Penny Wong: Australia's non-story of the week

Penny Wong is sworn in by the Governor-General on September 14, 2010
Penny Wong is Australia's first openly gay cabinet minister

Imagine the outcry in America if a senior cabinet member in the Obama administration had announced she was about to have a baby with her gay partner.

I'm thinking protests from the Christian Right outside the Treasury Department. Fiery on-screen denunciations from some leading television evangelists. Perhaps one or two preachers might even have blamed America's demotion from AAA to AA+ status on the moral impoverishment of its financial officials. The unborn baby would have quickly become the latest proxy in America's ongoing culture wars.

In Australia, however, the news that Finance Minister Penny Wong and her partner, Sophie Allouache, are expecting a child has generated a minimum of fuss. Indeed, I can report that it has been the non-story of the week.

They conceived using IVF with the help of an anonymous sperm donor. They underwent the procedure outside of their home state of South Australia because IVF for gay couples there is illegal.

Isolated criticism

Ms Wong decided to announce the news earlier this week because she acknowledged there would be interest from the public as a result of her high-ranking position within the government and because she wanted to protect her pregnant partner from any undue publicity.

Though a strong advocate of same-sex marriage - a stance that puts her at odds with Prime Minister Julia Gillard - Ms Wong said she was not making a political point.

''You have a child because you want a family and you want to have the opportunity of raising a child together," she told Phillip Coorey of the Sydney Morning Herald.

"You don't have a child to make a political statement."

Julia Gillard publicly congratulated her friend and trusted colleague, as did Julie Bishop, the acting opposition leader.

The only politician I have seen publicly criticise Ms Wong is the Reverend Fred Nile of the Christian Democratic Party, a member of the New South Wales Legislative Council and a self-styled protecter of public morals. In the upper house of the New South Wales parliament, for instance, he claims to hold what he calls "the balance of prayer".

"I'm totally against a baby being brought up by two mothers - the baby has human rights," said Rev Nile. "It's a very poor example for the rest of the Australian population."

He also criticised Penny Wong's decision to make public the news. "It just promotes their lesbian lifestyle and trying to make it natural where it's unnatural," he said.

But his has been a fairly isolated public voice.

A host of firsts

What can we draw from all this? The first point to make is that Australia's culture wars are very different from America's culture wars.

On the other side of the Pacific, the battles tend to focus on moral and faith-based issues, like abortion, creationism and same sex marriage. In Australia, the battleground is history, the related issue of indigenous rights, art and the environment. True, the question of same-sex marriage is starting to loom larger as an issue - the Labor Party national conference will debate it in December, and the emboldened Australian Greens are pressing for reform.

But it generates nowhere near the same passion as it does in the US.

When it comes to personal morality, Australia has moved away from the prudish censoriousness that was such a strong feature of national life until the early 1970s, and perhaps beyond. And though it remains a fairly socially conservative country - the continued influence of the Catholic Church is a key factor - it is also a socially tolerant country.

Again, this explains why Ms Wong's announcement has generated so little controversy.

Finally, Ms Wong is yet another reminder of the changing face of Australia. She is not only the first openly gay federal cabinet minister, but the first Asian-born minister. She came to Australia from Malaysia.

To these firsts, I dare say she would like another: that of being the first Australian politician to take part in a same-sex marriage.