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A Blow-by-Blow Account of the Wong vs Bernardi Gay Marriage Debate

It was set to be the most fascinating meeting of the minds since Gore Vidal debated the Iran-Contra affair with a small plate of cottage cheese.
July 29, 2015, 7:14am

Screencaps via Google

We're preparing to live-blog the debate Labor MP Penny Wong and Liberal Senator Cory Bernardi on the topic of gay marriage. The Press Club has not actually announced which side the two politicians will be taking, so I'm really hoping it gets assigned on a coin toss, like a high school debate.

The two are approaching this topic from fascinating perspectives. Penny Wong is a practicing Unitarian, and is in a committed relationship with another woman, with whom she is raising two children. Cory Bernardi was forced to resign as Deputy Manager of Opposition Business in 2012 when he suggested same sex marriages would lead to polygamy and bestiality. So they both have a unique insight into this debate, which will prove to be the most fascinating meeting of the minds since Gore Vidal debated the Iran-Contra affair with a small plate of cottage cheese.

12:32pm: "Welcome to the National Press Club," says moderator Steve Lewis. Wong and Bernardi both have their game faces on. Hopefully Bernardi has read our piece on the strongest arguments against gay marriage. If he goes in with those, he'll be unbeatable.

12:33pm: "Cory Bernardi has been a senator since 2006," says Lewis during the introductions. Bernardi bows his head humbly and smiles. This may be the nicest thing anyone's ever said about him.

12:34pm: Penny Wong is up first. She cites the US Supreme Court's judgment in favour of gay marriage, and quotes Justice Kennedy's ruling. Wong mentions that interracial marriage was once illegal, and quotes Desmond Tutu, who said that the fight for LGBTI rights was akin to the fight against racism. Although Tutu, who fought against apartheid and racism all his life, is clearly biased here.

12:39pm: Wong points out that using the "children deserve a mother and a father" argument is largely irrelevant in this debate, given same sex couples already have adoption rights. No doubt Cory will heed this point and not bring up children needing a mother and a father at all.

12:40pm: Wong quotes David Cameron saying that marriage equality makes society stronger. Quoting a left wing ideologue like this could backfire. (Cameron is essentially basically Otto Rühle next to Bernardi.)

12:43pm: Bernardi takes the podium and discusses rights versus desire. He says they've been confused in recent times, with people mistaking their personal desires for inalienable human rights. "Homosexual marriage is an example of this," he says, claiming that marriage was never invented, it just is. That's some zen shit right there.

12:44pm: Bernardi's tactic is pretty cunning. He's cleverly repurposing all the arguments that Wong listed as ridiculous and nonsensical. He adds that the phrase "marriage equality" is textbook sloganeering. Bernardi, who has in the past called the burqa a "shroud of oppression" and a "flag of fundamentalism" really hates sloganeering.

12:45pm: Bernardi appears to be criticising the gay marriage lobby for turning down people who wanted their platform to include polygamy. His problem seems to be that the lobby is not engaging in the slippery slope he predicted would happen.

12:46pm: Bernardi is discussing the hardships that opponents of gay marriage have to endure: "We're called bigots and homophobes." Verbal abuse is something no gay person could ever possibly relate to.

12:47pm: "Denying rights of children to have a mum and a dad being pursued relentlessly." Bernardi speaks out against gay adoption, which, as Wong pointed out in her opening remarks, is already legal. Hopefully someone on Bernardi's staff will discreetly hold up a sign with the debate topic before he does it again.

12:48pm: Bernardi dismisses Wong's citation of the results in Ireland and the USA. In the USA, the decision was made by "unelected and politically compromised" Supreme Court judges.

12:49pm: Bernardi is on fire (but not flaming). Will businesses or teachers be forced to advocate gay marriage, will people who speak out against it be silenced? Bernardi says the real issue is eroding the rights of people who do not support gay marriage. To translate, you should never be discriminated against because of your actions or words, but by who you are.

12:51pm: "I believe in no redefinition of marriage on basis of equality." Bernardi's right. If some people get equality, then everyone will want it! He then wraps up his opening remarks. Lots of interesting stuff in there, although very little to do with the topic at hand.

12:52pm: Time for the questions. The first reporter asks Bernardi if he still believes in that slippery slope that will lead to polygamy and bestiality. Bernardi points to the UK as proof it's already happened: "The Greens party is considering lobbying for multi-member relationships to be included in marriage campaign." This is actually true: the Greens Party in the UK did say this. Clearly the only way to prevent this from happening is to legislate against another unrelated thing that may possibly lead to it.

12:54pm: Wong promises to stand with Bernardi against bestiality should the issue ever come up. She then corrects a previous assertion: "We don't shout you down. We don't denigrate your relationships. We don't suggest your children are compromised. Who are the people hurling insults in this debate?"

