After narrowly falling short at the 2011 National Conference, and with only 12 months left until the next gathering, now is the time to restart the push for the Australian Labor Party to adopt a binding vote in favour of marriage equality.
In this post, I will discuss the issue of binding versus conscience votes by looking at the state of play in the current Parliament, the arguments for and against changing the party’s rules, the internal consequences of adopting a binding vote, external strategic considerations in determining whether to pursue this change and, if you agree with my approach, I will end by suggesting ways in which you can assist the push for reform.
One last thing before we begin, however: I am a Labor Party member, and have been for more than 12 years. But I am also an LGBTI advocate and activist and, where the ALP falls short of the standards which we, as a community, have every right to expect of it – as it does with respect to marriage equality – then I will call it out, and agitate for reform, both from within and from without. Because that is the only way the Labor Party is ever going to change.
It’s Time to Bind: The Numbers
This wouldn’t be a post about a Labor Party rule change if it didn’t start by looking at the numbers – in this case, the current numbers in Commonwealth Parliament.
The prevailing narrative in the push for marriage equality in 2014 appears to be that all efforts must be directed at achieving a conscience vote within the Liberal-National Coalition, and that once this is achieved, marriage equality stands a good chance of being passed in the next 12 to 18 months.
But what if this narrative is wrong? What if a Coalition conscience vote is not enough?
If we look at the numbers closely, with the Abbott-led Government standing on 90 seats out of a possible 150 in the House of Representatives, and adopting increasingly conservative views on a range of social issues (section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, asylum seekers etc), do we really think there would be enough Coalition MPs willing to vote for marriage equality for any Bill to be successful, if the Labor Party were to continue to adopt a conscience vote?
Those who would answer that question in the affirmative point to two recent examples, from the past 18 months, where marriage equality was achieved in comparable countries, with conscience votes, and under (although not by) conservative governments: New Zealand, and England & Wales.
However, there are at least four key differences between the experience in those countries, and the current situation in Australia:
- The conservative Prime Ministers of both, John Key and David Cameron respectively, were personally committed to marriage equality
- A significant minority of conservative party MPs in both were willing to vote yes (46% in New Zealand, 49% in England & Wales)
- The conservative Governments of both are minority Governments, meaning it did not take a large majority of other party MPs’ support to reach 50% plus one, and
- In both countries, roughly 90% of Labour MPs voted in favour, meaning the reform was passed easily in any event.
Of course, the size of the parliamentary victories for marriage equality in each country (395 to 170 in the House of Commons, 77 to 44 in New Zealand), mean that perhaps not all of these conditions need to be replicated in Australia in order for a Bill to pass here. But currently none of these conditions exist.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott is staunchly opposed to marriage equality. He refused to allow a ‘formal’ conscience vote in the last parliament when the Marriage Amendment Bill was debated. He refuses to even consider changing his position despite the fact his own sister is in a same-sex relationship and wishes simply to have the same right to marry that he currently enjoys.
And, while others might have fantasies that his position in the Lodge might be involuntarily changed for him by his colleagues in the Coalition party room, that is highly unlikely to happen before the 2016 Federal election (at least in part because of the reaction to the Labor Party’s change of leaders in the lead-up to the 2010 poll).
The imposing 90 to 55 parliamentary majority enjoyed by the Liberal and National Parties over the ALP isn’t going to change (barring unforeseen by-elections, and even then only by one or two) before 2016, either.
The level of support for marriage equality amongst Labor MPs in Australia falls far short of their comrades in New Zealand and England & Wales, too. Instead of 90% support, only a slim majority of all Labor Party House of Representative MPs (and just under 60% of those that voted), did the right thing back in September 2012 – a low figure which does much to discredit the party’s overall progressive credentials.
But the number of Liberal and National MPs who voted in favour of the Marriage Amendment Bill 2012 was even lower: zero. While acknowledging that there wasn’t a ‘formal’ conscience vote – meaning that members of the frontbench were prohibited from voting yes – we should remember that the Liberal Party in particular is fond of saying that all of its (backbench) MPs have a conscience vote on every single issue.
And yet, of the 60 or so Liberal and National MPs who theoretically could have exercised that freedom, just one – Senator Sue Boyce from Queensland – abstained. And, as of 1 July 2014, she is not even there anymore. Not a single one of her colleagues joined her in abstaining, let alone voting to support the legal equality of LGBTI Australians.
Moving forward just two years, it stretches credulity to suggest that, in the event a formal conscience vote were provided today, the level of support for marriage equality from Coalition MPs would even come close to approaching the 45% plus figure reached by conservative party MPs in New Zealand and England & Wales.
