUARDIAN AUSTRALIA):

My question is really for both of you Senators - in Australia, we have a very pluralistic society, this debate seems to be very polarised. Isn't our society and aren’t our laws strong enough to hold both of these opinions together in concurrency; for example we have a lot of religious exemptions already for things like vaccination, voting, a whole manner of things, that seem to work very well. Why can't both of your views be accepted and I guess why can't we move forward as a society with both of these things in hand?

PENNY WONG:

Well, I thought that's what the cause that those of us on the side of marriage equality are actually advocating. We recognise there is a distinction between religious marriage, marriage within religious institutions, and civil marriage, that is, marriage recognised by the secular State. The proposition Cory and others wish to put is that because of the religious views of some, of some, the secular State on behalf of all of you, should tell us we are not allowed to marry. That's the proposition. That's not co-existence, that is simply saying ‘not allowed’.

SENATOR BERNARDI:

Well, I would make the point that I believe they do co-exist currently, but marriage has always been defined as being between a man and a woman and we are seeking to redefine that. Some people are seeking to redefine it because they want entry into that club, if you will. But there they are still entitled to register relationships, still entitled to all the benefits that accrue to de facto relationships or married relationships, there is no discrimination under law. They can call it what they like, they can have celebrations, they can do things, they can register it with the Government. There is no difference. But I just don't see that there is any need to redefine one of our longest standing institutions to mean something that it's never meant.

ALYCE SCOTT (AUSTRALIAN ASSOCIATED PRESS):

My question is for Senator Bernardi. You say you don't think there is enough support within your party for same-sex marriage, but do you think you have enough support to block a free vote or to stop a free vote going ahead? If a free vote was to go ahead, would that then trigger maybe a split away from the Liberal Party, maybe you could start the Bernardi party? Could you remain...

CORY BERNARDI:

It would be a small party…

ALYCE SCOTT (AUSTRALIAN ASSOCIATED PRESS):

Honestly, could you remain a member of a party that didn't oppose same-sex marriage?

CORY BERNARDI:

To abandon the field of having a position on marriage, I think would be - I think it is foolish for a political party to say, “No we don't have a position on that”. I think Labor's come to that term as well. They are trying to take it in baby steps, if you will, but ultimately in two or three years' time they are going to have a binding vote – no conscience votes, nothing – in their party to support the redefinition of marriage. So it's not about allowing people a free vote because Labor has demonstrated they don’t really want that. In the Liberal Party, I think it's in our interest to maintain the status quo and to continue to do that. If people in my party disagree with that, they are free to vote according to how they'd like to. And in respect to if the party abandoned that position, look, I will fight tooth and nail to keep it. Honestly, I think it is really important to that party, but I'm a Liberal through and through, I subscribe to Liberal Party principles, the enduring principles and values. I don't blow with the wind, there is a principled framework around all of my decisions. It doesn't always sit comfortably with rooms like this or the Q&A audience or even the press gallery, or even some in my own party.  But they are consistent, and they are logical about how I approach issues.

PENNY WONG:

Can I just ask a question then, Cory. If you ascribe to the principles of Liberalism, Liberals believe in the freedom of the individual. The position you are asserting, particularly in relation to the party room, is in fact a sort of collective dictatorship where the views of the many have to be imposed on the views of all.

CORY BERNARDI:

Senator Wong, you were very happy for that sort of policy to go forward when you wanted us to support the Emissions Trading Scheme. You can't pick and choose when you want it to happen. Our party has a position and we also have that great Liberal tradition where individuals can vote against the party if their conscience tells them to. The substantial difference between my party and your party is you can't do that without being thrown out. That's a substantive difference.

PENNY WONG:

We actually have a free vote currently.

CORY BERNARDI:

You didn't argue for a free vote all those years ago, you didn’t argue for it last week. In fact, you've changed the policy, because if it doesn't come to pass....

PENNY WONG:

We have got plenty of time.

CORY BERNARDI:

I'm delighted you have got plenty of time.

PENNY WONG:

A free vote for plenty of time.

CORY BERNARDI:

You don't ask us to of a free vote when you have been campaigning since you wanted to change the policy not to have a free vote and to bind people in your party, who have a conscientious objection to it, to vote according to how you want and otherwise you'll throw them out.

PENNY WONG:

I still don't have an answer on the Liberalism point.