12:58pm: "Great to see two South Australians," says a reporter from the Adelaide Advertiser, playing to the home crowd. "People could take that both ways," says Wong. Bernardi doesn't take the bait. Not even a "That's what she said", for god's sake.

1:02pm: Bernardi: "Penny wouldn't want us legislating for multiple partners. Everyone has their own line in the sand." He says we need to look at lived experience, and points to what's happened in other countries. "Freedoms are being curtailed on basis of same sex marriage." He goes on to cite lots of airtight examples of this. Just kidding.

1:03pm: Reporter to Bernardi: "Why is there so much focus on children when [gay and lesbian couples] can already have children? Wouldn't be better for them to get married for more stability?" Bernardi talks about the rights of children trumping the rights of adults, admits that sometimes same-sex couples do a better job than heterosexual couples, but confirms that same sex couples cannot naturally produce children. None of this really relates to the question.

1:04pm: Wong, who does address the question, again reminds Bernardi that it's already legal for same-sex couples to have children.

1:05pm: A reporter challenges Bernardi's claim that marriage was never invented. Bernardi responds by saying that when the Liberal Party was founded in 1945, marriage was naturally considered between a man and a woman, and this was codified in 2000. The biggest surprise here is his admission that the Liberal Party was founded. For a moment I thought he was going to suggest that, like marriage, it Always Was.

1:08pm: Bernardi discussing the history of marriage. It was "sometimes about procreation, sometimes about money, sometimes about companionship". It was "never defined". So marriage can be about anything! Except when gays want it, then it's about children and the looming threat of polygamy. I think that's what he's getting at.

1:09pm: Bernardi is once again asked about how the issue of children being raised by same-sex couples impacts the topic of gay marriage given that this part of it is already legal. "Just because something appears popular," says Bernardi, "it doesn't mean it's the right thing to do for the country." Based on Bernardi's vote count at the 2013 election, it's hard to argue with this.

1:11pm: Bernardi is asked to address the question he's now avoided several times, which is why he keeps talking about children being raised by same-sex couples. He talks about a man and a woman raising children again. He seems unable to comprehend the question. It's like watching a turtle on its back.

1:16pm: For some reason, there's a "why can't we all just get along?" question. Bernardi and Wong are asked why, in a pluralistic society, both opinions can't be held. Wong says that's what she's advocating: there can be both religious and civil marriages, but because of the religious views of some, Bernardi wants the secular state to forbid it. Bernardi's turn: "They do co-exist!" He says same-sex couples have all the rights that straight couples have. But then adds: "There's no reason to redefine marriage to mean something that it's never meant." But he said earlier that marriage was never defined. Maybe his point is semantics: you can't redefine something that's never been defined.

1:18pm: A reporter asks that if a free vote held, would Bernardi split away from the Liberals and form the Bernardi Party? "It would be a small party," he says. Bernardi says he agrees with Liberal principles. Wong points out that Liberals stand for freedoms, so wouldn't that mean a free vote? Bernardi turns the tables and mentions the Emissions Trading Scheme. Not sure what he's getting at exactly, but it has the cadence of a sick burn, so two points to Bernardi. I think.

1:19pm: There's a spirited back-and-forth between Wong and Bernardi on the definition of liberalism. Or maybe it's Liberalism. Bernardi says it's "freedom of individual." Wong responds: "People are free unless principles of party are transgressed?" Bernardi hits back: "You're trying to parlay Labor dogmatic principles with Liberals. People are free to disagree if that's the case."

1:22pm: Perhaps realising that he's not winning over anyone, Bernardi switches to the Adam Goodes controversy: "I don't believe that the booing is racially motivated." Okay, that didn't work. Back to gay marriage.

1:25pm: Bernardi is asked that if the majority of people say they want same-sex marriage legalised, would he vote for it? Bernardi: "If the majority of states and people said 'that's what we want', who am I to argue with that quite frankly?" Given 72 percent of Australians have said they want it legalised, Bernardi clearly just announced he'd vote for it. This is going to be the headline tomorrow, right?

1:27pm: Wong kicks off the summarising arguments, criticising Bernardi for the "same old tired arguments that we always hear". She tries to rally us to look at the big picture: "Let's lift the gaze." This won't work on Bernardi. He clearly dislikes the gaze.

1:28pm: Bernardi takes the podium again. "Marriage equality is catchy slogan, but it has no meaning in reality." He says marriage has always been a sacred bond between a man and a woman, and he believes it should remain that way.

And with that, the debate done and dusted.

Unfortunately, I could not be at the Press Club to feel the tension in the room, and had to watch the simulcast on ABC24. It was sad to see the typical ABC bias prevalent as ever: Penny Wong came across as the significantly stronger performer, and Bernardi ended up looking like a complete tool. Poor form, Auntie.

Follow Lee on Twitter: @LeeZachariah