Putting the scale of the numerical challenge in front of us even more bluntly, if the level of ALP support for marriage equality were to be the same in 2014 as it was in 2012 (60%, now the equivalent of 33 House of Representatives MPs), and taking into account the support of cross-bench MPs Adam Bandt, Cathy McGowan and Andrew Wilkie, reaching the magical 75 votes needed to secure passage would require the support of 39 Coalition MPs – or 44% of all Liberal and National MPs in the House of Representatives (NB This calculation excludes the Speaker’s vote).
Based on everything we know – and under the leadership of someone like Prime Minister Abbott, whose personal opposition would influence some of the MPs in the Liberal party room in particular to cast their vote against – that bar seems very high, so high that it is arguably unachievable.
Let’s be generous then, and assume that the level of support amongst Labor Party MPs has risen to two thirds, meaning 37 MPs voting in favour (which is possible, given that some intellectual ‘dead wood’ was removed last September). That would still mean 39% of Liberal and National MPs having to vote yes to achieve even the slimmest of victories in the lower house.
Now, that might, just might, be possible. But, if you were a gambling person, would you be willing to put any money on that outcome?
With the future of marriage equality – something of much higher value than mere money – at stake, why aren’t we considering these numerical hurdles, and asking whether there might be other ways to reach 75?
One of these ways is if the Australian Labor Party were to adopt a binding vote on marriage equality for its Federal MPs, through a rule change at its July 2015 National Conference. That move would instantly change the equation – with a guaranteed 58 votes in favour (55 from the ALP, plus three from the cross-bench), only 17 Liberal and National MPs (or 19% of the total) would need to support a Bill to get it across the line.
Less than one in five would still be difficult, although it is eminently more achievable than the two in five required in the other scenarios described above. However, as the outcome of the 2012 legislation clearly demonstrates, even reaching this figure would still require a formal conscience vote for Coalition MPs.
Which brings me to my conclusion on this section. Looking at the numbers alone, it is highly likely that, in order for marriage equality to be passed in the current term of Parliament, we need for there to be both a conscience vote for Liberal and National Party MPs and a binding vote for Labor MPs.
I will readily admit that those dual, and potentially competing, objectives, may or may not be achievable – something I will examine later in this post (see ‘The Strategy’, below) – but before we get there, I want to talk further about the policy arguments for and against an ALP rule change, as well as the potential internal consequences of such a reform.
It’s Time to Bind: The Merits
As many people would be aware, one of the major achievements of the 2011 ALP National Conference in Sydney was the adoption of a commitment in the national platform to support marriage equality. As a result, the current platform includes the following (at paragraphs 126 and 127):
“Labor will amend the Marriage Act to ensure equal access to marriage under statute for all adult couples irrespective of sex who have a mutual commitment to a shared life. These amendments should ensure that nothing in the Marriage Act imposes an obligation on a minister of religion to solemnise any marriage.”
However, during the very same debate, that Conference passed a resolution that fatally undermined any chance of marriage equality passing in the last parliament and which, as we have seen above, continues to jeopardise its passage today. Specifically, “[c]onference resolves that the matter of same sex marriage can be freely debated at any state or federal forum of the Australian Labor Party, but any decision reached is not binding on any member of the Party.”
Putting aside numerical considerations for a moment, let’s examine the merits of such a position. Is there any justification for adopting such a position, for supporting legal equality irrespective of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status, but then allowing MPs to vote against such equality?
The short answer: no. And the long answer: no.
In short, there is absolutely no reason why, of all the various policy issues which the Australian Labor Party adopts binding positions on, marriage equality should be considered so ‘special’, so extraordinary, as to justify a disregard to, and breakdown of, solidarity on this issue.
Turning to this question in slightly (okay, a lot) more detail. The Australian Labor Party is founded on the labour movement, and as such has adopted at its core the principles of collective organising, of being stronger together than as individuals.
In its rules, these ideas of solidarity have translated into the practical requirement that all parliamentary representatives are bound to vote together on nearly all issues. The ALP has certainly never argued, as the Liberal Party has done, that its backbenchers enjoy a conscience vote on every single issue.
Any differences on policies are debated, often passionately, at conferences, and inside caucus rooms – but they are resolved there, and the Party adopts a united front on the floors of parliamentary chambers across the country.
Except when it doesn’t. On a small number of issues, the Labor Party does have a history of allowing conscience votes, usually for things that are described as ‘matters of life and death’, although it is hard to see how laws relating to homosexuality, or LGBTI rights more generally, have much to do with that criteria.
