In defence of Penny Wong

Activists are foaming at the mouth about the following exchange that occurred on Q&A last Monday night.

DANIELLE RAFFAELE: My question is directed to Penny. Penny, you say that you support your party’s decision to be against gay marriage, even though you are gay yourself. How can you sit idly back and allow yourself to remain silent about the obvious inequality that you are kept in?
PENNY WONG: I’m glad you asked me this question, because I think it’s important for me to explain to you how I approach this issue and politics and the first thing I wanted to say to you is that by virtue of who I am, prejudice and discrimination are things I have some firsthand knowledge of and when I entered the parliament, I did actually think very carefully about how to handle being Asian and gay and in the parliament, because it hadn’t been done before, and I thought a couple of things. One of them was about how I would handle it personally, and that was to be absolutely open about who I am, to never shy away from that and try to be dignified, even when it might be difficult and part of the reason I did that was I thought it was very important to show that you should never be ashamed of who you are, even when there are people who would try to make you be, and I thought that was one of the best things I could do in terms of how I handled it. On the issue of, I suppose, reform, there are a number of us in the party – Anthony Albanese, Tanya, others, who have worked very hard to try and improve the parties position and policies on gay and lesbian Australians and I can remember in 1998 at a national conference I was at, I think Richo was there, was the very first time we actually had in the platform any reference to discrimination on the basis of sexuality. And since that time I think you’ve seen progressive improvements, modernisation in the Labor Party’s platform and at the last election we went to the election with the most comprehensive set of law reform in relation to gay and lesbian rights that the country has ever seen and we have delivered them all. We have delivered them all and they are important things. They are things such as parental recognition of children of same sex relationships under the Family Law Act. They are recognition of same sex relationships as de facto relationships in federal law, in Veterans Affairs, in terms of Medicare access. These are things which make a real difference to people’s lives. Now, I accept that you and some other people in the community would like us to have a different position in terms of marriage. That isn’t the position in the party but what I would say to you is do take a moment to consider what we have tried to do, what we have advocated for and what we have delivered for gay and lesbian Australians.
CHRISTINE MILNE: Well, this is a lack of leadership, I have to say. This is a real lack of leadership and this is another example of the prime minister’s lack of leadership. Virtually as soon as she became the prime minister she ruled out going to marriage equality. She ruled out getting rid of this vestige of discrimination and she went on to say it’s not religious. So is it historical? Is it cultural? And if it’s historical and cultural, it is the responsibility of the Prime Minister to lead this country to a better place and that is what we need to be doing and we’ll have legislation – we have legislation. We put it to the parliament before. It was voted down by everyone except the Greens. We will be putting it in there again in balance of power in the senate and we are hoping that this time whoever is in government will go to a conscience vote on this because I’m confident that the Australian community really wants to see this change and Julia Gillard should offer leadership in this regard.
TONY JONES: All right, I’m going to throw that back for a brief response to Penny Wong and I suppose the key question there is whether a conscience vote under the circumstances…
PENNY WONG: Yeah, I don’t agree with conscience votes and I’ll tell you why, and that’s also from a feminist perspective. If we’d had conscience votes in the Labor Party on a range of issues – well, we obviously have on abortion, but on other issues, there are many reforms which would not have been achieved. I have a view that you join a team, you’re part of the team and that’s the way, you know, we operate and people sometimes like that and sometimes they don’t but that’s…
TONY JONES: We’ve got one quick response from the audience there.
GRAHAM RICHARDSON: I…
TONY JONES: Sorry, just hang on, Graham.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Yeah, just Malcolm Turnbull openly disagrees with Liberal policy on ETS. Why can’t you openly disagree with Labor policy on gay marriage?
PENNY WONG: Well, because, as I’ve said…
GRAHAM RICHARDSON: (Indistinct)
TONY JONES: Yeah.
GRAHAM RICHARDSON: Look, I’m amazed somewhat by these questions, really. You would not have had many of the things that have now happened that she’s already referred to if people like Penny weren’t in the Labor Party and weren’t pushing for them. There are a lot of people in the Labor Party who don’t agree with this stuff. At the moment there’s nowhere near a majority but there will be. There will be over time because Penny will work for it and it will get up in the end. But give her a break, for God’s sake. She’s part of a caucus. There’s a whole lot of them. She doesn’t run the government, she’s a part of it. A part of it. There’s a think called cabinet solidarity…
AUDIENCE MEMBER: She can have an opinion.
GRAHAM RICHARDSON: …and if she wants to break it she gets nowhere. You’ll lose someone who fights for your cause. That, my friends, is dumb. Big time dumb.

