South Australia Senator Penny Wong Ying Yen has been appointed minister for water and climate change by new Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.

The 39-year-old lawyer is the first Asian-born person to become a Cabinet minister as well as the first out gay person of either sex.

She was elected to the Senate in 2001 and last year slammed the government of John Howard for its gay rights stance.

Ms Wong’s first test in the newly-created water and climate change role will be at next week’s UN Climate Change conference in Bali, Indonesia.

She will accompany the Prime Minister and environment minister Peter Garrett, formerly the lead singer of Australian band Midnight Oil, to the talks.

Ms Wong, a lawyer, was born in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia, to a Malaysian Chinese father and an Australian mother, and came to Australia when she was eight.

Gay rights were an issue in last month’s election campaign.

The Labour party took the line that marriage is for heterosexuals only, and would grant legal concessions to homosexuals, but not the legal status of marriage.

“On the institution of marriage itself, our view is between a man and woman and it’s just been our traditional, continuing view,” Mr Rudd said in October.

However, Labour supports changes to the law to remove inequities in the tax and benefits system that discriminate against same-sex couples.

A report in June by Australia’s Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC) recommended that 58 laws need to be changed to grant gay, bisexual and lesbian Australians equal rights.