The problem for those that would try to use the history of LGBTI-related conscience votes to argue for a free vote on marriage equality today is that, for each of these votes, when we reflect on them critically, it is clear that the granting of a conscience vote was wrong. Wrong on principle, and wrong in practice.
For example, the 1984 law decriminalising homosexuality in NSW was not formal Government legislation – it was a private member’s Bill, put forward by the then Premier, the late Neville Wran, and voted on by all parliamentarians, including Labor MPs, through a conscience vote.
Does anyone who is involved in public life today – anyone outside the religious fundamentalist fringes of society – actually believe that this legislation was wrong? Is there anyone in the modern ALP who is prepared to say that Labor MPs should have been allowed to vote against the decriminalisation of male same-sex sexual intercourse in 1984? Anyone at all?
The counter-argument is probably that the vote on decriminalisation took place thirty years ago, and that times, and attitudes, have changed in the decades since. Fine, let’s look at a more recent example. It took until 2003 for the NSW Parliament to equalise the age of consent between male same-sex sexual intercourse and mixed-sex intercourse.
Again, it was achieved through a conscience vote, and again a small number of ALP MPs (including, it should be pointed out, a current Federal shadow minister, together with Eddie Obeid and Joe Tripodi) voted against this proposal. Just over a decade later, would anyone seriously try to mount the argument that ‘gay sex’ should attract a higher age of consent than ‘straight sex’? Or that the ALP should have abandoned the principle of a binding vote on this issue? I suspect the answer would be a resounding no.
There are other examples, from other jurisdictions, as well as examples relating to other LGBTI topics (such as adoption or parenting), but each has the same outcome – a conscience vote which opponents of equality argue for vociferously at the time, citing all sorts of ‘moral hazards’, but which looks patently ridiculous in hindsight.
Those that say the history of conscience votes on homosexuality inside the ALP justifies a free vote on marriage equality now, should feel free to explain how the use of a conscience vote in each of these cases was justified – because these are the precedents, and this is the intellectual ‘legacy’, with which they are associating.
If they cannot demonstrate that those conscience votes were morally justified – and I would strongly suggest they can’t – then perhaps they should reconsider their arguments for a conscience vote on marriage equality today. Otherwise, they will simply be consigning the Labor Party to making the same mistake again, and again, and again.
Instead, I believe the Labor Party should fast forward through the all-too-frequent embarrassing ‘phase’ when it allows some MPs to vote for legal discrimination against a minority group before it belatedly corrects itself, and reach the right conclusion now – which is that all of its MPs should be bound to vote in favour of marriage equality in this term.
On a related topic, some have argued that the ALP should adopt conscience votes relating to the broad topic of ‘marriage’ per se (not just whether LGBTI couples should be included, but also on other marriage-related matters such as divorce). However, there isn’t a strong historical precedent for their use here, either.
In one of the more bizarre political speeches in recent times, speaking against marriage equality in her address to the ALP National Conference in December 2011, then Prime Minister Julia Gillard argued that a conscience vote should be granted because a conscience vote had been granted to Labor MPs with respect to the ‘no fault’ divorce reforms in 1975 (for the full text of her speech see here).
Gillard did not even attempt to acknowledge the fact that, from the time then Prime Minister John Howard introduced his ban on marriage equality in 2004, until her speech that day, all ALP Parliamentary Members had been subject to a binding vote on marriage broadly, and marriage equality specifically – they had been obliged to vote against LGBTI equality.
This glaring omission, ignoring the most recent seven years and instead grasping at an example from 36 years prior, was necessary because there was no intellectual rationale for that binding vote to become a conscience vote in 2011. The substantive arguments for and against marriage equality had not changed, the rights and wrongs of the issue were no different than they had been in 2004, or 2007, or 2009.
The only thing that had changed was the numbers within the ALP (something I will come to in the next section). In practice, there was no new ‘moral hazard’ which had suddenly transformed this issue from something which the Labor Party could bind on, to something so complex or controversial that it required a free vote.
There wasn’t even a legitimate question of religious freedom at stake – because, as made clear in paragraph 127 of the platform (see above), no church or religious group would be obliged to perform an LGBTI-inclusive marriage ceremony. This was a secular party, supporting the position that a secular Parliament should vote in favour of LGBTI relationships being recognised as equal under secular law. Nothing more and nothing less.
The ridiculousness of the ALP’s position – in supporting a platform position in favour of marriage equality, but then allowing its MPs to depart from that platform whenever they wished – is revealed when we compare it with the other main social policy issue currently the source of controversy within the ALP (and across Australia generally): asylum seeker and refugee policy.