My sympathies are entirely with Penny Wong, and Graham Richardson sums things up rather well.

It’s one thing to indulge in the romance and drama of activism, but it is quite another thing to accomplish real change in the real world. Penny Wong has clearly accomplished a great deal, especially given that the issue – sorry readers – is for most people quite marginal and unimportant and one on which the country is clearly divided. We are certainly better off than most countries as a result of the changes the government has managed to bring in.

My own view is that in the long run the government should register all unions between consenting adults equally and get out of the business of defining marriage. Leave that to the churches, and leave people to form the unions they wish, churched or not is up to them.

Of course that then raises rather more than gay marriage. Why not polygamy? Well, why not indeed? Also, note I said “consenting adults”… Where would that leave arranged marriages?

Nothing is ever as easy as it looks.

Update

MG1978.s A couple of other bloggers who read this blog have posted since: Penny Wong, same-sex marriage and why you can’t change things within the Labor party (Benjamin Solah) and Lay off Penny — it takes all types to make change happen (Adrian Phoon). Adrian starts thus:

When I first read about Penny Wong’s comments on same-sex marriage, I was extremely disappointed — and, truth be told, angry. Here was a high-ranking cabinet minister who also happened to be gay. Yet here she was, proclaiming a need to respect one particular “cultural, religious, historical” view of marriage as a union between a man and a woman.

I wasn’t the only one who felt disappointed. Bob Brown claimed he was horrified. Tim Dick of the Sydney Morning Herald wrote passionately about Wong’s failure of nerve. This morning, Samantha Maiden has commented on abuse hurled at Penny Wong from within the gay community.

Meanwhile, the condemnations on Twitter and elsewhere rang loudly against Wong’s betrayal of the gay community.

By the time she appeared on Q&A on Monday, the attack had reached fever-pitch. When, inevitably, she was called on to discuss same-sex marriage, her words were measured — but also, I think, heartfelt…

I’m glad I have quoted the Q&A exchange in full; what I couldn’t capture is the emotion Penny was clearly feeling.

Let me stray into some history. In 1978 I was living and working in Sydney. Did I really notice the first Mardi Gras? (Poster on right.) No. What I did notice were the TV interviews around it, and they (and it) were products as much as causes of a movement going back earlier in the decade, partly motivated by cultural changes, such as the performance of Hair in Sydney, by the ideas sewn by the demonstrations against conscription and then against the Vietnam War in the late 60s and early 70s, by events overseas, by the lively weekly newspaper Nation Review which ran gay and lesbian personal ads, by TV soaps like Number 96, by the phenomenal pink safari-suited Don Dunstan as premier of South Australia, and so on and so on. The Mardi Gras parades were certainly part of the mix and those pioneers who took part, not all of them lefties either, certainly had courage and are to be honoured, but they were not the sole cause of the ultimate success of gay rights in NSW. What was happening was a climate where that success became more likely.

When success did come it was mainly down to George Petersen, member for Illawarra in the NSW Parliament, who lobbied from within the Labor Party and after two failed private member’s bills finally won cabinet – especially Neville Wran – over.

The third issue in which George’s parliamentary activity was a major factor in a civilised outcome was homosexual law reform. George, for a number of years, conducted a parliamentary agitation for homosexual law reform, and he heated up the parliamentary atmosphere by initiating or supporting several private members bills on the subject, which failed. Under this constant pressure from George and others, finally, in 1984 the Premier, Neville Wran, moved a bill for homosexual law reform, which, while not perfect, as it left the age of consent at 18, still effectively legalised homosexual activity amongst consenting adults.

Any woman who requires an abortion and can have it in proper medical surroundings, and any gay man who can engage in sexual activity without fear of arrest, and any unfortunate prisoner in a jail whose time inside is not as cruel and barbaric as it once was, might never have even heard of George Petersen, but they owe him a lot.

Leaving aside whether gay marriage is the crucial issue many claim it to be, keep in mind that Penny Wong may in the end have proven more effective in its eventual acceptance than many now give her credit for.

Some of the commentary leaves me with the jaundiced view that often noisy activism is about making the activist feel powerful or self-righteous. Is that too harsh? It’s to participate in theatre after all, and that is to some very satisfying, but the real deals almost always happen somewhere else.

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