CORY BERNARDI:

Liberalism is the freedom of the individual, but as a party, we have principles, and we have values that people generally subscribe to when they get into it.

PENNY WONG:

So people are free unless the principles that you believe in are transgressed, is that how it works? It's a genuine question.

CORY BERNARDI:

What you're trying to do is you're trying to parley Labor Party dogmatic policy objectives with the Liberal Party. We have general principles, established policy positions and people are free to disagree with them if that's the case.

STEVE LEWIS:

We might move on. I enjoyed the debate on Liberalism.

FLEUR ANDERSON (AUSTRALIAN FINANCIAL REVIEW):

We have been talking a lot about the differences, but you do have a bit of common ground in being both from Adelaide. I'm just wondering whether there may be a bit of common ground that you can find in the talk about freedoms and rights and the controversy that's going on at the moment about Adam Goodes and the booing that's going on in the AFL. I understand that the Adelaide Crows are playing against the Swans in Sydney this weekend, so I just wonder in the spirit of Liberalism, free choice, all this sort of thing, whether you've got any advice to Adelaide supporters?

CORY BERNARDI:

Cheer your team on, you know, make them win. Look, there is common ground, let's just talk about that for a moment. Both Senator Wong and myself agree that if there's going to be any change to marriage, we have to make sure that there are protections for people's individual freedoms, whether they be based on religious or ethical or any other motivations.

In respect to the footy, you know, footy's a pretty robust game. The supporters are pretty robust. I hope they do the right thing but I don't believe that, for example, booing is generally racially motivated. I just think they just don't like the other team and they don't like some of the players in it and that's part of football. I have always encouraged my kids not to boo at the football. Applaud good play on the other side. It's a bit tribal.

PENNY WONG:

I want to place on the public record I'm a Port supporter. To be honest, I haven't followed all that has been written about the Adam Goodes issues, incident, because we have had a busy weekend, then I had to prep for this. What I would say is this – I think there is a very big difference between people having a go at you because you're not playing well, you're from the other team, or because people think, you're no good, to people having a go because of your race. And I think people understand that. I think that Australians do understand that it feels different if you're criticised for an attribute which has been the subject of prejudice of different times in your life. I don't think that has any place in sport no matter how robust the game is.

ANDREW TILLETT (WESTERN AUSTRALIAN):

Senator Wong, I want to get you to maybe gaze into the crystal ball, I know politicians don't like answering hypothetical questions but let's say the Liberal Party do agree to have a free vote, we do have a vote this year on a private member's bill in Parliament, and it gets defeated - what happens next for campaigners? And Senator Bernardi, just on a plebiscite, if a plebiscite is held, and there is majority support, as you said, in the majority of States for same-sex marriage, would you then be prepared to vote for it, to accept the will of the people in Parliament and put your name down to vote in favour of same-sex marriage?

PENNY WONG:

Well, I think we are closer now to succeeding on a marriage equality bill if the Liberal Party provide a free vote than we have ever been. And whether or not we can succeed depends on many things: the decision inside the party room, the campaign that the community can make to their members and Senators. But what I would say to you, I don't need a crystal ball to know that people's desire for equality is remarkably persistent and I think that LGBTI Australians and our allies are not going to go away on this issue. We will keep going. Because, you know, the principle of equality is something we do hold dear and I think something, most Australians in respect of this matter agree with.

CORY BERNARDI:

Look, I'm not advocating for a plebiscite but I'm just saying if the Parliament continues to go through bill after bill after bill, and it keeps continuing to get rejected we have to decide it one way or another in a decisive manner. Quite frankly if there were a majority of people in a majority of States that 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.

STEVE LEWIS:

Thanks very much, Cory. We now move to summaries from our two speakers. Penny Wong will speak first.

PENNY WONG:

Thank you very much. Well, this has been an interesting debate in many ways, but what I would say to you is that what we have heard from the other side are the same old, tired arguments that we have always heard. 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.

CORY BERNARDI:

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. 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 just allowing one group of people to join in. It's broad-ranging and quite significant, and we are 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.

STEVE LEWIS:

Ladies and gentlemen, to both our speakers, thank you very much for speaking today. To our audience, thank you for being respectful for both our speakers. This is an issue that is going to emerge over the next couple of weeks in the Federal Parliament. Ladies and gentlemen, would you join with me please in thanking Senator Penny Wong and Senator Cory Bernardi on a terrific debate on same-sex marriage.

[ends]