Now that is an issue which is genuinely ‘life and death’, with policies that have directly led to the murder of Reza Berati, in Australian custody in an offshore detention centre which the last ALP Government re-established, which continues to drive scores of asylum seekers in numerous camps both here and abroad to, and beyond, breaking point and yes, which has also involved several mass drownings at sea.
If ever there was a subject that raised substantive moral and ethical concerns that would be it. And yet there is no conscience vote on that issue, nor is there a push for one (and, it must be added, nor do I believe there should be one – while obviously I think current ALP policies on refugees are appalling, the only way they can be changed is in Government, with all ALP members bound to vote in favour of a more humane approach).
The moral and ethical concerns of those who would oppose marriage equality, because of their belief that marriage is something which must be reserved solely for heterosexual relationships, pale in comparison, indeed fade into complete insignificance, when assessed against those concerns raised by refugee policies.
In fact, one could assert that in contrast to refugee policy the topic of marriage equality looks like an ‘ordinary’ issue, and definitely something which can be resolved in the ‘ordinary’ way – by a Conference vote, for and against, and then implemented by a binding vote on Labor’s parliamentary representatives.
But there is one last comparison that I wish to make which I think shows that the ALP’s position in favour of a conscience vote on marriage equality is not just ridiculous, but outrageous as well.
Imagine, for a second, that in 2011 the original ‘White Australia Policy’ still existed, and that in response the Labor Party National Conference adopted in its platform a position that it would remove discrimination based on race from all immigration policies and laws. Now imagine that same Conference then turned around and said that ALP MPs could vote against these changes if they believed that some migrants were less deserving of rights simply because of their race.
Outrageous, isn’t it? I believe that not only would the modern ALP not allow a conscience vote in these circumstances, it would expel, without a moment’s hesitation, any MP who even threatened to crossed the floor. And yet the only difference between that example and the issue of marriage equality is that the former is about racial equality, and the latter is about the equality of all people irrespective of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status.
As this comparison makes abundantly clear, while overt discrimination on the basis of race is, thankfully, not permitted (at least in the Party’s rules), there remains a special privilege for some MPs within the Labor Party to vote against the fundamental rights and equality of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians.
Earlier this year, Commonwealth Attorney-General Senator George Brandis encountered significant, and entirely justified, criticism, including from the ALP, when he told Parliament that “people have the right to be bigots.” But isn’t this criticism just a little bit hypocritical when, at the same time, Labor’s rules state that Federal Members of Parliament have the right to be homophobes?
I’ll concede that some people don’t believe opposing marriage equality necessarily equates with ‘homophobia’ (I do, but, to some extent, that is a debate for another day). Nevertheless, the point remains: there isn’t really any substantive difference between the Attorney-General saying that people have the right to be bigots, and the Australian Labor Party saying that its parliamentary representatives have the right to discriminate against LGBTI people.
Just as it is doing in the racial vilification debate, the Labor Party should be standing up for members of a minority group who are vulnerable to discrimination on the basis of their attributes. Instead, while its platform says the ALP supports finally conferring LGBTI Australians with ‘1st class’ citizenship, its rules allow a significant proportion of its MPs to continue to vote to entrench our 2nd class status.
It’s time to say that this situation is offensive – as I believe many people, both inside and outside the ALP, find it to be.
It’s time to point out that allowing a conscience vote on marriage equality is a gross violation of the principle of collective organising that lies at the heart of the ALP, a violation that has no merit or justification in principle whatsoever.
It’s time to say that allowing conscience votes on LGBTI rights of any kind, and permitting some Labor Party parliamentarians to vote against legal equality on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status, is no longer acceptable in a contemporary political party that likes to refer to itself as progressive.
It’s time for the Australian Labor Party to adopt a binding vote in favour of marriage equality.
It’s Time to Bind: The Split?
When the merits of the arguments for and against a binding vote are all said and done, there are only two things left to debate – the internal consequences of adopting a binding vote for the ALP, and the external strategic considerations, for marriage equality campaigners, concerning when to push for such a vote.
Turning first to the internal consequences. There is an accusation which is made against people calling for a binding vote on issues like marriage equality, that we are somehow trying to ‘split’ the party. It is certainly an accusation which I would expect to hear frequently in the lead-up to next year’s National Conference, particularly as the push for a binding vote gathers steam.
In fact, the exact opposite is true – those who staunchly oppose being bound are the ones who threaten to split the party because of their own narrow self-interest.
Supporters of marriage equality inside the Australian Labor Party have spent the past decade meticulously playing by the rules. From the bleak days of August 2004, when the Latham-led Opposition chose to roll over and vote against marriage equality in response to John Howard’s attempted political ‘wedge’, through the following six years slowly building the case for full equality, while also gradually addressing other areas of discrimination (including securing de facto relationship recognition at the federal level for the first time in 2008).
