COMMENTS linking same-sex marriage to legalisation of bestiality have been denied by Liberal Senator Cory Bernardi as the vocal opponent to marriage equality took on equally-vocal supporter Labor Senator Penny Wong in a debate today at the National Press Club in Canberra.

It was standing room only in the National Press Club as the debate between South Australian senators covered similar ground heard throughout the drawn out debate over marriage equality in Australia over the years.

[showads ad=MREC]Drawing upon words spoken by US Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy after handing out its pro-marriage equality decision last month, Wong spoke of similar cases of overturning discrimination and equality being apart of the Australian identity.

“I was reminded of an earlier decision in the Supreme Court, one in 1967 in which the court struck down laws that existed in several American states banning interracial marriage,” she said in her opening statement.

“Like the referendum in Ireland these milestones remind us that the principal of equality can overcome discrimination. They remind us of the simple power of the maxim: equal treatment before the law.

“Equality is central to our egalitarianism spirit, a part of our national identity. We see the expression of this through our history,” she added, referring to the fight for women’s and Indigenous rights in Australia.

Bernardi started off with a denial that the case for marriage equality was not one of rights, but of self-interested “desires” and that fighting for rights had become a “contest”.

“One could argue that the entire concept of rights has been so debased in recent times, it is now difficult to know what is a right and what is simply a desire,” he said.

“Ironically this new culture of rights has been 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 bond between a man and a woman across time, across cultures and across various religious beliefs.”

Bernardi accused the marriage equality campaign and advocates of using an approach that was “textbook propaganda”.

“[Attempts to redefine marriage] has been done in the names of rights and equality,” he said.

“Both words are used by the same-sex lobby in a textbook propaganda campaign… the term ‘marriage equality’ is a masterpiece of sloganeering, even though it has no basis in reality because in 2008 the federal parliament removed legal discrimination between same-sex couples.

“I think that it is crystal clear this campaign is not about equality but it’s about personal desires of self-interest by a vocal minority.”

While Bernardi conceded that in some cases same-sex couples made for better parents than heterosexual ones, he stood by the principal of a mother and a father.

“I cannot and will not do not deny that some same-sex couples make much, much better parents than some married heterosexual couples but it doesn’t change the general principle that the ideal is still a child being raised by a married mother and father,” he said.

“It’s a sentiment that seven out of ten Australians agree with.”

Bernardi is perhaps most infamous for his 2012 comments in the Senate that linked equal marriage laws to the legal recognition of bestiality, comments that cost him his position as Tony Abbott’s parliamentary secretary.

Asked by the media whether he still stood by his remarks, Bernardi said: “I never said [same-sex marriage] would lead to [bestiality].”

“I merely said that if we redefine marriage it would lead to further cause for redefinition for other relationship types to be in there. I don’t know where that will lead.

“That’s been born true because in England… the [British] Greens party is now considering lobbying for multi-member relationships to be included in the marriage campaign,” Bernardi added, highlighting other cases in Brazil and The Netherlands where some had pushed for legal recognition of polygamist relationships.

“If we’re going to redefine marriage to include one section of the community that has never been included in there before, how can we logically deny others who have the same rights and use same words like ‘you can’t chose who you love’.”

Wong suggested to the audience that they “consider Hansard” for clarification of what Bernardi said about marriage equality and bestiality in 2012.

“I would say to Cory if you want a commitment from me that I would stand with [him] in a defence against bestiality being recognised in law, I’m happy to give that,” she said.

Wong also refuted Bernardi’s use of what she considered to be a “slippery slope” argument used to promote fear about marriage equality.

“The bogeyman of the ‘slippery slope’, or warnings about our relations with Asia, simply don’t stack up as reasons to deny equality,” she said.

“In [Cory’s] speech… those who want equality are referred to as a ‘vocal minority’ despite the fact that a majority of Australians have indicated they support the call for marriage equality.

“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?”

News of Prime Minister Tony Abbott considering a national plebiscite on marriage equality was dismissed by both Bernardi and Wong, with the latter calling it a “delaying tactic” and Bernardi preferring the issue be dealt with in parliament.

Recent polling has consistently shown a steady increase not only in the majority of Australians being in favour of marriage equality, but also a majority of Christians. Bernardi denied he represented a minority Christian view.

“I don’t believe that is the case at all. If you go back to the 1000 people that were surveyed by Cosby-Trextor, the real issue is what question is asked quite frankly,” he said.

“Forty-eight per cent… 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 between a man and a woman. That’s the feedback I overwhelmingly get.

“People [of faith] can agree to disagree on [marriage equality]… 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 Buddhists or any other religion.”

Wong said the debate had benefited from Christians who had spoken out in favour of marriage equality.

“I think Cory’s conceited that there are obviously a range of views within religious institutions 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,” she said.

“Unfortunately sometimes who has the loudest voice and who gives the quote to the paper that gets the run sometimes [gives the impression that] they speak for all people of faith and that’s not necessarily true.”

In closing, Wong said Bernardi and other opponents had offered nothing new to the argument against marriage equality and that the time had come for Australia.

“What we have heard from the other side has been the same old, tired arguments that we’ve always heard and fundamentally the position that Senator Bernardi and many on his side have is that LGBTI Australians, same-sex couples are really not equal,” Wong said.

“I say this to you: let’s lift the gaze. Let’s look at what we want to 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 in our lives.

“It’s time friends to make the change. It’s time for marriage equality.”

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