The first openly-gay Cabinet minister in Australia’s history, Penny Wong’s promotion to Senate Leader after the return of Kevin Rudd in June made her the third-most powerful person in government. Combined with her portfolio as Finance Minister, she is arguably the most influential LGBTI person in Australia. With polls pointing towards a Coalition victory, however, Wong is in the fight of her political life, and is pushing the government’s record on marriage and discrimination to convince LGBTI Australians that Labor is still worth their vote.
In your opinion, what are the biggest issues facing voters at this election?
I think jobs and the economy are the biggest issue. We faced a challenging time through the Global Financial Crisis and we came through it very well as a nation, but there are challenges ahead in a fragile, global economy. It’s about the sort of investments to support jobs like the NBN and investment in infrastructure and of course investment in our schools which is all about opportunity. Did you want me to say marriage equality? (laughs)
Why should LGBTI people vote for Labor?
I would speak to our community as I would speak to the broader population. Obviously, issues of equality are important but so too is the central issue of what kind of society do you want. I think what Tony Abbott stands for is a more unequal Australia, an Australia where there are fewer opportunities and where there is a risk to jobs and the economy. Interestingly, this week we saw Joseph Stiglitz, who is a Nobel Prize winner in Economics, talking about the risk of recession and job losses that come from too many cuts at a time where the economy is facing challenges. This is the point we’ve been making. These are the sorts of things which are at stake.
It’s really important to have political leaders who are prepared to say “I stand for equality”. Kevin Rudd does – as do I, as does Anthony Albanese, as does Tanya Plibersek – and so do many other members of the Labor Party.
Earlier this year Parliament passed the Sex Discrimination Amendment Act, which enshrined protections for LGBTI people, but there was controversy on the question of religious exemptions.
It was really pleasing to deliver that. It was an election commitment of ours and the first time we’ve had that protection against discrimination in federal legislation. I think it comes back to first principles. People should have the equal protection of the law regardless of their attributes – why should we suggest that some people are more equal than others?
The removal of aged care exemptions wasn’t an easy thing to achieve because there were obviously people with very strong views about the importance of religious exemptions. My view is you shouldn’t be permitted to use those exemptions to deny service to elderly gay and lesbian Australians. I’m really pleased we achieved the outcome we did but it wasn’t easy.
I know that the Greens and others were very critical of the fact that those exemptions were in place. It’s disappointing sometimes that people want to play a bit of enabling the pure to be the enemy of the good. You need to take every advancement of rights you can and then continue to argue for others. There are always conversations about progressing rights inside the Labor Party. Those changes are not guided by current platform but we can always have a discussion about how we continue to progress while respecting those who do not agree with us and their religious principles.
Obviously I’m Finance Minister so I’m not always engaged on these issues of rights, but other MPs and Senators are.
How will Labor go about legislating for marriage equality, if re-elected?
Any major social change on rights in this country, historically, has required support across the political divide. Whether it’s issues of race or the 1967 referendum, whether it’s feminism and equal pay and federal legislation around sex discrimination – so much of our major social advancements around rights and equality have demanded that Liberals step up as well. We should never step back from demanding that. Without it, it becomes too great a political football and too tenuous a reform.
The focus has to be on maximising support inside the parliament across the political divide – within the Labor Party, where I can’t recall what the numbers were but we had very strong support for equality in the last vote and I think it’s grown since – but also inside the Coalition. I can see why people are concerned. I don’t want another bill unless we win. I want us to win it. But I think to win it will require the people in the Liberal Party who do actually believe in individual rights to express that in parliament.