By 2011 the time had come to make the final push for a change to the national platform. But that delay had come at a cost. For more than seven years, progressive Federal MPs had, in line with the Party’s binding policy position, been voting against LGBTI equality.
This included openly lesbian Senator Penny Wong, who was bound from the first vote in August 2004, until the December 2011 National Conference, to vote against her own equality, and that of her relationship. Her position invited, and attracted, much opprobrium from her own community, with suggestions that she had sold them out – even though she was playing the long game.
The same is true of out Senator Louise Pratt, who was bound to vote against the equality of her community from the time she was sworn in, in July 2008, until the end of 2011. But it was not just LGBTI MPs that were affected. Any progressive MP who genuinely believed the stance against marriage equality was discriminatory and wrong (and there were plenty from the very beginning), accepted these restrictions, and the criticisms that went along with them.
There were no public threats to cross the floor and bring forth a split in the Party – just a quiet determination to slowly build support towards an eventual change to the platform. That is exactly how a collectivist party should operate. And, in the lead up to the last National Conference it was clear that these tactics had paid off, with momentum firmly on the side of the angels.
In absolutely no coincidence whatsoever, that was also the moment opponents of marriage equality inside the ALP suddenly discovered that this topic was an ethically fraught one, and therefore required a conscience vote. Note that they did not make these arguments at the National Conferences of 2006 or 2009, both of which had occurred during the period when a binding position was being imposed on progressives.
No, the opponents of marriage equality only truly discovered the ‘benefits’ of a conscience vote when the number of people supporting equality inside the Party had finally outgrown the number of people opposed, and that as a result there was a very real risk that a binding vote might be actually applied on them.
It is plain to see how this Damascene conversion, adopted in quick succession by opponents of equality from the then Prime Minister down, was in fact intellectually bankrupt. In essence, they were saying that, while it was perfectly acceptable to impose a binding vote against progressives from 2004 to 2011, it was totally unacceptable to impose a binding vote on social conservatives from 2011 onwards.
In short, “binding votes are for people like them, not people like me.” That, my friends, is the antithesis of collectivism.
But worse than this blatant hypocrisy are the threats of socially conservative ALP MPs who state, usually in private or off-the-record, but occasionally in public, that even if the ALP were to adopt a binding position in favour of marriage equality, they reserve the right to thumb their noses at the bonds of solidarity and instead cross the floor.
As reported by Phillip Coorey in the Sydney Morning Herald at the start of the 2011 conference:
A handful of Right MPs, including Chris Hayes from western Sydney, told the Herald yesterday they would never vote for gay marriage, even if party policy dictated it. “You do believe in certain things. I can’t apologise for my beliefs,” Mr Hayes said. (full article)
In more recent times, Mr Hayes has been joined by another Federal Parliamentary colleague in saying that, no matter what the supreme decision-making body of the Australian Labor Party decides, his own views against LGBTI equality mean that he feels no requirement to be bound by it.
As reported by Phillip Hudson in The Australian on 4 April 2014, then candidate, now Senator, Joe Bullock, declared that, “[i]f the party decides it [marriage equality] is not a conscience vote and expels me, so be it.” (full article)
It is hard to work out which part of these comments is most offensive. Whether it is the complete disregard for not just the rules of the party of which they are representatives, but its philosophical underpinnings too. Or the absolute sense of personal entitlement which spouts from their mouths (for the record, this attitude, that an MP considers themselves above the party, is one ‘age of entitlement’ that I would definitely like to see come to an end).
But for me, it is not something either Mr Hayes or Senator Bullock said which is most repugnant. It is what they didn’t say. Neither finished their statement by saying that they would resign from Parliament.
Any member of the Australian Labor Party, from Federal Opposition Leader to local branch member, is free to decide at any time that they can no longer abide by the Party’s rules, and therefore to resign. But, for Members of Parliament, elected as candidates for a collectivist party, standing on and bound by a collectivist platform, the consequence of doing so should be that they resign their seat in Parliament as well. The fact that neither Mr Hayes nor Senator Bullock committed to doing so speaks volumes about their honour, or (arguable) lack thereof.
Because, as much as News Ltd columnists and the Australian Christian Lobby would try to turn any MP who crossed the floor on this issue and was subsequently expelled into some sort of martyr, abandoning solidarity but retaining the seat in Parliament which they secured as a member of, and with the assistance of, the Australian Labor Party would, in my view, be the height (or indeed depth) of dishonour.
The attitude of Mr Hayes and Senator Bullock also amply demonstrates exactly who would be responsible for any ALP ‘split’ in the event that the Party does adopt a binding vote. It would not be the fault of those who painstakingly make their case in the Party’s internal forums, who secure the passage of a binding resolution at the next National Conference in July 2015, all in accordance with the Party’s rules and processes.
No, any split would be the responsibility of those who would do their best to burn the place down if they did not get their way.
I used to think that the most appropriate analogy for this situation – of the ALP continually succumbing to demands for ‘conscience votes’ whenever social conservatives refused to abide by a particular decision – was that of parents giving in to the tantrums of a two-year old. That, by continuing to give that toddler what it wants rather than saying “no”, the Labor Party had created a monster that keeps on demanding more and more and more.
On reflection, however, that is grossly unfair on two-year olds. They don’t actually know what they are doing. Well, they might, but they are not yet old enough to be held liable for their behaviour.
Whereas the people who make these threats, time and time again, know exactly what they are doing. They are blackmailing their own political party, a group that they should hold and demonstrate allegiance towards, knowing that the party is more likely to give in to their extortionate demands than stand up to them.
Well, the time has come to say no more to their hypocrisy, and no more to their blackmail. It is no longer acceptable to simply give in to people who have zero respect for the party of which they are a member. Who believe that they alone have the right to deviate from a collectively-determined platform which is binding on everyone else.
It’s time to push for a binding vote in favour of marriage equality on all ALP Members of Parliament. And, if there are some MPs who decide they cannot abide by that decision (and there may well be some, although probably far fewer than many people expect), then the door is that way, but the seat stays here.
In practice, any member who does decide to leave, ‘split’ in terms of their commitment to the party a long time ago. Besides, these are people whose one noteworthy ‘achievement’ in life will be having left their political party, while a sitting member of parliament, because they couldn’t live with the idea of all Australians being equal regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status. Their loss would not really be any loss at all.
It’s Time to Bind: The Strategy
Questions about parliamentary numbers, internal ALP rules and any potential party ‘split’ are actually the easy part of this discussion. The most complex issue in this entire debate concerns strategy, namely whether now is the appropriate time for marriage equality campaigners to restart the push for a binding vote.
And I will begin this section by acknowledging that different people, well-motivated and on the same side of this campaign (the broader movement for marriage equality), will arrive at a different assessment on this subject. There are people who I respect who will argue that any push for a binding vote inside the ALP jeopardises the overall campaign and therefore should be abandoned.
But, while I respect their opinions, I respectfully disagree.
For me, the framework for approaching this issue comes in the form of the following three questions – presented together with my answers:
- Is there an inherent philosophical inconsistency in pushing for a binding vote inside the ALP while also pushing for a conscience vote in the Coalition? No.
- Would a binding vote in the ALP automatically mean there is no chance of a conscience vote inside the Coalition? No.
- Does pushing for a binding vote inside the ALP make it more difficult to achieve a conscience vote within the Coalition? Possibly.
Looking at these issues in more detail. The answer to the first question – concerning philosophical inconsistency – might seem counter-intuitive to some, but here is why I answered “no”.
First, we should always remember that there is nothing inherently ‘good’ about a conscience vote (there is nothing inherently ‘bad’ either, unless you are part of a collectivist organisation). A conscience vote is simply a process, an instrument, a means to an end.
I am sure nearly all marriage equality campaigners would be satisfied if there was both a binding vote inside the ALP and a ‘party vote’ in the Coalition, not only meaning that marriage equality was passed, but also that it would be done with a large majority and in a spirit of true bipartisanship.
Sadly, that is not going to happen. There is no chance of the Liberal and National Parties, in their current forms, adopting a formal position in favour of full LGBTI equality. Hence, it is entirely rational to push for a conscience vote within the Coalition, both to improve the overall numbers in the Parliament, and to ensure that no MP is forced to vote against the fundamental rights of other Australians on the basis of their sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status.
On the other side of the political aisle, the ALP already has a conscience vote, which means the only procedural change which can increase the share of Labor Party MPs voting in favour of marriage equality is to adopt a binding vote instead. From an advocate’s point of view, again, it is perfectly justifiable as a strategy to be arguing for the Australian Labor Party to maximise the number of its MPs voting in support.
Meanwhile, the same philosophical arguments would still apply – it would remain the case that no MP would be forced to vote against the fundamental rights of their fellow Australians (the same as for the Coalition).
No corresponding argument can be made by those opposed to marriage equality. This is because the right to get married, in secular law, has exactly zero impact on anyone else’s human rights. More couples would be married, and recognised as such by the State. LGBTI Australians would finally be treated equally in the Marriage Act 1961. That is all.
No-one else’s rights to be married, or have their own marriages recognised, would be affected. No religion’s right to recognise marriages (or not recognise, as the case may be) within their own religion would be compromised. And, despite whatever the Australian Christian Lobby and other extremists might try to argue, there is no fundamental right to impose one’s religious beliefs onto others, or to deny other people their human rights for religious reasons.
Which means that, as well as a compelling numerical reason to argue for a binding vote within the ALP, and a conscience vote inside the Coalition, there is also a philosophical approach which can provide it with moral justification.
In response to the second question, while what the ALP decides could have an influence on what position the Liberal and National Parties adopts (see below), it is definitely not automatic. For example, we have already witnessed a parliamentary vote where one side was ‘bound’ and the other had a conscience vote – in September 2012, with the Liberal and National Parties deciding not to follow the ALP’s lead in adopting a conscience vote.
Similarly, even if the ALP was to retain a conscience vote for the remainder of this term, there is no guarantee that Coalition MPs will end up with a free vote. While it appears that some progress is being made inside the Liberal and National Parties, the ultimate decision still rests with the party room – and there remains a real chance that there will be no Coalition conscience vote this side of the 2016 election regardless of what Labor does.
Of course, it makes no sense to deny at least the potential that the push for an ALP binding vote may make it more difficult to achieve a conscience vote within the Coalition, which is why I answered the third question “possibly”.
But, just because that outcome is a possibility (how big that possibility is depends on one’s subjective point of view), does not necessarily mean we shouldn’t try. There are, for example, several reasons why I believe we should continue to pursue a binding vote within the ALP while also acknowledging and assuming this risk.
First, as I noted in ‘The ‘Numbers’ section earlier, it is highly likely that for any Bill to succeed in this term of Parliament, it will need both a binding vote inside the Labor Party and a conscience vote inside the Coalition. So it seems logical to me that, while groups like Australian Marriage Equality make the case for a Liberal and National Party conscience vote, other groups (and I’m looking squarely at you, Rainbow Labor) simultaneously pursue a binding vote inside the ALP.
Second, there is the question of timing. If the ALP is to adopt a binding vote, it can only be done at its next National Conference, to be held on July 24-26, 2015. That will be almost two years into this three-year term of Parliament (and approaching four years since the ALP first adopted a conscience vote).
If the Coalition hasn’t agreed to a conscience vote by then, then it is highly unlikely to agree to one at any point this term (and, if it is willing to say no this term, under sustained pressure from groups like AME and in the face of a growing majority of community support for marriage equality, it could very well say no next term, too).
Third, if we were to make an honest assessment of where things stand at this moment, it is still more likely than not that marriage equality will fail this term. While there is a (very) small chance that a conscience vote on both sides could get the job done, or that a combined ALP binding vote/Coalition conscience vote secures its passage, most possible permutations lead to the Bill’s failure.
Which means we must keep a close eye on the next term of Parliament, to be decided at the 2016 Federal election. And, given that election looks like it will at least be competitive, wouldn’t there arguably be more benefit than cost in having one of the two ‘parties of government’ standing on a platform of a binding vote?
Such a position would mean that marriage equality would have a strong chance of passage if the ALP were to win Government (success would be almost guaranteed) or if there was a close election result either way (with only a small number of Coalition MPs needing to break ranks to secure victory).
On the other hand, if the ALP continues to adopt a conscience vote, the success of marriage equality will remain dependent on whether the Liberal and National Parties also adopt a conscience vote, and even then on the vagaries of the balance between progressives versus social conservatives inside both the ALP caucus and Coalition party room.
Fourth, there is an argument that the ALP adopting a binding vote at the 2015 National Conference would actually increase pressure on the Liberal and National Parties to agree to a conscience vote ahead of the 2016 poll. After all, opinion polls consistently show support for marriage equality standing at a minimum of 55-60%, increasing with each passing year, and strongest amongst young voters (ie new voters entering the ‘electoral market’).
In this context, it would take a truly ‘courageous’ party (in the Sir Humphrey sense of the word) to bind itself to a position shared by at most a third of the electorate – and a diminishing proportion at that. I can certainly think of a few Coalition MPs who would have extra incentive to push for a conscience vote in such a scenario (the name of an Australian TV prison drama springs to mind, for some reason).
As I said before, different people will hold different views about some of these strategic considerations. And, depending on how they see them playing out, I completely respect that they might arrive at the conclusion that we should not be pushing for an ALP binding vote at this point in time.
But I hope that they are also willing to acknowledge that there is no absolute ‘cut and dried’ case that the only way marriage equality can be achieved is through a conscience vote on both sides. That on this rainbow-hued issue, there are at least some strategic shades of grey.
In that case, where at a minimum there is doubt about whether to pursue a binding vote or not, I submit that we should fall back on our values, on what is ‘right’. From my point of view – and this post is simply my own perspective – I think we should be guided by the arguments for and against a binding vote. And, as discussed earlier (see ‘The Merits’), that case is open-and-shut: the ALP should adopt a binding vote in favour of marriage equality.
Putting it another way, if there is a strong case that a binding vote is the correct ideological position to take, then it would take an equally strong strategic counter-argument to tell progressive members of the ALP not to purse that objective at next year’s National Conference. To suggest to them that, even though a binding vote is the right thing to do, you should explicitly not pursue it because members of the Coalition are yet to secure a conscience vote. In my opinion, no such ‘overwhelming’ strategic argument exists.
Instead, I believe we should do exactly the same thing as we did at the 2011 National Conference – campaign for a binding vote. It was the right thing to do then. And it will still be the right thing to do next July. I hope that, after reading these arguments, you agree.
One final point. Some might argue that we should wait for a conscience vote to be held at some point in the next 12 months and, presuming it loses, to only push for a binding vote following that defeat.
But there are two problems with that argument. The first is that it took most of 2011, in the lead-up to December’s conference, to build momentum for the platform change. To have the same chance of success next year means starting campaigning now.
Second, I believe that doing so would expose the marriage equality movement to (probably quite fair) criticisms that it was merely being opportunistic, or disingenuous, because it was only pushing for a binding vote because the conscience vote had lost, and not because a binding vote was also the correct position to take. I would prefer to take this stance from the beginning of the campaign so that we can have credibility when it comes time for the debate on the floor of next year’s Conference.
Overall, while ‘strategic considerations’ are definitely the most complicated part of this debate, I think it leaves us exactly where we have been all along: that it’s time for the Australian Labor Party to adopt a binding vote in favour of marriage equality.
It’s Time to Bind: Take Action
As noted throughout this post, the main decision on whether the ALP adopts a binding vote on marriage equality will be made at the next National Conference, to be held on 24, 25 and 26 July 2015 (unless of course marriage equality is passed beforehand, in which case I will have been wrong, but very gladly so).
That might seem like a long way away now but, given the amount of time and effort that went into securing the platform change at the December 2011 gathering, it is important that we start focusing our efforts today.
From 28 July 2014 onwards, the primary battle will be fought at the federal level, with increasing pressure from both sides leading up to National Conference next year. The key figures to lobby are the Leader of the Federal Opposition, the Hon Bill Shorten MP, and the Australian Labor Party Head Office directly. Their contact details are:
Twitter (NB Please use the #ItsTimeToBind hashtag)
Bill Shorten @billshortenmp https://twitter.com/billshortenmp
Australian Labor @AustralianLabor https://twitter.com/AustralianLabor
Suggested tweet: Hey @AustralianLabor & @billshortenmp, I believe #ItsTimeToBind in favour of #marriageequality. Please support a binding vote on all MPs
Bill Shorten (02) 6277 4022
Australian Labor (02) 6120 0800
The Hon Bill Shorten MP
Leader of the Opposition
PO Box 6022
House of Representatives
CANBERRA ACT 2600
5/9 Sydney Avenue
BARTON ACT 2600
Bill Shorten Online contact form: http://billshorten.com.au/contact
Australian Labor Online contact form: http://www.alp.org.au/contact_us
If you are in need of inspiration for what to write or say, how about this:
“I support the equal right of all Australians to marry, irrespective of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status.
While I welcome the decision of the 2011 ALP National Conference to adopt a platform position in favour of marriage equality, I strongly oppose the decision to provide a conscience vote, allowing some Labor MPs to vote against the fundamental rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians.
I believe it’s time for the Australian Labor Party to adopt a binding vote in favour of marriage equality. I call on you to support a resolution which makes support for marriage equality a binding position on all ALP Federal MPs at the next National Conference, to be held in July 2015.”
If you liked this post, if you agree with it, or even if you think it is simply worthy of further debate, then please also share it with others. And if you want to stay up to date with more on this issue, please follow me on twitter (@alawriedejesus).
Finally, I wanted to say thank you for reading what has turned out to be a pretty lengthy post – I appreciate your interest in something which I feel so passionately about.
I do sincerely believe that we need to be having this conversation now, so that we can start planning our actions over the next 12 months. Ultimately, I think we need to work together to achieve a binding vote in support of marriage equality inside the ALP, and most importantly a legislative victory for marriage equality inside the Australian Parliament. Because, as we all know, we’ve waited long enough.
This is an edited version of an article that was published here.